Source Code, and Why We Fight Terrorists

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November 26, 2012 by Devin

I’m not dead; I was just on vacation. I’m back with another post.

The hero fights back the enemy forces and nearly gets his prize. Suddenly, at the last minute, the villain reveals another trick up his sleeve. A bomb is set to go off that will blow up the entire world! Now, the hero has to stop the bomb, otherwise the whole world will be decimated.

This is a common tactic of screenwriters. They want to raise the stakes as high as they can go, so they put the fate of a city/country/world at stake. It is a cheap tactic. It is an arbitrary way to raise the stakes because there is no character or personality in it. Yes the audience cares about the world, but the audience cares more about individual people and characters. When this tactic is used badly, it is a crutch in lieu of making storylines with compelling conflicts (for example, Doctor Who is often bad about this). When used well, the audience does not need the world ending to be motivated to keep watching.

I recently watched the film, Source Code, a film that had been on my to-watch list for a while. What I found fascinating about this film was how it began with the standard terrorist plot about blowing up a city and then moved into the deeper relationships that built up the city that was in danger.

(I’ll try not to spoil too much, but I will be going into some of the themes and ideas from the ending)

The film plays off the ideas of two main characters: our protagonist, Captain Stevens (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), and Dr. Rutledge, played by Jeffrey Wright. Dr. Rutledge, the designer of the source code program, sees it as a program that saves lives, but he is more focused on the numbers the program produces rather than the people it saves. The machine itself dehumanizes Stevens in the same way it dehumanizes the people Stevens sees. The people in the source code program are nothing more than constructs to Dr. Rutledge, information that can be used and exploited for the sake of saving the city. He would sacrifice 1 to save 100 without question because, in his mind, he would not be sacrificing anything. At one point he mentions that he is looking forward to an attack that would use the source code program, even though such an attack would mean many lives lost.

However, Stevens approaches the situation from the more relational view. When he sees the people in the source code program, he sees them as people first and foremost. The crux of the film is not that Captain Stevens has 8 minutes to find the terrorist, but rather that Captain Stevens has 8 minutes left to explore and interact with the world. Yes, he spends much of his time in the program trying to figure out who is the terrorist, but he is also focused on the relationships–with the passengers, with his companion, with his father.

This is why finding the terrorist was not enough for Stevens. He needs to have the satisfying catharsis that comes from saving people and seeing their interactions. The movie ends not with the dramatic saving of the city, but with the simple enjoyment of people. It shows people as people, enjoying each other’s company and treating each other as decent human beings should.

It does not use the terrorist plotline as a crutch, but rather as a chance to explore humanity and how humans are more than just statistics. Source Code is not about preventing a terrorist attack; it is about why we would want to prevent a terrorist attack in the first place.

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