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]