All Movies are Time Travel Movies

Hugo, taking time travel literally

So it turns out that Einstein was right: “The faster-than-light neutrino results, announced last September by the OPERA collaboration in Italy, was due to a mistake after all. A bad connection between a GPS unit and a computer may be to blame” (see story).

 This means two things: check your cables, people.

And that time travel is impossible.

But don’t tell that to the movies, which never seem to tire of time travel. One of the best and most interesting time travel movies, Midnight in Paris, just won Woody Allen an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  I’m not sure people think of it as a time travel movie, exactly, because it defies the basic conventions of the genre. The trailer doesn’t even allude to the main plot point, making it seem like a standard rom-com:

In keeping, the film resolutely does not attempt to explain how or why writer Gil, played by Owen Wilson playing Woody Allen, winds up in the 1920s, meeting his literary and artistic  idols like Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, Dali, and others.  No flux capacitor-equipped DeLorean.  No Klingon Bird-of-Prey that slingshots around the Sun.  No Time Displacement Sphere.  No black hole . No Time-turner.  No damn time machine at all. (Thanks for keeping track, Metacritic.)

Gil does not fret that his actions will have any ripple or butterfly effects.  He does not accidently kill his father, or flirt with his mother, or prevent his parents from marrying.  He does not have to protect the woman who will give birth to the hero who battles against the robots except he winds up being that hero’s father.  (So many Oedipal motifs!) No saving a hippogriff, or releasing zoo animals.  Especially no goddamn whales.  It’s something like magic, although only the trailer is stupid enough to use that word.  It’s a fairly light, conflict-free film, especially given Allen’s recent foray into murder thrillers and never-ending absorption with death. Through the journey into the past, Gil understands something important about himself, his fiancé, and his writing: his loves, and his life.  And it’s really a straightforward wish fulfillment, pure fantasy, for anyone nostalgic for a time they themselves have never known, anyone who imagines that there’s a golden age that they were born too late for.  As Gil discovers at the end [spoiler alert!], no matter where, or when, you go, there’s always an even earlier golden age to romanticize.  

Allen has done time travel before, though, in Sleeper, when Happy Carrot health-food store owner Miles ends up two hundred years in the future, only to discover that everything he thought was good for him is now known to be bad, and vice versa.

Yet food aside, things are not really better in the future, and not exactly worse, either, new technology to the contrary.  But rather, humans, whenever and wherever, are still very much the same.  Almost forty years later—or perhaps three hundred years earlier—Midnight in Paris suggests something similar: people have always been nostalgic, and scared, and hopeful, in the past as well.

Yet our fascination with time travel in movies does not wane.  And that is because all movies are time travel movies.  Bear with me.

Look at the two biggest winners from last night’s Academy Awards, The Artist and Hugo. 

While neither literally features time travel, the time traveler is the viewer.  Hugo, clearly thematically intertwined with Martin Scorsese’s own film preservation efforts, posits the idea that the camera itself is our time machine, capturing moments that we can then revisit each time we re-view—unless the film is lost or destroyed, taking with it our very history and key to the past.  Keys, cameras, locks, and clocks all feature prominently throughout the movie, not to mention an actual Automaton itself, a kind of anthropomorphized metaphorical time machine that connects Hugo to his own past and serves as a plot point to take him to his future. 

The Artist, which I confess I have not yet seen, even seems to go further: while Scorsese remade some of real-life filmmaker/character Georges Méliès work for Hugo, in general the 3D movie has a high tech, self-consciously postmodern style, calling attention to itself though its uses of angles, point of view shots, and extreme close-ups.  Not The Artist (as far as I know), which aspires to take viewers into the cinematic past through imitation as well as setting.

Much like Midnight in Paris, Hugo transports viewers back into 1930s-ish Paris, and then back further, through the recreated movies.  It implores us not to forget our past, even as it dares us to consider both Hugo’s own setting, as well as the turn of the century, when Méliès created his art, to be a cinematic golden age. 

Movies that take place in the past take us back to that past.  The same for movies set in the future.  They are our time machines.  And movies set in their own contemporary time?  Just wait long enough and you’ll discover that they take you back in time as well.  Sleeper looks a lot more like the 1970s than the 2000s, to say nothing of the 2200s.  Any movie + enough time=nostalgia movie. 

On the other hand, if we like Hugo, or Midnight in Paris, or The Artist, it’s hard not to see Scorsese in the end siding with Allen: the golden age is now. 

Good thing, too, because it’s the only time we’ve got.  Until scientists learn to check their cables, at least we have movies. 

And Dippin’ Dots: Ice Cream of the Future.

Time: Back to 60 minutes on this one.


Jesse Kavadlo

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2 thoughts on “All Movies are Time Travel Movies

  1. ted houser says:

    Jesse, what do you have against saving Whales? Did I miss the shout out to Time Bandits? Also you need to see the Artist. Great movie, reminds me of my childhood (ok, probably not).

  2. jkavadlo says:

    Hi Ted. Thanks for reading and commenting. Yeah, what I wrote seems a little harsh about the whales. Really, some of my best friends are whales. I just remember feeling annoyed at Star Trek’s general preachiness. I always preferred the irreverence of Cheech and Chong: “Save the whales/Shoot the seals.”

    I didn’t consciously reference Time Bandits here, but that’s another time travel movie fraught with Oedipal issues.

    Looking forward to seeing The Artist soon.

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