Brian's Blog

…one man's contribution to the Weeeeerly Wild World

Source Code – is it time travel, or isn’t it?!


From the outset this film seems comparable to others and sci-fi TV shows that involve sending someone back in time to alter the past and prevent an atrocity from happening – take Quantum Leap as a key example. However, as this film progresses to its half-way point we learn that the main character, Stevens (played by Jake Gyllenhaal, and not Spiderman, aka Tobey Maguire as I originally thought!), is being sent back to the eight minutes prior a the bomb exploding on the train in Chicago, Illinois and that what happens throughout those eight minutes (and beyond) is “not real”.

This explanation is given by the lead scientist, Rutledge, in the film, the inventor of the Source Code project/system, and a know-it-all when it comes to quantum mechanics. Why he describes the time during those eight minutes we keep seeing as being “not real” yet an “alternate timeline” I do not know – generally the world of science fiction would describe it as an alternate/alternative reality, but perhaps this fact/possibility is intentionally lied about/avoided by Rutledge to keep Stevens from straying from his mission, and possibly screwing up the space time continuum or discovering something about “time travel”/the possibilities of the system that Rutledge wouldn’t want known by anyone else. The Wikipedia page for the film, in outlining the plot, states that Stevens does indeed experience”the last eight minutes of another compatible person’s life within an alternative timeline.” (my italics). Perhaps Rutledge simply means that the timeline is not real from his own perspective, and refers to the people there as only existing in “the source code” so as to distance himself, and Stevens, from the emotional truth of them being real, and saveable, people (although that timeline becomes real for Stevens when he lives on at the end of the film within that alternative timeline). Rutledge is keen for Stevens to remain focussed on his mission, because for him (Rutledge), there is only one “Continnum”/reality – Stevens’ “unsettling of the continnum” as it is referred to when he tries to use his time in the alternative time line to figure out what happened to himself prior to being placed on this mission, includes trying to contact Rutledge from the train, but that would obviously only achieve in contacting the Rutledge of that timeline, not the Rutledge he talks to from his ‘pod’.

“Source Code is not time travel, rather, Source Code is time reassignment. It gives us access to a parallel reality.”

However, with Stevens repeatedly returning to eight minutes prior to the bomb exploding/him returning to his own reality/timeline, I wonder if on each of those occasions he was entering different alternate realities, or returning to the same one (that of his host). This query is more significant when one refers to those time lines where his affects on the outcome are greatest (one should consider the “butterfly effect” in these situations). Furthermore, if Stevens was returning to the same timeline for each mission attempt, to claim, as I believe Rutledge did, that the process wasn’t a form of time travel, would be incorrect since Stevens would have been travelling back eight minutes in time on that timeline (and seemingly ‘jumping’ out of that timeline at the end of his eight minutes for a mission refresh/briefing/regrouping of thoughts – the time he didn’t get caught in the bomb explosion but instead got hit by a train at the end of his eight minutes was almost like the Final Destination films and is perhaps what spurred his comment about fate later in the film – when he got shot I wonder what might have happened if he hadn’t survived until the end of the eight minutes).

There are some links to The Matrix also in this film. Firstly, the point about “how you define ‘real’” is quoted by Morpheus and is relevant to Source Code. The concept of a Source Code, or ‘Matrix’ underpinning our reality (which may be artificial/not what it seems) indeed underpin both films. Both Neo and Stevens ‘wake up’ in ‘the real world’ in pods, although Stevens’ turns out to be a figment/manifestation of his imagination since he is actually in a coma and lacking some limbs (in hind-sight those ‘pod’ status warnings, referring to ‘core temperature’ for example, were actually referring to Stevens’ vital signs not the pod’s), having been there for a couple of months, whereas the idea in The Matrix is that we are actually all living our lives in a simulator/the Matrix, while our actual bodies are in pods (to provide a power source). And finally, the idea that a woman may be put into our simulation to distract us is something that Stevens ponders, and something that Neo experiences in a simulation as part of his training in the form of a woman in a red dress (damn those distractions!)

The idea that supposedly dead soldiers (or ones that are still alive but claimed to be on official missions) are put into un-documented tech-based missions is not a new concept for film/TV. I’ll leave you to ponder some examples.

I liked the reference to the human brain, or brains, being an organ capable of forming the reality around us (I think back to the sci-fi series Farscape and how John Crighton’s understanding of time was a key feature of the plot), that and the eight-minute rule (the symbol of 8 being that of infinity). I’m not sure what links there are with specifically eight minutes – 88mph was the critical speed for the Delorian in Back to the Future, but here there are certainly time limits according to medical science regarding how long the brain survives after ‘death’, but I doubt there is anything so specific – however, a time constraint is a popular tool within such genres, like “Seven Days” or the time limit used in Flatliners. In Source Code Rutledge explains that the brain’s “electro magnetic field remains charged just briefly, even after death … [and that the brain] contains a short-term memory tract that’s approximately eight minutes long…” I suppose they set their systems to deal with a fixed period of eight minutes, however, science states that short-term memory, or working memory, “is believed to be in the order of seconds”, not minutes [] and the capacity is probably better defined by the chunks of information it is capable of retaining (George Armitage Miller coined the concept of “Seven, Plus or Minus Two” as being the average limit for human short-term memory capacity), rather than the time-span of the retention.

Furthermore, a brain-forming reality is on the one hand a weird and wonderful concept for which I would suggest reading Science and the Akashic Field by Ervin Laszlo (which is featured in the pilot episode of A Town Called Eureka), but also on the other an indisputable part of how the world works – smile and the world smiles with you.


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