The feelgood fantasy of films that let us leap back in time
Time-travel has always held a fascination for filmgoers. Perhaps it's because we all wish we could undo our mistakes, says James Mottram
Friday 24 August 2012
"This time-travel crap fries your brain like an egg." So says Jeff Daniels' mid-ranking criminal in Rian Johnson's new sci-fi film Looper. It's an apt statement for a sub-genre that continues to fascinate and frustrate filmmakers in equal measure. Because let's face it: time-travel movies, even the good ones, don't quite work. The logic will tie you up in a Möbius strip of knots until you drive yourself to distraction thinking about how altering events in the past will change the future.
Just a brief internet search will unveil dozens of sites devoted to deconstructing the temporal anomalies in even the most highly-regarded time-travel classics. How, for example, can the McFly siblings in the family photograph taken back in time in Back to the Future increasingly dissolve? Absurdly, the film theorises that this is simply because their parents' first encounter has been interrupted. But even if their births are jeopardised, how would this corrupt an already existing photo? Put it down to the grey area that is time-travel.
"It's a live-wire, a third rail in science fiction," says Johnson. "It's a tough, tough thing to deal with, logically speaking." Set in the near-future, his film posits a world where mob targets are sent back in time and killed by assassins known as "loopers", living 30 years earlier – to an era where time-travel has yet to be invented. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as one of these loopers, the games begin when his future-self (played by Bruce Willis) is sent back as his next target.
If the casting of Willis is a direct nod to his role as a time-travelling convict in Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys, Johnson seems not alone in his love of the genre. Already, we've had Men In Black 3 this year, taking Will Smith's Agent J back to 1969 to stop the murder of his partner. Meanwhile our own Richard Curtis has just shot About Time, a comedy he says is "about love, time-travel and the meaning of life" in which Domhnall Gleeson travels to the past to find himself a girlfriend (Rachel McAdams). "When you start thinking about time-travel it's a gripping subject, but I wanted to do a very small version of it," says Curtis. "So he can't travel places he hasn't been. He's always travelling within his own life."
At the other end of the scale is Colin Trevorrow's charming Sundance hit Safety Not Guaranteed. In it, a reporter and two interns go in search of the person behind an intriguingly written classified ad that reads: "Wanted: someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed."
That the advert is actually real, placed in the September 1997 issue of US survivalist magazine Backwards Home, makes the premise all the more delicious. Disappointingly, the explanation is rather more prosaic; author John Silveira, a senior editor at the magazine, placed it as a spoof page-filler. Nevertheless, it became an internet sensation. "John has boxes full of very sincere letters," reports Trevorrow, "from people like prisoners, who really want a time machine and were thinking it's real."
Therein lies the reason time-travel movies remain so popular. It's not just about travelling back to meet Napoleon or see the dinosaurs. There are "emotional needs", according to Trevorrow, that time-travel satisfies: the very thought that we can travel to bygone days, re-correcting costly mistakes and adjusting our destinies. However skewed the logic, it's going back to the past – and not the future – that keeps us hooked.
'Looper' opens on 28 September. 'About Time' and 'Safety Not Guaranteed' will open in 2013
*This article will appear in tomorrow's print edition of The Independent's Radar magazine
Review: Of Mice and Men
By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work
Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar
What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?
Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings
The actor has confessed to his own insecurities
Allotments are the focus of a new reality show
Arts & Ents blogs
Game of Thrones writer George RR Martin releases extract from new book
King Charles III London Underground theatre poster pixelated amid fears it might cause offence
The best movies on Netflix: 32 films that will end your endless scrolling
Grace Dent on TV: Game of Thrones has jumped the shark
Kingdom Tower: Construction of 1km high new world’s tallest building to begin next week in Saudi Arabia
The food poverty scandal that shames Britain: Nearly 1m people rely on handouts to eat – and benefit reforms may be to blame
Scottish independence: It is the English who should be on their knees, begging the Scots to vote ‘No’
Nigel Farage fatigue? Half of voters ‘immune’ to Ukip’s appeal
'Sinful': Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy comes under attack
Nigel Farage: I’m taking on the status quo, and the Establishment’s fighting back
Refugee facing deportation from Sweden saved by fellow passengers refusing to let plane leave
- 1 Easter egg hunt horror as mother finds dead body under deck of house
- 2 A bottle of wine a day is not bad for you and abstaining is worse than drinking, scientist claims
- 3 Unbeliebable: The White House offer 'no comment' to anti-Justin Bieber petition
- 4 Loch Ness Monster found on Apple Maps?
- 5 How We Met: Alison Moyet & Emma Kennedy: 'I knew we'd be friends because she was happy to make a prat of herself'