From the Bowie-spawn director of the genius debut film Moon (2009), Duncan Jones’ Source Code is the sort of movie I can really get my teeth into. A film that makes you think – and a sci-fi too! Jake Gyllenhaal is universally brilliant and the on-screen chemistry between his character and that of Michelle Monaghan (Gone Baby Gone) gives you something emotion to drape the plot around. There is little to fault about the rest of the performances – other than Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright, The Manchurian Candidate). Simple and effective in its cinematography and direction, we are transported into the confused existence of Captain Stevens (Gyllenhaal, Donnie Darko), a helicopter pilot who finds himself repeatedly transported into a simulated reality in order to prevent a terrorist attack in the future. Stevens spends his time between the simulation and a strange capsule as he tries to work out what the hell is going on – both on the train and with himself.
There’s not a whole lot more to say without giving to much away but needless to say the film is well paced, with revelations coming rapidly enough to keep you fixed in. It is at this point that this moves from being a review to a philosophical discussion – warning SPOILER ALERT!
As we find out, Stevens is in fact almost dead in an incubator and hooked up to a highly advanced simulator, using the last few minutes of Sean Fentress’ memory as the simulator basis. Sean, we discover, died in an explosion on a train and Stevens must use the simulation to discover who the bomber in order to prevent further tragedy. To cut a long story short, Stevens decides that if he can prevent the bomb detonation in the simulator whilst simultaneously ending his existence in the ‘real’ world, then he can transcend his death and live a new life in a parallel reality – and get the girl. And so he does.
So how does he pull this off? The ‘many worlds’ hypothesis seems the most obvious explanation. However, as he is not actually transporting himself to another point in space-time (it is a simulation rather than a deterministic branch caused by decision making), this does not work.
If this is so then, once Source Code is turned off and his ‘real’ body dies, he must be creating the alternate reality himself. The current understanding of science would suggest that once he dies and the code is turned off he should cease to exist. End of brain equals end of existence.
So we really need to go right out there to find a way for this to work. There is a way, but if you like known physical science, it isn’t comfortable. On the other hand, what is science fiction if it isn’t extrapolation and speculation. It’s about how well reasoned the speculation is that counts. Here we go then: For this to work, then the world of Source Code must be contingent on consciousness being the fundamental unit of reality. If matter is fundamental and consciousness derived, then Stevens’ new reality ceases as soon as either source code is turned off or Stevens dies in the real world. If consciousness is fundamental and matter derived (i.e. the matter world is ‘imagined’ into existence) then it would be possible for a consciousness to produce another reality.
There are issues with the description of how source code works (appeals to quantum physics and parabolic calculus notwithstanding) – for example, if the world is created from the last 8 minutes of Sean’s memory, then how is he able to interact with people outside of the train via cell phone? But that is irrelevant in the context of a thought experiment.
I suppose that it could be possible to simulate the entire outside world, but I think this is our first clue that Stevens is creating the new world/timeline.
There are other implications of the plot. If Stevens is able to cheat death by inserting himself into a newly created parallel world, then could he have inserted himself into a timeline using his own memory and carried on in an alternate version of his own life? And if that is the case, then surely this would abolish the concept of death entirely (think apotheosis in BSG spin-off Caprica)?
Furthermore, if consciousness truly is the fundamental unit of reality, then where does the consciousness come from in the first place? Given our almost null understanding of consciousness, it is not possible to answer this question and brings to mind the insoluble problem of hard solipsism (I can only prove my own existence, therefore I am the only entity that exists. It is thus probably meaningless to try to answer the question. On the other hand, it would be very useful to know which one is the fundamental unit of reality – as the movie demonstrates. And no, I can’t think of any reason why the immaterial-primacy position makes arguments for God any more convincing – excepting that one could become God oneself.