This week marks the release of a certain film – a certain Hot Tub Time Machine – that promises to change the way we view the universe… forever. Or possibly make us laugh. However, since there are relatively few “Hot Tub” movies to recommend, Julia Rhodes and I (William Bibbiani!) have decided to present some of our favorite Time Travel movies in this edition of… The Weekly Listicle!
DÉJÀ VU (dir. Tony Scott, 2006)
Tony Scott and I have a rocky relationship, because for every Man on Fire or True Romance he also seems to direct at least one Domino or The Fan. The cloying trailer for Déjà Vu (which thought it was terribly clever by making us rewatch parts of the trailer over again – ha ha ha, you jackasses) did not seem promising and yet there I was, opening weekend, ready vomit into my popcorn at yet another overproduced by-the-numbers thriller with a ridiculous time travel gimmick. And yet, to my surprise, my popcorn remained untainted as I watched a fiendishly clever science fiction story that successfully justified the origin of an ontological paradox.
If you’re not sure you read that last bit right, I’ll provide a little geeky exposition. An ontological paradox is a device used in many time travel stories. To put it simply, it occurs when somebody goes back in time and does something which eventually causes them to go back in time in the first place. The concept presupposes that travelling backwards in time has no effect on the present (or future), because time is fixed. This creates a paradox because there is no origin for the events that unfold. If going back in time is what caused you to go back in time, then it stands to reason that at the start of this chain of events you never went back in time, and… Oh forget it. It’s a paradox. For other examples, see The Terminator franchise (if there had been no John Connor then Kyle Reese would never have gone back in time to become John Connor’s father), and certain parts of Back to the Future (if Marty McFly hadn’t played Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry then Chuck Berry would never have written Johnny B. Goode.)
Déjà Vu takes place immediately after a devastating terrorist attack on a New Orleans ferry. ATF Agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) investigates the catastrophe with remarkable success, bringing him to the attention of FBI Agent Paul Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer), who has a unique proposition. Doug’s knowledge of the New Orleans area and eye for detail is exactly what they need for a special project that enables Paul’s team to look into the past (4 days, 6 hours, 3 minutes and 45 seconds into the past, to be precise), but only in real time. They can’t fast forward to the exact time of the explosion, and they can only watch the events in a specific geographic area around the device, and from one angle at a time. They need Doug to help them determine what they need to watch at any given time to identify the terrorist responsible.
And that’s… a pretty neat idea, and Déjà Vu sure gets a lot out of it. When they finally spy the killer, for example, they use the device to follow him to his base of operations. But when he moves out of the device’s range it’s up to Doug to use a headset that extends that range, placing him in a high speed car chase playing catch up with a vehicle that was driving on the same road four days ago in different conditions. Very clever. Eventually Doug learns that the machine can be used to send things back in time, but that every time the team has tried they ended up creating an ontological paradox (or at least a predestination paradox, but let’s not get distracted again). If something goes back in time, then it always went back in time. As the film progresses, Doug begins to see evidence that he himself has gone back in time to stop the terrorist attack, and that he has clearly failed… possibly multiple times. Doug of course becomes determined to go back and stop the cycle, which over the course of a clever monologue performed by Adam Goldberg posits exactly how an ontological paradox can be created in a way that makes perfect sense, forever removing that pesky “paradox” part. It’s actually kind of brilliant.
Déjà Vu has a flaw, and a pretty big one. It’s not that the film’s logic is lacking, but rather that the presentation is. There is a specific plot point missing from the film that isn’t necessary to follow the story, but is necessary to fully understand the time travel logic. It’s implied, but never actually shown. I can’t explain without delving into MASSIVE spoilers, but if you really want to know (or want to test your own theory) shoot me an e-mail from my bio page and I’ll hook you up.
TIMECRIMES (Los Cronocrimenes) (dir. Nacho Vigalondo, 2007)
My love note to Déjà Vu ran pretty long so I’ll try (try) to keep my second love note, to writer/director Nacho Vigalondo’s own dizzying presentation of an ontological paradox, relatively brief. Timecrimes tells the story of Hector (Karra Elejalde), who was having a pretty boring day at his house in the country when he sees through his pair of binoculars a mysterious and attractive woman undressing in the woods. Hector, being a normal man, hikes over to investigate further only to be stabbed in the arm by a mysterious lunatic with his head wrapped in pink bandages. Hector then runs for his life into a laboratory where he meets a scientist (played Nacho Vigalondo) who agrees to hide Hector from his attacker in a mysterious contraption. Hector gets inside, only to emerge… one hour earlier.
From here, Timecrimes gets ridiculously complex, but never – to Vigalondo’s remarkable credit – confusing. Since I’ve already mentioned that the film revolves around an ontological paradox you have probably assumed that Hector was involved in the mysterious events that led him to go back in time, in more ways than one. Timecrimes spends a few minutes going exactly where a perceptive audience member expects it to go, and then it goes completely nuts. Everything you thought you had figured out actually happened differently than you surmised (on multiple levels) and at the heart of it all is one poor bastard who has absolutely no concept of how deep he keeps getting himself into this incredible scenario. As the film progresses, Hector finds himself accidentally causing certain events to come to pass, and ultimately making certain events come to pass not because he wants them to, but simply because he knows they already happened before and figures that they have to happen again. He becomes the ultimate victim of circumstance, and the ending is as tragic as it is thrilling… that is to say, very-very-very.
If you ever watch the Sci-Fi Channel (I refuse to spell it “SyFy,” thank you very much) you’ve probably seen one of the many ultra-low-budget sci-fi/horror movies that consists of actors running around in the woods because, hey, the woods are a cheap location. Timecrimes is the ultimate low-budget-sci-fi-guys-running-around-in-the-woods-movie, and alongside its close cousin Primer is a superb example of how to make an incredible movie, science fiction or otherwise, with limited resources. It narrowly slipped out of my Top Ten Films of the Last Decade.
As one final treat I leave you with Nacho Vigalondo’s hilarious and energetic short film 7:35 in the Morning, for which he was rightfully nominated for an Oscar in 2005:
DONNIE DARKO (dir. Richard Kelly, 2001)
On October 2, 1988, a jet engine crashes through the roof of a suburban house. The inhabitant whose room it demolishes is teenage Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), and he just happens to have sleepwalked out of the house that night. In a dream, giant and surreal Frank the bunny tells Donnie he has 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds before the world ends. The remainder of Richard Kelly’s 2001 cult classic is spent telling the tale of Donnie’s month, the hallucinations and ruminations through which he discovers the meaning of his own life, and the lives he affects.
Many time travel movies are predicated on the notion of the “butterfly effect:” the idea that a single flutter of a butterfly’s wings could change the world forever. In the case of Donnie Darko, whether one boy lives or dies could change the world forever. Creepy Frank the bunny, really a costumed man, appears continually to Donnie, offering him advice and telling him he should commit evil deeds—flooding the school, burning down a house. Due to Frank’s machinations, Donnie meets Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone); he gets a teacher (Drew Barrymore) fired; he discovers a former teacher’s book on time travel; he ruins self-help guru Jim Cunningham’s (Patrick Swayze) life. The movie’s time travel theme is not simply a plot device; between expositions, the film is full of montages shot in slow motion or speeded up. Perpendicular and upside-down shots create a sense that the world isn’t how it should be.
I’m not going to offer any crazy theories on the film; too many others have better ones, including director Kelly, who in 2004 released a Director’s Cut of the film which differs in various ways from the theatrical cut. The movie is full of tiny details viewers only catch upon second or third viewing, and the script is written with a deft and delicate touch that grants its protagonists, adult and teenager, a depth that most time-travel themed films don’t bother with. The soundtrack features classics by Tears for Fears, Echo and the Bunnymen, Duran Duran, and INXS, and a painfully sad Gary Jules cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” that plays over the film’s final character montage (I’m not ashamed to say I still have a mix album I made for myself in 2001 that features a big chunk of the soundtrack). Donnie Darko nimbly straddles that difficult line between drama, comedy, and science fiction, and the script is filled with infinitely quotable lines. It became a cult classic for good reason. Last year, a straight-to-video sequel based on Donnie’s sister Samantha (Daveigh Chase, “Big Love”) called S. Darko was released, trying to cash in on the film’s status. The original film is smart, strange, and affecting, playing with the notion that the most insignificant of events can alter the history of time… but sometimes studios should stop at one. (The sequel got terrible reviews.)
PLEASANTVILLE (dir. Gary Ross, 1998)
Pleasantville isn’t strictly a time travel movie. It’s the story of two present-day teenagers who get sucked into the black-and-white television world of 1958—so it’s not truly a journey back in time so much as travel to an alternate dimension (though to be fair, I remember once asking my parents what the world was like when it was black and white—to four-year-old me, the past was an alternate universe). The notion of the butterfly effect is important here: David and Jennifer become Bud and Mary Sue, and by their very entrance into the utopia of Pleasantville, they change the world forever. In effect, they bring progress, change, and time with them into a static world. No place is meant to be perfect, and no universe is immune to the passing of time.
The movie follows David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), disaffected youth in 1998, who are surrounded by depressing statistics: the number of available jobs and median income is decreasing, HIV infection is rising, and global warming is going to kill us all, basically. During a spat over the TV remote, they meet a mysterious TV Repairman (played by classic TV standby Don Knotts) who zaps them into the universe of “Pleasantville,” a classic TV show set in an ideal world. “Pleasantville” is based on the Hays Code-enforced idea that the world was above all else, “pleasant” in the 1950s. No sex, no drugs, no cursing, no rock n’ roll; Pleasantville is populated entirely by beautiful, white-bread American kids and parents living in a suburban paradise in utter ignorant bliss before David and Jennifer appear.
As the citizens of Pleasantville begin to change, they and their surroundings pop into deeply saturated Technicolor, the likes of which hasn’t been used this well since The Wizard of Oz. When mother Betty (Joan Allen) has an orgasm, a tree bursts into flames. Soda shoppe proprietor Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels, exercising his aptitude for drama) discovers his talent as an artist, suddenly bathing Main Street in scandalously bright nudes and still lifes. The kids of Pleasantville discover rock ‘n roll music, sex, and reading.
The film is also a sort of American history lesson; tensions erupt in chaos between the “coloreds” and the black-and-white people, leading to a courtroom scene that segregates the Technicolor citizens to the upper floor. Teenagers riot, burning books on a bonfire, and it’s decided that things should remain “pleasant” in Pleasantville. “People change?” father George asks David innocently. “Yeah,” David answers. “Can they change back?” George inquires hopefully. “I don’t know, I think it’s harder.” Again, while the movie isn’t really about time travel, per se, it is about the ways in which time affects the world. Progress is unstoppable, time inevitable; people change irretrievably, and that the world isn’t meant to be a utopian paradise.
On a different note, while watching it last night I couldn’t help thinking the 12-year-old movie is a bit prescient, what with Texas altering history in its textbooks, the Tea Party screaming racist and hateful things at lawmakers, and Sean Hannity decrying climate change.