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Is the Ending of "Source Code" Too Dark?

by Christopher Campbell
April 11, 2011 1:36 AM
3 Comments
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Yes, I'm looking at the ending of "Source Code" again, because while I was thinking relatively positive in my interpretation, others are focusing on a darker possibility. Actually, it's not just the theories of moviegoers, but the filmmaker himself. Duncan Jones has been pretty public about his views on the ending of the film, which was initially scripted by Ben Ripley and reworked some by the director upon his hire. Apparently he even mentioned the dark, morally questionable factor when I saw his Q&A at the Museum of the Moving Image, but I failed to record that part.

So credit goes to /Film's David Chen for getting the quote from a similar event up in Boston. From last week's /Filmcast and excerpted by IFC's Matt Singer, the bit from the director can be read after the jump, due to the fact that it's obviously a big spoiler.

"So Colter Stevens, at the end of the film, begs Goodwin to let him take one more shot at sorting out this disaster on the train, stopping the bomb from going off. So he gets sent, he gets on the train, in what he discovers to be a parallel reality, stops the bomb going off, which means Sean Fentress is now dead although he shouldn't be... Colter has basically forfeited Sean Fentress' life just so he, Colter Stevens, can have a happy ending. I like that, because immediately although we have a happy ending, it's ethically a little bit more ambiguous.

And Singer has some issue with this ethically ambiguous ending, not because it's ethically ambiguous but because it's hard to tell without these interviews with Jones that he intended such a dark concept. As it plays, he says in his original review, this "darker angle" is "kind of ignored," while it still "suggests Stevens' behavior isn't quite as heroic as it's made out to be." In his follow-up last week, he details the spoiler more clearly, calling Jake Gyllenhaal's character a "murderer," but one the film "doesn't announce...very loudly." He ponders this cloudiness:

So what's more important: the director's intent or the evidence on the screen? Jones wants those questions about Stevens' actions to be present, but are they present enough? I'm not saying we need a shot of Stevens looking at Cloud Gate and crying "Oh no! What have I done?" But a little bit of a clue, in the editing or the music, could have made a big difference to the way we feel after the film is over.

Ultimately, though, Singer sees the work the viewer must do in the end as positive and fitting to the way Stevens' mission turns out. Go read the final paragraph of his post for what he sees as a rewarding effort.

Singer isn't the only person who felt the ending was a little wrong, moral-wise, though. One Spout reader claimed he "got screwed." Here are a few other views from around the blogosphere:

Maryann Johanson at Flick Filosopher:

we have to believe that that means that in order for Stevens to be alive, Sean Fentress, the man whose body he’s been borrowing for his eight-minute quantum leaps, is now dead, erased by the overwriting of Steven’s consciousness.

Is that right? Is that moral? Is the life of one innocent man who was given no choice in the matter a fair price to pay for the lives of many other innocents... and who gets to decide if it is or not?

Brian Childs at Cinematical:

He's snatching another guy's body. That means that Colter Stevens' happily ever after is Sean Fentress' unhappy early death. Not only does he die, but his murderer goes on impersonating him in order to steal his girl!

How does this work exactly? What does Colter say to Sean's family? Does he take over his teaching job? Rather than resolving the movie, this ending, while feel-good, creates a whole new set of questions that go unanswered.

Remington Smith at The Filmsmith:

But what about the real Sean Fentress? Since the Source Code machine is thought to just tap into the memory of someone already dead, there’s not a lot of moral consideration for Fentress considering the mission (which is also Stevens’ situation). But since Sean Fentress doesn’t die on the train due to Stevens’ intervention, what happens to his consciousness? [...]

Would that mean that Fentress’ consciousness is floating around somewhere forever, or is he simply killed when pushed out of his mind? It’s even more final if they merely swap bodies, with Stevens running off with Fentress’ gal while he dies with Stevens’ veggie body.

Now there's something I hadn't thought of: that, like in either "Quantum Leap" or body swap movies, Fentress' mind is switched with Stevens', so it's actually him that's in the coma back in the lab at the end. And any sequel, or just any future Source Code project will involve a very confused Fentress as the hero.

But I still prefer my theory that Stevens is dead and playing out a desired scenario in his afterlife (even if he does still see Fentress' face every time he looks in the mirror. I know, Jones has directly stated the "true" interpretation, but filmmakers like him are always open to audiences seeing things their own way. If I did go with that darker identity theft idea, though, I don't see a lot of problem with it since Fentress has always died in all these situations anyway.

It's like that nutty "Quantum Leap" episode where Sam is shifted all around different people associated with the JFK assassination and in the end the President isn't saved but Jackie is (it's explained that the first time around she had been killed, too). At least one or more of those people who had originally died was saved, and while it's too bad Kennedy didn't survive he never had anyway. Oh, but I guess for it to be the same, Sam would have had to ultimately end up in Kennedy's body, which did survive, and then lead America as a kind of impostor, "Face/Off" meets "Dave" style.

Actually, there's the sequel: a presidential assassination. Only, will similar identity theft controversy remind too many viewers of "Hitman"? I haven't seen it, so I can't say. But I think the repetitious looping narrative could be too reminiscent of "Vantage Point," which I already unfortunately kept thinking of with the original.

But anyway now we're on to the next "Source Code" discussion, pertaining to ideas for the next mission. Given that the first film kind of combines "12 Monkeys," "Die Hard," "Surrogates," "The Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable," we should start by looking at other Bruce Willis movies. How about "The Siege" meets "Hudson Hawk" meets "The Kid"?

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3 Comments

  • ML | October 8, 2011 5:27 AMReply

    Late to the game here, just watched the movie on DVD.

    The 'kind' interpretation might be that Sean Fentress has to die in every possible universe before Colter Stevens can be send to his brain - he was said to be the best match, but what if he actually was the only possible match precisely because he didn't survive in any of the alternative universes? It seems the scientists on the project didn't quite understand what was going on, but they did seem to think they were able to access only the mind of a recently deceased person during the last 8 minutes of his life - so maybe what happened when they did that actually involved time travel, they didn't send Colter to a different reality but to the past, where his actions created new timelines, but he'd still need a host who'd die in the near future?

    The other alternative of course gives one possible way for the sequel to go: Colter realizes that his choice murdered Sean Fentress and becomes guilt ridden with the knowledge. He is also doubled in this timeline, being both in the body of Fentress and in his own, damaged body in the castle.

    And he figures that everything has possibly already happened countless times, that there has to be several alternative universes where he is doubled and some innocent man died because of his actions.

    So he tries to get into contact with either Goodwin or his own alternative self in the castle in order to warn them not to make that same choice again - so that if Goodwin, once again, terminates his comatose self she does it only after his consciousness is back in that body.

    I'm feeling bad for both Fentress and Goodwin, by the way. He died, and nobody mourned him in the last timeline because nobody except Colter knew, and he didn't seem to give a damn (or maybe he just hadn't quite realize yet). Goodwin in the seed universe gave in to Colter's pleas, and presumably had at least her career, possibly her whole life ruined because of that - and again he didn't seem to give much thought to her fate. Colter did come out as bit of an asshole, here, even if his actions were understandable for somebody in his position.

  • Charles | June 23, 2011 11:37 AMReply

    I really enjoyed this movie; it is a hell of a movie Mr.Jones…..
    This is my interpretation of the movie,
    1) ok! first things first, the source code indeed creates alternate realities/parallel universe…....here is the proof, in the scene where Stevens finds the bomber and get shot, the time duration inside the source code exceeds 8 minutes, 8.34 minutes to be precise, this is a clear indication that source code indeed creates alternate reality….....now if u think it is a major plot hole coz Goodwin and Rutledge should have known if he is more than 8 minutes in source code. But in other sense, they both deliberately misinformed Stevens that it is only valid for 8 minutes to prevent Stevens from doing anything irrelevant to the mission. This proves that the only way Stevens will come back to the castle is that he have to die..
    2) At the end, when the scene is frozen, it is a psychological thing. Stevens think the source code will exists only 8 minutes, the frozen scene was just a manifestation of Stevens just like being in a capsule. But Stevens didn’t experience the same when he get shot which is clearly exceeds 8 minutes, this is coz his concentration was completely on finding the bomber and he didn’t notice the time, hence it is purely psychological.
    3) As for the ending is concerned, it is not a paradox, Stevens caught the bomber, make everyone happy in the train, saved the explosions, lived happily ever after(sort of). Stevens lives in Sean’s body with his consciousness and also he is also awaiting his first source code mission in beleaguered castle. But remember, even in lab, the narrative reality, Stevens brain is activated only artificially, so there won’t be a paradox like two consciousness in same world. Even if Stevens in lab sent to mission, it won’t affect Stevens in Sean’s body since the events which is going to happen in the future will not affect the present.
    4) In the meantime, they have created several parallel universe in which every time thousands of people died coz of train and Chicago explosions, except for the last time. The worst part is, in every parallel universe created, Stevens will be send in the source code to create several parallel universe again….......

  • Rolando Garcia | April 17, 2011 11:09 AMReply

    Great flick, great ending. I had the same thoughts about the fate of poor Sean when I left. In all fairness to Colter, he didn't really expect to live beyond those 8 minutes. So, assuming you agree with Jones' interpretation, Colter isn't exactly choosing between himself and Sean. He's choosing to save those people and let whatever happens to him when he's unplugged, happen. I also like your interpretation in which the alternate reality is created but in which Sean "leaps" back into his body at the 8 minute mark and everything Colter experiences after the freeze frame is his own afterlife.

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