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.
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.