If there’s one theme in fiction that is difficult to do well, it’s time travel. Fortunately, some of the best film franchises have shown us this theme is doable. What brings difficulty to the time travel theme is continuity. When things are being changed in the past, the future is equally affected. We’ve seen from films like Back to the Future (1985) and The Terminator (1984) that traveling to the past can have disastrous consequences unless the main characters fight to maintain the continuity. The interesting aspects of the time travel theme come when a timeline is adjusted to produce a more beneficial outcome. These altered timelines almost insist that traveling to the past is necessary to fix the problems of the future before they even begin. This week’s two films are great examples of time travel being used to adjust a timeline.
Length: 93 minutes / 1.55 hours
One of the “adjusted timeline” forms is that of the repeating loop. This form will continuously run the same sequence of events until a key set of criteria is met, at which point the timeline continues on its now-adjusted path. The best example of this is Groundhog Day (1993), which can then be used to describe similar movies. For instance, Edge of Tomorrow (2014) could be described as “Groundhog D-Day.” The lynchpin of the repeating loop plot is that the main character can make changes to the timeline, but these changes are erased each time the timeline resets. As such, the main character must learn as much as they can in each iteration of the timeline so they can make the necessary changes needed to escape the infinite loop. If anything, the repeating loop form is the most forgiving of the adjusted timeline plots in that it gives the main character multiple tries to arrive at the most optimum timeline.
The repeating loop of Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the last eight minutes of the life of Sean Fentress, a school teacher traveling on a train to Chicago. Captain Stevens was found to be compatible with Fentress and is now a part of the “Source Code” device in an attempt to gather information about a larger terrorist attack about to hit Chicago. With each eight-minute loop, Stevens watches as the train explodes, killing everyone on board. He is helpless to stop the explosion, as the Source Code only allows him to glean information, not change these past events which are already set in stone. However, as he learns from his surroundings and pieces together a plan, Stevens manages to push the limits of the system, saving the people on the train and adjusting his timeline to one that does not confine him to the realm of his imagination.
Length: 119 minutes / 1.98 hours
Unlike the repeating loop form of the adjusted timeline, most time travel stories give their protagonist only one attempt to change the fate of the world. While films like Donnie Darko (2001) and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) (both of which star the aforementioned Source Code actor, Jake Gyllenhaal) do loop back upon themselves, the ability to repeat that loop is limited to a single iteration. That being said, the effects of adjusting the past are often not seen until a return to the future. Very few films examine the small alterations to the timeline in real-time. The Butterfly Effect (2004) came close with repeated trips into the past to change future events. Similarly, About Time (2013) takes this approach in a more comedic sense, but without an immediate result evident to the audience. The one film that has managed to show the realized effects of changing the past as they happen would have to be Looper (2012).
Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) earns his living as a hitman known as a “looper.” All he has to do is wait for a target to be sent back in time and shoot said target upon their appearance. His reward for this task is a set of silver bars, delivered with the target. If he were to kill a target with gold bars, he would have just killed himself, the gold bars being payment for the termination of his employment. However, he doesn’t get a chance to use these gold bars, as his future self (Bruce Willis) manages to escape before he is killed. Now it’s up to the younger Joe to make sure his older self does not kill the child who will eventually grow up to become the “Rainmaker,” the usurper of five major crime syndicates who is “closing the loop” of many loopers. As the two singular men find the child, young Joe discovers that the events of his interference will create the Rainmaker in the future. He has only one option to prevent it.
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 tweaked timelines