Time travel movies are notoriously hard things to get right. If it’s not the scientists critiquing a director’s use of references to the theory of relativity, it’s the disappointment of a movie resting on the laurels of the unimaginative line ‘it’s genetic’. Very rarely do we see a work of time-travelling cinematic arts so smart that it can a) be both logical and realistic, and b) remind us why time travel is not meant to be toyed with in the first place.
At its core, what makes or breaks a time travel film is in how well it handles the after-effects of the temporal relocations. Any old film can send someone back in time, but it is only the truly great ones that show us the consequences of this, and unbeknownst to us teach us something in the process. That what can start as good intentions; can also quickly spiral into something that causes more harm than good. We all remember what Hermione once said right? That awful things can happen to those who meddle with time. So, whilst we wait for the next greatest time travelling conundrum to grace our screens and mess with our minds, let’s take a look back at some of the many perils time travelling has produced, and the lessons we have learnt from them.
Firstly, before we can delve into the dangers that travelling in time may impose upon a character, we must first understand how such temporal shifts work. Namely the theory behind what changes or stays the same. The method doesn’t really matter, (it can pretty much be split into either a genetic predisposition, or a vague-on-the-details time-travelling machine that does all the work for you), what is really important is whether or not the future they leave, will be the same one they return to. This is because whatever theory a character is stuck with, will change the types of hazards they might encounter.
There are, as such, three major categories or different ‘timelines’ that are created when a character journeys temporally. Firstly there is the Fixed Timeline whereby the future is set, and changing something in the past only works to make sure that the future becomes what it always was. Thereby absolutely nothing a character does in the past can change what happens in their future. They almost needn’t bother trying. In the words of the late, great, Doris Day herself; “Que Sera Sera”. The second theory is instead referred to as the Dynamic Timeline, in which changing something in the past has a ripple effect on the future. If a character kills their younger self in that timeline, they are a goner. Or they wind up creating a paradox where they never existed to start with. Or the ripples start turning into tsunami waves and they end up rewriting history so that Hitler lives. Ok, maybe not the last one, but you get the picture. Lastly, there is the Multiverse / Altered Timeline. This is where each time travel results in the party shifting to a parallel universe, and anything they do simply rewrites the new timelines history. Jokes on them though, because they can’t return to their original timeline anyway, so it basically ends the same way a Dynamic Timeline does.
Ok? With me so far? Need to watch Looper (2012) one more time? Alright then, for those still following, now it’s time for the lighter stuff. The disastrous, deadly, and downright dumb things that can happen as a result of characters deciding to mess around with temporal relocation. The plot-points that remind us why time travel films just won’t go out of fashion. No pun intended.
Firstly there is the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. This is a peril that can befall those who enter a Fixed Timeline. Because the future they leave cannot be changed, no matter their actions they are still doomed to make it happen. Usually in films involving this danger, the menace is alluded to from the beginning, but is not fully realised until the very end. This is what makes such films enjoyable, providing a twist finale that is both smart, worthy, and thought-provoking. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) it is a rare good outcome, that we as an audience come to by way of well-scripted do-over that ends up saving two lives instead of one (then again were both lives not already saved all along?). In Twelve Monkeys (1995) however, the concept is a bad one, explored through James Cole’s reminiscence of a man who was shot in an airport, that later turned out to be the older version of himself. If we learn anything from this peril, it is that sometimes things are just meant to be. That, and it’s amazing how this hazard can still sneak up on us, despite seeing multiple films that feature it.
Another peril that can transpire from a Dynamic Timeline is that of a character Killing Oneself to Reset the Future. When an evil version of them is out for vengeance in the past, or they screw things up so much they can’t undo them, the only way out is to make it so they never existed to begin with. This can be handled one of two ways, the devilishly smart effort that is Looper (2012), or the lazily handled work that is The Butterfly Effect (2004). Where one teaches us that sometimes you must make necessary sacrifices for the greater good, and believe that hope is stronger than fear, the other tells us that if we weren’t an idiot this never would’ve really happened in the first place. One guess which film is which.
A unique peril that can feature in Any Timeline is that of Meeting Another Version Of Yourself. This can end in one of many possibilities, all of which are usually not good. Most notably there is the ‘unbecoming’ of a character, whereby coming across another version of oneself wipes both out for good. This is what occurs in Project Almanac (2015). The further the teenagers jump back in time, the greater the problems that ensue when they meet up with another version of themselves. Jump back a night and they can still snap out of it. Jump back weeks, or months, and both versions disappear until the timeline can be rewritten back to its original (i.e. making sure they don’t build the time machine in the first place.) Perhaps the only film that does make any good out of the situation is Star Trek (2009) and then, that is probably only because it features one way time travel, so old Spock is fundamentally different to new Spock, solely on the grounds that New Spock will experience everything differently. Although the concept is typically not slickly handled in films, and could certainly use some fine-tuning for future flicks, these films still teach us something important. That maybe there is only meant to be one of us at any given time for a reason. There is after all, something beautiful about the balance of nature.
Lastly, the final one is the most head-spinning of all. Only one movie has dared attempt it, and even then, we still don’t know exactly what happened after watching it a few dozen times. Occurring in a Fixed Timeline, or potentially a Dynamic Timeline too, is the peril of Becoming you own Parent, Grandparent or Child. Yes, I am talking about Predestination (2014), in which Ethan Hawke becomes Sarah Snook, who becomes Ethan Hawke, who becomes…ok, you get the picture. If a movie is ever going to do your head in, this is the one. Both the Barkeep and the Unmarried Mother are the same person. And their child is them as well. It’s just one big endless time loop, with the father impregnating the mother, who gives birth to daughter, who is stolen by father, who is dropped back in time to become the mother, who goes on to be impregnated, who then gives birth, and then has a sex change, which sees her become father, and the loop starts again. It’s about the weirdest and worst thing that can happen as a result of time travel, but it’s pulled off with such finesse in the film, that it never seems cheap. We certainly get consequences from this film, but lesson? Well…maybe it’s just the plain and simple don’t screw with time, or time will screw with you.
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