Thursday 9 July 2015

Time Travel, Tropes and Paradoxes (VOR)

Time travel. It's one of those film tropes that has seemingly endured since, well, since the dawn of time if you'll pardon the pun. Up there with alien invasions, zombie apocalypses, atomic wastelands and sentient robotics, time travel is just one of those things that has ingrained itself into the film medium so thoroughly that we no longer question its viability or plausibility. 

Last weekend, the latest instalment in the Terminator franchise, Terminator Genisys, has zapped into the cinemas. A series that revolves around time travel, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to reflect on the trope and discuss what prevailing stories that the sci-fi genre has continually revisited and dipped into.

Across my life, I've seen a fair few time travel films - this post is partly prompted by my love for the trope, but also the thought that across these films it's easy to observe common themes and group them into two distinct narratives. Sure, there are exceptions and crossovers, but for the most part, time travel, and the subsequent paradoxes that occur, exist in one of two forms.

Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill
are confronted with the prospect of killing
Hitler in Doctor Who
The first is the one with which we're probably most familiar; the Grandfather paradox. This narrative sees our time traveller meddle with the past and alter their own existence, a classic example being Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) in Back to the Future. In this film, Marty inadvertently prevents his own parents from falling in love, causing him to slowly fade into nothingness as their courtship grows ever more unlikely. Don't worry, all is resolved through a powerful and rousing finale - everything is restored and righted, even if Marty doesn't quite learn his lesson about meddling with time (see: Back To The Future Parts II and III)

A offshoot example of this trope is the 'Hitler paradox'; you know, the one where characters literally consider journeying to the 1930's and killing Hitler before he could rise to power. Sometimes this is tackled quite literally, such as in the sixth season of Doctor Who or the Red Alert video game series that sees an alternate timeline where, without Hitler, Stalin instead invaded Europe and kicked off a war with America. It's a cool concept, but it works in a similar way - by altering the past so drastically, who knows what manner of wacky alternate universe you could cook up?

Anyway, the second prevalent narrative is that of the causal loop, or 'predestination paradox'. This is where a character travels back into the past and triggers an event that will later form the reason for their trip into the past to begin with. For example, cast your mind back to the finale of Christopher Nolan's Interstellar; after plummeting into the black hole and arriving in a mind-bending fifth dimension where he can manipulate time and space, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) realises that not only can he harness the knowledge of the dimension to save his family back on Earth, but he also needs to communicate with daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain) and send her the coordinates that originally prompted him to rocket off into space. He himself has to trigger the events that brought him to where he is now, completing the circle and fulfilling his own destiny.

It's a real headscratcher, ain't it? It's a troupe that has been used across other films too, most notably James Cameron's original Terminator movie (John Connor sends Kyle Reese back in time to protect his mother, Sarah Connor from Skynet; in the process, Kyle must father John Connor so that he can grow into the man who will send him back in time to get the idea). In the process of trying to kill their greatest enemy, Skynet inadvertently create him. See also: Predestination, Looper.

Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor
in Terminator Genysis
However, over the past few years, we've started to see a third narrative come into play using the time travel mechanic - alternate timelines that, theoretically, preserve the integrity of the chronology and sidestep any confusion over what actually happened by telling us that both (or all) of the timelines happened. Rather than using an alternate timeline as a point of conflict (Back To The Future Part II), they're now utilised by the business to explain where a film sits within (or, in this case, outside) the established canon.

Take 2009's Star Trek reboot for example; wary of overwriting the previous films, JJ Abrams concocted the idea of the new film sprouting from an event that created an alternate timeline, thus ensuring the original films still 'happened', and also allowing him the creative freedom to do with the Star Trek universe as he wished. Characters could die, planets could be consumed and villains could arise, all without tarnishing the beloved 80's series. It also allowed him to bring Leonard Nimoy back as 'Spock Prime' and illustrate how the films overlapped.

This idea also influenced Bryan Singer's 2014 X-Men 'soft reboot', Days of Future Past. With a messy chronology that overlapped and contradicted itself, Fox took the decision to rewrite the past with a film that cherry-picked what stayed canon, and what didn't. Technically, all the films still 'happened' - but from this point on, they'll follow the path blazed by Days of Future Past. Still following?

And so, onto the most recent example; Terminator Genysis. Alan Taylor's film similarly reworks the canon so that past events now took a different route, but it does so in a way that doesn't completely void each film from The Terminator to Terminator Salvation. It's convoluted and nowhere near as seamless as Star Trek - but further proof that time travel is now being utilised as a story device for not just creating drama, but erasing and reworking it from previous movies. Fictional time travel as a method of spawning new material, and new movies. An interesting thought, don't you think? Think of it this way - in the past (heh, pun intended), time travel caused all sorts of complications for our heroes; now, it's helping them solve their mistakes.

What is your favourite film involving time travel? Enjoy a good headscratcher, or do they tie you in knots? Let me know in the comments down below!


  1. Happy Thursday. I enjoy reading your blog. I would also like to invite you to participate in my upcoming blogathon in August. The link is below with more details

    1. Thanks for the kind words! I'll be sure to check it out :)



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