There's a moment in the new time travel movie Looper where Bruce Willis as Joe is explaining to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, also Joe (but wearing more makeup), just how time travel works. Joe tells Joe, "If we start talking about [time travel] now we'll be here all day making diagrams with straws." It's true, watching this movie has more twists and broken threads that watching it is like looking at a bowl of spaghetti. That, right there, is why I hate time travel, or at least the brand of convoluted cause and effect narrative structure that has been unleashed on the world of sci-fi and pop culture in recent entertainment. (Oh, and that bit about Looper above wasn't really a spoiler, but there are going to be some spoilers of that and other movies in this piece so if you're especially sensitive go back in time before you clicked on this link and don't click on it. Or hit the back button. Same deal.)
It's almost impossible to even talk about time travel. In Looper, there is Old Joe and Young Joe, and the real future and the fake future where something else happens, and an alternative timeline, and that space where these things occurred but then they didn't, and an erased future and a rewritten past, It is just enough to make the inside of your skull itch for about seven years, or maybe only seven seconds, since time doesn't really mean anything anymore.
I didn't always have this problem with time travel. HG Wells The Time Machine, the grandfather of the genre, was always one of my favorites as a teen. Maybe because of its simple logic, a Victoria man goes to the future, his time machine breaks and he is stuck there. No back and forth, no talk of the "time stream," no cause and effect, just a nice simple allegory of what life will be like if we continue to live in a strict class structure. Back to the Future, which I saw in the theater when I was knee high to a flux capacitor, wasn't nearly as high brow but was simple fun. Marty McFly goes back in time to when his mother and father met in high school and he has to make sure they still get together so that he and his siblings are born. The only complication was when his mother fell for him (gross!) and he and his siblings started to disappear in a photo.
Even in that movie, if you think about the plot for more than the duration of a Huey Lewis song, it starts to break down. When Marty tracks down the scientist who souped up a DeLorean to zip through time, does that mean he himself invent time travel by telling the past self of the professor that he is, actually, going to invent time travel? And does the future professor always know that he is going to meet a teen named Marty and have to send him back in time since he met Marty when he was a young man? And if Marty goes back to the past from the present and makes sure his parents got together, did he always get his parents together or is that something that happened only now once the present is the future and the past is the present and the future is uncertain? Trying to figure it out is like trying to take off your belt using only your mouth, something you could probably accomplish after much pain and difficulty but way too much work to really bother with.
Things have gotten even worse, from Lost bounding around from present to past to being stuck in 1972 to the complete insanity of the X-Men comics which now regularly feature at least three different characters from three different future time lines that may or may not exist anymore and all of them trying to prevent their future from happening (wouldn't that erase them altogether?) And none of these are ever suitably explained. The worst in recent memory, as far as I'm concerned, was the time-bending in JJ Abrams new version of Star Trek. In it Leonard Nimoy's Spock goes back in time with the bad guy who then destroys his home planet. He meets up with the old version of himself and his friends on the USS Enterprise to stop the baddie but gets stuck in what he considers the past. But now won't current Spock always know what is going to happen to him? What if, knowing that this bad guy will rope him back into the past in the future prevent him from getting close to the bad guy? Can't this all change? How is this even all possible.
Some say that this was done so that future Star Trek movies won't be cast into doubt because they are now operating in a "different timeline" than the original series, so they can never contradict themselves. I say: who cares! If you can't figure out that the Star Trek we are watching now is different from the Star Trek show then you are such an idiot that you won't be able to untangle all this E=MC Squared nonsense anyway. We know that James Bond has been played by different actors, but we don't ever need to explain why the guy's face changes, because we are intelligent adult humans and we know that, sometimes, a character can be played by more than one actor. We can also ascertain that the Star Trek movie can be different from the Star Trek show. The kind of quibbling fans who care so much about that integrity and continuity of the franchise are such a small percentage of your box office that trying to please them is a fool's game. Those who are going to make this a blockbuster don't care about this stuff. But to please the convention going, costume-wearing, Klingon-speaking few, the movie depends on some sort of half thought out time travel logic that will confuse more people than the answer soothes.
My other huge problem with time travel is that it is just lazy. Asking "why" is met with an answer that sounds right out of a Ryan Lochte interview, "It is different because time travel!" It just opens so many doors that don't deserve to be opened. If a movie (or show or comic or whatever) wants to prevent something from happening, just send someone back in time to stop it. If you want someone to have a change of heart, just send them to the future. If anything can be erased or changed or manipulated by time travel, it means that no action has an equal and opposite reaction. It means that nothing at all matters because it can all be changed by magic and never fully explained by something other than, "Oh, it's time travel." No wonder time travel makes people on Lost bleed from the nose, because I have the same reaction trying to make all this stuff make sense.
The logic behind turning back the clock is always a problem because not only is it something that the human mind isn't meant to comprehend, but so many movies don't even bother to fill in all the narrative gaps to make soaring through the ages seamless. The worst, by far, is Looper. Not only is there the scene between both Old and New Joe, but at one point Jeff Daniels, playing a mobster sent from the future, tells New Joe, "This time travel shit just fries your brain." He's right, and the movie is not at all interested in trying to explain its logic or trying to turn down the heat on the skillet that is currently frying the brain. This is your brain (shows an egg). This is your brain on time travel (cracks egg puts it in skillet). Any questions? Yes! I have a million questions. Answer them please.
It's not that I need some sort of linear narrative or simplistic storytelling. Everything from Roshomon to Memento to Inception proves that we can go back and forth between time and place to great effect and still have a coherent narrative. But most movie's aren't as concerned with making a closed structure that makes sense to the casual viewer instead just assuming that we're going to go along with these time travel whims accepting that they make sense when they bring up even more problems than they solve. As far as I'm concerned, time travel should have no future. Or is that the past? Or is that a different future? Who cares. Just stop it.
Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan
[Photo Credit: AP Photo; Paramount Pictures; Sony Pictures]
Joseph Gordon-Levitt on Why His 'Looper' Character Is and Isn't Bruce Willis
New 'Looper' One Sheet: The Problem with Time-Travel Assassination — POSTER
This review was originally printed as part of Hollywood.com's Comic-Con 2012 coverage
A reimagining of the 2000 AD label comic book that inspired Judge Dredd the 1994 Sylvester Stallone action flick that took sci-fi wackiness to new heights Dredd scales back on the futuristic elements and puts an emphasis on the brutality in store for the Judge's criminal victims. In this not-so-distant world a Judge has the power to decide your fate right upon capture — and usually the sentence involves some type of ammunition being fired into the offender's skull. Dredd is a grimy smoldering relentless 90 minutes that manages to inject its in-your-face fight scenes with an unexpected bit of humanity. Shocking considering the buckets of blood spilled during Judge Dredd's warpath which begins from his very first appearance.
This time around Dredd is played by Karl Urban a chiseled beast of a dude who balances the machismo with a healthy dose of one-liner comedy. A great central hero. To investigate a series of murders connected to one of Mega City 1's most notorious crime figureheads Dredd is partnered with an exact opposite: Cassandra (Olivia Thirlby) a new recruit who makes up for her lack of killer instinct with a mutant psychic power. She may not have the throat-ripping capabilities of Dredd but once this girl gets in a baddie's head it's over. Dredd is wary of his new sidekick potential — even more so when the challenge they face reveals itself. Cooped up at the top of a 120+ story building is Ma-Ma (Lena Hedley) whose operation will soon put a new drug — dubbed "Slo-Mo" — in the hands of every Mega City 1 citizen. To stop her Dredd and Cassandra must slay her goons as they ascend the skyscraper. Simple premise lots of bloodshed.
Unlike this year's The Raid which took a similar approach to the non-stop antics of a martial arts film Dredd opts for the slow burn approach. Director Pete Travis (Vantage Point) wants us to take a big whiff of every musky apartment in Ma-Ma's "Peach Trees" tower; he wants us to feel every drip of sweat that trickles down Dredd's stubble while the law enforcer waits patiently to attack; he wants us to feel the complete stop of time when the Slo-Mo drug kicks in and even droplets of suddy bath water hang in the air from a splash; and he wants us to feel like we're in the front seat of a Gallagher show when Dredd fires an explosive bullet into the mouth of a henchman and watches the head explode into bits (all in clear and crisp 3D). Dredd is near-fetishistic in its approach to gore – I found myself mouth agape making audible "EEEEEEEEAAAAH" sounds throughout the film — but plays well to the lead character's ferocious nature.
The hyper-style doesn't end with Dredd's unique array of finishing moves either; Cassandra's telepathy is a weapon of the senses that Travis mines for every flashy montage sequence he can squeeze out of it. In one sequence Cassandra uncovers an important clue by subjecting one of Ma-Ma's assailants to mental torture a terrifying whirlwind of imagery of saturated nightmares (if you've ever watched Saw after scarfing down an undercooked burrito you know what I mean). Travis amps "MTV editing" in these sequences an assault to the senses that's just as purposefully grating as the gritty fight sequences.
What makes the whole thing worth watching are the film's two leads. Urban has the thankless task of playing Dredd under the Judge's signature mask — someone obviously forgot to tell the police force of the future that the eyes are the windows to the soul. Urban makes up for it with a spectrum of snarls and a voice that sends chills down the spine. He also knows his way around comedy timing (as evidenced by his equally-impressive performance as Bones in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek) delivering kitschy zingers that click with Dredd's rough and tough world. The yin to his yang Cassandra could have been another helpless female costar who steps in with magical powers when the time is right but Thirlby is the real heart and soul of Dredd breathing compassion into a dimly lit situation and reflecting the grey morality of the entire Judge program. Why are people cool with cops coming in and blowing them away when they see fit? Why is that the new definition of heroism? The script by Alex Garland (28 Days Later Never Let Me Go) is smart to ask those questions and Cassandra is the perfect proxy. Thirlby as adorable as she is plays the gal fierce a sensible kind of Judge that can live side by side with Dredd.
There are a lot of people who won't be able to stomach Dredd partly for the level of violence partly for the consistency and pace of how that violence is unleashed. The small scale and singular location of the action don't allow Dredd to keep the surprises coming. After awhile watching human heads splatter like water balloons becomes taxing and unenjoyable (which some psychologists may say should have been the case in the first place). Hedley does a decent job of making her psychotic Ma-Ma into a wicked villain who deserves her due but without a fleshed out cause and bigger picture implications it's hard to care. Her squad of faceless men are more like punching bags then characters. But over-the-top mayhem has its place and when accompanied by a badass like Dredd and a pumping electronica score it's hard not to cheer when the Judge lays down the gruesome law. Dredd isn't a great film but it's a great Comic-Con film — one worth catching at midnight and screaming your lungs out all in good absurd fun.
Parodies are a dying art. I hate to say it — because I love them so much — but over the last few years the unrelenting hacks known as Friedberg and Seltzer have systematically killed the art form with their brainless pop culture-stroking disguised as commentary. I remember the good ole’ days of Abrams and Zucker (prior to their Scary Movie entanglements) when parodies where funny precisely because they established their own voice and didn’t use the material they were lampooning as a crutch. Airplane! mercilessly mocked the bizarre run of airport disaster movies in the '70s but it also transcended easy jokes and script aping. Today thanks to inexplicable box office validation an entire generation now thinks that the “Random celebrity what are you doing here?” gag is the appropriate formula for parody.
Kick-Ass is going to put a giant boot in the face of that mentality. It is a pitch-perfect send-up of everything that is characteristic of superhero films. It is versed enough to cite convention but clever enough to find the humor in the genre’s absurdity. And the biggest advantage Kick-Ass has in the parody department is that it is unrelentingly entertaining. It seems that in the last few years terrible parodies have made undeserved fortunes at the box office while better-crafted entries have gone largely unseen. Kick-Ass on the other hand has all the necessary components to clean up at the box office and be well deserving of its success.
The performances in the film are all top notch. Nicolas Cage showcases yet again how he can make his personal lunacy work very effectively under the right conditions. The overly Leave It To Beaver dialogue he and his daughter exchange prior to assuming their crime-fighting alter egos is charmingly silly and if you don’t get a kick out of his channeling of Adam West from the 60’s Batman series when he is in the suit I highly suggest a humor implant immediately. Aaron Johnson in the title role plays the lovable loser to perfection. He brings a lot of heart to the character that drives the emotional crux of the film. And as much as Christopher Mintz-Plasse is the most recognizable young actor in the film it’s Chloe Moretz as Hit Girl who totally McLovins the film; stealing every scene she’s in. The personality comedic timing and ruthlessness that she brings to this character demonstrate a talent level well in advance of her age.
In terms of the treatment of the teenaged characters in the film this script is tantamount to something written by the late great John Hughes in so much as the teens are allowed to speak honestly and in their own limited vocabulary without the pretense of wit. I think teen comedies are improving dramatically of late but the obsession with making teens pithy wordsmiths baffles me to no end and I’m glad they were allowed to just be vulgar. And my God this thing is vulgar…and violent to boot. We get to watch an 11 year-old drop f-bombs and stab thugs in the forebrain. I mean come on the movie is called Kick-Ass for a reason and while it is a comedy the action sequences are unstoppably exhilarating.
A smart somewhat genre subversive parody Kick-Ass is also action-packed and entertaining enough to stand on its own two legs as a film and not just a lampoon. The costumes the music the fight choreography all work in harmony to bring us a blockbuster superhero film that is legitimately humorous in both its homages and honest characterizations. Do not miss this film.