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TIME TRAVEL IN FILM: LOOPER AND THE TIME MACHINE

I realized something late last night.

No, not that you can, in a pinch, use Welch’s grape juice as a mixer with bourbon, which is true (though it’s best sipped with a crazy straw)

What I actually realized is that as huge and ubiquitous bedrock of the science fiction genre that the time travel story is, there really aren’t that many movies about it.

I don’t mean time travel like, guy from the past mysteriously wakes up in the future (or vice versa) and finds his dog or lunch or girl or something. I mean time travel with somebody climbing into a time machine, moving back and forth in time on purpose, maybe losing the time machine and getting it back, and long, ponderous meditations on what it means to muck about in time.

Other than the Back to the Future trilogy, I can think of exactly two:

Looper

The Time Machine

Sure, Terminator sent Schwarzenegger back in time to wipe out John Connor and change the future. And sci-fi action films have done that kind of thing. But traveling through time is a vehicle to tell an action story. Those movies aren’t really about time travel as a thing in itself. Looper and a The Time Machine are.

Quick summary:

The Time Machine is a 1960 adaptation of H.G. Wells’s 1895 novel “The Time Machine” directed by George Pal and staring Rod Taylor. The movie opens on January 5, 1900 when inventor H.G. Wells hobbles into a gathering of his friends, dirty and disheveled. He tells them that he has just returned from the future in a time machine he claimed to have invented at their last dinner party on December 31, 1899. The character Wells is disillusioned with all the violence in the world and longs to see the future where, he is certain, man surely has evolved beyond its brutish ways. His friends scoff, Wells pouts. They leave. Wells climbs into the time machine which travels through time, but not space, and which looks like Captain Picard’s chair on the Enterprise bridge with a “Price is Right” Plinko wheel on the back. Disillusioned by apparent decade after decade of constant war-making, he travels all the way to the year 802,701, which appears to be an idyllic paradise. He quickly, discovers, though, that it is not.

Looper is a 2012 film starring Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. In the year 2044, Levitt is a small time hit man who is paid to execute people the mafia sends him – people from the future because it’s easier to cover the crime. Hit men who do this are called loopers. They are highly paid right up until their employer-from-the-future decides to terminate the contract by sending the hit man’s future self back to 2044 to be executed, thereby closing the “loop”. Eventually, the future Levitt (played by Willis) shows up and escapes the hit. Much intense action ensues.

These are very different films. The Time Machine is a very optimistic “there’s hope for mankind” type film. Even when Wells discovers future humans have squandered technology and rejected education, he dedicates himself to showing them a brighter future. There are lots of weighty speeches about the potential of mankind. There’s also a nice bit about the mechanics of time travel, travel in the fourth dimension (one character even asks to be “reminded what the other three dimensions are”.) Wells carefully explains the operation of his time machine in great detail, except entirely glossing over the whole “how does it actually travel in time” thing. The thing looks super cool, though, and the movie is so fun and hopeful that you really don’t care.

Looper, on the other hand is fun in a “this is bleak, gritty, dark shit” kind of way. BUT, unlike other movies that send bad guys from the future to muck up the present – Terminator, Time Cop, that kind of thing – this movie does take some time to ponder wibbly-wobbly nature of time (in the parlance of Doctor Who), the course of our own futures AND pasts, and time-travel is central to the story, not just a mechanism to set up an otherwise standard action movie.

I like these movies. Really like them. I get that, unlike with a lot of sci-fi tropes, the laws of physics pretty much dictate that time travel is impossible. Maybe that’s what makes me like real, straight-up time travel movies so much. “What if?” is never so powerful a question as when it goes up against “that’s impossible.”

That’s entertainment that means something.

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