Saturday, April 2, 2011

Source Code [2011]


MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Roger Ebert (3 ½ stars) Fr. Dennis (3 ½ stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert’s review

I found Source Code [2011] to be a surprising film. Yes, it’s a sci-fi action film set in the present day (and there are conventions for all these categories) but the film somehow became more than that. It was able to bring the sci-fi "down to earth" and then in a surprisingly positive way. Written by Ben Ripley and directed by Duncan Jones, it mostly involves quite ordinary and ultimately quite sympathetic characters (simple commuters on a train in Chicago).

The premise of the story is that scientists operating on a super-secret project from Nellis Air Force Base (of Area-51 fame) had come up with a way of _quickly_ retrieving the last 8 minutes prior to a terrorist attack _after it happened_ and then to insert a person into those last 8 minutes (and insert the person _repeatedly_ into those last 8 minutes) in order to run through them in order to determine how the attack took place and who was/were the perpetrator(s) were.

In the movie, Colter Stevens (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), formerly a US helicopter pilot in Afghanistan is inserted in such a way by military scientists (played by Vera Farmica and Jeffrey Wright) into a commuter train in Chicago blown-up by a bomb in a terrorist attack to determine how it was set off and by whom.
Why couldn’t you just try to determine this through rapid analysis of surveillance cam footage? Well surveillance cams are not everywhere and this project envisioned a way that someone could walk/run through anywhere he or she wanted through the critical space in question during those last 8 minutes.

Why 8 minutes and not 10 or an hour, etc? Well perhaps the exact amount of time that one could go back in time from an accident was arbitrarily set by the film-makers but they offered a very precisely reasoned explanation a limit such as that would exist.

The more damning objection to the movie’s premise would be to question whether one really could run around "anywhere" during those last 8 minutes (even into a sealed or closed compartment or off the train, for instance...), or whether one was still limited (as in the case of surveillance cam footage) _by the retrieved record_ of those last 8 minutes no matter how that record was retrieved.

The movie _does envision_ that the inserted person could view the situation from previously unexamined perspectives (ie go into compartments that were previously closed, walk off the train, etc) and also to interact with the people in the situation, thus necessarily _changing_ the situation (however slightly) each time. This would seem to me to impossible given the manner of "information retrieval" and "insertion" offered in the movie.

Nevertheless, the movie assumes that the inserted person _could_ interact with the environment (and with the people in the environment) and not merely observe it/them. One recalls here that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry famously asked how the "Heisenberg Compensators" which powered the Starship Enterprise’s warp engines worked, replied "very well." Welcome to sci-fi, where one does have to "suspend disbelief" at some point to make the story "work" ;-).

Assuming then that possibility that a person inserted into the past could interact with the environment (and its people) and not merely observe it, then all sorts of possibilities (and paradoxes) regarding "time travel" come to fore: Forget trying to figure out who perpetrated a terrorist attack, why not try to frustrate it to begin with. But if one did that, does the history that followed the terrorist attack (or the sinking of the Titanic, as another example ...) _get expunged_ or does a new history where the terrorist attack did not occur (or the Titanic did not sink ...) "split off" from the history in which these events took place? This gets into the realm of parallel universes, that can make for great fodder for late night discussions over beer and pizza. (Morgan Freeman recently narrated a series called Through the Wormhole for the Science Channel, which presented topics such as these).

Of course, Colter Stevens decides to try to do this – to try to foil the terrorist attack to begin with – thus trying to save the utterly lovable and utterly _not_ deserving to be incinerated in a terrorist attack Christina Warren (played by Michelle Monagnan) as well as the rest of the people on the commuter train, petty jerks, dweebs, and otherwise utterly ordinary people that they may be.

But then, if he does succeed (I’m not going to tell you if he does) would he save them, period? Or would he simply save them in an "alternate universe" created by his interfering in the sequence of events in the one in which they lived (and in which they were destined to be blown up)? Finally, would it matter to the people involved if they were saved from the fireball?

Great, great, teenage / young adult stuff ;-)

ADDENDUM

Near the end of the movie arises a fairly "heavy question" about the "redeemability of the world." This is all the more interesting perhaps since the movie touches on possibilities of "time travel" and "parallel universes."  What's your take on the question?  Is the world redeemable?  Or should we wait for it (or even want it) to "blow up?"


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