We’ve seen them a dozen times and filmmakers use the same basic routines to draw us in: repeating minor accidents like spilling coffee or stepping into a puddle until the protagonist learns to avoid them; conversations which branch off wildly depending on the stimulus. But the device retains its appeal—Source Code begins with a slam-bang time loop involving eight minutes on a train that’s about to explode, and although the time loop becomes rather beside the point by the film’s end, the initial presentation is still exciting.
Time loops are appealing because they allow us to vicariously become powerful, nearly to the point of omnipotence. (Bill Murray pointed this out in Groundhog Day, speculating that perhaps God was just some guy who’d been around so long he knew everything). But that power, which is actually arbitrary to the point of threatening the wielder’s humanity, is hidden by the nature of its execution, and thus seems acceptable. Take the incident in Groundhog Day when Murphy’s character, Phil Connors, spots an attractive woman on the street. He learns what her fourth-grade teacher’s name was, pretends they were in school together, and they end up sleeping together. The way the movie is put together suggests Connors is capable of getting away with anything, as long as he has enough practice. But what if Connors’ power was just mind control? He could have pointed to the woman and said, ‘Sleep with me,’ and we would consider it rape.
Source Code begins by dropping Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), an Army Helicopter pilot flying a mission in Afghanistan, into a Chicago commuter train without any explanation. Michelle Monaghan’s character, seated across from him, seems to think he is someone else. He soon realizes he is in the body of another man (a different reflection in the bathroom mirror confirms this). The train then explodes, and Stevens wakes up in some kind of pod. Communicating through a fuzzy screen, Vera Farmiga’s Air Force Captain informs Stevens that he will be sent back into the train again, eight minutes before it blows up, to discover the identity of the bomber, who is threatening to destroy Chicago with a dirty bomb.
Source Code gives us information only a piece at a time, and subsequent pieces of information recast the story in completely different lights. (MINOR SPOILER) Stevens is not actually undergoing time travel—he is being sent into a computer program which contains the memories of a man who died on the train, earlier that morning. The dead man’s brain is transmitting an “after-image” of his short-term memory just before the blast (a human being’s short-term memory bank holds information for eight minutes), and programmers have found a way to insert Stevens into that “source code”, so he can discover the bomber.
The movie is most stimulating when exploring the issue of what exactly the nature of this eight-minute world is, and what significance any actions Stevens takes in that world have. His chief handler, a callous scientist played by Jeffrey Wright, insists that Stevens cannot do anything which has meaningful consequences in the source code-world. But he does admit that the world exists—he never says it’s just a computer program (if everything Stevens experiences in the source code are just a dead man’s memories, it would be impossible to positively identify the bomber, as the man didn’t know who he was either).
Stevens, while nearing the goal of identifying the bomber, continues to think about his own life, and what the existence he’s experiencing in that train means. By the time the bomber-identity crisis is dealt with, it’s done so almost as an afterthought.
Source Code, like Groundhog Day, deals with power, but in a reversed way. Due to his temporal predicament, Bill Murray’s weatherman becomes all-powerful, then suicidal, then benevolently powerful—by the end he has accepted that the entirety of his life will be spent in one day, and finds fully realized contentment in that day. Jake Gyllenhaal’s character is utterly powerless to do what he wants, which is to resolve what has become of his own life. In his time loop he has only one purpose, and the film begins to ominously suggest that this purpose, worthy as it is, may not end up doing much good for the hero himself. But he finds contentment, as well—if he is still himself somewhere, in body or mind or binary code, then he still has miles to go, and promises to keep.