I’ve finally come to terms with the movie Sourcecode. But at first, I hated it.
The premise is that scientists have built a machine that can:
1) extract remnants of memory from a person’s brain and 2) allow a 2nd person’s consciousness to then enter those memories and experience them firsthand.
They then use this machine to have someone enter the memory of a person present at a train bombing, so that he can find the culprit and stop the next crime.
The ridiculous premise bothered me more than it probably should have, because it seemed like the movie had tried to come up with a reasonable scientific explanation but had failed miserably.
If the main character were entering a person’s extracted memory, then once he deviated even slightly from the original experience, the memory should have turned hazy, become broken, or disappeared entirely. The fact that he was able to change the outcome within the memory suggests either that he was projecting his own self-conscious upon the memory, in which case the outcome is fabricated and therefore useless, or that the experience was not actually a memory but was in fact a separate world/timeline.
They actually touch upon the latter possibility and show scientists wondering if maybe that is what’s happening, but the idea that scientists had tried to create a memory playback machine and had accidentally made a parallel dimension generator is ludicrous. The movie’s presentation of this alternate explanation made me reject the possibility immediately.
But that is actually the far more interesting explanation. Consider that the scientists had intended to create a parallel dimension generator, and had succeeded. They needed memory remnants taken from someone’s brain to specify the junction point in our dimension’s timeline, and the machine can then branch off space-time at that point to create a separate timeline. Further, they are able to inject a person’s consciousness into the new timeline, and when he dies in that other timeline, his consciousness jumps back (the last point is iffy, but I’m willing to let that slide).
Now, the movie becomes a rich philosophical discussion about the value of life, and what you can consider to be a soul.
The scientists are aware that they are creating a new branch of space-time every time they use the machine. Every time a train blows up, that train’s passengers die. We now have the moral dilemma of how much value to place on those lives. They might merely be reflections of persons in our timeline, but they act, think, and feel individually and thus may very well have their own souls.
The main character, then, would need to be fed a false explanation about how this is a “memory-entering machine” and that nothing he does in the memory matters. Each time the subject enters the “memory” he is actually creating a new branch in space-time and is killing another train’s worth of passengers, but he must not find out about this. Only by doing this can they have him achieve results without regard for the consequences of his actions.
Perhaps the movie intended to present this idea all along, but I think they did a poor job if that is the case. Everybody in the movie knows that the machine is just playing back a memory, and so the main characters actions, however heroic and emotionally rich as they may be, are just the result of him not being able to think rationally and understand their explanation of what the machine actually does.
What the movie needed was a single scene, wherein it is revealed to the viewer that the scientists are aware they are branching off new dimensions, and that are outright lying to the main character.
Each time the scientists reassure the main character and convince him to try again, we see the moral dilemma that they are facing. They know that they are creating lives only to kill them repeatedly. Yet they must hide this knowledge and show a calm face because success of the mission is paramount. Each time they see the main character’s efforts to connect to people in the alternate timeline, they understand the meaning that this has but must discourage him and tell him that his actions are unproductive.
However, it seems the main character has some intuition that something’s not right with their explanation. He shows an irrational care for the people in the scene he enters, and treats each as an actual person rather than as a shadow of one. The scientists try all they can to remind him that they are just memories of people who have already died, but he is not convinced.
Perhaps instinctively, he shows a strong need to leave some trace of himself from within the timeline he enters. He tries to reach out to his father and improve his relationship with him, and he attempts to contact the government agency to say that the experiment was a success, leaving some trace of his efforts behind. If what he is entering is fact a separate timeline, then his actions have meaning, and shows his innate human need to have some trace of his life remain.
The addition of that single scene would add so much to the movie’s scope of philosophical exploration, and turn the movie into much more than a simple action thriller.