‘Source Code’ Ending Explained: Does the Terrorist Attack Ever Happen?

source code featured

If you’re a fan of psychological mystery thrillers with a hint of science fiction, I highly doubt you can ever find a better movie – and a bigger head-scratcher – to watch than Source Code. The 2011 movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Vera Farmiga tackles several sci-fi concepts, such as parallel universes, artificial intelligence, consciousness transfer, and much more.

If you watched Source Code and were left wondering, ‘what in the world did just happen?’ by the time the end credits rolled, don’t worry – you’re in the right place to get all the answers you need, simplified, and explained. Did the terrorist attack on the train ever happen? Is Colter Stevens dead or alive? Let’s dig in.

Source Code (2011): A brief synopsis

Before understanding the explanations and theories intertwined throughout Source Code, let’s quickly review the movie’s plot and basic information to set the stage.

Source Code (2011) is a psychological sci-fi mystery thriller with elements of action and drama. The movie stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Colter Stevens, Michelle Monaghan as Christina Warren, Vera Farmiga as Colleen Goodwin, and Jeffrey Wright as Dr. Rutledge.

source code wake up

Captain Colter Stevens is an army veteran who wakes up on a Chicago train one day. However, he has no idea how he got there, who he’s with, and what’s going on – even his face, that of another man, is unfamiliar to him. Suddenly, there’s a huge explosion, and Colter finds himself in a box of some sort with a monitor where Colleen Goodwin is speaking to him.

Eventually, we learn from Colleen that she is part of a secret government program that sends Colter’s consciousness into another person’s consciousness – that being the ‘another man’ whose face Colter saw as his own on the train. 


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Colleen explains to Stevens that there’s been a terrorist attack and that he has eight minutes on the train to figure out who the bomber is in order to prevent a second attack in Chicago. Colter is obviously, confused, as the last thing he remembers was piloting a helicopter in Afghanistan.

source code

Every time his consciousness is sent back in the train, and eight minutes pass, the explosion happens, and he is right back in the ‘box,’ talking to Colleen. Colter grows suspicious of the situation, and as soon as he’s sent back in, he uses a phone on the train to do research – realizing he actually died in Afghanistan.

Colleen and dr. Rutledge is keeping his body artificially alive, only to access his consciousness and have him help find the bomber before another terrorist attack strikes Chicago. That’s when Colter realizes the explosion has already happened, which is why he can access the man’s body on the train. This is where things get interesting.

How does the Source Code work?

Colter refuses to cooperate until Coleen and Rutledge explain how the source code works. Dr. Rutledge simplifies as much as possible, but the gist is clear.

They developed a program that uses residual brainwaves from a recently deceased person to recreate the last eight minutes of his life. The man on the train died, and so did Colter Stevens (at least his body is – they’re keeping his brain alive artificially).

source code train

When Stevens is sent back into the train, he relives the last eight minutes of the deceased man’s life, in which he can do anything as if he were in reality. 

The ‘box’ from which he is speaking to Colleen is also a simulation – an illusion made within the program for Colter’s consciousness to turn the program into a physical reality – something his brain could comprehend. He isn’t even speaking to Colleen physically – she’s actually looking at a screen, and his consciousness is nothing but words on her desktop screen.

source code screen

Colter accepts to go back into the simulation in exchange for them to let him actually die after he completes the mission – that wasn’t their plan in the beginning because, after they saw the program is actually working with him, they planned on using Colter for as many missions as possible, as his consciousness was now uploaded to the program.

Stevens goes back in and realizes he can even get out of the train if he chooses to, which almost collapses the entire program. That means that the Source Code might not work in a way that dr. Rutledge thinks. In fact, it might not be a simulation at all.


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Source Code ending explained – does the terrorist attack ever happen?

Near the end of the movie, Colter finds the perpetrator. The bomber is a man named Derek Frost, portrayed by Michael Arden. Stevens follows him off the train, catching him in a white van filled with explosives. As his eight minutes pass, he tells what he found out Colleen, and they successfully prevent Frost from detonating the van bomb in real life.

They call the mission a success and do what they promised – they shut Colter Stevens down, giving him a proper death. However, his findings within the Source Code gave him an idea, and he asks Colleen for one last favor – before she shuts him down, he asks her to plug him back into the program and back on the train.

She reluctantly agrees but sees no point in it. At that moment, Colter is sent back into the train and immediately finds Frost. He prevents him from blowing up the train as well and decides to take it all in and live every moment to the fullest – even kissing Christina, his only ally, every time he is on the train.

source code christine

The eight-minute mark passes, and the train doesn’t blow up. But, instead of his consciousness simply ending as his real-life body was shut down to die, the world goes on, and Colter remains inside. So, how is that possible? 

Does the terrorist attack ever happen?

So, the train doesn’t blow up, and instead of being pulled out of the Source Code to die, Colter stays inside with Christine. Does that mean Colter prevented the terrorist attack from ever happening?

Well, yes, and no. You see, this is where the actual main concept of the film takes its final form. Remember how Stevens realized he could get out of the train, even though he was told the entire thing was a simulation – a recreation of a person’s last eight minutes of their lives?

That is true, but that doesn’t make it a simulation. If it was merely a simulation, and a recreation, you could only do and see what that person saw in their last eight minutes, right? If the guy never left the train, then Colter wouldn’t be able to leave the train as well – but he could.

source code van

He could because it wasn’t just a simulation – every time the program was run, it created a branch, an alternate reality – a multiverse of sorts, you might say. Colter wasn’t just time-traveling in a simulation a few hours back. Every time he was sent back in, he was sent into an alternative version of reality created by the program.

Then, when Colter died in the explosion, his consciousness was sent back to the ‘box’ because it was still connected to his body in that particular reality – the one they consider ‘real life.’ 

When he prevented the bomb from going off on the train, and his consciousness wasn’t tethered to his now-deceased body in ‘his’ reality, he simply stayed within that alternate reality and became a part of it.


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So, the terrorist attack on the train happened in reality where he died in the helicopter crash and was used in the Source Code program, but he helped prevent the future attack planned by the same perpetrator with the white van filled with explosives.

In this new, alternate reality, the terrorist attack never happened, and Colter Stevens now lived on – his consciousness remaining in the body of the man from the train. It is all explained in Colter’s email to Colleen Stevens in this new reality. The email stated:

“At some point today, you’re gonna hear about a failed terrorist attack on a commuter train near Chicago. You and I kept that bomb from going off. An attempted bombing on a CCR train outside Chicago. But it was thwarted, and the suspect was found on board, named Derek Frost.”

source code email

At that point, Colleen checked to see if the words were true, confirmed the thwarted attack, and then continued reading the email:

“If you’re reading this e-mail, then Source Code works even better than you and Dr. Rutledge imagined. You thought you were creating eight minutes of a past event, but you’re not. You’ve created a whole new world. 

Goodwin, if I’m right, somewhere at the Source Code facility, you have a Captain Colter Stevens waiting to send on a mission. Promise me you’ll help him. And when you do, do me a favor. Tell him everything is gonna be okay.”

So, yeah, there you have it. The concept of a multiverse was cool even before the MCU made it cool.