Sunday, November 22, 2015

In defense of time-travel stories

There are film critics who, whenever they review a movie about time travel, rehearse the antinomies of retrocausation. This was a weakness of Roger Ebert. But that's a mistake. We need to be more discriminating when it comes to the genre.

i) Time travel that doesn't change the past is coherent. Likewise, if a person traveled into the future and stayed there, that would be coherent.

But changing the past is incoherent. By the same token, traveling into the future, then returning to the present, creates the same problems. Even if the traveler didn't intend to change his own time, by returning to the present with advance knowledge, that will affect his actions in many subtle ways. He behaves differently than before he took that trip. His very presence changes the status quo, because his present-day actions are now informed by foreknowledge. 

Problem is, the impossible time-travel scenarios are the very scenarios we most enjoy. So we have a choice: would you rather have time travel stories or not have time travel stories? If you enjoy the genre, then stop bitching about the antinomies. That's the price you pay for the genre. 

If a character was simply a detached observer, then time travel would be coherent. But we prefer stories in which the character interacts with his environment. That's because the character is a stand-in for the reader or viewer. He vicariously takes us to times and places where we'd like to go. We experience it through his eyes, ears, and feet. 

That goes to the limitations as well as the distinctive appeal of the genre. Can't have one without the other. 

ii) This is part of the willing suspension of belief. We do that all the time with movies we watch. Why be so picky about time travel films? 

We don't demand that stories be realistic. We like unrealistic stories. The imagination can take us places where we can't go in real life. That's what makes it appealing. 

iii) Given the genre, just about every film about time travel will suffer from this paradox. Unless you hate the genre, there's no point attacking every example of the genre. For that "flaw" will be present in just about every specimen. It can't be eliminated without eliminating the genre. So we should discriminate between good examples and bad examples of the genre. 

That doesn't mean time travel stories are above criticism. That doesn't mean they are equally good. It depends on how well or badly the theme is handled. 

iv) In general, I think it works best if the story takes the possibility of time travel for granted, without explaining it. Just like an author doesn't stop to detail the metaphysical machinery of magic when he tells a story about wizards. Rather, that's just a given. If you can't accept that on its own terms, read a different kind of story. Same thing with fire-breathing dragons. We really don't want a biological theory. 

I've seen movies that make the mistake of offering a scientific explanation for vampires. But it's more plausible when they are viewed as occult creatures. 

v) There are philosophers and physicists who labor to elude the antinomies of time travel. If a director or screenwriter offers a philosophically serious explanation, I think we should give him credit, even if theory can't withstand scrutiny. I'd cut him some slack. At least he respected the intelligence of the audience. 

However, even that can be a problem. For instance, there's a scene in Minority Report where a character "resolves" the dilemma with an object lesson:

Anderton picks up a wooden ball and rolls it toward Witwer, who catches it before it lands on the ground. When asked why he caught the ball, Witwer says "Because it was going to fall." Anderton replies, "But it didn't." Then confidently tells him, "The fact that you prevented it from happening doesn't change the fact that it was going to happen."

But the problem with that illustration is that it freezes the attention of the audience. A thoughtful viewer will keep pondering the validity of the illustration long after that scene. He's mentally stuck on that scene. The story continues, but his mind is back on that scene. So it's distracting. 

A good director doesn't want the audience to keep thinking about that scene, to keep puzzling over that illustration. He wants the plot to move forward, and the viewer to move in tandem.

vi) Where directors come in for deserved criticism is when the film gives a half-baked explanation for time travel. I've never understood the mentality of SF directors who spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a film, but can't budget for a decent screenwriter. 

Sometimes they come up with a "scientific" theory of time travel that's pure poppycock. It's just a lazy, throwaway explanation. No attempt to be scientifically or philosophically plausible. 

Plot holes and continuity errors are often due to slipshod writing. The director or screenwriter made no effort to be consistent. They take no pride in craftsmanship. It's just about making a quick buck. Another forgettable film. 

vii) But in an open-ended TV series or movie franchise, plot holes and continuity problems may be due to the fact that the director or screenwriter didn't or couldn't think that far ahead. They had no idea the film would be a blockbuster, so they didn't plan for a sequel. They don't know how many seasons the series will run for, so they can't anticipate where the story will go. Plot holes and continuity errors that happen for that reason are more excusable. 

In a movie or miniseries, that's avoidable because it's all written ahead of time. However, improvisation can have its own benefits, even if it generates inconcinnities. 

For instance, Chris Carter did a lot of improvising in The X-Files. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. But he had lots of interesting ideas, so the creative momentum of one unforeseen development sparking another opened up many good fresh storylines. He didn't know where-all he was headed when he began, but in the right hands, that's an artistic stimulus. 

In addition, discontinuity errors can be deliberate. A new director or screenwriter may think the original idea was bad to begin with, so he scraps it and strikes out in a new direction. Or maybe he thought the original idea was good, but exhausted its dramatic potential. 


  1. Time travel is fun to think about and toy with. I think sometimes directors and writers take themselves too seriously. The high-speed-cryosleep-gone-awry space/time travel flicks are fun. That's usually an example of traveling to the future and staying there. Planet of the Apes.

    Ironically I mostly enjoy the Terminator franchise. It's a guilty pleasure.

    I generally dislike the black-hole-as-wormhole time travel storylines. The recent movie using this mechanism starring Matthew McConaughey was basically total crap.

  2. I happened to like Interstellar, but I wouldn't classify that as a time travel movie so much as space exploration. Time travel was the reveal of the movie, not the centerpiece.

    I really like movies that revolve around time travel, when done right. Primer is probably the most thought-provoking time travel movie I've seen. Predestination was interesting, albeit more for the gotcha moments than anything else. Stein's Gate handled the genre well for an anime. Will probably watch Timecrimes soon.

    1. What's great about Primer is that the debates that go on in its interpretation can't have a definitive answer. Predestination was well executed. By 1/3 of the movie I knew it was a big screen adaptation of Heinlein's famous story. But it was still an enjoyable to watch even though I knew the ending. Timecrimes seemed to me to be a low budget film, but well executed. But for Sci Fi fans like me who have seen dozens and dozens of time travel movies or TV episodes its underwelming. Though, still good for the emotional impact. In some ways it's similar to Triangle (which I recommend as well).

    2. There are still websites out there where people post comments discussing and debating what really happened in Primer. I knew or suspected the TWIST of Predestination by 1/3 of the movie, but the ENDING itself doesn't match Heinlein's famous story [which I won't name lest I ruin the movie for others]. Good ending IMO. It's one of Ethan Hawke's better movies along with Gattaca and Daybreakers [vampire movie].

      Timecrimes shows that a good sci fi movie doesn't absolutely require a million dollar budget or lots of special effects.

    3. Both Triangle and Timecrimes are very cool little lowbudget time travel flicks. Primer definitely set the bar for intellectual time travel flicks but is also very talky (Carruth's followup Upstream Color was similarly challenging, but had a more straightforward narrative) - but it's generally considered a classic in the genre now and I believe was only made for like 8k dollars. I'd also add Looper and 12 Monkeys to your list. And for TV shows, I'd add Lost - that was one of the few shows to nail a coherent time travel plot where everything that happened, happened - and spent a whole season on it rather than the isolated one or two-parter episodes star trek or other well-written shows did (star trek TNG finale All Good Things was probably the best time travel episode out of all the series)

    4. Looper was alright, though some people think Bruce Willis "phoned it in." That he went through the motions just for the paycheck. I've seen 12 Monkeys a few times and I never could understand why the movie is so popular as a time travel movie. It's strength is it's vision of dystopian future society. I suspect its popularity is mostly grounded in the fact that Brad Pitt stars in it.

  3. No one will ever top Hot Tub Time Machine. The film's explanation for time travel is highly sophisticated as well. I didn't quite follow it, but it had something to do with microscopic organisms living symbiotically with its host, viz. midi-chronians.

    1. For those who don't know, the time machine in Back to the Future was originally supposed to be a refrigerator. Fortunately, they changed it to a DeLorean. Believe it or not, the refrigerator concept eventually made it into Indiana Jones 4. Which ended up being the most ridiculed part of the movie.

    2. Annoyed Pinoy -- you are correct on that. In fact, I saw a recent interview with one of the writers who made a comment along the lines of, "When I saw that in Indiana Jones, I thought, 'Wasn't that the idea we rejected because it was stupid?'"

  4. I LOVE time travel movies. The following are just a random sample of my favorites. Though, technically some aren't really time travel movies. Or even if they are, time travel isn't the centerpiece (as Ryan said above).

    Time After Time (with Malcolm McDowell, Mary Steenburgen, David Warner)
    [HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Go watch this movie if you haven't already! You won't be disappointed]


    Mr. Nobody [highly recommended]

    Scrooged (with Bill Murray) [funny adaptation of A Christmas Carol]

    Groundhog Day (with Bill Murray) [the classic "repeat a day" movie]

    17 Again [ a kind of "Peggy Sue Got Married" for guys]
    Peggy Sue Got Married [ a kind of "17 Again" for gals]

    About Time [great for the emotional connection between father and son, and husband and wife]

    Time Time Traveler's Wife

    The Butterfly Effect

    Freejack [intriguing sci fi concept for immortality. Plus who doesn't want to see a movie with Mick Jagger, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo? It's Emilio Estevez's most memorable movie in my mind.]

    Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel

    The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey [odd movie that's not really a time travel movie]

    Paycheck [I enjoyed this movie because I wasn't expecting it to be a sort of time travel movie. I suppose adding it to this list will ruin the surprise for some. But it's worth the watch anyway.]


    X-Men: Days of Future Past

    The Time Machine (1960 film) [classic!!!!!]

    The Time Machine (2002 film)

    Out of Time
    [This is a memorable movie because seen in my youth. It would probably be disappointing to see it again now that I'm an adult]

    Star Trek movies and episodes. Especially the episodes on TNG and VOY.

    1. I didn't need to mention the Back to the Future movies. Everyone knows those. Though, I don't understand why some don't like the third in the trilogy. It was great in my opinion.

      When it comes to tv shows dedicated to time travel, three that come to mind are.

      Voyagers! [1980s tv show for kids and the young at heart. I still want one of those time travel devices called an Omni *g*]

      Seven Days

      Quantum Leap [classic!!!!!]

      When it comes to literature the following are some that come to mind. Again, time travel might not be the centerpiece.

      The Door Into Summer by Robert Heinlein [HIGHLY RECOMMENDED]

      A World Out of Time by Larry Niven [ A mind bending story]

      The Time Machine by H.G. Wells [a classic!!!]

      Timeline by Michael Crichton [standard fare]

      Time Enough For Love by Robert Heinlein [Very anti-Christian, but it's thought provoking and emotionally affecting. Time travel is definitely not a centerpiece]

      Federation by Judith Reeves-Stevens and Garfield Reeves-Stevens [considered by some to be the best Star Trek novel]

      Lightning by Dean R. Koontz

      Time for the Stars by Robert Heinlein [great space exploration novel. It also explores the effects of time dialation]

      Variable Star by Robert Heinlein and Spider Robinson [I read the book before Time for the Stars. I recommend skipping this book and just reading Heinlein's Time for the Stars and Heinlein's book The Door Into Summer]

      Two novels written by Mormons who touch on issues of time that I've read and still haunt me are:

      A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
      The Worthing Chronicle by Orson Scott Card

    2. More time related movies I recommend:

      Time Lapse [a recent movie about what would happen if you had a camera that could take a picture of the future]

      Somewhere in Time with Christopher Reeves and Jane Seymour [This movie is similar to The Two Worlds of Jennie Logan with Lindsay Wagner who was famous for being the Bionic Woman. I enjoyed this movie as a kid, but I don't recall it enough to recommend it like I do Somewhere in Time.]

      Source Code [a recent movie that's something like a time travel or parallel universe movie.]

    3. Because the movie is so good it's easy to forget or not realize It's A Wonderful Life is a classic allohistory film showing what it would be like if George Bailey hadn't been born. There are other movies that explore this concept like Run Lola Run or Sliding Doors.

      In my youth Timerider and Time Cop were popular among me and my friends.

  5. This may sound silly (but not to Peter) -- my daughters have been watching "Doctor Who", and even though it's hokey, I half-way like it!