Mapping Time Travel
By Daniel M. Kimmel
TIME TRAVEL CONTINUES to be one of the most popular themes in science fiction. One can easily find lists online recommending the time travel movies that one simply has to see, as well as those that you should avoid like the plague. However, most of these discussions take the concept of time travel at face value: through some device or process that may not be explained, one or more characters move from one time to another. Putting aside whether it’s even possible, that approach overlooks the fact that there is a logic to such stories which becomes clearer when one considers individual films and which of the different types of time travel plots they represent.
In George Pal’s adaptation of H. G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” (1960), Wells himself (Rod Taylor) goes into the far future to discover the peaceful, pleasure-seeking Eloi. For many the movie is a romantic adventures as we watch him fall for Weena (Yvette Mimieux) and then fight off the predatory Morlocks. But neither Pal nor Wells are really concerned with the fictional Eloi. The real point of the story is a warning for those of us in the present who might be tempted to focus on the path of self-gratification, ultimately becoming the pretty but vacuous Eloi. In the movie things have gotten so bad that Wells is able to turn a shelf of abandoned books into dust with a swipe of his hand, simply because education and preparing for potential problems are no longer of any concern. Just as movies about alien encounters inevitably tell us something about the people of our time, so too do time travel movies—wherever they may go—reflect on our present.
For the purposes of this essay, let’s posit four different types of time travel plotlines and see if the films that fall under each category share much in common. We can begin with the obvious: do the characters travel into the past or into the future? Films that travel into the past usually follow one of two agendas. The first one is that the past was a kinder “Golden Age.” Even if the past is flawed, as it lacks the benefits of modernity, it is a nostalgia trip reminding us of what has been lost. In “Somewhere in Time” (1980), a playwright (Christopher Reeve) goes into the past to meet and fall in love with a great actress (Jane Seymour). Woody Allen put a slight spin on the same thing in “Midnight in Paris” (2011), where a screenwriter (Owen Wilson) goes back to 1920s Paris and meets F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Luis Bunuel, and Ernest Hemingway. It’s a movie that is very much in the nostalgia camp except that Allen has the characters in the 1920s longing for the Paris of the late 19th century where, in turn, its denizens celebrate an even earlier time. It turns out that no one is satisfied with the era they’re in. Sometimes, as in the genial 1949 musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” the hero (Bing Crosby) brings the benefits and wisdom of the present into the past. In this case, the nostalgia is still there, but it can be improved upon.
At some point travel into the past ceases to be nostalgia and becomes dangerous. One of the most famous short stories in this regard, Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder,” was made into an incredibly awful 2005 film of the same name. In it, hunters travel back to prehistoric times to kill dinosaurs. When one of them goes off the proscribed path and kills something that was supposed to live, it has profound and horrific effects down through to our present. Another flop film was “Timeline” (2003), where archeology students go back to 14th century France to rescue their professor. The further back you go, the more the past ceases to be romantic and quaint. When audiences want to go to the past to vicariously enjoy another time, it’s not surprising that movies that rob them of that don’t succeed.
So what happens when our heros, instead, go to the future? As “The Time Machine” demonstrated, there’s no guarantee that the future will be any good. Usually movies set in the future don’t involve time travel, as with “Things to Come” (1936) or “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). Still, the future must be designed out of whole cloth, not just from old sets and past cliches, and there’s no guarantee of accuracy. “2001” is a masterpiece, but seeing logos for companies like Howard Johnson, Pan Am, and Bell Telephone we know that science fiction is no better than anything else in predicting the future. Usually when people travel into the future it is the basis of a cautionary tale, including not only “The Time Machine,” but also “Back to the Future, Part II” (1989), where Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) see a dystopian future and realize that only they have the power to go back in the past and prevent it from happening. Then there was the original “Planet of the Apes” (1968), where the big reveal is that astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston) hasn’t landed on some exotic planet where the apes are intelligent and the humans are dumb beasts but, in fact, he’s arrived in Earth’s future. When he comes across the remnants of the Statue of Liberty on a beach he realizes mankind had brought about its own doom. Yet, ironically, the message of such movies is hopeful in that the horrible future depicted has yet to arrive, so we’ve been given a warning that it’s not too late to change course.
Turning to the third kind of time travel film, we find that they are easier to make but can be more complicated in message. These are the movies where characters travel from other times to our own—the “present” of when the film was released. “Time After Time” (1979) has H. G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) chasing Jack the Ripper (David Warner) from 19th century London to 20th century San Francisco. Here the irony is that, to Wells, the future should bring about the betterment of mankind. “What have I done?” asks Wells, “I’ve turned that bloody maniac loose upon Utopia!” Later, when Wells tries to convince the murderer to return to their own time, Jack revels in 20th century violence, “We don’t belong here? On the contrary, Herbert. I belong here completely and utterly. I’m home.”
One advantage of making films where time travellers arrive in the present is that the art direction is simpler; the characters are from a different time; the locations may not require any special effects at all. In “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” (1986), Captain Kirk and his crew stand in Golden Gate Park (actually Los Angeles’ Will Rogers State Park doubling for the San Francisco location) where he has landed their spaceship, made invisible by a Klingon cloaking device. “Everyone remember where we parked,” he quips. Indeed, the film is filled with comments about our own “modern” times by these visitors from the future, with Scotty remarking on how “quaint” a computer keyboard is to Dr. McCoy’s reaction to a kidney patient on dialysis (“What is this? The Dark Ages?”)
Humor is also at play in “Happy Accidents” (2001), where Ruby (Marisa Tomei) learns that her new boyfriend Sam (Vincent D’Onofrio) claims not only to have come from the far future, but to have travelled to our present specifically to meet her. We get only hints at what life is like in his future world of 2470, as when Sam mentions that he’s from Dubuque, on the Atlantic coast of Iowa. Another character reveals that she, too, has relocated from the future, only she did it for “tax reasons.”
The dark side of travel from the future is evidenced in the “Terminator” series, starting with the 1984 original. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg has come back to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), a seemingly insignificant waitress. However, her son will one day lead humanity’s revolt against the machines that have taken over, so killing her should prevent him from being born.
The 1962 short by Chris Marker, “La Jetée,” which later inspired the 1995 “Twelve Monkeys,” both have the same ironic twist at the end. A character is sent from a post-apocalyptic future to our present in hopes of preventing some cataclysm from happening. In both films, the protagonist obsesses over having witnessed a public shooting (on a pier in the first film, at the airport in the second) as a young boy, only to learn it is his own murder that he has seen. The time travel element makes these films particularly dark as the supposedly wiser visitor from the future is unable to avert the present tragedy.
Movies like “The Terminator” and “Twelve Monkeys” suggest our fourth kind of time travel film: the paradox movie. If time travel is possible, what prevents someone from changing time to their own advantage? This is especially noticeable in the “time loop” movies in which a character experiences a period of time—usually a day or less—over and over again. The best known of these is the Bill Murray comedy “Groundhog Day” (1993). Phil (Murray) is a TV weatherman who finds himself trapped to repeat a single day. Once he realizes this, though, he starts to use it to his advantage. Because he is the only one conscious of past iterations of that single day he can bring forth what knowledge he acquires to the next version, whether it is to solve his romantic problems or learn how to play the piano.
Although “Source Code” (2011) and “Edge of Tomorrow” (2014) are far more serious, dealing with a terrorist bombing of a train in the first film and a war with alien invaders in the second, the films employ the same notion of accumulated knowledge. In “Source Code,” Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) has his consciousness transmitted to someone on a train where a bomb has been planted on board. On repeated trips back he learns things that eventually lead to him uncoverning the location of the bomb and the identity of the perpetrator. The even more ambitious “Edge of Tomorrow” plays the same way with Cage (Tom Cruise) finding that every time he dies in battle he resets to the start of his tour of duty. We eventually get an explanation as to why this is happening and why he can ultimately escape from the viscious cycle, but it becomes the key to his figuring out what it will take to defeat the invaders.
The closed time loop films can be entertaining but are self-limiting. Unfortunately a film has yet to be made of the late Ken Grimwood’s “Replay,” a 1986 novel in which the central character dies at his desk in his 40s and wakes up in his college dorm room with the next two decades of memories intact. Given that kind of playing field, the accumulated knowledge becomes one of several lifetimes. At one point, being a young man in the 1960s, he realizes he’s in a pre-AIDS world and lives a lifetime of hedonistic orgies. And then he dies and wakes up again and, having experienced that, no longer sees that as a path he wishes to pursue.
The polar opposite of the time loop movies are those where the protagonist experiences time in a non-linear fashion. Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks) in “Slaughterhouse-Five” (1972) and Henry DeTamble (Eric Bana) in “The Time Traveller’s Wife” (2009) have both become “unstuck in time,” to use the phrase from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, and live their lives out of order. Because neither has any real control over the situation, they tend to be reactive characters rather than dominating. Henry, for example, has met his future wife Claire (Rachel McAdams) many times as she’s growing up, and they fall in love. However, when he meets her for the first time on his own timeline he’s at a disadvantage because she already knows who he is and what their future will entail.
The true paradox films can be the most rewarding and the most challenging of the time travel genre, as they tackle head on the questions these other films dance around or avoid altogether. A case in point is “Looper” (2012), a movie that throws a lot of ideas up in the air but then never really engages with them. The premise is that a time travel device has been invented in 2072 and almost instantly outlawed, so the only ones who have it are an organized crime syndicate. Alarm bells should already be going off about narrative problems, but let’s let this one slide. Joe (Bruce Willis) is a contract killer for the 2072 mob which has a neat way of disposing of bodies: sending them back to 2042 to be killed. The premise is that the killers themselves eventually have to be killed to cover their tracks, but when Joe goes back to 2042, his younger self (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) doesn’t get the job done. “Looper” constantly avoids facing the paradoxes of its story, whether it’s the older Joe refusing to get into a discussion about it, or acknowledging that changes in one time frame can alter the future, and then ignoring the fact that the death of a character in 2042 should have changed everything we’ve already seen about 2072.
Although it’s usually the artier or more independent films that are willing to tackle the paradoxes inherent in time travel stories, it was exceptionally well done in the 1985 blockbuster hit “Back to the Future,” where Marty McFly goes back to the 1950s and meets his parents as teenagers. In an Oedipal twist, he finds his mother (Lea Thompson) falling for him instead of his geeky father (Crispin Glover). Despite the ickiness, it makes perfect sense in context, and the filmmakers resolve the problem this causes despite the years of Freudian analysis Marty is facing: if his parents don’t connect and get married, he and his siblings will never be born! One might point out that if Marty is never born, then his mother can’t fall for him in 1955—but the paradox prevails. It’s enough if he’s done something to prevent his parents from meeting, even if that causes his subsequent erasure from the timeline.
The nature of the paradox is that time travel violates our understanding of cause and effect. In “Arrival” (2016), aliens, who experience time not as a stream going in one direction but something that can be entered at any point, arrive on Earth. In learning the aliens’ language, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) begins to understand and experience time as they do. At one point she gets the private phone number of a foreign leader knowing that in her future but the linear past, being able to contact him on that phone will help avert a war. (People complaining about this plot point were clearly not science fiction fans and who seemed to be encountering the notion of time travel paradoxes for the first time.)
The number of films that truly engage potential paradoxes in time travel are few and play to limited, but appreciative, audiences. “Primer” (2004) was famously shot on a shoestring budget. Two friends perfect a time travel device but then have different ideas as to what should be done with it. Abe (David Sullivan) ultimately decides that messing around with time is not a good thing, breaking with Aaron (writer/director Shane Carruth), who sees new opportunities ahead. Carruth said he was fascinated by the concept of these two geniuses coming up with a time travel device and yet being ethical idiots. Their first thought is to get future information that will allow them to cash in back in the present. “Primer” posits that time travel would permit more than one version of a person to exist at a particular time, either a version from an earlier or later time, or a version created by the changes made in the timeline. The film leaves the ramifications of that discovery open-ended.
We have yet to see a movie version of David Gerrold’s classic “The Man Who Folded Himself” (1973) in which a character creates so many alternate realities he ends up having sex with both male and female versions of himself. But two other films face time travel paradoxes head on. The Spanish “Time Crimes” (2007) follows Héctor (Karra Elejalde) as he is looking for a quiet weekend with his wife at their new home. When she’s off to run an errand, he goes to explore the nearby woods where he discovers a body. Attacked and then chased by someone in a bloody pink mask, he ends up at a neighboring house where he is put in an experimental device that sends him back a few hours in time. Before long, there are three different versions of Héctor running around, his attacker turns out to be one of them, and he’s got to figure out how to untie the knot so he can end up back on his own timeline with his wife and without his alternate selves.
“Predestination” (2014), with Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook, is based on the Robert Heinlein short story “—All You Zombies—.” To explain the convoluted plot would be to give too much away. Ostensibly, it’s about a time travelling agent trying to prevent a bombing, but it soon involves kidnapping, shifts where characters may be more than they appear, and a conclusion that will either leave you with a headache or a satisfied sigh that someone rode the paradox theme to its logical end. Key to the story is that time travel permits a character to be in two (or more) places at once, meaning that almost anything is possible. And that may be the ultimate challenge for the paradox story: it requires viewers to pay close attention or else become hopelessly lost.
Time travel stories remain popular for a variety of reasons, but the more the story gets into the implications of what it would mean if it were actually possible, the more likely the movie will attract a limited audience. It’s a safe bet that the next popular time travel movie will be a comedy, a romance, or an adventure, and one that will reassure viewers that, whenever they see it, they’re already living in the best of all possible times.
Daniel M. Kimmel is a Boston-based film critic and author of the Hugo finalist “Jar Jar Binks Must Die ... and Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies” His latest novel is “Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel.”