Source Code: A Movie Review
by John Lobell
[Spoiler alert] In my comment posted after Ebert’s review on this site of Inception, I wrote: “Notice that we have been getting a lot of movies with a non-linear, layered time, and notice that (most) audiences are totally comfortable with these movies.” I then went on to briefly discuss Groundhog Day, 50 First Dates, Memento, the Terminator movies, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and The Lake House. I could have added the Matrix movies, 12 Monkeys, Vanilla Sky, and The Adjustment Bureau.
We can now add Source Code, in which the protagonist is repeatedly returned to an eight-minute slice of time to attempt to prevent a terrorist attack, to our list. Captain Colter Stevens is a decorated army helicopter pilot whose last memory is of a mission in Afghanistan. He is now on a train with no idea of how he got there. In “actuality,” he is badly mangled, missing much of his body and brain, and in a life-support chamber, part of an experiment that can project him into some other version of reality, in this case a train about to be blown up. He has eight minutes to find the bomber in order to prevent a larger attack, and he can repeat that eight minutes as often as needed. His handler tells him that his experience in this imagined world is not real, that the train has already been blown up, that he cannot stop it. His job is to find the bomber to prevent the larger attack.
He defies his handler, insisting that saving and being with the woman who is sitting across the seat from him on the train is as important as saving the millions targeted in the larger attack. In the end he confounds his handler by texting her from his new reality that he has been successful and is now with the woman he met on the train. His handler realizes what he has done, but her boss does not, since from his point of view, the train never blew up, so the mission was never initiated. His handler looks at her cell phone and at his mangled body in the life-support chamber, wondering if she should fulfill her promise to unplug him.
In these movies incidents are not acted out on a uniform Newtonian space and time grid, nor in Einstein’s relativistic space-time, but are layered in shifting matrices both of spacetime and of dream and reality. The limitations of space and time are lessened. Why do we feel an affinity with these movies? Often, we relate to strange premises in the arts if at some level we feel they represent what we are experiencing. The linear slice-of-life with an all-seeing objective narrator that characterized the traditional novel; the stream of consciousness that characterized the novels of Joyce, Proust, and Wolfe; and the extreme subjectivity of the nouveau roman of Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet are no longer with us. We are now in yet another world.
Have a young person come over to your home and show you the “jump-back-in-time” button on your television remote control. Tune your television to any broadcast show, press this button, and you will see the last thirty seconds of the show repeated. We don’t yet have the real-life version, but I imagine some startup tech company is working on it. Our experience is now something very different from what it has been. We now have an extended self in layers of realities that these movies are attempting to convey.
And the human meaning of this layered experience? In his book, The Gay Science , Nietzsche asks:
“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.'”
Nietzsche is not here concerned with some very differently structured universe, but with our universe here and now. He is not saying “this is how your life works,” but “what if it were to work this way.” If you were going to relive this day over and over forever, would accept today? If not, now is the time to change things. To a day of pleasure? “I was in the Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster, drank pina coladas. At sunset, we made love like sea otters.” Perhaps. But maybe even better than that, the day that ends Groundhog Day, a day of not only pleasure, but of joy of creating oneself and ones life.
These movies have Eastern notions of time, but still have our Western notion of the self. We are in a world in which “dream” and “reality” slide in and out of each other as they might in India, but with an American protagonist who defies the bureaucrats, gets the bad guy, and gets the girl. John Wayne in Stagecoach for the twenty-first century.