Friday, March 04, 2005

Debating Time Travel

Last night, whilst I was finishing marking, Cloud started to watch the film Frequency starring Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel [aka Jesus]. Now as those of you know me will know - or even just readers of my Normblog profile - I have a paranoid attitude towards time travel. I don't like it, I don't agree with it, and I take a "la-la-la-la, I'm not listening approach" to anyone who approaches me asking "what year is this?" My reasons for this are simple: I am a firm believer in the idea of 'the butterfly effect'... even if that was a terrible movie. Nothing is without consequences.

I reluctantly watched about 30 mins of the film, constantly muttering "this will not go well, there will be consequences to these actions." This took Cloud through about 1 hour of the film, but including advert breaks probably only 50 mins. By this point, events had been changed by the time travel/communication and frankly even Cloud thought the rest of the movie wasn't probably worth staying up for.

However, being the types who like a good discussion, our conversation moved on to consider why, if I had such an antipathy to time travel, have some of my favourite movies been structured around this topic. The two(ish) examples Cloud offered were Terminators 1 and 2, and - of course, Twelve Monkeys.

For me, the answer could be articulated thus: although both/all three are structured around travel back in time, the travel occurs because the events the time travel sets in motion have already happened. Now this may seem mind-boggling - indeed, don't think about it too much or your head will explode - but this can be reasonably defined as events within a cycle. The Terminator travels back in time to destroy Sarah Connor because her son will lead the rebel army that will rise up (successfully?) against the machines. In turn, John Connor will send back his friend to try and protect his mother from this Terminator. In actual fact, the soldier he sends back - Kyle Riese - will become his own (John Connor's) father. And, though the Terminator appears destroyed by the end of the first film, the remains of it will be rescued by a corporation who will ultimately produce the technology that leads to the 'rise of the machines' and the Terminators themselves that John Connor will be fighting against (see Terminator 2).

There is thus an inevitability about the events in the 'now', even as they seem to be designed to undo the events of the future.

In a similar vein, Twelve Monkeys explicitly reminds us on several occasions through the film that the future has already happened and what happened cannot be undone. James Cole comes back from 2035 to gather information on a virus outbreak in 1996-7, but is mistakenly (?) sent to 1990 instead. When he arrives, psychiatrist Kathryn Railly already feels she 'knows him'. Only after his escape/time travel back from 1990 to 2035 does she begin her work on prophecies of doom and 'time travel' claims that will inevitably provide her with proof of Cole's own time travelling. Yet throughout his life, Cole has been plagued by nightmares/memories of a shooting in an airport with him as a child: and that one of the key characters in this is Kathryn Railly. There are so many points of overlap within this 'Mobius strip' narrative - phonecalls not yet made received in the future before the travel back enabled them to occur - that it would be impossible to identify them all. Yet, as with the Terminator films, what is ultimately revealed is that future events are both set/reset by the travel from the future to the past. I have noted elsewhere the effect that the final scene has on me, where Railly - now aware of the relationship between the past/future - searches out the young face she has always known and makes eye contact with the Cole-to-be watching his own death. The circular movement moves forward and, with the final encounter on the plane between plague-bearer and the scientist ("I'm in insurance" - insuring what, the plague, the future of humanity, that the events as they unfolded will lead to their occurance again?) we meet a point where potentially - but only potentially - the entire narrative is unwoven. Only at this point - to echo what Sarah Connor voices in Terminator 2 - might we face the future not knowing what the future holds.

Of course, the narrative of Twelve Monkeys also identifies the impossibility of being in two places at the same time: this is where the inspiration it takes from Chris Marker's La Jetee comes in, the film/story that academic Constance Penley once erroneously stated could never be remade (this was before Twelve Monkeys did precisely that). And this is what I become unnerved about with other lesser narratives. Frequency's entire story hinges on the unravelling effect that time travel has - the butterfly effect - that leaves me aware of the disruption it causes. In the two Terminator films/Twelve Monkeys the time travel is designed to challenge what has happened, not (unintentionally) see what things are like in the future/in the past with the disastrous consequences that can create.

Bizarrely for Cloud, I am a free-will determinist. To cite the misquoted remark of Kyle to Sarah Connor, "There is no fate but what we make for ourselves" (T2 makes it appear as if that was what Kyle said but it was actually "The future is not set" - only in the extended director's version of T2 where we see Sarah's visionary encounter with Kyle does he even make the statement about fate... I'm sad, I know this). I believe that often we cannot avoid what will happen. Moreover, that we can do things differently and they may end up the same or we can do them the same and they will end up different: ultimately it is that moment, that version of that moment at that time that determines what will be. Time travel in that respect just screws things up.

Before I forget, there is a nice little article on the time travel narrative of the Terminator films (sadly it deals with the third film as well which was frankly nonsense). Thanks for reading. more rants next week folks!

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