Image via Flickr user AdamL212
It looks like Hollywood is almost done gorging itself on time-travel movies. Despite the success of this year's X-Men: Days of Future Past, the failure of Edge of Tomorrow and Mr. Peabody & Sherman might indicate an American cinema-going public that's just about had its fill of this glut.
It began in the mid 2000s and peaked in 2009, when there were seven time-travel movies, including Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel, a loving parody of sorts that was exactly the kind of plot-hole-filled mess it was making fun of.
But if these specific movies suck, it's not their fault. It's just that time-travel movies are garbage, and their decades of inconsistent plots have added nothing to the world but boring, pretentious dorm-room conversations. Time-travel movies are a tyranny, and I, for one, welcome their demise. But judging from the incoherent-looking Michael Bay–produced time-travel movie coming out early next year, we're not out of the woods yet. It's time for an intervention, so I'm not going to sugarcoat it: here are the reasons that time travel should be taken off the menu as a viable premise for science fiction.
You Always Have to Have Some New Time Machine Explained
Movie time travel should have been a simple, useful storytelling device, and it was for a while. In the 19th century, a whole bunch of time-travel fables showed up all at once, usually to teach the reader a valuable lesson about something or other. Mostly they were about being bonked on the head or something, and then waking up in another time, as in Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and its precursor Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy. Or you might be taken on a journey through time with a ghost, as in A Christmas Carol. This was a nice time for time-travel stories because they were at least simple enough to make sense.
But since H. G. Wells's The Time Machine was about a machine, it ruined everything.
If you're going to see a machine operating, you're going to think about how it works, and that's not good for movies. This means the writer, director, and production designer all start making a lot of guesses about science, depending on what cool shit they want to show you. This leads to questions you have to answer:
Is your protagonist transported to the same fixed point in the universe at a different time, which would mean after the time jump you would probably be somewhere in empty space, or is that problem just tossed out the window? Is your time machine a piloted contraption, or does it create a portal, or can it perhaps be worn on the body? Does the machine accelerate time around you, or beam you through a portal? If it accelerates time around you, do bystanders see it just sitting there for perhaps hundreds of years?
The scientific answer to all these questions is "Shut the fuck up. There's never going to actually be time travel."
The Science (There Isn't Any)
Rather than a silly but coherent piece of magic we at least understand, such as a dragon, or a believable piece of futuristic science, such as a death ray, time travel is a muddy gray area in the middle. Yet whenever there's a high-profile time-travel movie coming out, you see a lot of tedious articles online about the science of time travel. Usually they place actual science from serious physicists in contrast with the work of screenwriters. Such articles are dumb, and people need to stop writing them.
Two months ago, the World Science Festival released an infographic detailing the chronology of the nine main movie franchises that involve time travel, along with a blog entry called "Time Travel Made Easy." The blog summed up the basics of what we can safely guess would make time travel work:
Going forward in time by traveling at the speed of light, like in The Planet of the Apes, is science fact, assuming you could get going that fast, which you can't. To go backward in time, you would probably need something called an "Einstein-Rosen bridge" caused by a collapsing star, and a lot of good luck. Alternatively you might just need some implausible amount of energy—like infinity joules, I guess—to move the fabric of the universe.
All of this is to say that unlike most of what we categorize as science fiction, the actual means to time travel, and the scientific consequences, are still almost as beyond the grasp of humanity as they were in the time of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne.
If you put yourself in the headspace of a reader in most of the 20th century, you would think H. G. Wells was a prophet. The machine age was this seemingly magical period when writers of fiction came up with things and then they happened. Jules Verne invented space travel by writing From the Earth to the Moon, and it came to pass. The 1920 Czech play Rossum's Universal Robots predicted robots. Arthur C. Clarke predicted satellite communication. Even invisibility is starting to seem plausible within our lifetimes.
But it looks pretty certain that the concept of a "time machine" is a quaint Victorian idea that will never be realized before the heat death of the universe, something science can't save us from. You know what can rescue us, at least in our minds? Fantasy.
Time Travel Is Fantasy, Not Science
What's giving time-travel movies cancer is that we're placing them all under the mantle of science fiction rather than fantasy. Imagine burdening every vampire movie with the science mumbo-jumbo we weigh all of our time-travel movies down with:
Vampire: You're now a vampire!
Protagonist: Oh, no! What's a vampire?
Vampire: Well, you see, by biting you, I've injected you with a DNA-altering serum that has changed your circulatory system, causing you to require human hemoglobin molecules for nutrition.
Vampire: It's in blood, but fortunately my serum halts your organismal senescence, meaning the breakdown of your cells will be blocked altogether, as long as you receive a steady supply of hemoglobin. However, your photosensitivity is drastically increased.
A recent Stephen King novel about time travel called 11/22/63 sidestepped all of this, and received a lot of much-deserved praise for having a simple, non-annoying premise: There's a portal to 1958. There just is. No mad scientist made it. It's just there. I enjoyed the book, about a guy from 2011 living out his life in the surprisingly alien recent past, but it was bound up in a plot to change the course of history, and, as such, the ending (mild and very general spoiler) got very science fiction-y and concerned with upsetting a vague sort of balance in the universe. I was mildly irritated.
But there is one perfect time-travel movie: Groundhog Day. Why is the universe conspiring to lock Bill Murray in the same day for centuries? It doesn't matter. Is there any escape? Who knows. Is it believable? That's beside the point. He time-traveled, and the audience didn't ever have to endure an expository speech from a scientist about a time paradox.
Only Geeks Care About Time Paradoxes
Image via YouTube user HardLuckWomaan
Movies are written by movie geeks, but they can usually hold off on giving you all the details about some bullshit science fiction premise when it doesn't matter. But for some reason time travel makes every screenwriter cross-reference his time machine mechanic with all sorts of science questions about the nature of the universe: Are there multiple "time lines," or just one? To what degree are characters subject to the bootstrap paradox, which causes time to loop inescapably, meaning nothing can actually ever change? How, and to what degree, can you change the past, and most important of all, does causing a time paradox "destroy the universe" for some reason?
A time paradox sounds scientific, and Einstein even used the word to describe one of the more puzzling aspects of relativity. However, the old "What if I kill my grandpa?" paradox is not based on science any more than a movie time machine is based on science. Like the theoretical "Precog Echo" in Minority Report (another stupidly overcomplicated science fiction movie when you get right down to it), it's just an idea that drives the story forward, not the necessary interference of a real scientific principle.
The idea that Marty has to make sure his parents get together or the paradox could destroy the universe is just us being self-centered. And that's fine. Stories are like that. We prioritize people's personal problems over everything else, because we're apes that like staring at other apes.
But Back to the Future has a bigger problem.
There's Nowhere Near Enough Hitler-Killing
If I must swallow the headache-inducing idea that time travel must always be a race to correct the past without causing a paradox, then only the rarest of protagonists have priorities that make sense. After all, there's only one thing worth doing with a time machine: killing Hitler.
So at the end of Back to the Future, Marty has to go back to the fucking future, because the title says so, right? But why? Why set the Delorean clock for 1985, when he can set it to 1916 and kill Hitler?
- X-Men: Days of Future Past is about Wolverine's consciousness being transported into his younger self in 1972, in order to stop some guy from launching the Sentinel Program. No. Fuck you. Wolverine was born in 1888. What he really needs to do is kill Hitler. It stops way more deaths, and bonus: It will stop Magneto, a holocaust survivor, from using his past trauma to justify a lifetime of evil. And somehow (the butterfly effect?) it will probably fix the Sentinel thing.
- Sure, Bill and Ted are funny and everything in their Excellent Adventure, but just one lousy stop off to kill Hitler while they're finishing their history assignment, and they wouldn't be, through their own inaction, the greatest monsters in human history. It's bad enough that they let Napoleon live.
- Star Trek characters can time-travel more or less all they want, but they are governed by both the Prime Directive and the Temporal Prime Directive, which are about never, ever, ever interfering with the past, except when the script calls for it. Every time they do cross that Rubicon, they could just pop by and kill Hitler. All you would have to do is go to the German trench at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and kick the shell that wounded him a few yards closer, thus killing him instead of wounding him.
And OK, maybe I just want more Hitler-killing movies. Either add more Hitler-killing or do everything I said above, and time-travel movies will stop being so terrible.
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Correction: Another version credited Isaac Asimov for dreaming up satellites. It was actually Arthur C. Clarke.