March 4th, 2009

Essay: Life's Much Easier With a Mr. Fusion By Your Side

So, I originally wrote this essay about time-travel a year ago for the online pop-culture mag The High Hat, but they’ve been experiencing technical difficulties for quite a while, and…  well, I wanted to put it out there before too much more time (no pun intended) had passed. Enjoy!

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If you ever want to be reminded of your own mortality, I suggest watching, oh, around a dozen or so time-travel films in rapid succession. You’ll likely start to feel acutely conscious over the choices you’ve made over the years — whether they involve college majors, occupational decisions, or simply all those hours spent mastering the finer points of Mortal Kombat. Our existence is fleeting, and even folks who accomplish Important Things are nothing more than mere names a short while after they’ve departed, great works of art and science notwithstanding.

Yeesh, I sound rather melancholy, don’t I? It’s the cumulative effect of the repeated demands for introspection. (A while back, I endured a battering array of war movies in preparation for a radio discussion about the genre. By the time I’d finished, I was perilously close to joining a hippie commune and roaming the country in search of no-nuke rallies.) But the reason that time-travel works so well as a narrative staple is that it’s the ultimate “fish out of water” device — it’s practically manna from heaven for pencil-chewing scriptwriters. Even if the protagonist isn’t trying to return to their original time (which they often are), you’ll still have a inherent behavioral/cultural clash between Your Hero and the denizens of their new environment… which can be played for comedy, horror, or pretty much any cinematic genre in between. Hell, if your movie pitch begins with “Martin Lawrence in 14th century England,” do you really have to go on? It sells itself! (And yes, that kernel did become the much-pilloried film Black Knight.)

Most folks think of time-travel adventures as being primarily a science-fiction subgenre — after all, legendary sci-fi scribe H.G. Wells basically kickstarted the entire concept with the novel The Time Machine back in 1895. But in many films, the only tech elements involve the contraptions that are used to slingshot the protagonists back and forth — whether they be souped-up De Loreans (Back to the Future) or displacement devices that are far less calibrated (12 Monkeys, in which poor Bruce Willis’ Convict of the Future arrives in 1990s America after an unfortunate detour through World War I). Many time-travel films don’t even need fancy gadgets — Kathleen Turner’s Peggy Sue (Peggy Sue Got Married) finds herself back in her senior year of high school after conking her head at her class reunion, while Ashton Kutcher’s Evan Treborn (The Butterfly Effect) can will himself back to pivotal moments in his past simply by reading his childhood journals and scrunching his eyes very, very tightly.

More importantly, time-travel themes work for pretty much the entire gamut of story archetypes, from teen comedies (Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) to straightforward action yarns (The Terminator), to.. well, for lack of a better descriptor, feature-length non-sequiturs (Time Bandits). Take the concept of a man forced to relive the same day, over and over, as he struggles for a solution that will enable him to exit the time-loop prison. In the hands of Bill Murray, it’s a dark comedy about a dour weatherman who comes to shed his narcissistic outlook while winning the heart of colleague Andie McDowell (Groundhog Day); when narrated by Rod Serling, you’ve got a grim, slow-burn horror tale about a man on death row who repeatedly argues for a stay of execution that only comes too late — again and again (The Twilight Zone, episode Shadow Play).

TIME TRAVEL PLAYED FOR YUKS — [Marty McFly Bracket]
Most Notable: The Back to the Future trilogy
Honorary Mention: Peggy Sue Got Married, Groundhog Day
This film was a hit but probably hasn’t aged very well: Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
This film probably requires the assistance of hallucinogenic substances: Time Bandits

Almost everyone in the free world knows the story of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), a high-school kid who heads 30 years in the past, inadvertently foils the courtship between his parents, and has to figure out a way to unite them before returning “to the future” in Doc Brown’s (Christopher Lloyd) De Lorean. Back to the Future made superstars out of not only Fox but also director Robert Zemeckis (who later went on to make Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Forrest Gump) and Huey Lewis & The News, who scored their first #1 hit with “Power of Love.”

Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law of Prediction states that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Magic is almost what Doc Brown thinks of Marty’s video camera (“a portable television studio!”), and the time-traveler uses a few screeching Van Halen riffs to great effect while introducing his future dad to a Walkman. But Marty doesn’t even need fancy gadgets to paint himself as a fish out of water. He casually lets it slip that his family has two color TVs (“wow, you must be rich!”), he strolls around town in a down vest that has people commenting that he must be a sailor (because of his “life preserver”), and he confounds a diner owner by asking for a “Tab” when he wants a sugar-free soft drink. (“I can’t give you a tab until you buy something!”). And of course, Dr. Brown turns the tables on Marty at the end of the film by venturing into the future and returning to the 1980s with a “Mr. Fusion,” a mini-nuclear reactor that converts banana peels and other assorted bits of garbage into the 1.21 gigawatts of power that his De Lorean requires.

Zemeckis, Fox, and Lloyd teamed up for two additional (and less-impressive) installments, but the original still holds up mighty well today, nearly 25 years later. That’s another added benefit to time-travel films — when they’re set in eras other than the one in which they’re released, they don’t become dated nearly as quickly as their peers, because they’re essentially period pieces. 1950s America will be depicted much the same way on film regardless of whether the movie is made in 1985 or 2005, but a vintage ’80s cop show like Miami Vice looks dramatically different than one produced today — so much so that it’s too jarring to watch with a straight face. (After Six formal wear actually released a line of Miami Vice dinner jackets — !!! — at the height of the show’s popularity.)

Since Peggy Sue Got Married was released shortly after BttF, you might think that the former ripped off its more-popular counterpart to a large extent. Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner) returns to roughly the same period in time (1960), and a high-school romance that’s “destined” to blossom into a marriage is again the focal point of the story. However, in this scenario, the relationship in question is her own, and Peggy Sue (who is separated from her husband at the outset of the film) is trying to change her destiny rather than ensure it.

You can’t really blame her, seeing as how her beau is played by none other than Nicholas Cage. While it was a bit of a stretch for Turner to play a high-school student at age 32, it required a much larger suspension of disbelief to buy 22-year-old Cage as her classmate. (He seems to have graduated from the Greg Oden School of Hard-Livin’.) In any case, Peggy Sue was actually conceived before BttF, but the production ran into so many delays that Steven Spielberg (one of the names associated with the project) became frustrated and departed to make his own time-travel film.

As for Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits… well, I remember watching this film in the theaters when I was 7, and it seemed to make perfect sense back then. (Of course, so did TV shows like Manimal and Automan, the latter of which involved a computer programmer who could summon a superhero from a PC. Hollywood was right smack in the middle of the “Gee Whiz!” era of using computers as storytelling props, as displayed by films such as Tron, Wargames, and Weird Science.) After recently re-visiting Time Bandits, I can safely say that the film — which involves a boy and a band of dwarves who bounce around time via a stolen map — isn’t for everyone. And by that, I mean everyone who appreciates narrative storytelling.

TIME TRAVEL TO SAVE THE UNIVERSE [Kyle Reese Bracket]
Most Notable: The Terminator
Honorary Mention: 12 Monkeys, Star Trek IV
I acknowledge its popularity but it never made a lick of sense to me: Doctor Who
Most shameless use of time-travel as a Deus Ex Machina in an otherwise commendable film: Superman

Wouldn’t it make more sense if you were only able to move forward in time, not back? Shouldn’t the act of meeting our younger selves, not to menton any forebears, create all sorts of unrectifiable paradoxes? In The Terminator, sentient computers (dubbed Skynet) of the future have engulfed the planet in nuclear war in an attempt to eradicate mankind, but human resistance forces led by one John Connor have vanquished their robotic foes and declared victory. Not so fast, says Skynet, as it sends a one-man wrecking crew (Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a role that made him the action superstar of his era) back to 1980s Los Angeles to have him assassinate John’s mom Sarah, thereby wiping out the resistance movement before it emerges. (A psychologist in the film terms the ploy “retroactive abortion.”) Connor sends a bodyguard by the name of Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) to defend Sarah in response, and the two sides duke it out for the future of humanity. Of course, along the way, Reese impregnates Sarah… meaning that he’s the father of the person who sent him back in time. Let the head-scratching commence.

One of the elements that makes the Terminator entertaining is that the cyborg is as much of a fish out of water as his human counterpart. The T-800 walks into a gun store and asks for a “phased-plasma rifle in a 40-watt range” (“uhhh… just what you see, pal”), and also seems oblivious to the fact that walking around with assault rifles is the sort of thing that might attract unwanted attention. Meanwhile, Reese’s intricate tale paints him as delusional by present-day law enforcement officials, as he has not one bit of futuristic technology with which to help prove his story.

The Terminator still ranks as one of the finest action movies of all time, as Schwartzenegger’s near-indestructible cyborg obliterates everything in its path (including an entire LAPD station in one memorable sequence) in pursuit of its target. As for the whole casuality loop involving Sarah Connor/John Connor/Kyle Reese, well… various scientists have theorized whether such cycles (also called predestination paradoxes) could be feasible. Whatever. I can suspend disbelief and accept this premise, but it’s much tougher for me to swallow Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

Reese reveals in the original film that the time machine was supposed to have been smashed after he went through, to ensure that nobody else followed him. But in the sequel, we learn that Skynet also sent back an even more advanced Terminator to kill John Connor as an adolescent, while the resistance movement reprogrammed an Ahnold Bot to serve as his protector. (Despite not having any sort of formal education or even reliable shelter, the soldiers of the future are whizzes at C++?) And if that didn’t work, Skynet sent back an even MORE advanced Terminator to hunt down John as an adult. Sense a pattern here?

In his excellent essay “F/X Porn,” David Foster Wallace commented on how T2, while chock-full of impressive visuals and stunts, disappointed him from a narrative angle — particuarly how Schwarzenegger’s uber-assassin had been converted into a hero to maintain the actor’s Good Guy image. But I was more flummoxed from a logic perspective: if Skynet had the ability to send back multiple Terminators, why wouldn’t it send them to the same time? Or an army of Terminators, for that matter? Of course, wouldn’t the act of conceiving the entire mission be pointless, since the very fact that it was necessary to assassinate Connor meant that he’d already survived all previous attempts on his life? If you’re like me, this is the stage at which your head begins to hurt.

Time-travel stories are also surefire panaceas for any franchise threatening to become stagnant. Who knew that Star Trek’s motto “to boldly go where no man has gone before” would eventually come to mean “San Francisco, circa 1984?” That’s where the crew of the Enterprise headed in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, when the universe of the future needed a then-extinct humpback whale to stave off armageddon. While the film delivered a preachy environmental message about endangered species, it also displayed how bizarre the crew of the Enterprise would find present-day Earth (and vice versa). The Trekkers are shocked to find that they need cash in San Fran because the Federation no longer uses currency in the future (hmm, Marxists?), and when someone points Scotty to a computer, the engineer attempts to communicate with it by speaking into its mouse. And was there anything more satisfying than watching Spock administer his trademark Vulcan Nerve Pinch to some unlucky hooligan who had unwisely flipped the bird to James T. Kirk?

I can’t really comment too much about Doctor Who because I’ve only seen a handful of episodes. My two main conclusions are that:

A) Whenever I’ve watched an episode, I’ve always felt as though I was missing about an encyclopedia’s worth of backstory. Even on Wikipedia, it’s tough for me to make out a clear sense of who The Doctor is, why he’s hopping all over the galaxy, and how he always manages to be accompanied by attractive young ladyfriends.

B) I’ve seen enough to know that I don’t wish to see any more. While the recently-relaunched Who series on Sci-Fi certainly has production values vastly superior to its predecessors, it’s hokey in the way that two-headed aliens and living tree creatures are hokey to me. Yes, the universe that Battlestar Galactica exists in (with sentient robots who can reproduce) is no more feasible, but its world doesn’t have to cut through quite such a thick air of incredulity. Just one man’s opinion.

TIME TRAVEL THAT INVOLVES SOUL-SEARCHING, PERSONAL CONFLICTS, AND OTHER DRAMATIC TENSION THAT FALLS SHORT OF UNIVERSAL ARMAGEDDON [Dr. Zaius Bracket]
Most notable: Planet of the Apes
Honorary Mention: Primer, Quantum Leap, Time After Time, Butterfly Effect
Film that seemed 10x more intriguing when I originally saw it five years ago: Donnie Darko

Another cinematic landmark that needs little exposition, Planet of the Apes is a bit of an unusual film from a narrative standpoint. The main character, Taylor (Charlton Heston), doesn’t proceed through any character arc or learn any “lessons” throughout the story, and ultimately his fact-finding mission (to discover why those damned dirty apes are running the show on his new world) isn’t a search that culminates in any particular achievement or dispensing of justice. In that sense, it plays more like a Twilight Zone episode where the main protagonist ends up drifting through a dystopian society through no fault of his own (and as such pays for the sins of his people). Of course, your average Twilight Zone tale was rife with social commentary, and Planet of the Apes was the most famous of a number of films released in the ’60s and ’70s that shouted warnings about the possible repercussions of the excesses of modern society. Soylent Green (also starring Heston) foresaw a future ravaged by environmental catastrophe, while the Mad Max trilogy showed how bickering over oil degenerated into nuclear war and the unraveling of civilization.

(Naturally, the popularity of Planet of the Apes ensured that a series of sequels would be produced — and in the fourth such installment, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, we’re treated to another good ol’ predestination paradox [see Terminator, The] as the apes from the future wind up returning to a near-present Earth and inciting the ape rebellion that dooms human existence.)

In Primer, a couple of engineers accidentally invent a machine that enable the user to move backwards in time — so naturally, one of the first orders of business involves using the device to make a killing at the stock market. (Perhaps the lottery was too obvious? And the idea of sports betting had already been used in Back To The Future 2.) However, the nature of the contraption means that temporary doubles of the engineers are also spawned… and when they start engaging in activity that your local law enforcement agency would likely frown on (in addition to creating copies of themselves), things go haywire in a hurry. While the labythrine plot can be extremely difficult to follow even after multiple viewings, it’s an engaging indie film (made for just $7000 in 2004) that seeks to tell a time-travel tale that’s stripped of “fantastical” origins.

Time After Time, released in 1979, is a nod to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, with Malcolm McDowell playing the famous author who, as it turns out, has actually invented one of the blasted machines. After his former colleague (David Warner) is outed as Jack the Ripper, Jack decides to elude the London constables by traveling forward to 1979 San Francisco, while Wells follows in hot pursuit after the machine automatically returns home. (Imagine if they had journeyed just five years further, they’ve might’ve bumped into the crew of the Enterprise! Apparently, San Fran was a hotspot for your burgeoning time-traveler.) Here, the “fish out of water” device is played once again to great effect, as Wells is shocked when he realizes that the future offers no utopia… while Jack the Ripper finds that he’s not as much of an anomaly in what he finds is a much more brutal society.

And finally, Donnie Darko tells the story of the title character (Jake Gyllenhaal) who experiences a sequence of bizarre events: his sleepwalking escapades leave him awaking at the local golf course, he acquires an imaginary friend who’s a giant bunny named Frank, and his home is torpedoed by a falling aircraft engine that doesn’t seem to be missed by any plane reporting to the FAA. Not long afterward, Donnie discovers that his reclusive neighbor down the block actually was quite the expert on time travel in her day. What a coincidence! While the film contains of a number of interesting scenes depicting the banality of high-school life — Patrick Swayze makes a notable appearance as a self-help guru on steroids — the vignettes don’t work nearly as well as a narrative, as large sections of the movie (including Drew Barrymore’s turn as a rebellious young English teacher) seemed entirely superfluous. In the last of the film’s dubious stretches, Donnie ultimately decides to sacrifice himself to save a classmate-turned-girlfriend whom he’s known a whole whopping month. Of course, he may have simply decided that a lifetime of being stalked by a six-foot rabbit didn’t much appeal to him?


Kevin Fullam is a writer and researcher, with extensive experience in fields ranging from sports analytics to politics and cinema.

In addition, he has hosted two long-running radio series on film and culture, and taught mass media at Loyola University.

Episodes of his two shows, Split Reel and Under Surveillance, are archived on the Radio page.