Time travel in movies has broken out of its original niche as a specific branch of Science Fiction and become a respectable narrative device in different genres. This blog wonders whether this reflects something in our attitude to the world and our current society.
To be clear what we mean by time travel here: it is one specific interpretation that is being exploited, which could be summarized as 'another chance'. The pattern was first popularised in the public imagination in the 1980's by Back to the Future. Where earlier stories used time as a warning (The Time Machine being the obvious example), Zemeckis' story is wish fulfillment writ large and delivered with a panache that made it irresistible. It is escapism in its most literal sense: the facility to break out of the situation which constrains us and re-create the world to deliver our desires. Two things are important about this approach to the subject: first, that delivery and retrieval to the past are constrained; and second, that the present returned to can be changed from the one that was left. For an engaging narrative, these two things are vital and have become universal plot foundations.
Science Fiction has taken over from the Western in the cinema as the tool for delivering low brow mass entertainment action to the young masses. Like westerns there are a set of established rules that are generally accepted within sci fi movies, although they are arguably much looser. There are white hats and black hats and the white hats ultimately win - we would expect nothing less. What sci fi inherited from westerns is that nothing is without cost and this is where time travel becomes problematic. Back to the Future, in its complete trilogy, is a 'lesson learned' yarn, following a cocky naive young man through his adventures which teach him humility and the importance of family. The point is it matters what he does, there is a right and wrong thing to do and there are consequences if he gets it wrong.
Another pillar of the genre is Groundhog Day which again delivers escapism and the promise of seemingly endless chances to get it right, but still, like the video games that were becoming popular, to progress to the next level you do have to get it right in the end. Groundhog Day is not science fiction - there is no mechanism for the time travel and nothing physical is transported. You could treat the whole thing as a psychological condition within Phil Connors' head; he can only break the cycle by becoming cured and living the perfect day. Edge of Tomorrow, dubbed Groundhog D-Day, followed the exact same structure but somehow (and you really might not want to read the end of this paragraph unless you've seen it) seems to pay a disservice to the sacrifice of the real D Day veterans by letting them all get out of it unscathed. What was learned? How to cheat basically.
Away from the silver screen, Audrey Niffenegger's novel The Time Traveller's Wife (as well as a sub-plot in Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkhaban) offer a fatalist view of time travel, ie. without being able to change anything. And it is dark. Obviously too dark for mainstream cinema which failed to do any kind of justice to the breadth and depth of Niffenegger's story. The Harry Potter films remain a monolithic exception to the status quo - how much so is only becoming clear a decade on.
With the millennium moving from future to distant past, suddenly second chances are everywhere. The Men in Black franchise needed new life breathing into it: how about a back story, but attended by a current character? Why not? Reboot Star Trek: the fans won't like it - ah but this is having your cake and eating a doughnut at the same time. Time Travel means never having to choose which version you prefer. Same deal with X Men, wheel on the oldies but let the youngsters do the stunts. Hollywood has found the perfect tool to deliver to two generations at the same time without all those cringy 'nudge nudge wink wink' innuendos in family films that became so popular in the 90's: deliver them two generations of actors at the same time. Looper is Die Hard: The Next Generation as well as the last.
Meanwhile, away from superheroes and aliens, we have... vampires and werewolves. (spoiler again) the final battle scene in Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2 is presented as happening and then the protagonists have the chance to walk away. Woody Allen brought out Midnight in Paris, a kind of Nostalgia-ception: a golden age within a golden age within a golden age. The Butterfly Effect and Frequency continued the idea that once changed the past is a bugger to get back in its cage.
There's a sense of searching for a better today by learning lessons yesterday, as if it is already too late to learn them now. For the generations that grew up in the last half of the 20th century, the millennium was the event horizon and now that it's past, there is a longing to get another crack at it, as if history ended at that point and anything we do now is like clutching at straws when you're already drowning. Technology seems to offer a tantalizing taste of having more than one chance: once you wrote something down and it stayed written down, now you can re-record as often as you like. Once we had to suspend our disbelief on the narrative of a film but there was a clunky reality to objects and people, now everything is liquid, a kaleidoscope of colours and shapes that have no physical existence. We feel like our life is in need of post-production work to knock it into shape. The world, we try to convince ourselves, is a green screen waiting for us to project a better scene onto it.
Quantum mechanics has become practical science and like electricity or computers have done before, it appears to offer a panacea for all the world's ills. There seems something disjointed about seeing famines in a world of instant global communication, as if an outbreak of Scurvy laid low the crew of the Starship Enterprise. Perhaps the millennium that we dreamed of as children got interrupted when it was only half downloaded; after the wristwatch TV's, videophones and bionic limbs but before the hovercars, fusion power plants and food generators. People used to talk about future shock because everything was advancing so fast but now there's a frustration that the really stubborn stains just aren't shifting. We still sit in queues in transport machines that burn oil - surely that was last century? We're arguing about building a railway - surely it should have been built half a century ago?
It's true I am older now than ever before but I see a trickle of the same cynicism in younger people too. When they surface from their virtual universe, they tend to look at the news and ask "How did it come to this? Why did you let it carry on so long?" If it's this fucked up, they seem to say, maybe it would be better just to hit control alt delete and reboot the whole thing. 21st Century 2.0 Despite the fact that everything always goes wrong as soon as anybody jumps into the past in any movie, I'm quite sure that, given the chance, we just wouldn't be able to resist.