Notes on Literature and Movies: The Time Travel Motif in Movies and Popular Fiction

The other day I happened to be watching The Time Traveller’s Wife on TV. It got me thinking about the myriad creative forms in which the time travel motif has been made use of in movies and popular fiction. Off the top of my head I can think of: Back to the Future, Timeline, The Colour of Magic, It happened in Boston?, Meet the Robinsons, Planet of the Apes, Sphere, and even The Shining (how?).

Brief thoughts on a few such books and movies:

Back to the Future

I’m pretty sure everyone has their very own favourites when it comes to fictitious cinematic worlds that they like revisiting time and time again. Mine is Hill Valley of Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future trilogy: A self-contained cosy little town which only becomes more and more perfect every time Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and ‘Doc’ Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) make one of their space-time continuum ripping passes into the past and back to the future and every time I watch it on DVD. Call it goofy sci-fi comedy or comic action adventure, it’s my favourite interpretation and implementation of the time-travel idea on film: Intelligently planned, written, and executed with some great quotable lines. Watch closely and you’ll notice the meticulous attention to detail.

Meet the Robinsons

A heart warming animated film on following your dreams against repeated failures–but that isn’t the reason it’s on this list. One of my pet-peeves when it comes to time-travel movies is that they simply ignore the role of human free-will and Meet the Robinsons fills that yawning gap. In that sense, the philosophy that underlies the movie–“Keep moving forward”–takes on an additional connotation: Free-Will keeps moving forward in time too! Without spoiling anything I’ll just say that free-will is both the cause of and, crucially, the solution to the conflicts in the movie. But both Back to the Future and Meet the Robinsons keep away from exploring the interesting but kill-joy-slippery psychological question of how taking the joy of uncertainty, the thrill of the hunt so to speak, out of the process of invention affects the inventor.

Michael Crichton’s Timeline

There have been many prior works of science fiction that relied on the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics (physics on the sub-atomic scale) to spin tales of time travel. Unlike these, Timeline, like most of Crichton’s novels, is more of a techno-thriller that envisions a quantum mechanics-based time travel technology and applications to archeology and the study of history. A crucial part of the first half of the novel is a popular exposition of the multiverse interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic

This truly great fantasy novel is the first volume in Pratchett’s Discworld series. Apart from being irresistibly funny (a comic fantasy, and not a parody), it contains one of the most deftly executed time travel sequences in literature. This virtuoso sequence again draws on the multiverse interpretation of quantum physics.

The Time Traveller’s Wife (The Movie)

This splendidly acted film isn’t a great movie. It is shameless in the rather manipulative use of its time travelling protagonist. The reason it’s on this list is the fact that it opens up a simple (almost trivial) yet interesting mathematical problem, once you completely accept what’s going on. I’ll try to elaborate on this in a subsequent post.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (The Movie)

In general, movies take one of two possible routes to execute their time travel sequences: Sequential and Concurrent. Sequential time travel involves ‘present day’ characters going back in time to alter the past. It is only after returning to the ‘present’ that they notice the consequences of their actions. Time travel in Back to the Future is explicitly sequential. Azkaban uses the other kind, concurrent time travel, in which the consequences of future actions in the ‘past’ are felt in the ‘present’ even before the ‘actual’ time travel happens. Harry and Hermione notice and react to the actions of their future selves in the present. On travelling to the past, they make use of this information to mould their actions. Concurrent time travel is self-reflexive and therefore harder to execute without falling into paradoxical pitfalls. In Azkaban, it’s done to perfection.

The Lake House

Has a rather interesting premise. While most time travel films involve characters separated in time by at least a few tens of years, this one is a love story between characters separated by a couple of years, but occupying the same space! The actual time travel is undertaken not by the characters themselves, but by their letters of correspondence through a common mail box. There’s something genuinely beautiful about the image of a time-warped mail box.

Robert Anson Heinlein’s All You Zombies

This nightmarish short story is arguably the most thorough exploration of the paradoxes of time travel. Suffice to say that there’s only one individual in this tale of many characters (zombies?).

Watchmen (The Movie)

Tachyons are hypothetical particles that always travel faster than light and therefore, always travel backward in time. This ability of tachyons forms the backbone of a crucial plot device linked to Dr. Manhattan’s ability to look into his future.

Groundhog Day

I think of Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day as an implicit time traveller. He is, after all, stuck in the same day and one could imagine a time-aware time-warp, a portable worm-hole stuck on….no! Groundhog Day is a great existential comedy, a fantasy spun around an idea (my thoughts on Source Code, another such fantasy, can be found here) and I think I should leave it at that.

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5 Responses to Notes on Literature and Movies: The Time Travel Motif in Movies and Popular Fiction

  1. Im not sure whether I am dismayed or amazed you managed to address that theme without mentioning Dr Who.

    Glad you squeesed in Pratchett though.

    I have a few items on him on my blog.

    • Surendran says:

      I feel a tinge of disappointment too when lists leave out my favourites, but that’s precisely why this post isn’t a list; it’s more of a subjective enumeration in the spirit of Umberto Eco. I’m sure you’re very fond of Dr. Who (and the ‘About’ page on your blog proves it), and have every right to be dismayed. Dr. Who is now, I understand, an integral part of English pop culture, but here in India we don’t get to see him much. It was only very recently that I discovered podcasts of the Dr. Who audio plays. I loved them. But I’m not (yet) fond enough or knowledgeable enough of the series to write about it. Terry Pratchett, on the other hand, I’m very fond of and have taken the time to wrap my mind around his work. This post wouldn’t have been complete without his work.

  2. Dr Who has been an integral part of British culture for the best part of 50 years, but I don’t blame you for leaving it out, it just surprised me. It is that kind of wonderful british show that is fantastic at it’s best and just silly at it’s worst.

    Since you are a Pratchett Fan, I wondered if you had heard of Douglas Adams, or his most famous contribution the Britain, Humour, and Science Fiction, ‘The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy’. A similar kind of Sideways glance at the universe. Douglas was Producer of Dr Who for a few years.

    When I met Sir Terry in 1987, it was fairly clear that the distinction between his Fantasies and his realities was quite distinct. I wonder seeing later interviews and appearences on TV if things have not become a little more blurred over time. Not that I think he doesn’t know the difference, more that his sidestep from conventional reality has allowed him to ask questions of reality that he would not have otherwise asked. Anywhich way the books are hilarious and wonderful and the thought that they are coming to an end fills me with sorrow.

  3. Cinthya says:

    This is an interesting collection. Glad you picked Back to The Future as your favourite. It’s goofy and funny, but yes, very meticulous in execution.

    • Surendran says:

      It’s one of my dad’s favourite movies. He used to narrate it as a bedtime story when I was a kid; so it’s no wonder that Back to the Future remains an all time favourite!

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