This month, FILMS:COOL is getting temporal. We’re going to look forward to the past that hasn’t happened yet.
Stop looking at me all pop-eyed; I’m talking about Rian Johnson‘s third feature, Looper, which opens in September. This is/was/will be a film about a time travelling hit man, both of him. And there’s nothing wrong with that sentence or that premise.
I’ll explain, but slowly, so untwist your knickers and grab a handful of jujubes, preferably in that order.
Since I first heard about Looper, I’ve had dreams of it kicking modern sci-fi ass. I think it has the potential to be as interesting and visceral as District 9 and as meaty and potent as Children of Men. That’s not an easy bar to vault over, so I’m not laying bets—just being optimistic.
If fate doesn’t smile upon us, I guess we’ll just have to go back in time and look forward to a different movie.
Rian Johnson has done right by us so far, though. I absolutely loved his first feature, Brick. His second, The Brothers Bloom, didn’t make me as smitten as Brick, but only because its plot machinations were incredibly ambitious. I left the theater doing scratch math on how and when its characters managed to execute the craftier elements of the intricate con game plot. Was it possible? Was it logical? Could Rachel Weisz be any cuter in that scene on the bridge? The answer to that last question is no. I’m still up in the air on questions 1 and 2.
I mention this because a mouthful of slippery plot strands indicates trouble for Looper. If you think a long con is hard to handle, consider what happens if you start the flimflam after the gig is over but before it starts.
That’s right. Time travel is a seriously big bowl of sticky spaghetti, plot wise.
The original trailer for Looper introduces us to the basics. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gets his temporally liberated assassin’s sights unwittingly set on an older version of himself (played by Bruce Willis). As they say in the classics, “ruh-roh.”
As Jeff Daniels notes in the above trailer, “This time travel crap fries your brain like an egg.”
Many, many, many films have tackled this subject and most haven’t been worth revisiting. They may make sense once—in standard time—but when we go back to watch them again, we find them compromised or dependent on loopholes. We do not like compromises or loopholes. They’re signs of insincerity. We demand rigorous films.
Rigorous films, however, can be challenging to parse. They almost have to be. An easy answer to a tough question is probably bullshit, after all.
Therefore, in order to keep our brains from frying like an egg when we watch Looper next month, we’re going to soak up some of the most neatly handled examples of time travel films together.
First, however, we need to get our bearings. There are a few relatively sensible ways one can imagine the principles of time travel working:
1. Everything is Written
In the most basic type of time travel scenario, everything that ever has or ever will happen is unalterable. You cannot alter the past or the future because everything happens just once. If you travel back in time you cannot change anything in the future because you were always/already in the past and made those changes the first time around.
If you went back a week and bought a winning lottery ticket for yourself, not only would you have found that lottery ticket already but you would have no choice but to travel back in time and leave it for yourself because you already found it. Please feel free to do this for me sometime.
2. The Butterfly Effect
In this type of scenario, as in Ray Bradbury’s short story, The Sound of Thunder (1952), there is a malleable timeline. Anything that happens has always happened, but only from the point of the view of the present. When chrononauts alter history by, for example, stepping on a butterfly in prehistoric times, those changes resound in the future via a ripple effect. You cannot go back in time and kill your own grandfather because doing so would negate your own existence and then you couldn’t have gone back in time. Doing so anyway would create a paradox and that’s just not cool.
In Butterfly Effect-style stories, you can change the future by altering the past, but this quickly gets messy. Any minor change in the past would be practically equivalent to killing your grandfather, since it would alter the future to some degree—and that would keep you from acting/existing exactly as you must have done to return to the past in precisely the same circumstances.
Many films fudge this and we roll our eyes and try to ignore it. They put people in similar situations so they’d be likely to behave in the same manner they had previously/later in the future but we know that’s not how life works. Life is chaotic. Change one thing and everything is called into question.
One of the main loopholes used to avoid paradoxes like these is dubious. It blends the Butterfly Effect version of time travel with the one I’ll discuss in a second. Using this loophole, if you change the past, the future you came from “ceases to exist” and a new future is created. What happens to all the other people living in the old future is never spoken of. They probably all get put to sleep by the space vets.
Old future rights! When do we want them? I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter!
Butterfly Effect time travel was handled sloppily but amusingly in Back to the Future. Marty McFly disturbs the interactions between his father and mother, imperiling his future birth. He becomes literally transparent until he can set his parents back up again. When he goes back to the future, it’s a different future than the one he left.
3. Many Worlds Interpretation
In this type of scenario, originally posited by physicist Hugh Everett, there are an infinite number of timelines/universes. Each quantum event—as suggested by the Schroedinger’s Cat thought experiment—creates multiple universes, one in which each possible outcome of that event occurs. All options exist simultaneously in alternate universes.
In an MWI envisioning of time travel, you can go back in time and kill your grandfather because doing so would shunt you into a different universe than the one you departed from (as would any action)(and this is not dissimilar from what happens to Marty McFly). Assuming you can return forward in time to a universe remotely similar to the one you departed from, nothing would appear changed. That’s because the changes you made happened in another universe. So you aren’t just traveling in time, you’re also travelling dimensionally.
As nutty as this sounds, it’s actually a reasonably well-regarded hypothesis that ties into string theory, etc. I recommend looking into it further if you’re curious or confused or confused about being curious. While I like the MWI hypothesis, it doesn’t make for a fascinating sci-fi movie plot. That’s because a character’s actions basically have no meaning. Action without reaction is the antithesis of drama. An MWI story can, however, make for good comedy. Remember Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure? Kidnapping historical figures and bringing them to San Dimas High and then returning them back to their era did not change anything. It also did not make a lot of sense.
Time for Looper
These conceptions of time travel are important as they help us assess how Looper will likely navigate its intertemporal plotting.
Is it a given—for example—that the older version of the hit man, played by Bruce Willis, knows exactly what will happen to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, because he remembers it happening? If we’re talking about Everything is Written time travel, then yes. If he can recreate the actions he long ago witnessed his future-self making (and he must) then he won’t (can’t) disrupt his version of reality. That can make for an interesting story. Presumably, the younger version of the hit man will also realize/learn at some point that he must prepare to do exactly what the older version is doing in due time; he must, essentially, trust himself.
If we add the Butterfly Effect loophole, then the above scenario still holds, but becomes more complicated; instead of having no choice but to perform the actions as written, the characters need to try to recreate actions from memory/plan or they will end up in a changed, and potentially worse, future. In the most obviously crappy deviation, the older hit man (Bruce Willis) gets himself killed by his younger self, creating a time loop in which this always happens. Joseph Gordon-Levitt never grows older than Bruce Willis because he always commits multi-party suicide. He may or may not get to marry Demi Moore. I think that part is optional.
I can’t say I’m enthusiastic about using loopholes. Perhaps Johnson will be able to justify it, however. We’ll see.
If we’re talking about MWI time travel, then things get even trickier and, I believe, less interesting. There are no time loops because anything that could happen does happen, just in alternate universes. Bruce Willis can try to steer Joseph Gordon-Levitt towards the future/present he knows, but it doesn’t really matter as he will certainly both succeed and fail. Probably. I don’t know. I’m not a time traveler.
Whether or not an MWI scenario can maintain any tension will depend on whether or not the chrononauts realize they are bifurcating universes through their actions. If they do, boring. If they don’t, more interesting, exponentially more confusing, and potentially very unsatisfying.
Is your brain eggy-fried yet?
It’s also worth mentioning that all this applies mostly to travel backwards in time as far as standard human consciousness is concerned. If the future is written or unwritten, we have no awareness of it and so we cannot know if we’re changing it or not. Yet. Maybe.
I’ll Be Back
There’s also another interesting wrinkle when you’re dealing with temporal hanky-panky. Let’s take the Terminator as an example. As soon as Skynet sends the Terminator back in time from 2029 in the first film and the world does not instantly change as a result, it knows one of three things:
- The Terminator failed in its mission, which may mean there is only one sacrosanct timeline. If that’s true, there’s absolutely no point to T2: Judgement Day to say nothing of the shittier sequels.
- The Terminator succeeded in its mission but because there is only one malleable timeline, Skynet is now in some weird orphaned strand of time that has separated from the universe and is doomed for cancellation any second now. Yep. Just wait for it. The entire universe they inhabit is going to blip out right about… now!
- The Terminator succeeded, but Dr. Everett was correct. Ergo sending time traveling hit cyborgs to kill John Connor may help other universes but not the one the cyborg left from.
Right. So. Yes. Still here? Hello? I may have digressed a bit. Anyway.
Watch These Films Already
There are a few movie that manage to make the headache of time travel worthwhile as a plot device. After you drink a large whiskey and tell me all the ways I’ve been incorrect above, let’s watch three of them and see if we can see through time together.
In order of complexity, they are:
12 Monkeys / La Jeteé
While Chris Marker’s La Jeteé (1962) predates Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995), that’s hardly relevant since we’re talking about time travel. They essentially tell the same story, so watching one will “spoil” the other. Marker’s version is the leaner original, done as photomontage with voiceover narration. Gilliam’s is a traditional feature film. Even though Marker’s version came first, I recommend watching it second—and you can do so online easily. Gilliam adds color to Marker’s ideas and that makes 12 Monkeys more immersive and accessible. La Jeteé is also only half an hour long.
Both these films tell the story of a time traveler who attempts, under orders, to alter the present by influencing the past. 12 Monkeys features Brad Pitt at his best, as a mental patient, and Bruce Willis as the reluctant chrononaut. The story handles the threat of time travel paradox adroitly and disturbingly. I’ve been meaning to re-watch this one for a while and this is my chance.
Timecrimes (Los Cronocrimenes)
Igancio “Nacho” Vigalando’s Los Cronocrimenes takes a can of time travel carbonation, shakes it up, and pops it open. While it isn’t perfectly handled, it’s a great example of what one can look for and find when they’re watching time travel films with a critical eye. Los Cronocrimenes does not mess around when it comes to chronological complications—and that’s the fun of it. This is another film that asks and answers the question of whether the present can be changed by monkeying with the past. Whether or not it comes down on the side of the butterflies, you’ll have to see for yourself. Vigalando plays the scientist, so watch for him.
(I’ve got Vigalando’s second feature, Extraterrestrial, on my coffee table ready to watch. Expect a pithy review soon.)
I think most people will need a dose of Ritalin after watching Primer. This picture is seriously confusing. If you’ve seen it, you’re probably still scratching your head and drawing complicated flow charts on napkins. The thing is, when you’re done smashing your head into a wall, you will either realize that writer, director, actor, and software engineer Shane Carruth totally lined up his ducks or you’ll pass out from concussive shock. Or both. Does the level of logical detail make the film better or worse than Los Cronocrimenes or 12 Monkeys? I’m not sure. I like all of these films and am eager to watch them all again.
Carruth has been quiet since Primer‘s 2004 release, but he’s got two films in pre-production now. In reference to one of them, A Topiary, Rian Johnson says on Twitter: “to all who asked: Shane is alive and well and has a mind-blowing sci-fi script. Let’s all pray to the movie-gods that he gets it made soon.” So start your praying.
Regardless of how you feel about these three films (and you’ll like them if you know what’s good for you), they should get your brain acclimated to the pressures Looper will present. Think of them as inoculation against fried egg syndrome.
Watch them. Tell us what you think. And we’ll see you two weeks ago to continue our preparation for the release of Looper.