Friday, July 18, 2014

You Want Some Relish With Your Paradox? 5 Time-Travel Movies (And One Television Show) To Blow Your Mind

THERE ARE PLENTY OF THINGS in this world that I like. I’m pretty happy I live in a world where I have the opportunity to pursue those things with as much depth as humanity as a whole can provide.

I mean, I love astronomy, cosmology, the history of space-travel… and I have access to the cumulative knowledge of our species at my fingertips. As much as  like to complain about our impending doom, there’s some awesome stuff out there to keep me entertained in the interim.

So, one of the things I like is Time-Travel. It’s got a bit of a weird rep in Science Fiction communities because there are some who declare that going backwards in time is purely fantasy, and any ‘machine’ that gets built to transport someone backwards in time runs on fairy dust and wishful thinking.

Me, I think people who get hung up on the lack of plausibility are missing the point. Time-Travel stories are amazing to me because they are opportunities to explore some paradoxical ideas. I think they are fun to think about. Even if I’m not the best at thinking through ALL the possible repercussions, I still get my entertainment value out of it.

I mean, if I did travel back in time and accidently kill my mother before I was conceived. I don’t think I would have much to worry about. Since I never existed, then I never got to travel back in time, never killed my mother, and therefore am okay… up until I travel back in time and accidently kill her again.

Which is fine, because that just means I cease to exist, and can’t kill her, therefore everyone lives.

And so on and so forth.

That explains why I was never that concerned about Marty McFly in the first Back to the Future movie, as soon as he gets erased from reality, everything will go back to being fine.

But sometimes, in either movies, or books, some of those paradoxes get explored in interesting ways. And in celebration of the IWM anthology that was released recently. I thought it might be nice to point out a few of the more interesting, but perhaps less popular, time-travel stories, that deal with some of the weirdness of time-travel.

Timecrimes: A Spanish film about a man who witnesses some strange things at the lab near his home. Goes to investigate, and ends up sending himself back in time so much that he’s got versions of himself running all over the place on the same day.

The narrative of the movie reinforces that idea that time is, more or less, immutable, so you can go back and do as much crazy stuff as you want, you aren’t going to change anything, because that’s the way it happened the first time.

My take – it’s an interesting movie, but the main character has to behave in some pretty hard to understand ways as he travels back in time in order for the movie to play out logically. Think of this as a purely Calvinistic view of time-travel.

Primer: A story about a group of young entrepreneurs that build a time-machine, which I think goes back about 6 hours. They then witness their entire lives fall apart as they deal with some of the more bizarre aspects of time-travel.

My Take – a VERY interesting look at time-travel, but nearly incomprehensibly complicated. One reviewer of the film said 'If you say you understood in upon a single viewing, you're lying.' And I have to confess that I'm on the opinion that repeated viewings must be necessary to begin to understand this. However, I have only seen it once. I can honestly say that I couldn’t make sense of what I’d witnessed. So I'm taking it on faith that it makes sense. It’s been praised as being one of the most clever time-travel movies ever made, but I’d warn any would-be viewer: It’s hard to follow.

Futurama: Roswell That Ends Well: An episode of the very clever Sci-fi animated show created by Matt Groening (Of The Simpsons fame) where Fry and the gang travel back 1940’s era earth.

My Take – one of my favorite episodes of the show, even if it isn’t the only Time-Travel episode (or the one with the most interesting time-traveling concepts). Not to spoil anything, but there are some intriguing run-ins with some of Fry’s ancestors. Fun to watch and at least nominally mind bending. This is a tad spoilery, but it does involve the consequences of messing around with the lives of your ancestors. 

12 Monkeys: Bruce Willis believes he's been sent into the past to discover the origin of the mysterious virus that destroyed most of humanity. Also, time-travel makes people go a bit bonkers. 

My Take - One of the better movies on this list, but also very intriguing because of it's take on the immutability of time. A side note that Brad Pitt plays crazy just a little too well. 

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure: A couple of good-for-nothing-wannabe-rockstar kids are, apparently, destined to be be the saviors of humanity, as long as they can pass their history exam. So future society sends them a personal time-machine so they can be sure to do very well on their exam. Hilarity ensues.

My Take - Probably the movie that I obsessed over the most as a young adult that wasn't a carry over from my childhood (Star Wars, Raiders, etc.). One of the actual paradoxical t
hings this handled so well, that was touched on a least a little in the Back to the Future movies, but not really, was the fact that a time-machine can fix all your problems. 

For example, Ted's father can't find his keys. Hasn't been able to find them throughout the whole movie. During the climax, our young heroes desperately need those keys most urgently. They decide that after they get out of the mess they are in, they will take their time-machine, travel back in time to a point that Ted's father wasn't missing his keys, steal them, then hide them right beside the spot they are currently in. Say, right behind that small bush that they're standing next to. They agree that's a good idea, then reach into the bush and there are the keys. 

This made such an impression on me that I decided that there are a few key moments in my life that, should I ever have access to a time-machine and have the opportunity to communicate with my younger self, that then and there are my assigned times and places to make contact. 

The Butterfly Effect: The guy from That 70's Show is an unwilling time-traveller. He blacks out and reappears in the body of his younger self from time to time. He tries to undo the mistakes he feels like he made during critical times of his life, but those unintended consequences tend to make his older self quite unhappy. This movie has kind of a dark tone.

My Take - I like that it was a darker look at time-travel. But what this movie did that not many others do, is demonstrate that changing the past is possible. And with each jump back in time, our young hero typically screws things up. Of course, the less obvious message (i.e., my interpretation of the movie's subtext) of the movie is that the universe has dictated that if he is ever with the woman he loves, things will be disastrous. So who says Hollywood demands happy endings?

I hope everyone has had a chance to run out and pick up a copy of the very FIRST ANNUAL IWM ANTHOLOGY (The Time-Travel Edition). Still a great bargain at $3.99 over on Amazon


  1. Bill & Ted is most excellent. Though I always wondered if they actually did go back and do all the stuff they said they'd do. I mean they weren't all that bright. I suppose if they didn't then Rufus or someone would probably do it for them.

    I watched that Primer movie and it really doesn't make much sense. I haven't watched it again, nor do I feel like obsessing about it.

    That Futurama episode and the DS9 episode where Quark and company go back to Roswell are both hilarious takes on that event. I'm not sure which one I'd say is better.

  2. I saw Primer and I'm not sure I totally "got it," but like PT, I didn't want to rewatch it. I liked it, though. I've also seen the Futurama, Butterfly Effect and some of the others.

    I love time travel stories. Except for Looper, which actually makes me PHYSICALLY ANGRY to think about. I don't know why. I've never even seen it, and I can't imagine that I will because honestly I want to punch that movie right in the face for existing.

  3. I see what you did with that tag!

    I think the only one of these I've seen is Bill and Ted, but I don't remember that moment. (It's been a long time since I've seen it.) Sounds like a very handy use for time travel.

    If I may put in a shameless plug for my own work, there's a scene in Twinned Universes where the main characters have traveled back to 1980 and end up watching a movie about time travel (Somewhere in Time). They choose that one so they can laugh at how time travel is portrayed in the movie.

  4. I see what you did with the tag.

    The only one of these I've seen is Bill and Ted. I don't remember that particular scene, but that is a handy way to use time travel.

    In Twinned Universes, the main characters go back to 1980 and watch Somewhere in Time so they can laugh about how the movie gets time travel wrong.

  5. I liked 12 Monkeys. It's been a long time since I've seen it, but I remember liking it quite a bit, actually. I agree with you about Pitt.
    And I own both Bill & Ted's, so... yeah.
    I can't believe you left off Back to the Future.

    I haven't seen the others, though, now, I want to see Primer.
    I tend to not be crazy about time travel stuff, at least not "serious" time travel stuff.

    Just to say it, I'm in the "you can't change the past" camp. If it happened, it happened.
    And, if you could change it, you wouldn't know, anyway, since your memory would instantly change to whatever new thing happened.

  6. @Pat - that would be hilariously funny if they were too lazy to actually go back and do all that stuff they were supposed to. I used to wander about the presentation they put on at their high school, all those lights, sound system stuff, the expensive musical equipment, podiums and props... that almost had to be Rufus. No way they could pull that off. They couldn't even be bothered to learn their instruments.

    @Briane - I briefly thought about making every example Looper, you know, because it's so awesome. But I decided to look for less popular movies. Hence it's exclusion.

    @Sandra - If I recall that movie, Superman just wishes really hard he was in 1910 or something, right? It works, until he later finds a penny from the future and he goes back to the present. I dunno, seems legit to me.

    @Andrew - I wanted less popular films. I almost included it anyway, because Doc Brown explains the whole multi-worlds interpretation of time-travel, which allows for changes (and to keep your memories, I suppose). If time-travel were possible (going backwards) that's the version I'd but my bet on that might be right.

    If you see Primer, well, I hope you like it. I wouldn't have cared that I didn't get it if I'd enjoyed it more. But I'm almost wanted to watch it again (it's been like, 7 or 8 years since I've seen it) and figure out if it's as incomprehensible as I thought it was the first time.

  7. 12 MONKEYS was great--Brad Pitt may be a little bit crazy, but he actually studied for the role in a psych ward. There was a clinician working with him on the characterization of the character. There's a really good documentary about the making of the movie on the DVD. I think I may have seen that doc more times than I'd seen the actual movie.

  8. 12 Monkeys is one of my favorite movies, and yes, Pitt played crazy really well. Bill and Ted was entertaining at the time. I haven't watched it since, but remember it fondly. Haven't seen the others. Another interesting one is Freejack, well the book the movie was based on was better than the movie, but that's usually the case.

  9. When I first saw Primer I totally didn't get it until halfway through. Then I couldn't get enough. Great list.