The Pseudoscientific Philosophy of Source Code

The Pseudoscientific Philosophy of Source Code

Let’s explain what pretended to happen in that movie you just watched.

Warning: Spoilers for the new Duncan Jones / Jake Gyllenhall film Source Code. The ending is far from the best part, and the good stuff is clear early on, so spoiling it isn’t all that bad.

[I]ts science is preposterous. Does that matter, as long as everyone treats it with the greatest urgency? After all, space travel beyond the solar system is preposterous, and yet we couldn’t do without ‘Star Trek.'”

– Roger Ebert on Source Code

Wires! So many wires!

Does that matter? Does that matter? At Overthinking It, it always matters!

Source Code is a solid movie with a lot going for it and a few issues. The most obvious problem – and, sure, the least important, but we’re talking about it anyway – is its pseudoscience. While other sci-fi movies give you a comforting drone of nonsense words that frame what is going on in just the right combination of sensibility and implausibility, Source Code not only leans on science that can’t reasonably work the way they say it does, it also relies on very complicated stuff that is explained multiple times through different implausible phenomena. It can all be a lot to take.

Never fear though, Overthinking It is here to parse the pseudoscience, and, perhaps start a conversation about the best way to either fix the pseudoscience so it works or determine what kernel of reality or insight may lie at the heard of it.

So, after the jump, let’s do to the drivers whatever it is people do to the drivers and get cracking!

What We Are Told is Happening

I’m going to base this off a combination of what is outright explained and how characters react in context – in Source Code not only is the pseudoscience described in different ways at different times, and not only is the explanation not always consistent, but it is sometimes mumbled or breezed through, as if they don’t have confidence in the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief. This is unfortunate, because every Lieutenant Commander Data fan knows that the key to good technobabble is to pronounce it clearly and with the utmost confidence – that if you have that, the audience will follow you everywhere.

So, admittedly, there’s going to be a certain amount of patchwork involved in my reconstruction. If I am off on anything, sound off in the comments.

Adding to the confusion, the people running the source code program think the source code is one thing, but, as we eventually find out from Captain Colter Stevens (that’s Mr. Gyllenhaal), it is something else entirely. Let’s start with what The Man tells us.

For most of Source Code, the role of The Man will be played by this woman.

(This, by the way, is where we start in with big spoilers. You have been warned.)

We are told by Collen Goodwin and Dr. Rutledge – a.k.a. “Good Cop” and “Bad Cop,” a.k.a. “Attractive, Dutiful Soldier” and “Grumpy, Handicapped Project Manager” a.k.a. “Motherly Female Character” and “Unfeeling Scientist,” that the source code is based on a computer program that works through quantum physics.

Now you start to see why this is getting its own post.

According to Dr. Rutledge – a.k.a. “The Black Guy” – a human being’s short-term memory stores 8 minutes worth of experience – the source code project retrieves this experience from a dead person and plugs another person into it to relive those 8 minutes – and not just to passively notice details or perceive the sensory information of the dead person, but to exist within that time – to have feelings and perspective, to look around the environment, even play out those 8 minutes in different ways, like going places the deceased person didn’t go or changing the course of events, to see what might have happened and gather more information. Then, after the 8 minutes, the operative “dies,” returns to an intermediary space, and can communicate findings back to the people running the project through a computer interface.

The source code project uses this technology to fight terrorism by sending special mentally programmed/trained operatives into the memories of people killed in terrorist attacks to identify the terrorists and prevent them from killing again. Dr. Rutledge is very excited about its prospects as a weapon in the War on Terror, but its suitability in fighting crimes where the perpetrator often either commits suicide or publicly claims responsibility is not discussed.

Goodwinn – a.k.a. “The Blonde Lady” – tells us it’s “just a computer program.” That it works off the exchange of information and doesn’t itself constitute an experience in reality. It’s like a simulation.

By this explanation, it’s the ultimate extension of those b.s. “enhance… enhance…” scenes in movies and CSIsh television shows, where computers let you get information from an old photograph that it can’t possibly have captured because of silly things like resolution. It doesn’t make sense that source code operatives can interrogate people in the memory of the deceased. If the dead person didn’t perceive something, it wouldn’t be in his memory. It’s like this great scene from the legendary British sci-fi show Red Dwarf:

Oh, and the last big wrinkle? The source code operatives are all themselves dead people. The government keeps dead people hooked up to computers to investigate the memories of other dead people. Apparently, only dead people can do it, perhaps of some quality of their brains, perhaps because the procedures to hook somebody up to the source code devices are so invasive and harmful it would not be legal or ethical to do it to a living human being (it’s also probably not ethical to do it to a dead one, but the movie addresses that adequately, and it’s not pseudoscience, so I won’t get into it). Source Code is Quantum Leap meets Groundhog Day meets The Sixth Sense! Stay classy, government.

To be more specific, the person who gets put into the source code to do the investigating has to be really really badly wounded – arguably to the point of death, depending on how you define death (it is clearly not information theoretic death – be warned before clicking, though, Wikipedia pages on death are pretty depressing). The operative also has to match certain arbitrary qualities with the deceased from whom the source code has been retrieved, like size, body type, brainwave patterns, etc. – presumably so that when the soldier is quantum leaping into a body to go hunt down the criminal, that person doesn’t fall over out of inability to pass information back and forth to his illusory legs. Dr. Sam Beckett never had this problem.

But he sure did have a lot of other kooky problems!

This dead-but-not-technically dead person, who in this movie is a military helicopter pilot killed in Afghanistan, is kept in a vague-science-pod in a sort-of-secret lab – where his (or her, but there is no her example in this movie, so I’m just going to say his) body is kept “activated” by electrodes hooked up to his brain that enable the source code project to work. In the movie, we see that the body sure does look barely alive – it even breathes. That’s Captain Colter Stevens.

The whole process involves memory wipes between cases and a degree of traumatic mental reprogramming, which, we are told, has only ever worked once, with Captain Stevens. It isn’t entirely clear how much the project has messed with Captain Steven’s brain (or mind). He is conditioned to respond to certain cues (namely a specific passage about a woman and a bunch of playing cards, which help him recover from mental disruptions and memory wipes). He appears to retain most of his own memory of his own life and sense of self, except the part about being killed in Afghanistan, but his relationship with reality is frayed. At times (especially before we see his physical body) it seems possible that some manner of mental degradation might collapse the project and erase him from existence (“kill him,” although for most of the movie the word would seem too vague to apply appropriately).

Being trapped in the freezing cold room is a manifestation of Captain Stevens's fraying link with existence. Feel good movie of the year.

While wrestling with all this between trips into the memories of the deceased – and communicating findings back to “Beleaguered Castle,” the source code project’s home base, this dead-but-not-technically dead person perceives himself in a form of Plato’s Cave:

In this space, which is depicted as a vaguely military escape pod or crashed aircraft cockpit, Captain Stevens, we are told, manifests his surroundings, and even his body, as familiar enough to him that he can cope with his situation. The government communicates with him by viewscreens – those are the “shadows on the wall” that Gyllenhaal perceives as real, but which offer only a distorted idea of what his situation in the world really is.

Between 8-minute work periods.

The prisoners in Plato’s allegory of the cave have been in there long enough to not have a memory of what the “real world” was like. This raises the question of what the “real world” actually is for Captain Stevens – and this isn’t a question the movie answers easily (we never, for example, see any of Captain Stevens’s “real life”).

Obvious Problems

One obvious problem is that, within the source code, the “operative” doesn’t have access to any of the “subject’s” memories about himself. The investigator doesn’t know who he is supposed to be when he arrives, doesn’t know how the subject is feeling or reacting to stuff – doesn’t even have a record of what the subject did (one of the avenues the movie could have gone down and didn’t was that the subject was himself the bomber) and there’s no Ziggy-toting Al to give him the instant exposition after the “Oh boy” take.

This makes sense in Quantum Leap, where there’s a certain amount of Deus In Machina going on, but given this explanation of how source code works – that it is based in the 8-minutes of short-term memory from a dead person – this falls a bit short. Sure, core information about identity might be in long-term memory and thus not captured by the program (although this isn’t really how that works, but that’s adequate), but there’s a lot in your short-term memory about how you react emotionally to things which is just totally thrown aside in the movie. The things you looked at would be in focus, and little else would be visible. Looking at it all through the eyes of the person who lived it would be very restricting, but it would also be useful information to have.

Furthermore, the information source code gets from the 8-minute sample is just too much to be believable. In the source code, at one point, Captain Stevens leaves the train where the deceased was for the whole trip and follows some random guy into a public bathroom in a random suburban train station. It doesn’t make sense that this information would be in the memory of the guy who died. It would be possible to do this movie such that the discrepancies between what the deceased perceived and what the operative discovered could be chalked up to looking again at forgotten details or playing with mental manifestations, but source code goes far enough that this can’t be the case.

Anyway, the explanation we are told about how the source code works (computer program, electrodes, memory, fresh corpses, some sort of quantum thing) doesn’t turn out to be how it actually works, which is pretty interesting…

32 Comments on “The Pseudoscientific Philosophy of Source Code”

  1. Peter #

    I’m a Computer Scientist who uses information theory in my work. That matter and energy are the same thing (e = mc^2) has entered the popular consciousness. What this means is that any system can be described equivalently in terms of its matter or its energy, depending on whether you’re a chemist and care about matter, or a physicist and care about energy. I’m not a physicist, but I do sometimes read what physicists say about information theory. It is my understanding that either energy and information are also interchangeable, or else that whether information and energy are interchangeable is an open question.
    (If you care, the relationship is Shannon entropy.) I believe that it has not been ruled out that having sufficient information about a brain (which might be an infinite quantity, and therefore not achievable) is equivalent to actually having that brain. The universe is indeed a strange place.


    • fenzel OTI Staff #

      This is very interesting stuff! Thanks!!

      And yeah, the universe is freaking weird.

      When physicists talk about information within an analogous framework to thermodynamics, I wonder at the heuristic – are they talking about this comparison because it is true, or are they talking about it because it is usful and predictive – and what is the difference?

      Yeah, maybe that seems like a silly question, but logical positivism, after all, is a scientific way of thinking and doesn’t aspire to explain all ways of thinking all the time.


      • Peter #

        Einstein said “The more we are being precise, the less we are talking about reality. The more we are talking about reality, the less we are being precise.”

        In the philosophy of science, I am a constructivist. According to this belief system, science has no notion of “true.” It’s not something that we can meaningfully talk about. The only thing we can talk about is whether or not a model of a system accurately predicts observations we can make about the system. If we have two different models that accurately predict our observations, then we try to pick the one that is most “useful,” i.e. the model that makes accurate predictions about the largest number of different systems. There is a trade-off here. I can make a model that describes one system perfectly, but doesn’t apply to any other system. Or I can make a model that kinda describes a bunch of different systems.

        So information entropy absolutely describes a hell of a lot of stuff. It’s also the same equation as physical entropy (up to a constant), which describes a hell of a lot of different stuff. Science definitely says that. Does that mean that information and energy are one? Science doesn’t say, cuz science doesn’t do semantics.

        PS There are also Platonists out there. They believe that if a model is accurate and useful, well then it’s the mind of god or some bullshit like that. (I’m clearly not interested in giving the Platonists their fair shake.)


        • fenzel OTI Staff #

          Right. The trick is when people use this way of thinking to rule out certain ways of asserting a meaningfulness or truth of things in a nonscientific context (such as describing one’s own personal experience) to rule out certain subject matter – but then go ahead and use those same methods that don’t stand up to scientific muster to describe subject matter that is supported by other explanations.

          So, for example, sentience is nonfalsifiable. There isn’t really a way of asserting in a scientific framework that it exists. You can come up with descriptions that use terms like “consciousnes” and can be scientifically confirmed, but they aren’t the same thing – they don’t deal well with qualia, things like that.

          So, from this scientific framework, consciousness isn’t realy “true.”

          But then people get a lot more comfortable with saying consciousness in a computer is “true” whereas consciousness as an immaterial aspect of a material body can’t be true – when really what our heuristic has done has not been to exclude the immaterial in favor of the technological, but to undermine our very assertions of trueness.

          Thankfully, as a writer, performance artist and comic, I am very fond of imaginative conjecture, which I take as license a lot of the time to say and write about what might be true rather than what is.

          This is a big reason why I see artistic endeavors as a lot more helpful in going about the business of being human than strictly logical thinking a lot of the time. But that’s just me :-)


          • Peter #

            My other favorite quote is from Dijkstra. I paraphrase. “Asking whether a computer can think is no more interesting than asking whether a submarine can swim. The real question is whether humans can.”

            I agree that math and science don’t say much about the business of being human. But I like it, and it pays well.

            This I think ends the utility of my domain-specific knowledge to this topic. I’m a huge overthinking it fan (this site has actually taught me to recognize metaphors, which I was not previously capable of doing), and it was a pleasure to be able to contribute to a conversation.

            BTW, overthink this: Avatar + computational complexity theory = humans (the navi) can think, while machines (humans) can’t.

  2. Quigs #

    Great read. The one thing I thought I should add is that his email was clearly sent to the Goodwin within the alternate reality that he created at the end of the film, not the one that he originally operated in.

    Essentially what they were going for is that once his tether to the old world was broken his consciousness could firmly cement itself within the alternate world and he could live a healthy life.

    But hey, I’m a film graduate. I know sod all about quantum physics! :P


    • fenzel OTI Staff #

      Yeah, I definitely should have clarified this – that the message seems to be received in “a real world” but not “our real world.”


    • Lokesh #

      Okay, so when he was talking to his dad, he was talking to his dad in the alternate reality as well?


  3. Benjo #

    Fenzel, I’m afraid to say that you’ve completely missed the point and have gone off on a completely redundant tangent. It’s like pointing a gun to the sky when the man you intend to shoot is stood right in front of you.

    What do you know about EVP (‘Electronic Voice Phenomena‘)? Subscribers to the concept believe that the dead can communicate with us through electronic devices such as radios, televisions and computers. Many scientists working in the field of EVP have come to the conclusion that supposed “hauntings” are actually the result of high ultrasonic interference. They have gone on to suggest that the ultrasonic clusters responsible for this interference may be the product of a bio-electric burst, given off at the time of death.

    Professor Rutledge explains that the Source Code is composed of two elements, not just the 8 minute memory log of the deceased but also the aforementioned bio-electric burst that occurs at the time of death, which itself may contain the aforementioned 8 minute recording, combined with the neurological data of the deceased. Therefore we can assume (at it isn’t actually clarified) that surrounding the site of the attack there is a bio-electric/ultrasonic field of sorts. I would imagine that ‘Beleaguered Castle’ possessed detailed readings of this ultrasonic field and the Source Code utilised that data to create a digital reconstruction of the incident.

    But what actually happened, as we find out at the end, is that the Source Code not only re-constructed the context surrounding the bombing but also created a world within our world, much like The Matrix. When Goodwin received that text she didn’t receive it on our world, she received it within the digital/alternate reality created by the Source Code.

    Did you see the last ‘Star Trek’ film? Same idea. Stevens either exists within a separate timeline or a parallel, digital reality.

    It’s really that simple, and it was explained well enough for me to fill in the rest of the blanks.


    • fenzel OTI Staff #

      But if that is the case, and the world only exists within the source code, and not as a separate branch of reality, why are we given the impression that it persists after the movie is over?

      If it’s like the Matrix, and the computer creates and sustains this reality, then when the computer is turned off or repurposed for another project (which must be imminent when the movie is over), the Matrix should stop working.

      And if the Source Code created a world within our world via a sort of simulation – rather than branching one off in a multiverse sense by through a quantum event – why does Goodwin exist in that world? No information about her is in the source code, and she was nowhere near the train accident.

      I definitely missed the “bioelectric pulse” bit, but wouldn’t that have to do with most of the same stuff I talk about and Peter talks about above – information, the physical body, multiple realities and consciousness?

      It doesn’t seem that different…

      Also, don’t know off the top of my head if you’re a regular, but on the site, we have a tradition of including a “Well, ACTUALLY…” in posts like this ;-)

      Hope you enjoyed the read!


      • fenzel OTI Staff #

        Oh, and I’ll add it’s definitely clear the Goodwinn who receives the text isn’t the Goodwin in our world. It seems pretty clear it was a Goodwinn in an alternate universe, however or wherever that universe was created.


        • Noman #

          Benjo has an interesting point and it holds up, but perhaps the solution is not that a world within a world is being created, but that a “whole new world” is being created, each time the Source Code is used. In this way, what Rutledge believes is a simulation of 8 minutes is in fact a splitting off of a new, parallel reality, that will continue to coexist with our own, even after those 8 minutes.

          The implication of this is that each time the SC is used, and Colter fails at his mission, Rutledge is responsible for an entirely new reality where a terrorist event occurs.

          Also… Sean Fentress loses any hold he has to any given reality where Colter replaces him. By movies end, Colter has killed Fentress in order to save the passengers on the train. One of two casualties at the “happy ending.” (the other being the new Colter now to be found in the parallel reality, still trapped in his incubator.

          Just a thought.


          • Benjo #

            Yeah, I think Rutledge did mention that the Source Code is a sort of ‘quantum manipulator’. While he believes that the system does not enable time travel, its manipulation of spacetime inadvertently creates parallel universes.

            In fact, this is science fiction at its best, in the sense that it acknowledges that the best scientific discoveries are often made accidentally during a separate line of experimentation.

            This is similar to ‘Tron Legacy’, where Kevin Flynn was attempting to engineer the perfect operating system but unintentionally made a far more significant discovery: Isotopic Algorithms. Of course C.L.U — having been tasked with eliminating incongruous results — slaughtered all but a few of them.

      • Benjo #

        Well, ACTUALLY… I can see where you’re coming from :-D. I’m not a regular — this article was linked to on IMDB’s front page.

        I expected the film to end when Goodwin terminated Stevens’ life support. In fact, initially I was disappointed when the film continued after that rather touching 3-dimensional tableau of Stevens kissing Christina while the rest of the passengers are laughing with the comedian.

        But to address your counter directly: while Stevens’ life support may have been turned off, the Source Code was still active.

        Who’s to say that the Source Code isn’t self-contained, and that it is in fact a matrix of manufactured universes? (linking back to your points regarding multiple universes) Even if the program is rebooted for a new mission the system may keep a record of previous contexts which continue to perpetuate; like in ‘Minority Report’ where visions of previous murders can be downloaded from the Precognatives’ memories.

        As for Goodwin not being present and thus not a part of the internal digital reality of the Source Code: perhaps our consciousnesses are interconnected by a medium such as The Force of ‘Star Wars’ or Ewa of ‘Avatar’, allowing us to involuntarily share information telepathically. The true nature of the Source Code may be that it is actually a digital replication of the entire telepathic system, including the memories, feelings, experiences and neurological data of every human being on Earth. New data is then applied upon acquisition of the bio-electric readings.

        The above is only a possibility. The film certainly leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions, but that is why I feel that you missed the point.

        The narrative of the film is structured around a technology that our present scientific understanding cannot make full sense of. You’re thinking in terms of A leading in to B, when the answers lie at point C. You can’t get to B yet because there isn’t sufficient scientific knowledge to fill that gap.

        God knows you’ve tried, and I certainly found this article to be a great read, but it was about halfway through when I thought “Hang on, how can you possibly criticise a scientific discovery that is yet to be made?” In 50 years this film may make perfect sense, but for now I can see why it inspired a raised eyebrow.

        At the end of the day it’s futile to use present scientific knowledge to criticise speculative fiction. You can try, but fiction will always be 50 steps ahead of you.


        • Brian #

          “At the end of the day it’s futile to use present scientific knowledge to criticise speculative fiction. You can try, but fiction will always be 50 steps ahead of you.”

          I disagree with this, as a major purpose of speculative fiction is to explore how science develops and affects lives, so tracking the course of present science by comparison is really the point.


          • Benjo #

            I agree and disagree with your disagreement :-).

            The most effective way to convey my counter disagreement is to divide speculative fiction into three categories: at one end you have Science Fact, at the other you have Fantasy and in the middle you have Science Fiction.

            An example of a piece of factual scientific product is Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’ (given that it is theoretical). In contrast an example of a piece of fantastical product is ‘The Lord of The Rings’.

            Product like ‘Source Code’ is smack in the middle of these two extremes. It has the grounding of Scientific Fact, but the flexibility of Fantasy. This is what I believe to be the nature of Science Fiction.

            Scientific fact is the anchor that moors the imagination of the artist. “What if?” takes priority over “How?”. That is why I feel that Fenzel missed the point.

      • Benjo #

        Just had another thought regarding the concept of the Source Code being “a replication of the entire telepathic network”.

        Imagine that ‘Beleaguered Castle”s HQ is like a weather station, but instead of monitoring temperature, wind speed and humidity it monitors bio-electric activity on a national, if not global scale. Maybe there are sensors fitted all across the globe, recording bio-electric information that can be reviewed and revised within the Source Code.

        It raises many questions about the right to privacy, but if I recall there was quite on uproar in the States when it was believed that the government were monitoring phone calls after 9/11. This is addressed in ‘The Dark Knight’ when Bruce Wayne re-engineers Lucius Fox’s sonar technology to monitor the entire city in his hunt for The Joker.

        Having said that, you could argue that if they had bio-electric information on every person on the planet they could find the bomber simply by digging through the recordings pertaining to the attack. Or perhaps the information cannot simply be read, but has to be experienced within its wider context. For example, when I look at lines of computer code I see only a sequence of commands, but when I see what those commands create (e.g. a web page) I can better understand how the code is utilised to generate the image/system/illusion.


  4. Mark Berry #

    Hoo boy … yeah. Well, I’ll say this — never in history has there been a website so perfectly, accurately named as this one!


    • fenzel OTI Staff #

      Thanks! We try to stay “on mission” around here.

      For my money, the previous titleholder for approppriately named websites is – but my past hobbies have perhaps left me biased ;-)


    • vcnt #

      well, actually, the thing you apparently missed altogether (thus once again underscoring the appropriateness of your url) is that there is a more obvious and plausible (well, that would be subject to debate) (and digestible for american general audiences) interpretation of the ending: the idea that commander brokeback, after his final hurrah 8-minute round on the holodeck, did really and finally for real i mean it this time actually die, dead dead forever dead, but that … and wait for it … his death was a pleasant and peaceful one, and maybe he had at some point accepted jesus as his personal savior (and perhaps also as a reward for his meekly following orders and carrying out american foreign and military policy), and thus was allowed to go to heaven. a heaven which is defined subjectively for him as a place in which the continuity of his experience and his theoretical understanding of the basis of his time-travel / parallel-universe-jumping was pleasantly borne out, and coincidentally, all those people who had died in the previous world (i.e., the kingdom of man) were then all just fine laughing at the failed america’s got talent comedian’s inability to please a woman in bed. you get me? going with this interpretation, one is still left with unanswered earlier questions about how it is that the computer machine mixed up with 2 dead guys’ brains extracts certain previously-unknown, unperceived phenomena, such as the license plate on the white american terrorist’s white american van? well, one solution, if you’re inclined to accept the heaven-after-death interpretation, is that this was all facilitated with god’s intervention. not very neat, but it does bring it all back to quantum leap.

      by the way, i think i found this website last night by googling “source code quantum leap terminator avatar groundhog day” and i guess i should have added “back to the future donnie darko inception matrix” … i really appreciate your thoughts!


  5. Brian #

    So I’m reading this article as a debate over how embodiment relates to consciousness, which explored in the book by N. Katherine Hayles “How We Became Post-Human” It talks about how information was defined during the computer revolution and how that affected how we interpret our body and mind, and is a rebuttal against the sort of Kurzweil mind-scan theory where the body is just a medium for information that’s doing a poor job and if we upload we’ll live forever in perfect health.

    So I think maybe Source Code, by keeping the physical body such a important necessary thing and having death happen every 8 minutes is making the case that we can’t live forever and mortality is inevitable aspect of existence regardless of what medium consciousness is contained.


  6. Brian #

    “I think the way the movie becomes a bit more elegant is if it goes significantly darker – if instead of discovering that his experience is a reality rather than a simulation, the movie left out the second explanation and just challenged Captain Stevens with the existential problem of what to do as a basically dead man trapped with only 8 minutes of another man’s experience.”

    While I agree with you, inevitably what happens when purposing that life is a simulation is that people think they can hack it and turn it into whatever they want. Because you have to start that thought experiment hypothetical, “Ok, you’re in a computer simulation and…[doesn’t matter what you say at this point because computers can be hacked] So it’s value as a thought experiment is shot, A. Computers are hackable, or B. If this simulation isn’t hackable and the rules are just like real life the difference is moot, making imagining a simulation an unnecessarily clumsy way to suspend disbelief.

    So why I think it was a better choice to go the way Source Code did, is because it shows the body matters, and if they said he was a computer simulation the whole time, everyone just goes “If that was me I’d find the source code and hack it.” So if Source Code’s point is to get you thinking about death and whatnot it was probably better to have some foot in reality, even though it’s kinda plot holed either way.


  7. Jennifer #

    Thanks for explaining this movie. I was really wondering what the hell was going on there.


  8. Timothy J Swann #

    This movie reminded me very much of a similar, though rather more in-depth use of the MWH in fiction, in Stephenson’s Anathem, whereupon it is possible to move between universes provided they are similar enough (because this makes them proximate in configuration space), by the process of observing another universe as the ‘prime’ (in essence, real) universe. And thus whilst there are numerous universes available to view, that which the viewer who can ‘choose’ between them focuses upon is the ‘real’ thread of space and time that continues. This process is what I felt was occurring when Colter was going back for the final time, but of course is inconsistent with the time he just got Christina off the train; of course, what differed was his persistence in the universe – he was forcibly separated from it on previous attempts by being brought back to Beleaguered Castle.

    Also, Scott Bakula played Colter’s father. So clearly they were away of the links. I guess that, compared to Moon, we should expect some of the stepping back from complete explanation to come from the big budget and studio, but maybe that’s me being cliched and cynical.


  9. Frank Zeyda #

    Very nice analysis fenzel, thank you very much for posting this.

    One bit to add is maybe that in terms of finding a more consistent explanation of the movie and “Source Code”, we can actually exclude the fact that Colter sends a text message to an alternative universe at the end of the movie, and that the past has somewhat been changed as suggested. The Goodwin that received his message there would logically be a different Goodwin, namely in his final continuation of reality, so he did not change anything with regards to the reality of the lab that we are first confronted with; that’ll still exists in its own right, as before.

    I think what makes this movie interesting is to some extent the gaps it plants in explaining the “Source Code”. In that way it does engage the curious viewer to find his own, better, explanation, and without knowing enter the philosophy of mind, because the source code can only be meta-physical, and pondering some of the most challenging problems of science and philosophy. ;-)

    Best, Frank


  10. metalbullitt #

    I just saw the movie last night and a SERIOUSLY important piece of information is being left out from this ongoing argument… Please recall when Captain Stevens slips back into the “alternate universe” (As I believe this is what it is). After a few times of slipping back to the 8min mark, he begins to have memory flashes of his own life, eventually after slipping again, he begins having memory flashes of the body he takes over… Here comes the KICKER! In one frame of those flashes, Captain Stevens becomes CLAIRVOYANT! TUN TUN TUN! HE ACTUALLY SEES INTO THE FUTURE of this alternate universe. Which memory flash is it you ask? It is the one where he sees himself and Christina in front of the Chicago bean… How does slipping into an alternate universe play with time travel or him foreseeing future events? I’ll leave it at that just to stir the pot some. ; )


    • metalbullitt #

      Before i forget, this theory is confirmed at the end of the movie when he asks Christina if she believes in fate! :D


    • Tsam #

      Yes, that end scene completely brought down my entire thought process to rubble once I realized that he was having flashes of the “future”. But perhaps it had to do with the mixing of present and past, the two universes coming together unnaturally until it was finally caught up. Or perhaps he was seeing an alternate to the “alternate” reality he was trying to save, and once the 8 minutes were up he transitioned to that alternate reality.

      I myself wondered more about how the story would progress from there, his being in someone else’s body. There’s a complete personal history that he knows nothing about, family and friends he wouldn’t know. I would’ve preferred that he woke up again on another mission, would have made for a better ending (in my own opinion).


  11. ARTiST #

    Well, my introduction with the idea of alternative realities was with the ‘Back to the Future’ movies. Remember the scene where good ol’ Doc draws something like a railroad map trying to explain to the bewildered McFly why the hell the world is upside down as per him. Heck, that was pretty basic stuff compared to the one presented in this movie. And your talk of wavelength brings to mind the Angel Castille in the ‘Supernatural’ series talking about existing in the form of Wavelength as he battles the Heaven. Anyhow, the entire thing about alternative realities is every time you choose to do something else a new world pans out, where you took the other decision. I’m guessing I must have created atleast two hundreds worlds till now, eh? There goes one more! The fact that i decided to strike ‘space-bar’ instead of ‘;’ is proof enough. Wonder what my alternate version is doing out there with the ‘;’.


  12. Stu #

    Great discussion of the film here. I’m happy to stretch disbelief enough to accept the parallel universe at the end- I wonder if the filmmakers made that decision after getting Jake Gyllenhaal for the part, as he ‘has previous’ in this kind of thing? But it does leave a major moral problem- the poor teacher has had his whole life stolen, and Jake’s now got to be even more Don Draper than Don Draper. My ‘director’s cut’ ending for the film would be for life to continue after the kiss- but for Jake to have been replaced by the guy he sees in the mirror, who’s a little bemused about where the last 8 minutes have gone, but happy to go along with it. That might actually make more pseudo-scientific sense- at the moment Jake’s consciousness is turned off, the suppressed identity resurfaces.

    One more thing- I like the way the film hints at alternate realities at the very beginning, with the identity of the coffee-spiller changing- ‘It’s the same train but different’. Already at this point it’s clear that we’re not looking at a strict reconstruction of a dead man’s memory, but something altogether more fuzzy. I wish though that the film had pushed this theme a little harder, with a few more incidental details inexplicably changing- the problem is that when Jake is insisting that he might be able to affect ‘the real world’, the only evidence we have to support that is the sheer impossibility of all that he experiences being contained in a dead man’s memory- and the film requires us to accept that premise in order to suspend disbelief in the first place. If we take the ‘common sense’ approach, that what Jake experiences must draw on sources other than the dead memory, then the scientists who developed the technology look like idiots for not realising that too…


  13. MNP #

    If by doing so I could get with Michelle Monaghan for 8 minutes, I’d be all up for that.


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