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Time Travel

March 26, 2010

Welcome to the blog formerly known as Scott Von Doviak. Personally, I am still known as that, but given that I’ve neglected this sad corner of the blogosphere for some eight months, I figured it was about time for a relaunch. I’ve taken the name of the column I wrote for the late(?), lamented arts zine The High Hat – and what better way to kick it off than with the great lost installment of The Bottom Shelf? OK, I dunno how great it is, but it is “lost” in the sense that I wrote it a couple years ago for the thus far nonexistent tenth issue of The High Hat – ironically enough, conceived as the “time” issue. Recently there have been rumblings that the Hat will rise again, perhaps in an even more exciting form, but until that happens, I have other plans for The Bottom Shelf. Plans that will be announced here, hopefully sooner than later. Until then, and in dubious honor of today’s release of Hot Tub Time Machine, here is The Bottom Shelf: Time Travel.

As America’s foremost movie janitor, I get a lot of questions. Granted, most of them are along the lines of “Hey loser, how about cleaning up the sticky puddle of Dr. Pepper and jujubes in the sixth row?” At which point I have to explain I’m not that kind of movie janitor. Once I’ve given my actual job description, the question I usually get is: “Don’t you realize that every minute you spend watching these terrible movies brings you a minute closer to your own death?” Well, thanks for mentioning it, Mr. Sunshine, but as it happens, that’s not the case! You see, I have a time machine. With the simple press of a button, I can watch every single Ernest movie and all 13 chapters of Friday the 13th, and not a single second will pass in the outside world. This also explains how I am occasionally able to meet my High Hat deadlines.

You may be wondering why I do not use this power for a greater good – for instance, going back in time and strangling Joel Schumacher and Michael Bay in their cribs. Well, it’s not that simple. There are rules to time travel, and I learned them all from the movies. Unfortunately, these rules tend to be flexible, contradictory and often downright nonsensical, but I will do my best to explain them, using examples straight from the bottom shelf.

The first question to ask about time travel is, of course, “What are the military applications?” For answers, we first turn to The Final Countdown, a 1980 thriller starring Kirk Douglas as Capt. Matthew Yelland, commanding officer of the U.S.S. Nimitz aircraft carrier. When a freak electrical storm creates a Star Trekkian space-time whirlpool, the Nimitz is whisked back in time to a few hours before December 7, 1941, which was not yet known as Pearl Harbor Day. In this way, time travel is a lot like reincarnation; people were always somebody famous in a previous life, and time travelers always seem to be transported to a historically significant date. If the Nimitz had been sent to, say, April 3, 1379, they wouldn’t have to wrestle with the cosmic implications of intervening in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Actually, as it turns out, they don’t do much philosophizing at all. You’d think the whole point of the movie would be for someone – say Martin Sheen’s systems analyst Warren Lasky – to argue that preventing the attack might lead to the U.S. staying out of World War II and Hitler winning and taking over the world. I mean, that’s how they’d do it on Star Trek, right? Spock would make the rational argument, Bones would say dammit, we can’t let innocent people die, and Kirk would wrestle Shakespearianly with the dilemma. Here, though, Douglas reasons that his orders from the Navy don’t allow for such nuances as what decade it may or may not happen to be, so it’s damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead. But as soon as he makes this decision, before they can act, the wormhole reappears and sends the Nimitz back to the present. So…what exactly have we learned here? Hasn’t this been a completely pointless exercise?

Well, almost. You see, one officer, Richard Owens, was left behind in 1941. And when Sheen gets back to the present, he learns that his until-now-unseen employer, the man who designed the Nimitz, is…a much older Richard Owens! Now I don’t profess to be an expert in temporal physics, but I’m calling bullshit on this. Let’s call it the “I’m My Own Grampaw” Paradox. Sheen couldn’t have gone back in time on the Nimitz unless Owens invented it, and Owens couldn’t have invented it unless he himself had gone back in time on the Nimitz, which couldn’t have happened unless…well, you see the problem. (Note: If you really want to get deep into time travel theory and discussions of N-Jumps and G-H timelines and sawtooth snaps, check out this site. Me, I’m just a layman.)

Nearly the exact opposite scenario is presented in The Philadelphia Experiment, based on a persistent urban legend that posits a horrible accident resulting from the Navy’s efforts to render a vessel invisible during World War II. In the 1984 movie, the Navy is merely attempting to achieve radar invisibility, so there’s a little stab at realism for you, at least until the destroyer U.S.S. Eldridge vanishes into another pesky time vortex. Two crewmen, David Herdeg and Jim Parker, bail over the side at the last second, slipping through the vortex and into the present-day (circa 1984, that is). Like a swabbie version of Bill & Ted, they find themselves in a strange new world of television, videogames, and most improbably, a Ronald Reagan presidency. It seems that an anti-missile test in 1984 has gone awry and caused a portion of a military base to vanish into hyperspace. The electromagnetic fields from these two separate experiments cross-connected, creating a hole in the space-time continuum. Now the Eldridge and the base are both floating in hyperspace, and unless the vortex is closed, it will suck the entire planet into its maw. You get the feeling shit like this happens all the time in the military, but before the congressional hearings can be convened, Herdeg agrees to be shot into the vortex, return to the Eldridge and smash up the invisibility generator with an axe. This seems to fix the problem, and Herdeg is able to return to the ’80s in time to catch the premiere of Miami Vice.

Clearly our armed forces have been unable to make the most of time travel technology, but what of its potential as a law enforcement tool? Supposing there was an officer authorized to police the use of this technology – some sort of, if you will pardon the expression, time cop? And if we all close our eyes and visualize this brave defender of temporal order, I suspect we’ll conjure the same noble visage: that of Jean Claude Van Damme. (Okay, maybe some of you pictured Ted King, who played the role on the short-lived Timecop TV series, but the rest of us want nothing to do with you.) With the invention of time travel comes a troublesome new government bureaucracy, the Time Enforcement Commission, put in place to ruin all the fun for the average Joe who just wants to drop in on the Civil War and rob a stagecoach with an AK-47.

Overseeing the TEC is oily Senator Aaron McComb (Ron Silver), who uses his position pretty much as you’d expect a corrupt politician to do, going back in time to do some insider trading and timely corporate takeovers on behalf of his younger self, thus making him a rich and powerful man able to finance a run at the presidency. Although he and everyone else involved with the TEC, including enforcement agent Max Walker (Van Damme), has been informed that even the most minor alteration of the timeline can create a ripple effect with potentially disastrous results, that doesn’t stop them from running around the past like Rickey Henderson on the basepaths. Van Damme certainly doesn’t mind creating a ripple effect in a few dudes’ heads, especially when it means his once-dead fiancé (Mia Sara) gets to live again. (It turns out her death was due to Silver’s mucking about in the past, and thus wasn’t supposed to happen in the first place.) The main lesson of time travel to be gleaned from Timecop is that the same matter cannot occupy the same space at the same time, which sounds sensible in the abstract, but here it means that if old Ron Silver and young Ron Silver accidentally touch, they will fuse together into a sort of melting muppet. Which I don’t think Einstein ever mentioned.

Time travel’s value as a law enforcement tool is again put to the test in Déjà Vu, Tony Scott’s 2006 thriller. Scott’s method is to ease you slowly and incrementally into the whole time travel premise, in the hopes that it will seem less science fictiony once you get there. At first Déjà Vu appears to be your basic Denzel Washington cop movie: as ATF Agent Doug Carlin, Washington is investigating a ferry explosion in New Orleans. (Interestingly, for our purposes anyway, the ferry is transporting sailors to shore from the U.S.S. Nimitz. Coincidence…or Final Countdown shout-out?) He hooks up with an FBI task force that claims to be using a very high-level form of electronic surveillance, compiling security and satellite footage to create a panoramic view of the tragic events as they occurred four days earlier. This “time window” cannot be stopped or rewound, although they can choose to focus on anything in the general vicinity of the waterfront. Washington is most interested in watching an attractive woman named Claire, thus turning the FBI time window into a billion-dollar version of the JenniCam.

Washington eventually learns that the time window is, in fact, exactly that. The FBI has learned to fold space and create a time wormhole, as geek agent Adam Goldberg demonstrates by folding a sheet of paper. See? Simple! So far they’ve only been able to send light through the wormhole, but after they successfully send a written note back four days, you know it’s only a matter of…well…time before Washington straps himself into the thingamabob and blasts to the past. He is able to rescue Claire and prevent the ferry explosion, but since Déjà Vu is set in the immediate aftermath of hurricane Katrina, you can’t help but think it might have been a better idea for Washington to use this technology to get Brownie and FEMA on the case a little quicker.

As those of you who have studied this field extensively already know, there is a scientific theory which states that a butterfly flapping its wings in China will eventually result in the release of a crappy Ashton Kutcher movie in America. Indeed, The Butterfly Effect posits perhaps the laziest explanation for time travel in cinematic history: Kutcher’s journals are magic. A college student who has been experiencing blackouts since he was a child, Kutcher finds he can travel back to traumatic episodes from his life simply by concentrating on the appropriate page from his diary. All of his attempts at fixing the past, however, result in Twilight Zone-ish changes to the present. Whether he’s talking creepy Eric Stoltz out of making a kiddie porn tape with his own children or preventing a cherry-bomb-in-the-mailbox prank from a killing a young mother and her baby, the only reward for his efforts is waking up as an amputee or a prison bitch. As a side effect, each new set of memories takes up more space in his brain, causing terrible headaches. (It’s easy to believe Ashton Kutcher’s brain would fill up rather quickly.) His timeline alterations also serve to screw up the life of his one true love, Kayleigh (Amy Smart), so eventually Kutcher goes back to the moment they met and acts like such a jerk, she never speaks to him again. Mildly satisfying, perhaps, but not compared to the director’s cut version, in which Kutcher uses home movies of his own birth to jump back into his mother’s womb and strangle himself with his umbilical cord. Honestly, I don’t even know if this counts as time travel – it’s more of a series of supernatural self-reincarnations – but it’s hard to imagine a more satisfying ending to any Ashton Kutcher movie.

It’s true that picking apart time travel movies is like shooting fish in a barrel (with the notable exception of Primer which defeated me in a previous edition of The Bottom Shelf), but that’s what I’m here for – and so far I’ve only scratched the surface. Remember Timeline, which I described in my Worst of 2003 edition as making “that Star Trek installment with the whales look like something out of Scientific American”? How about A Sound of Thunder, a laughably loose adaptation of the classic Ray Bradbury story in which Ben Kingsley (wearing an eeeevil white wig) oversees a travel agency offering trips to the prehistoric past? (What could go wrong there? One word: baboonosaurus.) And then there’s that 2002 remake of The Time Machine starring Guy Pearce. You know I’d love to tell you more about all of them, but guess what I’ve run out of?

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2 Comments
  1. William Ham permalink

    Ah, lord, I’m still laughing. As always, I bow to you.

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  1. The Bottom Shelf: Time Travel « Screengrab In Exile

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