A Brief History of Time (in Film) Part 1
A Brief History of Time (in film) Part 1
So I recently went to the cinema to see my second favourite film of all time, and its two sequels, for Back To The Future Day (October 21st 2015 only comes around once you know). However, instead of discussing futuristic hover boards, flying cars and power laces (and all the stuff like Skype that we actually do have now) this discussion is about Time itself. Time and Film. In Part 1 of this essay I thought I would look at how the franchise and other time travel films represent Time (their philosophies, theories and paradoxes) and then Part 2 will look at various other (non- Sci-Fi) films to explore their relationship with the passage of Time and how it is shown with the tools at cinema’s disposal.
Let’s start with some time travel films then. Which one has the best time-travel device? I reckon Back to the Future wins this one with the fire trails and disappearing car, and the time circuit display which says exactly where (when) they are going. As a time-travelling vehicle the DeLorean is pretty cool and it allows them to move through 3D physical space as well as fourth dimensionally with the potential for dynamic action scenes so it’s a huge step up from the pretty boring chair and lever device used in The Time Machine (1961). If you want a forced and disappointing comedy you could use a Hot Tub Time Machine (2010). There’s no excuse for not doing your homeworking if your wizard school’s Headmaster gives you a Timeturner (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). Maybe you just accidentally make a time machine from a metal box in the garage (Primer) so you can save a load of money on the production budget. Or perhaps time-travel is a hereditary medical condition (About Time and The Time-Traveller’s Wife). Whatever the means of transport through Time, great care needs to be taken over who you tell the secret to and who uses the device; that’s not just care from the characters but from the writers too!
You see, with time-travel films it’s very easy to get tied in knots. It’s a minefield of paradoxes and impossibilities and breaks in logic. Writers are allowed their leap into time travel, but once they lay out their rules for the audience, they had better stick to them. In the Harry Potter books there isn’t just one Timeturner gadget, there’s a room full but the writer has to, very conveniently, get them all destroyed in a later book, just when Harry needs one. Then there is the Butterfly Effect to look out for (the film and the concept) that the chain reaction of a tiny change will make huge changes in the future, as it does in that film, mostly, apart from the scenes where the writers need to bend their own rules and return the main character back to the same scenario. In Back to the Future we are constantly warned by Doc that their small actions could have enormous consequences for the future. Some of them do. Not all bad consequences either as Marty discovers as he gets a new truck (material possessions were important in the 1980s) and has a better relationship with his parents who are now much more successful; yet they still choose to live in the same house and Marty still has the same girlfriend (luckily because she’s gorgeous). So has the future changed or not? When you think about it- there are so many others questions too.
When Marty gets home to 1985- why do his parents not question why they brought up a kid who turns out to be exactly like the Calvin ‘Marty’ Kline guy who showed up for a week in 1955? Surely a suspicious George would be asking for a paternity test at least. What happened with their parent/son relationship in the new 17 years we don’t see so that Marty can just arrive there and pick up afresh (did he set fire to the living room rug? Did they go easy on him?). One fan theory on the philosophy of Back to the Future part 1 (let’s leave the complications of part 2 out of the way for now) is that the 1985 Marty returns to isn’t a direct continuation of the timeline he left in 1955 but instead is an alternate universe where the emotional effects are felt but the details don’t carry over, so they retain their new confidence but don’t remember Marty from the past. That’s how it was explained to me as an inquisitive child, and it kind of makes sense, only there is quite a lot that does get carried over; the torn-up letter, ‘if it hadn’t been for Biff we wouldn’t have fallen in love’, ‘Marty- such a nice name’ and in part 2 Biff remembers the horse manure accident (but apparently not Marty causing it).
If you really want to get your brain messed up, let’s throw in the closed-loop idea; that someone going back in time provides information or starts a chain of events which then leads to someone going back in time to start it off again. This is the plot of Twelve Monkeys and La Jettee and it is used in The Terminator where John Connor sends a soldier back in time to protect his mother, and he ends up being John’s Dad. There is a Back to the Future fan theory about Marty and Doc’s relationship; with no backstory provided about how the two became friends in the 1980s there is a theory that it started with a closed loop of Marty going back in time which is where the Doc first meets him. When Marty is born the Doc already knows him and becomes friends- meaning he can show Marty the time machine and send him back. If you follow this line of thinking, then by extension, the idea for the time machine invention only came to Doc because Marty came back and told him it was already invented. If Marty hadn’t travelled back in time then the time machine wouldn’t exist! Heavy eh?
So time-travel films raise all sorts of questions and have a number of pitfalls to avoid with a very strong danger of painting yourself into a corner. Yet actually, Back to the Future (and the sequels) is so brilliant because it doesn’t fall into these traps. It doesn’t dwell on scientific fact or high philosophies- just enough to make the characters fun and to give the audience all they need to understand for the next bit (handy chalkboard in part 2) and in fact all the necessary information reveals in the film are brilliantly subtle and well-timed in advance. The fan theories I’ve discussed aren’t a consequence of bad filmmaking or glaring plot-holes but of deep involvement, enjoyment and affection for the franchise. The time-travel alone doesn’t make the film great; it’s the exciting and tense action sequences, the warm comedy, and for me, the emotional impact. I love the Marty and ‘Uncle’ Doc friendship. That moment of George laying out Biff gets me every time, seeing him begin to reach his full potential and confidence and then that dancefloor kiss with the Earth Angel song is one of the most romantic kisses in the history of cinema. The initial idea for the film came when the screenwriter saw his Dad’s high school yearbook picture and wondered if they were the same age, would they be friends? The time-travel is a way of putting the son there, reversing roles so he advises his Dad and they build a new relationship where they each become their best selves. It’s such a beautiful thought and is the glue that holds the film together.
Next time I’ll complete Part 2 of the essay on Time and Films and lookm at some other films (non- Sci-Fi) and how they work with Time.
Get in touch with your suggestions.