The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Why Source Code is Secretly Horrifying

Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer

Big Ross contends there is a horrifying tone underneath the ending of Source Code.

First of all, I’d like to echo sentiments CC2K’s own Tony Lazlo expressed on another social media forum, three cheers for Source Code! It really is great that such a geek-indulgent script got developed into such a fun, well-made film. If Source Code is following in the wake of Nolan’s mega-success Inception, I hope it is the first of many such films. As much as I enjoyed it, the feel good ending to the film had the wheels in my brain turning for the rest of the evening and into the next morning. The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that there wasn’t much to feel good about. In fact, I’ve become convinced that, whether by design or accident, the ending of Source Code is secretly horrifying. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, stop reading now, go see it, and come back to finish this article. Otherwise, read on for my SPOILER-laden argument.


If you’ve seen the film, you know that Jake Gyllenhaal’s character Colter Stevens ultimately  succeeds in identifying a terrorist threatening to detonate a dirty bomb in downtown Chicago by repeatedly entering fictional tech called the source code, which is supposed to create a virtual reality that allows Stevens to live the last 8 minutes of a victim’s memories from an earlier bombing on a commuter train. You also know that Colter has been declared legally dead and subsists in a persistent vegetative state from injuries suffered while serving in the military in Afghanistan. And you also know of what I’ve been calling the feel good ending, Colter getting his wish from handler Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) for one last chance to enter the source code, prevent both the bombing in Chicago and the one on the train, and then be taken off of life support. Not only does Colter succeed in his own personal mission, but the source code universe continues to exist after his death, the implication being that the source code technology does not merely simulate a virtual reality but creates a fully realized universe.

In “our” universe thousands of lives are saved by preventing the terrorist’s detonation of the dirty bomb, and Goodwin does the right thing and gives Colter the peace he deserves. In the source code universe, things are even better. Colter continues to live, ready to enter a romance with Christina (Michelle Monaghan), and even more lives are saved by Colter’s actions on the train. Feel good ending, right?


Consider this. If Colter was right about the source code actually creating a fully realized universe, then it doesn’t just do that the last time he enters the source code but *every time* he enters. I lost count, but I’d ballpark the number of trips he makes into the source code to be around 20. Maybe more, but for the sake of argument let’s say I’m right and it’s 20. That’s 20 different universes that get created, and in each one the dirty bomb is detonated in downtown Chicago. Remember, in each of his attempts prior to his last, Colter fails to stop the terrorist from detonating either of his bombs. That’s 20 different universes in which what looks to be an incredibly powerful dirty bomb explodes in downtown Chicago. That’s a horrible, devastating, history-altering event in any universe. How many tens or even hundreds of thousands of people are killed? How is the trajectory of our country, and perhaps the world, altered by this event? Just how bad is the fallout? Think about that, then remember to multiply the answers to those questions by a factor of 20.

So that’s 2 universes where disaster is averted and things are pretty swell, and 20 universes where America gets FUBAR*. If we’re weighing things just on pure numbers, that’s a really bleak outcome. Not necessarily what I’d call a “feel good” ending.

Or, let’s look at things on a much more personal level. Colter Stevens, brave soldier and hero, gets more than just a peaceful death, he gets another chance at life – with a new love interest! Isn’t that uplifting?

No. It’s depressing and more than a little disturbing.

Consider: When he enters the source code, Colter is entering the body of one of the victims, a man named Derek Frost. Derek is a teacher. Derek is friends with fellow commuter Christina. We don’t know how Derek felt about Christina, but we know she has feelings for him, has hoped he’d ask her out for some time. We don’t know much else about Derek Frost, but I think we can safely presume that he has a family; his parents may still be alive, he may have siblings, likely has an extended family that knows him and loves him. He likely has a circle of friends, maybe several from various stages of his life, childhood friends, high school and/or college friends, work friends, all people that he stays in contact with to some extent. In short, Derek has a life, and Colter is stealing it.

Remember, in “our” universe Derek is dead, so are Christina and all the other passengers on that commuter train. Colter is simply entering Derek’s memories, an echo that consists of the last 8 minutes of his life. That universe and all the people that inhabit it are, as Goodwin keeps insisting, irrelevant. But at the film’s end we know that is not true. They are all real. They exist. And so Derek existed, he was living out his life right up until the moment Colter forced his way in, hijacking his body and effectively killing him. What happened to Derek’s consciousness? What happened to his soul, if you believe in that sort of thing? Did he simply cease to be? It’s an odd, disturbing dichotomy, isn’t it? Colter’s insistence that he can save *everyone* on that train, that he not only wants to save them but give them all that one moment of bliss we see captured and momentarily frozen, near the end of the film, contrasted with the knowledge that Derek is seemingly being snuffed out of existence. Where is his moment of bliss?

But let’s take this to even more disturbing extremes. Throughout the course of the film Colter falls in love with Christina, and much of his desire to stop the bombing of the train is to save her. And we see Christina falling for Colter/Derek, yet which is it? Though she points out that she likes “the new Derek” after pointing out how different he seems, she still comments that she’s wanted him (Derek) to ask her out for a while.Though Colter is meeting Christina for the first time, she has a history with Derek, novel behavior aside she is still falling for Derek, not Colter. Though we see Jake Gyllenhaal (Colter) throughout the film, it’s made clear early on that to everyone else on the train he looks like Derek (I’m thinking of the first time Colter enters the bathroom on the train).

So Colter is lying to her, lying to her and soon everyone he meets. Derek’s family and friends, his colleagues, every single person Derek knew. Colter will have to lie to all of them, pretend he knows them, has known them for years perhaps, when he is meeting them for the first time. How will he pull off such a massive deception? Remember that Colter only has access to Derek’s short term memories, the last 8 minutes he lived. Names, dates, experiences, all of the accumulated knowledge that Derek amassed in his life are lost to Colter. What sort of psychological/emotional damage lies in wait for Colter as he proceeds to live out his own life in another man’s body? What will that wonderful moment of closure he got from the phone call to his dad (Scott Bakula (!)) become when he realizes he’s surrounded by strangers and he can never have a meaningful father-son relationship with his real father? And what sort of relationship is he beginning with Christina? It will be built on a lie, and not some romantic comedy lie you see in Just Go With It or Wedding Crashers or the like, but the “I murdered your friend and am wearing his skin” variety. G’ah!

And I’m not even finished! We haven’t addressed the source code project itself. In “our” universe, it’s proven to be incredibly effective. Director Rutledge (the great Jeffrey Wright) is eager to proceed with expanding the project. Do Goodwin’s actions “kill” the project? Hardly. Colter may well be uniquely suited in the source code’s implementation, but that won’t stop Rutledge from trying to find a replacement. That means more wounded soldiers forced into the program, declared legally dead, their families lied to about the fate of their loved ones. And we know that In the final source code universe, their is an as yet untested source code program, a Colter Stevens still lying, waiting to be thrust into the memories of some future victim of some terrible event, in the hope of affecting a future outcome. Are the source code programs enacted In the other 19 source code universes, upon detonation of the bomb on their respective trains? Are 19 Colter Stevens sent into the memories of 19 Derek Frosts? Does each Colter fail 20 times, creating a new universe each time, whereupon the source code program is enacted, exponentially increasing the number of universes in existence and repeating the sequence of events ad infinitum? What could this do to the fabric of reality? Did I just blow your mind?

Or maybe, maybe you should stop being such a *geek*, shut up, eat your popcorn, and enjoy a good movie. Geez.

*Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition