October 18, 2011

Source Code and Alternate Histories [review by starlight]

"It's the same train, but it's different..." "Deep! I hope it's different."
Ok, I know we can't stand Jake Gyllenhaal's face anymore, and no matter how excellent a performance he pulled off in Donnie Darko and Brokeback Mountain we will never forgive him for even considering doing Prince of Persia, but Source Code ain't bad. We even get to see a little bit of his earlier talent seep through. Colter Stevens is a pretty cool character. Kind of like if Jack Bower was given 8 minutes to stop a terrorist instead of 24 hours. But it's fitting because it's in the future, where everything moves faster.

As a sci-fi phenomenon, this film has a bit of trouble avoiding plot holes and even if it succeeds, the possibilities are covered up with brightly coloured patches rather than subtle stitches. There are many details left to be assumed, some of which tear the audience out of their suspension of disbelief. In fact, after seeing the film I still stand by the same conclusion I had upon seeing the trailer. If what he is experiencing is only the source code of the dead man's memories, an alternate reality should not be possibile stemming from it. It would be a self-contained experience, just like the simulations Stevens is used to performing. He hints at the end that Dr. Rutledge didn't know what he had created, or the implications of source code, but one would think that the program's inventor would know whether he was creating a simulation or a time travel device. Very hokey that Stevens just -believes- that he can change the future, and then boom - it happens.

The plot holes are carelessly covered up by forcing the audience to make assumptions about everything. I'm going to assume that what Dr. Rutledge built was some sort of computer program, because he named it "source code", which is defined by Wikipedia as "text written in a computer programming language." It seems like Stevens' brain is hooked into a computer that sends it electrical signals to induce a simulation, and he can communicate back by sending signals from his brain to a computer terminal. But if I were to argue that a computer programmer would know whether he was coding a program that sends the subject back in time or a simple simulation, I can easily be countered based on the assumptions I've made. You can say, "Maybe it's not just a computer program" or "maybe Stevens' brain was hooked up to an alien artifact and Dr. Rutledge doesn't really know what it does." You can say pretty much anything - the film doesn't give much material for debate.

There is also the problem of alternate histories in narrative. The problem with sci-fi stories that propose the existence of multiple realities is that you can't really care about the characters if you know that in some reality they're eating cake, even if they're being blown up in the one we're watching. As soon as I hear that a character has changed the future in one branch of a timeline, I instantly stop caring. It's one branch out of a multitude. What does it matter?

Am I the only one who feels so nihilistic when it comes to the alternate histories theory?


  1. You're probably not the only one with that view, but I personally don't share it. The way I see it, even if a character is eating cake in some alternate reality, you're not following him, you're following the one being blown up. Though both characters are technically the same person residing in different realities, their different experiences (i.e one eating cake and one being blown up) actually makes them different people, assuming you subscribe to the philosophy that our memories are part of what makes each of us who we are. As soon as two identical people in alternate realities experience something different from one another, they become two separate people.

    I'm probably not explaining it very well 'cause it's 2:00 in the A.M and my brain feels like it's been replaced with purple jello, but ya get my drift.

    1. I do! Thanks for the great comment!

      I typically do subscribe to the personality as narrative (or memory) philosophy, but something about there being multiple realities just removes some of the tension for me. The stakes don't seem as high. It is a good point that you can consider the two to be different characters. I mean, if it were me being blown up, I wouldn't be very relieved to know that I'm in the lap of luxury in some other reality. What matters would be the here and now.

      As an outsider, however, I did find that I didn't care about Colter's fate as much when I learned that there are multiple branches of the same timeline. Somehow his living or dying didn't matter as much.

      If I can change the scenario a little bit, I would say that branching timelines makes me think that we would all undergo an infinite number of experiences if timelines could just branch off like that. In this case, it was only because of time travel, so it's kind of moot, but if, say, every decision we made led to another branch in reality, every person would have a near-infinite number of experiences. All of these branches would lead to their demise in one way or another, with different lives in between. It makes me feel like the one I'm watching in particular is no more meaningful than any of the others.

      Very philosophical and so it's probably not worth making a big stink about, but all I'm saying is that if a story-teller wants me to care about his or her characters, the peril needs to be real, and there can't be some alternate reality where everybody's having a happy ending. If I'm wondering about that possibility, then I'm not nearly worked up enough about our hero's struggle.

      I think you may have done a better job explaining your philosophy than I have, 2am or not!