by John Constantine
Time travel is simultaneously the most useful and the most destructive tool in the storyteller’s arsenal. Need to bring someone recently and unexpectedly deceased back to the land of the living? Bam! Just go back and save them. Say it’s magic, say it’s a wormhole, say you have a time machine. It’s fantasy, man — you can do whatever you want.
Another classic example: you’re a human-hating artificial intelligence named Skynet and have been enjoying world domination for fifteen lovely post-apocalyptic years. The only problem is this dingus named John Connor. You can’t seem to get your army of robotic Terminators to kill him. Your solution? Send a robot into the past to kill his mom! Wait… that doesn’t make any sense at all. If you already have a time machine, why not just send back all kinds of Terminators to 1862 and have them take over then? That’s the problem with time travel: it never, ever makes any sense. The "Terminator" series, right up to this week's "Terminator Salvation," is one of the worst offenders in this category, creating an entirely new continuity with each new movie. Here are five others that warp the mind.
"The Time Machine" (2002)
There’s nothing inherently wrong with H.G. Wells’ literary science fiction classic. Guy builds time machine, goes to the future, finds humanity’s made a real mess of itself, goes even further into the future and witnesses the end of the Earth, goes back to his own time, leaves for an unknown destination. Fun stuff. Simon Wells’ 2002 film adaptation starring Guy Pearce, on the other hand, causes some serious headaches. In this version of the story, scientist Alexander Hartdegen builds his time machine to try and go back in time to keep his fiancée, Emma, from dying. Every time he goes back to try and save her, she ends up dying in a new and gruesome way. This version of "The Time Machine" ignores the traditional models of linear time and non-linear time and replaces them with the “F” word. No, not that one. Fate. The past can’t be changed, not because all of time has already happened, but because an unseen, omnipotent force will make sure things happen to people no matter how you change their circumstances. Where’s the fun in that?
"13 Going on 30" (2004)
So Jenna Rink (Christa B. Allen) turns thirteen years old in 1987. She’s an awkward teen, desperate to be popular. Her best friend and crush Matt (Sean Marquette) makes her this nice dollhouse for her birthday and, after being humiliated by the popular girls at her school, Jenna locks herself in a closet and wishes to be "thirty, flirty, and thriving". The dollhouse, being a nice dollhouse, makes it happen. Jenna has now transformed into Jennifer Garner, a thirty year-old fashion mag maven doing it her own way in the year 2000. Here’s what’s weird: everybody hates thirty year-old Jenna because apparently she’s a bitch, only now she has her thirteen year old brain, so she’s nice. What the hell kind of time travel magic puts you in your future body but gives you absolutely no heads up about the intervening years? The rest of the movie is about her trying to change her fate, end up with dreamboat Matt (who’s turned into Mark Ruffalo) and ultimately go back to the past to live a better life? "13 Going on 30" is a waste of the time travel button that leaves you wondering why it is that a first kiss is the crux of your future life.
"Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure" (1989)
Rockers Bill S. Preston Esq. (Alex Winter) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves) make music as Wyld Stallyns, music so rockin’ that it brings about a golden age of humanity where everyone’s happy, wears bitchin’ robes, and George Carlin is an authority figure. Ted and Bill are teenage screw-ups though, so Carlin has to go back in time to save Future Utopia by helping them score passing grades on their history project. They succeed in doing this by wrenching historical figures from their natural time. First of all, if time travel does alter the flow of time, aren’t Bill and Ted wreaking irreparable havoc on reality by pulling figures like Genghis Khan and Joan of Arc out of their place in history? Who cares if they reappear right after they left, they still know about a bizarre future they barely understand! It’d ruin everything! Also, by this movie’s logic, all of time happens simultaneously. For Future Utopia to exist, everything in the past had to have already happened, which means nothing that anyone does in the flick matters. Yeah. I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around that for twenty years!
"Back to the Future II & III" (1990)
Time is very malleable and fragile in the world of "Back to the Future." Do one little thing like bring a sports almanac back from the future and you turn 1985 Hill Valley, California into a demilitarized zone. Here’s the thing though: if time’s that easy to change, if one little incident can alter the entire future going forward, how in the hell could a sports almanac from one possible 2015 accurately document thirty years of sporting events from 1955 to 1985! It doesn’t make sense! Bringing the magazine back changed time so we can assume none of those baseball games would go the same way! That’s "Back to the Future II," which leads directly into "III." "Back to the Future III" has two big whopper problems, and they both involve the ending. First, Flea from The Red Hot Chili Peppers was never in a gigantic car accident in 1985. "Bloodsugarsexmagic" would have never happened! Also, time travelling trains? That makes no sense whatsoever.
"Donnie Darko"/"Southland Tales" (2001/2006)
To date, Richard Kelly has made two movies that are both obsessed with time travel. His first, "Donnie Darko," is the most interesting. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Donnie is supposed to die when a jet engine falls through a wormhole, sending it hurtling into the past and, subsequently, into his bedroom. At first Donnie doesn’t die, and this creates a “pocket universe”, a doomed little abscess on the outskirts of time where things happen differently than in the normal universe. Problem with the pocket universe is that it’s unstable and will implode at a critical moment. In the grand scheme of things, the only thing that travels through time in reverse is the jet engine. Donnie though, he can see everyone else around him travelling forward through time. Here time travel is pictured as a person’s intent, a glowing, tubular wormhole projected out from a person’s chest that shows where they will be in the immediate future because that’s where their desire is leading them. Kinda like that scene from "The Abyss." Trippy. Then there’s Southland Tales. I dare any of you to explain what the hell happens in this monstrous pile of crap. All I could figure out was that The Rock goes back in time and Stifler travels into the future. My brain hurts just thinking about it.