Time travel is an interesting area of fiction. Some author use it as the driving principle of a plot, and other simply use it as a vehicle to talk about the nature of growing old, or as a way of talking about the way cultures change and the social norms shift. I have enjoyed both forms quite thoroughly and am always looking for a new book or movie that tackles the topic from a different angle.
For the most part I have been unsuccessful in finding good written fiction on the subject, but let is mostly on me, I have a growing list of book I have been meaning to reading and not enough of time to read them. I can however sit down for two hours while I do something else to take in a good time travel plot. Some of my favorites are, Back to the Future, Primer, 11 Minutes Ago. There are others and I’ll talk about them, but first I want to say that, in my opinion, the best time travel movies and books are the ones that do not try to explain the actual mechanism. My least favorite moment in both Star Trek movies where they travel in time is near the beginning when they try to come up with some strange reason why they are suddenly able to travel in time, when before it was considered impossible.
Anyways, I think that since time travel in either direct and especially in both direction is always best explain away with some unknown alien device or even just magic. Even in The Time Machine, a work of fiction that is based around a man who invents the technology, deftly avoids the subject of how and instead focuses its energy on the when and why. The one example that I can think of is in the movie Primer.
In Primer the plot revolves around a group of young tech guys who decide to start a kind of club where they pool their expendable income a work on exploring interesting new inventions that they might profit from. When two of the guys stumble upon a device that supposedly affects the force of gravity. Now the device fails to produce anything as far as gravity but the soon discover that it does have another effect. It seems to to accelerate time, what it really does is create a loop in time, in effect adding more time while in the chamber of the device. Once they realize this they build a human scale version and figure out how to stop the loop on the far end, sending them back to the moment the device is turned on. What I really love about this specific work of fiction is the subtleness of the time travel. You can’t go back farther than the existence of the device that allows you to go back. This sort of premise also sets up a way of looking at time travel that explains the lack of future peoples presence in the present. There is more to the movie than what I have spoken about, but I highly recommend that you just watch it to find out the rest, the dialogue and rhythm of the movie is a bit dry but you you like thinking about time travel than it is a great example of fiction on the subject.
Of course I can’t talk about time travel in fiction without talking about back to the Future. The first movie was inspired by the question: Would I be friends with my dad if I knew him when he was my age? Most people don’t pick up on this, they like the movie for nostalgic reason of because of the campy 80′s vibe or because they love thinking about what they would do with the Delorean. The really relieving moment of the movie is the moment Marty see his dad spying in the tree and says the great line, “My dad…is a peeping tom.” The plot device of time travel was invented purely to get 17 year old Marty in the same room with 17 year old George. This is the reason that almost every moment where they are actively talking about time travel, the technology behind it or the future, it feels like a punchline. They didn’t want to take the sci-fi element too seriously because that not what the film is about. Even the second movie which deals almost exclusively with time paradoxes was merely a way to resolve the final scene of the first movie so that they could move on to what they were really interested in, the past. I love these movies for more than just a few reasons, and I think anyone who doesn’t like them is expecting the wrong things from it.
And then there is the grandfather of all the great time travel fiction in film, Doctor Who. While the show is not strictly speaking a movie, thought there was a train wreck of a film made in America( of course)in the 80’s (double of course, *eye roll*) It handles time travel with such grace that I can not help but bring it up. Not only does it do a great job of avoiding the pitfalls of trying to explain a technology that no human being could begin to understand well enough to outline. But they also do a spectacular job of exploring all of the interesting angles that could be investigated with the plot device. They talk about History, the invent history , they speculate on the future, but they are careful to make it the quite distant future and state that the future is always in flux so that even if the year Five billion does come , and we still remember the Doctor, and it doesn’t look anything like what they said, it won’t matter anyways because that was a different future, a future that clearly hasn’t panned out.
They also do a brilliant job handling paradoxes in all of their forms, large and small. from the Universe ending paradox of the Doctor living when he should have died, to the small brain twisters in which the doctor is handed a set of instructions by a woman who got them from him in the future, to the cleverly written plot of River Song where in the first day he meets her is the last day she will ever see him, or so they would have us believe. All in all I would say that Doctor Who, is far and away the best handled time travel fiction ever written, and this is especially true when only considering the works written by Steven Moffat who seems to have a freakish ability to tie up loose ends with a great amount of grace and wit.
But all that said I tend to even enjoy the terribly written Time travel movies like Timecop, The Butterfly Effect, or Star Trek: The Voyage Home. I love it all somewhat because of the sci fi lover in me but also because it invokes the intriguing problem of paradoxes, and while not all of them do a great job of resolving that problem , they all take a crack at it and that to me is interesting, and interest is entertaining.
And that’s my take on time travel in movies.