Source Code – A lesson in how to screw up an ending

There be spoilers

Quick run down on the plot of 2011’s Source Code for those who need it: Helicopter pilot Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds himself on a Chicago-bound train, except he’s not who he appears to be and has assumed the body of teacher Sean Fentress. After Colter/Sean freaks out a bit, the train explodes.

Source CodeStevens then wakes up in an unfamiliar cockpit and is contacted by a woman on the other end of a TV screen who explains to him that the explosion was a real event that happened earlier that day and that he was sent to an alternate reality that lasts just eight minutes using a machine (the Source Code) in an attempt to discover the identity of the train bomber so to prevent a subsequent attack. Colter is then sent back to the train several times, each time with exactly eight minutes to discover who it was that blew up the train.

I think that just about covers it.

Now then, I was thoroughly enjoying Source Code; it was exciting, intriguing, a pretty original idea; even Jake Gyllenhaal was reasonably tolerable as the protagonist. But then , just as I was gearing up for the credits to role, it went and dropped one of the most ridiculous conclusions I can ever remember watching. The climax was fine; Stevens works out who the bomber is and they prevent a future nuclear attack. Great, well done. Then Stevens asks to be sent back into the Source Code to try and prevent the original bomb from going off, even though he’s repeatedly told that it would make no difference.

But guess what? It turns out that it DOES make a difference. Well, in that particular reality anyway. Cool, nice little twist, especially when he sends a text message to the Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), the woman he’s been liaising with in the ‘real’ reality, explaining that he had managed to stop the disaster. It’s a little confusing to explain but is a lot clearer on screen. Well it is until the denouement and then everything seems to go to shit.

In the Source Code reality, Stevens has disarmed the bomb, tied up the bomber and is pretty damn happy with himself. He has challenged a fellow passenger, a comedian who seems a bit of a dick, to make everyone laugh and has just made a move on his travelling companion Christina (Michelle Monaghan) who Sean Fentress obviously knows but Colter Stevens has had to get to know over the several eight-minute periods. So, they share a kiss, everyone on the train is happy and laughing and time freezes as the eight minutes he is allowed in the Source Code is up.

Everyone loves a happy ending...There. Just leave it there. Credits roll, please. You’ve got the happy ending that the film didn’t even need in the first place, but just leave us with a nice open-ended conclusion. Does time carry on now that he’s stopped the bomb or will that reality, once again, cease to exist after eight minutes? Just leave us to that thought and the film would have been rounded off nicely.

But then time unfreezes again. Everything continues and all those people will continue with their lives without being blown to bits or being turned back into computer code. Erm OK, I can see where you’re going with this. You want to give Stevens a super happy ending and give the audience a reason to go ‘fuck yeah we beat the terrorists and now it’s a big love-in’. Back in the ‘real world’ (it’s easy to make a few Matrix comparisons here), Goodwin has taken pity on Stevens, who we learn is being kept in a military facility on life support following an accident in Afghanistan, and turn off the machines keeping him alive, allowing him to die. But it’s Jake Gyllenhaal and he’s the good guy, the one all the men want to be and the women want to be with. He can’t really die, who’s going to make the audience grin and high-five when they leave the cinema? Forget the fact that Stevens actually wanted to die and had made peace with his dad, whom he had argued with previously, and had helped in foiling a nuclear attack, THAT’S JUST NOT HAPPY ENOUGH! IT MUST BE HAPPIER!

Instead, Stevens now gets to live on in an alternate reality with a new love of his life and everything is marvellous. But wait a second, if Stevens has assumed the body of Sean Fentress, then what the hell has happened to him? The face looking back at Christina is that of Sean’s, but it’s Stevens’ mind inside. Does Sean now just not exist? Has his mind just disappeared into thin air? So, while Christina and Stevens live on in happiness, Sean Fentress’ world is now completely torn to pieces. Just think of his family.

This picture makes as much sense as the film's endingAlso, in this alternate reality that Steven’s now inhabits, the Source Code machine hasn’t needed to be used because he stopped the bomb, but the actual Colter Stevens from that reality is still attached to the life support in the military facility. A little confusing, I know. But if that’s the case, unless I’m very much mistaken, then that means there are TWO Colter Stevens now in that reality. It just doesn’t make sense. My brain hurts.

There could well be an explanation for these points (and maybe I’m just too blinkered to see it), but rather than question the possibility of alternate realities and parallel universes, all I’m questioning is the writers’ ability to successfully craft a decent script. It seems that thought-provoking and coherent storytelling has been sacrificed for a happy ‘Hollywood’ ending that serves no purpose other than to attempt to satisfy the sentimentality of a particular demographic of cinema-goers who, if they had any inkling as to the film’s premise, probably wouldn’t have watched it with those expectations anyway.

Source Code got a pretty positive reception from critics when released, which makes me think I’m completely missing the point of it. Don’t get me wrong, I thought it was an interesting concept and well done right up until the last five or ten minutes.  Am I over thinking it or is the ending really as full of train-sized plot holes as it appears? Maybe I’m just not as versed in quantum physics or whatever as I need to be.

Words: Chris Thomson

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9 thoughts on “Source Code – A lesson in how to screw up an ending

  1. Mark Walker says:

    Great movie up until the end. You’re spot on man. It’s a classic case of studio interference methinks.

  2. simonpaulwoodward says:

    Just watched the film and had to reassure myself that I wasn’t the only one seeing the ‘happy overload’ tagged on ending. The frozen moment would have been perfect.

    • I really enjoyed the film right up until the ending and I actually found myself pleading with the film to finish. There was just no need whatsoever for it to carry on beyond that point, it would have been the perfect opened ending.

      • simonpaulwoodward says:

        Much like the imposed ending in Blade Runner with them driving through through green fields … the directors cut (they step into the lift, the doors slam shut, roll credits) leaves space for the audience to play with. As is true in films and novels, its often what you don’t show, or say, that carries greater resonance.

  3. Adel Helal says:

    I completely agree… as I was reading through this I said to myself “thank God I’m not going crazy, there is someone else who has the exact same sentiment”.

    I don’t think it would have been left “open ended” if they rolled the credits after everyone froze. It makes sense to end it there! He was hijacking another man’s memory strands – a dead man at that – and just like the light bulb, the light fizzes out. Especially now that there is no longer life support for Stevens means that even his own mind’s projection of the memory he is riding has ended also because his mind no longer operates. So that projection simply ceases to exist.

    Everyone keeps talking about the concept of fiction being unrealistic to begin with, but Science Fiction is a science of its own. You create the rules in your story and you follow them consistently. That’s what makes a good Sci-Fi movie. You can’t end up breaking those rules to begin another nonsensical story about parallel dimensions. That’s not what this movie was about.

    Perfect movie up until the last 5 minutes, then it became a complete failure.

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