Avoiding the slow path

In celebration of the release of Looper, Saoirse Ní Chiaragáin takes a look both backwards and forwards at the past, present and future of the time travel genre.

Since the beginning of time, man has dreamt of time travel. I’m guessing. Frankly, we can’t verify that statement without the aid of an actual time machine. What can be said with every ounce of certainty, however, is that if ever there was a year to bring forth a resurgence in time travel films, 2012 is that year.

Between a worryingly earnest faith held in the Mayan calendar, constant reminders that those finite resources of ours are wearing pretty thin, and the current pop cultural behemoth that is ‘80s and ‘90s nostalgia, time travel is ripe to become the sci-fi plot device du jour. It’s hardly surprising, then, that already this year both mainstream and independent cinema have hopped on the time travel trend; with Rian Johnson’s sci-fi noir Looper set for release later this month, and trendily dry indie rom-com Safety Not Guaranteed scooping up accolades on the festival circuit, most notably scoring the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Though often spanning various genres, from teen comedy (Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Back to the Future) to bleak, dystopian drama (12 Monkeys), the one constant in time travel narratives across the board is in how they relate to their contemporary social and political climates. It’s no great surprise that, in moments of crisis or political upheaval, society collectively turns to an idyllic representation of the past as a form of escapism.

Back to the Future was, perhaps, one of the most blatant examples of this in how it catered to the neo-conservative, revisionist policies of Ronald Reagan’s presidential administration. The film presents an idealised depiction of small-town 1950s America, safely distanced from the aftermath of the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, women’s lib and, well, everything else those pesky liberals throw in the face of their Republican government. Back to the Future is so rooted in Reaganism, in fact, that the film itself includes a joke about Reagan’s rise from humble cowboy actor to leader of the United States (“Ronald Reagan? The actor?”), and was quoted by Reagan himself in his 1986 State of the Union address.

That being said, Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film 12 Monkeys is not only rooted in socio-political discourse of the mid-‘90s with its cynical view of consumerism and air of paranoia regarding biological weaponry, but has eerily remained relevant, almost to the point of foreshadowing the past year of protests and worldwide discontent. Nowhere else in the film is this more apparent than when the titular Army of the 12 Monkeys stage protests and attacks on Wall Street. In this instance, time travel becomes not a tool of escapism, but a tool of dissection and examination of social ills; something which, by all accounts, looks to be touched on in Looper with its corporate antagonists.

With that in mind, while time travel narratives can transcend eras both literally in their content and figuratively in their lasting relevance, the transcendence of space is forever a key issue within the trend. This, ultimately, comes down to whatever pseudo-science in operation within the world of the film. For the most part, an outside influence with a presumably outstanding understanding of physics and a vessel of some description will suffice: a “flux capacitor” just sounds legit, and you don’t tend to ask many questions once you hear “plutonium” and “1.21 gigawatts”. This, of course, is helped along by the simple rule of moving through time but not space. To again borrow from Back to the Future as an example, the entire franchise is located in Hill Valley, albeit throughout different periods of the town’s history. As long as this internal logic remains intact, suspension of disbelief is usually better maintained. Furthermore, time travel then acts only as a plot device, while the protagonist’s relationships and struggles take precedence as they would in any other conventional narrative. This is especially true of the upcoming Safety Not Guaranteed, which keeps its science a complete mystery, instead using time travel as a handy back-drop to an odd-couple romance.

Having said that, Shane Carruth’s 2004 film Primer makes a case for exhaustive and technical scientific reasoning, which ultimately positions the act of time travel as a focal point of the narrative, as opposed to a device operating within a genre film.

It is perhaps due to its flexibility as a plot device that time travel is so frequently adopted for the purpose of scrutinising and commenting broadly on current affairs. It offers a freedom of expression and self-reflexive storytelling that, without even the mildest suggestion of an agenda to carry it, can collapse under its own weight. Like that one, Time Machine, that Samantha Mumba was in. Let’s all agree to just forget about that one.