Sunday, April 03, 2011

“A Subjection Much More Profound Than Himself”: A Few Remarks on Source Code

Duncan Jones’ Source Code has all the telltale signs of a second movie, it has bigger stars, bigger explosions, and the requisite romantic subplot. Of course it wouldn’t be hard to outspend the rather minimalist Moon. Less is more in this case, and all of these things serve to highlight just how engaging the first film was through its minimalist aesthetic. However, what is striking about the second film is its thematic continuity with the first. 

Spoiler Alert 
The basic details of the plot are pretty clear from trailer. A soldier, Colter Stevens (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) is transported into the body of a school teacher aboard a train eight minutes before it explodes. He has eight minutes to find the identity of the bomber. If he fails in his mission, he is sent back to the beginning in order to start over. His mission is like a level on a videogame, he must repeat it until he wins. He is seated across from a young woman, Christina who has been courting, making for the most awkward first date in human history. 

Seriously, spoiler alert 

Those are the basic details, what we eventually learn is that the technology, “the source code” supposedly can’t change the past: he is only sent back to learn the identity of the bomber in order to stop a much bigger attack on Chicago that is imminent. This sets up the conflict between fate and free will, a kind of Philip K. Dick-lite that will structure the rest of the movie. We also learn that Stevens is already dead, or at least partially so, he was killed flying a helicopter mission in Afghanistan and his continued service with the source code project represents the most drastic implementation of the Army’s “stop loss” program to date. As with  Moon we learn that every job demands more of us than we think, exploitation does not end with one’s biological existence. 

Stevens eventually decides that he wants to save the passengers on the train, starting with Christina, altering the past. The film is a little unclear on this point. His supervisors in the Army, including an underutilized Jeffrey Wright as Dr. Rutledge, the source code’s architect, insist this is impossible: he is not back in time after all, just reliving the last few minutes of another man’s life. Steven believes that it is possible to alter this past and eventually saves the train, gets the girl, etc. This is a second point of similarity with Moon: in each case the protagonist escapes to an uncertain future, figuring anything must be better. These are films about an escape from an infinite subjection. 

While the film is unclear about how this is possible scientifically, it is quite clear about what it means politically. The “Source Code” is a shady top-secret project, clearly keeping the half-dead bodies of soldiers in boxes so that they may continue to serve indefinitely must be illegal, not to mention immoral. Such a project requires an exceptional event in order to gain legitimacy, an event like a bomb attack on a train followed by the ultimate “ticking time bomb” scenario, a dirty bomb in a major city. After Stevens completes his mission the first time, identifying the bomber and locating the bomb, Dr. Rutledge can be seen celebrating. This is contrasted in the film to the final scene after Stevens alters the timeline by saving the train. In that scene Dr. Rutledge can be seen sitting behind a desk being debriefed about the attack that almost was anxious awaiting an attempt to legitimate his project. He is the architect of a shock doctrine, waiting for the right series of events, the right catastrophe, to put his plan into place. The film makes it clear that the real horrors of the present are not guys building bombs in their basements, but the men and women in well financed government bunkers just waiting for the right disaster, the right crisis, to put their plans into motion. 

Both of Duncan Jones’ films deal with a protagonist whose subjection is “more profound than himself,” to borrow the lines from Foucault. An individual who figures out that there is no end to the contract, no end to the mission, no way out except a drastic line of flight. Source Code brings this condition into a political present. It reveals that we are subject to the “permanent state of exception” that is the war on terror, a war that justifies nearly everything in advance and will become much more pernicious if another bomb should detonate or another attack is successful. The only way out of this is to rewrite history itself or exodus, an escape to an uncertain future. 


Jane Kuenz said...

The ending was very frustrating. Besides abandoning its own stated premises ("Don't think too much about it," says Routledge repeatedly, as if to warn us), it also abandons its politics and characters, especially Goodwin. We don't even get the humanist, feel good ending, which would have acknowledged Colter Stevens' last request to die a meaningful death. "What would you do if you knew you had only a minute to live?" Kiss that girl, make the people around you a little happier, notice the green of the grass outside the train, really see those geese. But all of this is undercut and made kind of pointless by having it continue (oh yeah, save the world too).

Even worse, the ending also erases the real heroism of Goodwin and the events in Las Vegas, which, as you notice, is where all the film's politics lie. Can she drop her role as his handler and talk to him "soldier to soldier" as he asks? Can she, as a civilian, recognize him, what they have done to him and are still doing to him, and just say no, even while fully cognizant of the real threats to herself? The last thing she says to him is "Thank you for your service." This is not something soldiers say to each other. I suppose it's possible Jones's point is that her recognition and courageous act would have to be reenacted every time there is a new threat, that each time we will be faced with the same arguments about safety and necessity, but I don't have enough confidence in the film at that point to buy it. The movie should have ended with the freeze frame on the train and her inside the glass wall, ignoring the calls from Routledge.

unemployed negativity said...

Yes, I agree that it should have ended there, and that the film seemed to break its own rules about the technology, which were flimsy to begin with. However, it seems to me that the film was pushed towards that ending for two reasons. The first is its vaguely uplifting message about free will, choice, love, etc. The second is the political dimension. Saving the train is the only thing that will stop the Source Code project, or at least delay its full implementation. I think that the film uses its vague message about free will and choice to obscure its actual politics, that it is against the security state.

unemployed negativity said...

I am also posting Shelton's comments from facebook, which offer some interesting insights.

" I agree that the job contract in the first film gets replaced with military service in the second: we are all militarized now, and there is no end in sight. The war on terror means that we will probably be thankful to have our eight minutes of looping life rather than permanent death. I think you're also right that Rutledge is key: in _Moon_ we had HAL; here we have Dr. Strangelove--down to the crutch and the lifetime of waiting for the right crisis. Rutledge is the one who devises the situation: nightmare becomes a fantasy (in Kubrick, a sexual one). I just can't figure out what is happening at the end, after the freeze-frame in the train car: are we seeing an authorial fantasy of what might have happened; or, does Stevens change time (yuck); or, is there a suggestion that our own reality is just like a loop--one in which details always change, but the basic events unfold as they must? Qua?"

anotherpanacea said...

I think this is a good analysis of the political economic subtext, but your comments on the ending miss the "many worlds" metaphysics that the story depends upon: each time Stevens changes the past, he creates a new world. He is moving between alternative possible worlds.

This means that each of Stevens' *failed* trips also create branched possible worlds, so there are worlds in which he has made the situation worse, for instance, in order to make the "main world" better.

So the ending is literally an alternate ending: Goodwin *does* terminate Stevens in the "main world" of the movie, but an alternative Stevens goes on to live out his life in a history teacher's body. (Learn from the past or repeat it, I suppose.)

That branching world is the one we see at the conclusion. In that alternative world, there is still a Stevens waiting for a mission that will eventually arrive, at which point he may or may not convince Goodwin to assist in his suicide.

Meanwhile, in the "main world" the second attack is prevented, opening up funding for the project to proceed, but Stevens is dead so they will have to find another victim. One wonders what will happen to Goodwin in that world? Will the military treat her like Bradley Manning?

unemployed negativity said...

I get the point about alternate worlds, but the film doesn't do much to develop it. The description Dr. Rutledge gives of the technology is that he is inhabiting the short term memory of a dead person, which explains the eight minutes. That is a shoddy explanation even before the ending since Sean's memory wouldn't include things he hadn't seen, like the air vent above the bathroom sink.

It seems to me that either Dr. Rutledge doesn't understand his own technology, it works better than he thinks, to paraphrase the line from the film, or he is concealing it from Stevens. The latter makes more sense, but the film should have something to back it up.

anotherpanacea said...

"The latter makes more sense, but the film should have something to back it up."

I think this is one of the costs of a second, bigger movie: the studio doesn't care about modal metaphysics, they want action and drama. So they cut all that out of the script. I'm just happy that they got the political economy stuff note-perfect: this really is a movie about military "stop loss" policies and the way that terrorism is used to justify an intrusive surveillance state, that just happens to have a well-developed back story on the metaphysics that is consistently applied, a rarity in time travel films.

Understood in light of possible worlds theory, there's a new and interesting set of problems and questions that replaces the tepid reflections on free will and determinism with a question like: what does success look like for the surveillance state? Does optimal performance require occasional "slip-ups" to preserve the machinery of detection? (Compare this to the FBI cultivating "terrorists" over months-long stings, feeding them ideas and resources.)

unemployed negativity said...

Yes, exactly that would be a good motivation for Dr. Rutledge. He knows that the "source code" works, that it creates parallel realities, but can't let Stevens know this because if he succeeds, saves the train, he will lose the crisis that legitimates its existence. Not so much a time travel paradox, but the paradox of the security state. A state which functions only by not functioning, to paraphrase Deleuze and Guattari.

NervouFishdown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
NervouFishdown said...

One question I have (and maybe this was revealed but I missed it) is this: "where is the history teacher's body throughout this film?"

[[A geeky side-question perhaps: But is Stevens' brain being transmitted into Fentress's body somehow, through time, just as its in 'afterglow' stage? Or do they have a semi-dead Fentress corpse that is sort of held in an 'afterglow' stasis?]]

Whichever is true, its interesting that the status of the real subjectivity of Fentress is paved over here, cast aside, so that Stevens can have a real life. OK, so you could say, "but Fentress is dead, so why can't Stevens have his body now" (as if he was a mere kidney donor). But in fact Fentress is "donating" much more than a kidney - he is donating the entire panoply of his subjective being! The "new me", which Christina seems to fall deeply in love with, is no mere history teacher then, but a heroic helicopter pilot who deserves a second chance at the expense of a (expendable) 'history teacher'.

Some of these concerns were touched on, I feel, in Jason's post on Inception. But if I'm onto something with this, they're even more stated in this film.

Apart from this, the anti-security state points discussed here, and the 'possible worlds' argument, are very interesting.