The Brain (and Upper Torso) That Wouldn’t Die

Movie Review: Source Code (2011)
Summary: A soldier awakens in the body of an unknown man and discovers he’s part of a mission to find the bomber of a train.
Spoilers: This review contains spoilers!

In Source Code, “Captain Colter Stevens” (Jake Gyllenhaal) awakens in the body of another man on a train, opposite a woman named “Christina Warren” (Michelle Monoghan). He is called “Sean,” but after discovering he is not whom he knows himself to be, he is confounded by a flurry of unanswered questions—this is after he witnesses the explosion of the train he is on, which kills him and everyone on board.

Waking up in a cold capsule and unaware of his surroundings, Stevens is reminded by officer “Colleen Goodwin” (Vera Farminga) that he is on a very important and highly classified mission. Even at this early point in, the suspense is amazingly effective at hooking audiences.

After a series of informational roadblocks under the need to keep top secret information safe, Stevens learns that he has been made a part of a “source code” project, an 8-minute window of time allowing a passenger to travel into a parallel dimension for the purpose of “time reassignment,” to use the words of “Dr. Rutledge” (Jeffrey Wright), the military doctor pioneering the use of the new technology.

In other words, Stevens is sent back in a certain course of events using the brief window allotted in the memories of one of the train’s passengers, “Sean Ventress.” Making the technology possible, it is explained that before a brain dies, its magnetic field (the source energy utilized by the project) lasts for 8 minutes. In that time and with that power, alternate parallel dimensions can be accessed for the purpose of gathering information about events.

But using the Source Code program to access the past is not time travel. It is the enabling formula that allows the occupants of one dimension to view and interact with the past events of another dimension, to predict, modify, or to make use of those events as the need suits the desired outplay of events in "real" time. Here, a train bombing in one dimension is being investigated to prevent a similar thing from happening in another in efforts to stop a series of ongoing terrorist attacks. Yes, it's a complex mystery thriller, but one where unraveling it is an intended part of what becomes frustratingly fun!

Stevens’ mission is to bring back information on where the train bomb is located, what type of bomb it is, and who is involved in the plot to use it. After numerous failed attempts, Stevens is confronted by the knowledge of his own death (or, as he soon discovers, his assumed death). With everyone he ever knew and loved assuming he was killed in action, his desire to serve his country is put at odds by the fact that the government he serves is keeping him alive without his approval, and for missions he did not sign up for.

Source Code’s shining achievement is its plot, being so unusual in form that it feels truly new, but is an emotionally weighty sci-fi excursion based on what has been around for a while and is becoming more popular even still—the belief in parallel dimensions that mirror our own, created from every “fork in the road” behind the choices we make; for every choice we make, a universe exists with a version of ourselves making the exact opposite or different choice, and so it is with every decision, large or small.

Simulated realities, time travel, and alternate dimensions are the interwoven sci-fi elements in one highly emotional story involving love, regret, and wishing you had a chance to do things over again in a film that doesn’t give itself away too fast or too easy (viewers will do more than walk to their cars talking about whether or not they liked the movie; they’ll be arguing about what it meant).

Well written, and with a stimulation level set on high, this depressing but never defeating film reminds us of how strong our drive to live can be, as we go through the drudgery of pointless and overall inconsequential actions to build our own versions of how the world around us should be. Not many films can make us sad and happy in the same dark and yet purposeful venue.

Our story is the major selling-point, not just because of its uniqueness, but because it will serve as a huge statement in times to come about where human thought was on time, space, and inter-dimensional metaphysics as seen from the perspective of 2011. Watching almost makes you feel like you’re on the verge of seeing a radical new line of thought. The big blooper is at the end where we get to see the real Colter Stevens.

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is a 1962 ultra-low-budget film about a scientist who saves the head of the love of his life after she is decapitated in a car accident. He keeps her alive in what looks like a cake pan with the use of various contraptions while trying to find a replacement body for her.

Trying to illustrate (however poorly) the easily stepped-across fine line between advancements in medical science and the preservation of ethics, this obtuse film from generations ago has something in common with Source Code: Both movies do a substandard job in the affects depart when weighed against the potential they had in their respective times.

Near the conclusion of Source Code, we see Stevens’ body laid in what looks to be a cheap metal container with a glass for viewing and an opening not unlike a type of household oven. There lies his upper torso, with head and hair still attached and eyes closed.

You would think a little more care would have been taken to remove his brain from the body to more fully access the various brain centers with this new and revolutionary technology. But Stevens gets what anyone still alive and intact could have gotten with a few simple probes attached to the skin of his chest and head. Why not try this with soldiers who are alive and willing to go through with the experiment?

But this demands that we ask, how would they keep Stevens’ body from rotting? How would it get nutrients? Must it be cleaned daily? This takes us a step back and doesn’t let us forget we’re dealing in the realm of science fiction. The problem is, it takes us a little too far back.  

I suppose the body was wanted there to make that extra human connection for the audience, which is central to the movie’s gripe; here lies a helpless, young man who gave his life in service to his country, only to be kept alive against his wishes to the benefit of a selfish and indifferent Uncle Sam. The movie makes some shouting statements about the treatment of servicemen and women and veterans after their service is completed. We hear them loud and clear.

Source Code has that ability to make its audience keep watching out of a growing feeling of panic that leads to feeling uncomfortable while your brain tries to make room to process what you are hearing and seeing. As a brain-bender that will perplex some viewers who’d rather spend their time seeing if the “nuts n’ bolts” of the plot fit properly, its human element you can’t miss and almost comes with a written guarantee not to disappoint.

The bottom line is that we can’t just view good films as how entertaining they are to us. We have to look at what they contribute in their time. And make no mistake about it; this one will be heralded as a way-making film in years to come.


Grade: A- (4 stars)
Rated: PG-13 (for some violence, including disturbing images, and for language)
Director: Duncan Jones
Starring: “Colter Stevens” (Jake Gyllenhaal), “Christina Warren” (Michelle Monaghan), “Colleen Goodwin” (Vera Farmiga), “Dr. Rutledge” (Jeffrey Wright), “Derek Frost” (Michael Arden),
Genre: Action / Mystery / Romance / Sci-Fi / Thriller