Understanding and Analyzing Cinematic Time Travel
Science Fiction is a legendary genre of film with countless subgenres, each subgenre having it’s own blockbusters as well as cult classics; sci-fi films involving time-travel are particularly divisive as the theme of traveling through time alone can either “make or break” a narrative. In this essay, I will explain my own taxonomy and formula for categorizing time travel in a movie, and discuss the positives and negatives of time travel, as far as the narrative is concerned. Having a system for analyzing time travel in films is very important as the means and uses of time-traveling vary drastically amongst sci-fi cinema; time-traveling as we now know it is not possible, so every film has a different way of employing it, and they all should be explained. I have also compiled a list time travel films, and have analyzed whether or not the concept of time travel benefits the story, with emphasis on films such as The Butterfly Effect as it’s conventional and easy to explain, as well as The Terminator, and X-Men: Days of Future Past, by examining how time travel affects the other films in the respective franchises they are in.
There are many issues that arise when time travel takes place, and there are many things to look at as well as questions to ask. I have come up with my own categorization of time travel in film in which I vainly named “The Elite Law of Fours.” After thorough examination, it has become clear that in science fiction cinema, there are typically four major ways in which a character is enabled to travel through time, and these four ways can be divided into two separate categories: voluntarily and involuntarily. To explain, voluntary time travel is when a character purposefully does something in order to be able to travel through time, without being too specific yet, while involuntary time travel occurs out of the character’s control unless they do something to change the timeline. These methods will be defined in-depth throughout this essay, but here they are, listed: The Use of an Instrument, A Character’s Action, The End of a Timeline, and The Occurrence of an Unpredictable Event.
Beyond the four methods, there are also important questions that the audience must ask, or the film must address for the travelling to have been properly explained in the story. I have come up with four major questions that affect the story in great ways, and four minor questions that are good for the viewer to understand, but not always necessary for the story to have explained. To be later defined, here are the major, and minor questions now: Does the story’s “present” take place in our past, present, or future? Is travelling explained scientifically or left to fantastical means? Are there consequences to interacting with one’s past or future self or friends while travelling? By altering the past, does the story recognize the possibility of an alternate universe being created, or is the time travelling entirely linear and stay within the same dimension?), or major (After travelling, does the character stay in the same body as before, or does he/she change into their older or younger self? Can time travel occur forwards and backwards, or in just one direction? By travelling, is the entire world, or just the character’s personal world that is affected? Does the character travel either in order to prevent or ensure his/herself or someone else from/of doing something?
As time travel has yet to be understood by modern scientists and physicists, there are many hypotheses portrayed in film; having the movie call attention to the ways in which time travel is possible (specific to a particular film in question) is necessary in order for the film to make sense. Time travel is always interesting to see in a movie, but the inclusion of time travel can also hurt more than help a story. Having time travel play a part in a film can create what’s known as “a temporal paradox,” or “predestination contradiction,” that harms itself and the original story as well. A temporal paradox is a logical contradiction in time travel usually apparent through existence of certain people or things, their age, or the time period they are in, and the predestination theory. This is evident in the X-Men films: after the 8th film, when time travelling occurred, many things changed, such as the ages of some of the characters during the time periods they revisited, as well as nationality, and behavior (the most obvious example is that first Professor Xavier went bald before losing the loss of his legs, and the second Xavier lost his legs first. So, when he goes to recruit Jean Grey in the films, in the third film he’s older and bald, and in the ninth film he’s younger and in a wheelchair beyond reason.).
The predestination theory is slightly more confusing to explain, but it’s basically saying that time travel had to have happened to explain the existence or origin of something. An obvious example of this is the simple existence of John Connor: he would not exist if Kyle Reese had not travelled back in time and met Sarah Connor in order to become his father. Another word for predestination is the causal loop, which Bradley Monton explains well in his essay “Time Travel without Causal Loops ,” which is worth a read: “for example, in a story where [character] gets plans for a time travel machine from someone, builds the machine, and then goes back in time to give the plans to [character]’s younger self, the plans are involved in a causal loop…events that occur at a certain time have a causal influence on events that occur at some later time. When time travel occurs, however, backwards causation occurs: an event c that occurs at a later time has a causal influence on an event e that occurs at an earlier time” (Monton).
The first voluntary method: The Use of an Instrument. The most prominent in the methods of time travelling in film is for the character to use an instrument of some kind, which enables them to travel. These are most commonly in the form of time machines, built by man, or portals not built by man, or by smaller instruments such as magical objects. Examples of these methods include Dr. Emmett Brown’s car in Back to the Future, and the cyborg army’s time machine teased in The Terminator and finally shown in Terminator: Genysis, which both represent time machines that a character climbs inside of in order to travel through time. The black hole in Interstellar acts as something that is not made voluntarily, but that somebody gets inside of voluntarily, debatably. The “time-turner” in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and humorously, the remote in Click act as smaller devices that allow the protagonist to travel through time, but these instruments must be carried by the character at all times, or else they cannot travel through time. The drawback to this method is that these instruments may break and force the characters to be stuck (most commonly) in the past without a way of returning to the present, or future, without repairing the device, which happened, for example, in Back to the Future III.
The second voluntary method: A Character’s Action. The second most prominent in the methods of time travelling in film is for the character to complete an action, which enables them to travel. One great example of this is in the film The Butterfly Effect. The plot follows Evan Treborn who, during childhood, would black out for short periods of time and he would miss important and life-changing events. These events were often tragic and emotionally traumatizing; as an adult, he begins to write about these events in a journal and discovers that the while writing, he is transported back into those moments, and then is able to do something differently to change the future. This movie is based represents “The Chaos Theory,” which will be explained later in this essay. Another great example of the Character’s Action method is 2013’s romantic comedy About Time, which is about a man named Tim Lake. On his 21st birthday, his father tells him that his family has the ability to time travel by standing in a dark place, clenching their fists, and thinking of the time they want to travel back to. It’s all very fantastical, but it’s a beautiful film and definitely worth a watch as far as romantic comedies go.
One film that blends these two voluntary methods is X-Men: Days of Future Past. The film’s narrative takes place in a future in which mutants (or genetically evolved humans) are hunted down by man as well as machines built by man. One hero, Wolverine, goes back in time through the ability of another mutant. The other mutant’s genes act as her instrument, which enable her to travel through time, but her action of holding her hands by the head of Wolverine allows him to travel in time. So, she employs both voluntary methods in order to allow somebody else to travel in time, The Use of an Instrument, and A Character’s Action. This film will be returned to in order to answer many of the time traveling questions, both major and minor, later in this essay.
On the other hand, there are two involuntary methods of character time travel in film, the first being The End of a Timeline. This method, while being uncontrollable as far as the character’s actions go (at least at first) is often represented by the end of a period of time which, if reached, often resets that period of time, such as the end of a day or the end of a life: if a clock hits zero, the clock resets. One great example is Groundhog’s Day in which Bill Murray’s character reaches the end of the day on Groundhog’s Day, he finds himself waking up in the morning on Groundhog’s Day yet again, stuck in a loop until he becomes a better person, allowing his life to continue. Two more fantastic examples of this are Edge of Tomorrow and Source Code, in which the lead characters get stuck in a time loop; every time he dies, he wakes up earlier that day. This time loop that he is trapped in will not break until he defeats the threat, providing that he dies and restarts the day in order to train again and again.
The second involuntary method: An Unpreventable Event Occurs. This is the least common method in sci-fi cinema and usually occurs when an event, usually violent, “disrupts the space-time continuum” or something to that effect. The only obvious choice in this method is Donnie Darko, in which a jet engine falls out of the sky and opens up a tangeant universe in which Donnie Darko learns about time travel and the many paradoxes that come with it. Author Paul Booth defines these events in his extremely dense, although interesting and thought-provoking essay titled “Intermediality in Film and Internet: Donnie Darko and Issues of Narrative Substantiality.” In this excerpt, he uses two words which he doesn’t define- “fabula” and “syuzhet”- which Wikipedia denotes as “terms originating in Russian formalism and employed in narratology that describe narrative construction. ‘Syuzhet’ is an employment of narrative and ‘fabula’ is the chronological order of the events contained in the story” (“Fabula and syuzhet”).
“For example, early in the syuzhet of the film, Donnie [sleep walks] out of his bedroom and survives the apparition of a jet engine plunging directly above his bed. Had he not left, he would have been killed by the mysterious appearance and descent of the engine. At the end of the syuzhet, however – and, a return to the beginning of the fabula; or, to be more specific, the start of a parallel fabula constructed from the syuzhet of the primary fabula – the audience, as well as Donnie himself, is privy to the true nature of the jet engine that would have (did) killed (kill) him: it has fallen from an airplane carrying his mother and sister. Thrown back in time through a portal created by Donnie, the engine enters into a temporal paradoxical dance with Donnie that culminates in the construction of parallel plotline for Donnie and a parallel fabula for the film’s viewer. At what ends up being the conclusion of the film, the final scene of the syuzhet is in reality only one small part of what the film calls the correct universe: the majority of the film, from when Donnie survives his own death and becomes magically empowered with superhuman gifts to when Donnie decides to sacrifice himself to save his mother Rose and his girl- friend Gretchen, takes place in what the film terms the tangent universe, but what could more aptly be called a tangent fabula. Working in parallel to the correct fabula of the film – correct only because the film itself paradoxically tells us so – this tangent fabula exists only within the mind of Donnie himself – a character thus subjectively defines the film for the viewer” (Booth).
While these two terms may be difficult to grasp, they are important in understanding many time-travel films; those which contain non-linear story telling (especially those with race-against-time narratives), can be made clear by employing fabula and syuzhet into the explanation such as Predestination or the entire Terminator franchise. The reason that Darko is very divisive is because it confuses a large majority of the audience, and the reason it’s confusing is because it brings in an idea that a lot of science fiction films don’t address: the idea of a tangent universe. This is one of the four minor questions that the viewer should ask him or herself when watching a time-travel film: By altering the past, does the story recognize the possibility of an alternate universe being created, or is the time travelling entirely linear and stay within the same dimension? Whenever a film goes back and rewrites the future, an alternate/tangent dimension/universe is not created (at least as far as the audience is aware, which is all that matters) but other films may mention the possibility of such an occurrence. One great example of a film that recognizes an alternate universe is 2009’s Star Trek revival directed by JJ Abrams, which occurs when the USS Enterprise travels through a black hole, allowing them to enter another dimension the one in which the original series takes place.
In 2009’s Star Trek, the film does not do something that a lot of other films involving time traveling do, which leads into the next minor question: Are there consequences to interacting with one’s past or future self or friends while travelling? In a lot of films, the answer is “yes,” as there are dire consequences, which disrupt some space-time continuum and drastically impact one’s past or future self; in most films, this will have a butterfly effect, or “chaos theory,” as it’s more scientifically known as. The Butterfly Effect famously states that if a butterfly flaps it’s wings, it will cause a tsunami on the other side of the world, but this doesn’t fully explain The Butterfly Effect or the Chaos Theory either. In time traveling, the slightest change in the past will make the most monumental changes in the future- which is a notion that The Butterfly Effect explains clearly (Evan Treborn, by changing small things in his past, alter his future in incredible way such as by saving one friend, another dies instead).
Something that The Butterfly Effect and most other time-traveling films don’t do (but that are respected much more for trying to) is the next minor question: Is the time-travelling explained scientifically or simply left to fantastical means? Films such as Déjà vu or Interstellar, or even Donnie Darko, all consult real mathematics, science, logic and reasoning to explain how travelling through time is possible- often using what’s known as the “Einstein-Rosen Bridge” or “wormhole” which is a theoretical way to travel from one point to another through space-time, (allowing one to time-travel). This is really the only theory that exists in common knowledge regarding time travel, so it makes sense that the more “realistic” time travelling movies will employ methods that revolve around the idea of a wormhole instead of teleportation device. Interstellar uses the theory of relativity to explain how somebody can go forward in time without really “time-travelling,” and this theory is another of Einstein’s- and although it’s not scientifically “proven,” the film doesn’t try to leave the means of time-travelling up to fantasy and instead tries to ground the story in realism:
“From Einstein’s equations of general relativity, which can be used to deduce the curvature of a given universe’s space-time from its shape and other properties, we know there are plenty of hypothetical universes in which time travel would be possible. In 1949, Kurt Gödel homed in on the first, and simplest, of these: a universe that, when run through Einstein’s equations, produces what is known as a closed time-like curve (CTC), a physical path through space that loops back on itself in time. CTCs are not time machines that can take you back to any date in the past, from anywhere. However, follow one of these curious paths and you will travel first into the future, and then back to the point, in both space and time, where the CTC began” (Aron).
It’s all very scientific, but the main idea is that time-travel could be possible in the future (based on the knowledge we have now) which means sci-fi films that explore time travelling may have to become more realistic to fight the possibility of becoming silly and dated in the future, which may simply still look as silly as the “science” from Frankenstein (1931) looks to us now.
The last minor question, Does the story’s ‘present’ take place in our past, present, or future? is maybe the most important minor question to ask in order to understand the narrative and timeline of the film. When does the bulk of the film take place? What era are the characters from? What era are the characters trying to alter or travel to? Most times, the beginning of the story will take place in the present with characters travelling to the past, or in the future and travelling back to the present in order to prevent a dystopia of some sort, or even death of themselves or a loved one. These are all questions that are helpful to have the answers to, but one could watch and understand the film without paying much attention to these questions.
The four major questions are much more important to address, however, the first of which being: After travelling, does the character stay in the same body as before, or does he/she change into their older or younger self? Sometimes while travelling, a character will go back to his or her childhood, yet still be in the body in which they began travel with- like Kyle Reese in The Terminator while on the other hand, Evan Treborn in The Butterfly Effect changed ages into the body he was in at the time of the event he returned to in the past- as if only his consciousness travelled back and not his body. This segues into the next major question: Can time travel occur forwards and backwards, or in just one direction? This question is important to understand as well because it often affects the story, and what the characters are able to do in order to solve their problem by time travelling. The more realistic films, like Interstellar for example, will only allow the character to travel forward in time through the Theory of Relativity, as backwards time travel has no theories that haven’t been disproven or disregarded in science.
The reason for time travelling itself is important to understand when watching the film as well, which begs the third question: Does the character travel either in order to prevent or ensure his/herself or someone else from/of doing something? Most often, a movie will revolve around a character who travels back in time in order to prevent somebody from doing something, which will change the future- but that doesn’t necessarily have to be true. Protagonist A could be doing something good in the past for the benefit of the future, and Antagonist A can try to stop them so that they can do something bad instead, or Protagonist B can travel back and make sure that Protagonist A accomplished their action. Whatever the story is, this is the most important question to ask in order to simply understand what’s going on in the film. It can all get very confusing, and even filmmakers themselves who use time-travel in their films are unable to address all plot-holes that surface with time-travel:
“Every great time-travel story is, you go back to fix something, but you end up creating something much worse, and you’re just fighting to get back to square one, if you’re lucky,’ [said Lost creator David Lindelof]. ‘We employed this rule — ‘whatever happened, happened… The past was fixed. You couldn’t go back and kill your grandfather and create a paradox — something will not let that happen.’ Even with this rule, though, the labyrinthine details of this aspect of “Lost” nearly drove Mr. Lindelof and his fellow screenwriters insane. “I wish I could have traveled back in time,” he says, “and never have done time travel” (Knopper).
What Mr. Lindelof states is a problem that a lot of filmmakers face when making a time-travel movie, and the timeline is often picked apart by moviegoers and even fans of the series. What X-Men: Days of Future Past had to do to fix the problems that the franchise had was to erase the entire timeline by changing the past, which allows them to recreate the whole series from scratch. This brings me to the last major question: By travelling, is the entire world, or just the character’s personal world affected? This question normally depends on the intimacy of the film itself (or even the budget) but is important as well for the viewer to be aware of in order to know the stakes of the time-travelling. About Time revolves around a single character and his actions- and his use of time travel only affects his personal life and nobody else’s. On the other hand, films like Terminator 2 or X-Men: Days of Future Past are very large-scale and involve the entire world, which raise the stakes and tension of time travel.
Of course, there are many exceptions to each rule and even more questions as well, but Schwarz’s Law of Fours acts as a simple guide to time travelling movies; some films won’t answer or address all of the questions, but they certainly are helpful to have answers for. The more questions that are answered, the better, whether they are minor (Does the story’s “present” take place in our past, present, or future? Is travelling explained scientifically or left to fantastical means? Are there consequences to interacting with one’s past or future self or friends while travelling? By altering the past, does the story recognize the possibility of an alternate universe being created, or is the time travelling entirely linear and stay within the same dimension?), or major (After travelling, does the character stay in the same body as before, or does he/she change into their older or younger self? Can time travel occur forwards and backwards, or in just one direction? By travelling, is the entire world, or just the character’s personal world that is affected? Does the character travel either in order to prevent or ensure his/herself or someone else from/of doing something?). Hopefully with this method, time traveling movies will be less confusing, more interesting, and even more fun for the viewer to experience.
Aron, Jacob. “First Time-Travel Movies Are Loopers.” New Scientist 217.2902 (2013): 8-9. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 June 2016.
Booth, Paul. “Intermediality in Film and Internet: Donnie Darko and Issues of Narrative Substantiality.” Journal of Narrative Theory 38.3 (2008): 398-415. Web
“Fabula and Syuzhet.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 01 June 2016.
Knopper, Steve. “FRIDAY JOURNAL — the Four Rules of Time-Travel Movies.” Wall Street Journal, Eastern edition ed.Sep 21 2012. ProQuest. Web. 1 June 2016 .
Monton, Bradley. “Time Travel without Causal Loops.” The Philosophical Quarterly (1950-) 59.234 (2009): 54-67. Web.