Source Code in Plato’s Cave

Disclaimer: This is more of a review than Source Code deserves.

I watched Source Code last night in the best way possible for that film: free streaming from Amazon. I’m glad I didn’t spend any money to see it in the theater or gas to get there. It has a glaringly implausible story line, a zero-chemistry “romance”, straight-out-of-the-box characters, and a twist you saw coming after the first minute of the film. I think script development took a day and involved a lot of cut and paste. On the plus side, I would love it if my Metra rail car was like the one in the movie. I’d even take conductors with handcuffs on their belts though I’m a bit concerned about giving them a gun protected by such ineffective locks.

So why bother with a review if the movie was so cookie cutter? Not so much because of the film making but more because of the social and (accidental) philosophical commentary contained in the tissue paper thin script. For starters, it used to be that the military-industrial complex were the people with the evil motives in films like this. James Cameron’s Avatar is a ham-handed, overwrought example. In Source Code, only the civilian side of the duo has the greedy and evil motivations; Captain Goodwin is clearly bothered by the experiment and does the right thing in the end against her civilian bosses orders. That’s a twist. Perhaps it is a reflection of our American communal guilt over how we treated the Vietnam vets when they returned. Hate the mission, love the soldier. And yet, it doesn’t really absolve the military. The Source Code project is housed at Nellis AFB so the unnamed military leadership who don’t appear in the film are still in cahoots. Hate the mission and leadership but love the solider, I guess. Political correctness didn’t go away, it just got more nuanced.

And don’t think for a moment that this film isn’t packed with political correctness. As Jake Gyllenhaal’s Captain Stevens is trying to find the terrorist who blew up the train, the first person he goes after is darker skinned, perhaps of Indian descent. Jake’s girlfriend on the train even utters “racial profiling now” as he investigates the man. And, as in 2006’s Deja Vu starring Denzel Washington, the terrorist is a white guy. Now, that isn’t too far-fetched, Timothy McVeigh was a white terrorist. At the same time, statistically the biggest terrorist threat to America doesn’t come from domestic terrorists. Still, if you commit that to film you’re reinforcing a stereotype not of terrorists but what the person on the screen looks like who plays the terrorist. Subtle but strong.


Having mentioned Deja Vu, I can’t help but use that film as a foil for this film’s twist at the end. In Deja Vu, the cockamamie premise was that scientists had opened a wormhole near the earth that would let them look back in time 4 ½ days. Washington decides to climb through that wormhole and saves the beautiful murder victim he’s been watching and has fallen in love with. In Source Code, the rescue takes place only in Gyllenhaal’s mind and yet the twist at the end is that his actions actually changed the course of history. He actually saved the people on the train even though the scientist who created Source Code insists that isn’t possible.

Take a moment to digest the commentary on reality presented in each of these films. Deja Vu is a time travel thriller yet it insists that reality exists beyond us. Washington has to physically move back in time to save the girl. Gyllenhaal’s mind is linked to the last 8 minutes of memory of a dead man from the train, yet when he successfully finds and defuses the bomb, reality is changed. For Source Code, reality exists in the mind.

Keep in mind (eh, sorry, no pun intended) that I don’t believe the screenplay writers thought that hard about this. I think they just came up with what they thought would be a cool twist on a summer popcorn munching action movie. Recall my comments at the beginning about the apparent writing method. Yet, intentional or not, this does make a comment about reality. It can’t not. When we tell stories we talk about reality at some level. If the story is chaotic and incoherent, we present reality as chaotic and incoherent. If the heroes fight against the chaos, the commentary is that reality should be ordered. If reality can be changed by someone’s mind, then reality is presented as figment of our imaginations and we’re actually stuck in Plato’s cave with no way of knowing true reality.

I’m going to wax a bit philosophical for a moment. Source Code’s presentation of reality is unsatisfying and ultimately inconsistent. If reality only exists in the mind, why is it Jake Gyllenhaal’s mind that it exists in and not Captain Goodwin’s or Dr. Rutledge’s?  Or is it that we never actually left Plato’s cave and the twist at the end only exists in Gyllenhaal’s mind too; in reality the train did explode and all those people did die. To compound the problem, how can we hope to figure it out? I mean, beyond the fact that after Gyllenhaal’s eight minutes are up Goodwin pulls the plug and he dies. This inconsistency most likely comes from the hack and slash screen writing and not from an intentional commentary on reality.

Okay, it is just a lame movie, but it raises questions about reality. How can we know ultimate reality? We exist in it but the post-modern mindset of doubt demands that we can’t actually know it. Well, that is, beyond the reality of being certain that we can’t know reality. Stop asking those kinds of questions and just doubt like the rest of us. In the end, we can know reality because reality exists beyond our doubting minds and has revealed itself to us. God is ultimate reality and he isn’t content to let us wallow in doubt. He speaks. He acts. He comes and dies and rises. And in this speaking and acting, he confronts our doubts about reality. Reality isn’t the shadows of a puppet show on the wall of a cave nor is it a lie we must overcome because even in those scenarios there is a puppet master and someone who told the lie. There is a reality beyond the reality we fumble with and it has interacted with us. And if it has then we know, at the very least, something of that reality. Plato knew the puppet show wasn’t real and that reality exists outside the cave. Buddha knew that things weren’t right and looked for what was.

In the end we come back to a riff on Descartes, “I doubt therefore I am.” If there is someone to doubt reality exists, then there must really be someone to do the doubting. So if I am doubting, then I exist. Even if I’m just a brain in a vat (which Gyllenhaal’s character essentially is) then there really exists a brain and there really exists a vat. There is a reality beyond me and I can hope to understand it and interact with it. This is the way out of Plato’s cave, just follow the footprint Descartes left in the sand. What is finally portrayed in Source Code was not a way out of the cave, but the notion that we can control the shadows on the wall with our minds. There is no way out of the cave but if we follow the Disney gospel and just believe in ourselves, we can change reality as it is.

If that’s the case, make up your legs and walk out of the vat.

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