Source Code Review

poster from the Vendome Pictures film Source Code

I love science fiction. I get excited when science fiction movies are coming out, because there’s always the faint hope that they could be good. Unfortunately, not a lot of them are. We’re more likely to get a Transformers 2 or a Aliens vs Predator Requiem than a Matrix or a District 9. But I keep going to them and suffering through them anyway, because I am cursed with hope. Source Code is the latest sci-fi movie to come out, and from the trailer, I could tell the story at least made sense:

An Air Force pilot is sent back to relive the last eight minutes of another man’s life in the hope of finding out who bombed the train he was on.

But would it be good? It sounded vaguely Déjà vu-like (Déjà Vu after the first hour, anyway, when they finally got to the point), and Déjà Vu was pretty awesome. But it also sounded like Groundhog Day, where the same day repeats over and over, which can get boring and/or annoying if the writer doesn’t handle it well. So I thought Source Code could potentially be pretty good. I saw the film, and it exceeded my expectations. It wasn’t pretty good, it was very good.


Screenwriter Ben Ripley uses the oldest trick in the screenwriter’s book – amnesia – to introduce us into the world of Captain Coulter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal). Or I guess I should say the world of Sean Fentriss (Frédérick De Grandpré), because Coulter suddenly wakes up to find himself on a Chicago commuter train in another man’s body instead of flying a helicopter in Afghanistan, which is the last thing that he can remember.

Sean Fentriss from the Vendome Pictures film Source Code

Look on the bright side, Captain. At least your name’s not Coulter anymore.

His first go-round ends in the train he’s on exploding, and then he’s kicked back into a tiny capsule with a video connection to an Air Force officer named Goodwin (Vera Farminga). Unbeknownst (or unrememberedst) to Coulter, he’s part of a secret military operation known as Beleaguered Castle (seriously? That’s what you’re calling it?) and his handler, Goodwin, seems to expect him to know who the bomber was. Coulter is of course, very confused, and wants some answers, but Goodwin and the scientist he can see in the room with her, Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) are being maddeningly close-lipped.

Goodwin and Rutledge from the Vendome Pictures film Source Code

Well, you see what we’re doing is… whoops! Time for my coffee break!

Instead, they dump Coulter back into the eight minute train ride with the demand that he find the bomb. He after a few more disastrous go-rounds where Coulter assumes the whole thing is a simulation…

Coulter gets hit by a train from the Vendome Pictures film Source Code

You’re about to experience a lot of simulated pain, Coulter.

… they finally break down and tell him about Source Code, the machine that allows him to delve into the short term memory still stored in a dead person’s brain and take over their lives in order to find out what happened to them. Kind of like Torchwood, but more invasive. But there’s still obviously something they’re not telling him, because they never let him come out, or take a break. It’s really quite frustrating and puzzling that they won’t tell him what’s going on, but when you do find out, you’ll understand why that was.

Coulter is confused from the Vendome Pictures film Source Code

Will you just tell me why I can’t use the F*&%$ing phone!?

Ben Ripley doesn’t get too in depth with the scientific reasoning, which is good, because in a situation where you’re messing around with time, it’s very easy to contradict yourself or break your own world rules if you start trying to explain too much (read Margaret Peterson Haddix’s Missing series and you’ll see what I mean: they’re a mess). In fact, he even made up a pseudo-scientific term: “parabolic calculus” by way of explanation. All you really need to know is: there’s a machine, and it works.

source code technology from the Vendome Pictures film Source Code

All these fancy monitors are just for show.

This is a good decision on the writer’s part. It keeps most of the focus on the mystery elements: what aren’t they telling Coulter, and who is the bomber? Coulter gets to go back to the train over and over again, which gives him license to act like a nutbar and do whatever he wants, because he dies in the end anyway. He can steal guns, threaten people, search their stuff, etc. etc. and everything will be reset exactly the way it was for the next go round.

Coulter threatens a transit cop from the Vendome Pictures film Source Code

I want some pudding, and I want it now!

Simultaneously complicating and assisting his mission is his seat mate, Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan), who is a friend of Sean’s. She helps his mission because she seems quite willing to play exciting “spy games” with Sean/Coulter, and she complicates it because of course Coulter is falling for her, but he’s really someone else, and she’s dead.

Coulter and Christina get blown up from the Vendome Pictures film Source Code

COULTER: What would you do if you knew you only had 8 minutes to live?
CHRISTINA: Does it seem really hot in here to you?

Together they harass just about everyone on the train attempting to find the bomber, and although when I watched the trailer I had an immediate hunch as to who it was going to be, I was wrong. There are several plot twists in this movie, and I guessed each one, but at that perfect moment, a few seconds before it arrives. Those are the best kind of plot twists. Even better than the ones you don’t see coming at all, because you get to feel smart and surprised at the same time.

Coulter defuses the bomb from the Vendome Pictures film Source Code

Ha! Didn’t I tell you that’s where it would be? I’m a genius.

Coulter’s go-rounds in the train are different enough that the repetition doesn’t get boring, and in between them we get a break where he goes back to his capsule and tries to find out more about his situation. It’s a good balance, and there’s an added time-running-out factor, because Coulter’s capsule gets a little more broken each time around, suggesting that he’s got a limited number of tries before it stops working altogether.

Coulter in the time travel pod from the Vendome Pictures film Source Code

Um, hello? Should all these wires be hanging out like this?

So the bulk of the film is well done, which leaves one last question: what about the ending? Time travel movies are very difficult to end and often the story or the world rules need to be bent to bring about a resolution. However, with Source Code, there are two different endings that could spring organically from the story: a bittersweet one, and a happy one. I won’t tell you which one Ben Ripley used, just that no matter which one it is, you’ll find it satisfying. Therefore if you like science fiction at all (and even if you don’t – it’s also a very decent action/thriller), so see Source Code. It’s one of the good ones.

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