What is it about time travel that so captures the cinematic imagination? Undoubtedly, a lot of the appeal of the film of temporal displacement, particularly in recent years, has to do with the “geek-out factor”. The implications of moving back and forth in time stir the mind through their utter complexity. If a person goes back to a former moment in their life and meets their old self, what would happen? If an individual changes the events of the past, how will that alter the future? Musing on these imponderables and parsing the details of the systems that support them appeal to a certain human need to have our minds blown, but they also speak to a certain desire to obsess over the minute details of impossible operations.
A fascination with the forking paths of destiny is certainly nothing new (H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, for example, was published in 1895; Borges gave the idea a playful tweak some 70 years ago), but recent decades have seen a new fascination with popular culture artefacts that have fun with the symbiosis between past and present, whether it’s American animated sitcoms — The Simpsons and Family Guy have both tackled the phenomenon, British pop music — The Fall’s 1983 single ‘Wings’, or cinema. The latter offers filmmakers a chance to explore the possibilities of time travel, and the genre has given rise to a series of increasingly intricate mind-benders. Moving far beyond such relatively straightforward time-travellers as the Back to the Future trilogy (1985-1990), films like Shane Carruth’s low budget Primer (2004) and Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes (2007) posited a much more intricately mapped relationship between past and present.
Vigalondo’s film offers, in particular, an interesting example of the genre because, although it initially seems to be chiefly concerned with the “geek-out factor”, it builds interesting moral implications into its convoluted, yet utterly clear, narrative. Timecrimes tells the story of a man who, glimpsing a naked woman through a nearby window, goes looking for the object of his voyeurism only to discover her dead body, a man with his head wrapped in a bloody bandage who stabs him in the arm, and a time machine that sends him back an hour and allows him to watch his former self repeat the actions he’s just performed. Timecrimes invites the expected level of technical contemplation since, in time-travel movies of this level of intricacy, the elements rarely quite add up to anything whose coherence can withstand intense scrutiny. But not only does Vigalondo’s film come pretty close, it also uses the act of voyeurism and a series of unexpected revelations to implicate both character and viewer in a moral quandary.
The same could be said of Rian Johnson’s new movie Looper, a similarly mind-blowing time-traveller, but one that is less concerned with exploring the details of its system than in establishing characters and exploring the ethical implications of their actions. The film stars Joseph Gordon Levitt as Joe, a “looper”, or hired killer who rubs out men from thirty years in the future who are teleported back in time by the mob bosses who wish to do away with them. Because time-travel has been made illegal in the future, though, the loopers themselves must eventually be killed. When future Joe (Bruce Willis) is sent back in time to be dispatched by his younger self, the latter botches the attempt and allows him to escape. So the older Joe begins searching for the child version of the mob boss who will eventually order the series of hits on loopers, while young Joe hides out.
To be sure, the film spends a good chunk of time explicating the “laws” of its time-travel game via a series of voiceovers of absolute precision. But once the ground rules are in place, the film sets aside further speculation and simply lets its story play out. As Joe’s future self admonishes him when the two first meet and hash out the details of their situation, there’s little point in sitting there all day and “drawing diagrams with straws.” It’s a policy the movie adheres to, using the time-travel element as a way to add moral heft to a story where a young man is confronted with his future destiny and then asked to make the necessary decisions that will alter or confirm that fate. In this way, Rian Johnson’s film offers the best of both sides of the genre: allowing the viewer to have his or mind blown by the details of temporal displacement while putting those geeky details in the service of a powerful, character-based drama.
Andrew Schenker is a New York-based film critic, email@example.com
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