WARNING: This post spoils the ending of Source Code. Don’t read any further if you haven’t seen the film, unless you don’t care if the ending is ruined for you.
Didja enjoy the happy ending of Source Code? Brave and honorable military soldier Colter Stevens gets to have a whole new life instead of just being a brain in a jar for meanie scientists to play with. Hoorah! Except…
Okay, here’s the thing that’s been bothering me since that “triumphant” finale of the film. If we’re meant to believe that Jake Gyllenhaal’s Stevens is enjoying a whole new life in a real world — as we clearly are meant to believe, thanks to that text he sends to Vera Farmiga in his new alternative universe — then we have to believe that that means that in order for Stevens to be alive, Sean Fentress, the man whose body he’s been borrowing for his eight-minute quantum leaps, is now dead, erased by the overwriting of Steven’s consciousness.
Is that right? Is that moral? Is the life of one innocent man who was given no choice in the matter a fair price to pay for the lives of many other innocents… and who gets to decide if it is or not?
Okay, you may say, but perhaps Stevens did not actually land in another real world, an actual existing alternate universe to ours: Perhaps he’s just dreaming about a great life from his new home in the brain jar. Except… it must be a real, genuine alternative world. It cannot simply be a shadow of reality, as Jeffrey Wright’s scientist insists once Stevens starts questioning things… and the inventor of this technology must know these alt-universes are real, because the technology simply shouldn’t work otherwise.
Out of the blue this afternoon, I received an email from my friend Evelyn C. Leeper of online fanzine The MT Void, who — completely coincidentally, or perhaps because another me in another universe had somehow transmitted to her word of my confusion with the film — asked me this:
Isn’t there something wrong with the entire basic premise? If the plan is, in effect, to put Colter Stevens into the last eight minutes of memories of Sean Fentress, how can Stevens have any idea of what will happen or who he will see as soon as he diverges from those memories? If Fentress had stayed in his seat the whole time, how could Stevens possibly find out about the white van?
One response might be that the ending indicates that Stevens is not just in Fentress’s memories, but in an entire alternate world constructed from these. Overlooking how one could possibly do this, this result is entirely contrary to what the project leaders in the main timeline say is possible, so how could they have possibly expected the project to work, and hence how could they ever get any funding for it?
Lots of science fiction fails a few basic tests to its premise, but there doesn’t seem to be anything else to Source Code beyond that basic premise. It’s not like you can say, “Well, that bit kinda doesn’t make sense, but the rest of it works, so what the hell.” There’s nothing here but the puzzle, and the puzzle doesn’t hang together. At all.
And then, on top of all of that, the film hopes we’ll overlook how an innocent man has to die so that Jake Gyllenhaal can live. Ugh.