This editorial contains spoilers for Source Code. Consider yourself warned, and consider yourself given another excuse to go see the movie.
You’re waiting for a train, a train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you, but you don’t know for sure. But it doesn’t matter. How can it not matter to you where that train will take you?
Because that train is going to explode, killing everyone on it.
In fact, that train has already exploded, but you’re waiting to board it in a very peculiar way. You’re Colter Stevens from Source Code, and you have a ticket in your pocket because a man who was on the train earlier in the day (when it blew sky high) has a ticket in his pocket. Your mind is inside the short term memory of a dead man.
Source Code plays around with identity philosophy in at least three key ways, and it seems directly influenced by the story of a man who loses his head in order to play hero. Hold on tight to your brain, and let’s try to find Colter.
Where Am I?
In Daniel Dennett’s usual conversational tone, he takes his essay “Where Am I?” as an excuse to relate a top secret story about the time the government asked him to go on the dangerous mission of retrieving a nuclear warhead that’s accidentally (oops!) been stuck in the ground somewhere below Tulsa, Oklahoma. In order to maintain perfect safety on this suicide mission, Dennet’s brain is removed from his body, placed in a vat, and hooked up with some serious, wireless hardware. He now has a detachable brain that sits safely in the vat while he ventures down to save the day (to his body’s certain doom).
Dennett is instantly confused when he sees his brain in the vat because he thinks of himself as staring at his own brain (instead of thinking of himself as floating in a vat, staring at his body). To alleviate confusion, he names his brain Yorick and his body Hamlet.
As an audience, we should be similarly confused about Colter Stevens because he’s also just a brain (and half a body) in a chamber. Unlike Dennett’s pretend foray into national security, Stevens will never come face to face with his brain because 1) his brain (Yorick) and remaining body haven’t been separated and 2) his active body (Hamlet) seems to be in another plane of existence. Two other planes of existence in fact.
His brain’s electrical impulses have been embedded into a program that allows him to feel like he’s in a metal communication box. When he’s on the mission, those impulses are embedded into the short term memory of another person.
So where is Stevens? Is he cut off at the rib cage in a metal box? Is he full aware in his communication pod? Is he on a train perpetually about to explode? At the end of the film, is he truly in a different version of our world where the train never exploded and he has taken over the life of Sean Fentress?
If you asked to point to Colter Stevens, it would be a little tough.
Here I Am
There are three quick and dirty realities that could have sprung up from the science being fictionalized in Duncan Jones’s film.
- Colter Stevens is now a complete new person.
- Colter Stevens is Colter Stevens even if he doesn’t look like it.
- Colter Stevens is a non-existent entity.
It’s tempting to choose the first option because it gets rid of a ton of questions regarding where Colter and his permanent five o’clock shadow are hiding. If the being we watch throughout the movie isn’t actually Colter (let’s call him Ersatz Colter for fun), then the initial question is pointless. Unfortunately, a giant host of new problems arises. Specifically – if this isn’t Colter Stevens, how does he have the memories, resemblance and personality of Colter Stevens? To put it simply: if that’s not Colter Stevens, why does he act and appear so much like Colter Stevens?
That’s where the second option comes into play. Let’s admit that our hero is still our hero even though he’s been transplanted into a different body (which happens to be the body projected by the sense memory of a dead man). It’s like The Change-Up. Jason Bateman is still Jason Bateman, even though he looks like Ryan Reynolds.
The only problem with this is that it doesn’t make any sense. It’s simple enough to say that Stevens is still himself, successfully transplanted from one decaying human casing into another, but it’s difficult to apply this to the common sense test. If someone looked at Sean Fentress (at the end of the film), they would have thought he was Sean Fentress. In fact, that’s exactly what Christina does. She believes that this man she’s flirted with for a while, whom she’s on the cusp of starting a relationship with, has grown a pair and taken some initiative. What she doesn’t know is that there’s another man lurking around in Sean’s skin. Sean Fentress is literally a new man.
So maybe Colter is Colter, but he’s just very good at pretending to be Sean. On the other hand, we see that even in this strange, possibly parallel universe, Colter Stevens’s body still remains in the scientific facility where they’re desperate to find an application for their new toy. If Sean Fentress were to walk into the room and see Colter Steven’s body, we’d be in real trouble all over again.
It would be a situation where Sean Fentress knew he was Colter Stevens, even though Colter Stevens was right in front of him. This gets at the heart of whether or not we define a person by their physical attributes or something beyond them. We can claim that an essence of sorts has been taken from Colter and placed into the body of Sean (which explains why Sean is acting so damned much like Colter), but it still causes some problems that don’t make sense logically (especially if you’re about to embark on a relationship with Colter/Sean).
The third is an extreme position, but it makes the most sense at the basic level. Sean Fentress is dead. So is Colter Stevens. Neither of them exist anymore. Colter Stevens is Schrodinger’s Human. He’s certainly not alive, but yet we watch him take down a terrorist and walk around in a disturbingly life-like way. This trait of being non-existent (or somewhere between existence) is most apparent when he jumps into that parallel dimension (or causes its existence). At that moment, there are at least three Colters: Colter A is the body on the slab, Colter B is the mind that they can send into someone else’s memory, Colter C is the one hanging out in Sean Fentress and preparing for a sexy night with Christina.
What would happen if they torched Colter A? Colter B would be toast, but is Colter C somehow safe because he’s hidden inside Sean Fentress? Or would Sean Fentress drop dead on the spot?
In Dennett’s piece, he humorously sets up a situation where he’s created a switch that he can flip to allow his other self to take over (after a personality-copying disaster of Laurel and Hardy-esque proportions). If they tossed Colter A into a furnace, would Sean Fentress instantly take his body back over? Wouldn’t he be pissed? Is he in there somewhere watching Colter make it to second base with the co-worker he has a crush on?
What Have We Learned?
What we’re dealing with in Source Code is the trouble that comes with body projection. It’s the same problem in The Matrix where a person’s body can be comfortably plugged in on a ship somewhere in the “real world” while a highly, highly realistic version of that body (realistic enough to trick the mind controlling it) is out swimming in a sea of code somewhere. Colter makes the scenario even more confusing by jumping the tracks and switching bodies completely (again, the same problem Jason Bateman has).
The script from Ben Ripley and the subsequent film from Duncan Jones is left purposefully nebulous. It’s soft science fiction, after all. Thus, we won’t ever have any real answers to these questions. At the end of the train ride, it’s still impossible to point to Colter Stevens and know for sure that it’s him (and only him).
What other problems or solutions can you come up with?