Though it’s still about a month away, we’re fast approaching October 21, 2015, the date that all the future-shenanigans occur in “Back to the Future, Part II.” And if I’m going to do a lead-in to that date featuring several articles about movies, time travel and time travel movies, I’d better go ahead and get started now, because past events — ha! — have indicated that I’m not good at keeping to a schedule or multi-tasking. When you have to secretly leave your day job for 30 minutes to email an article because you forgot to save the stupid thing to Dropbox, this is the kind of stuff you learn about yourself.
Today, we’ll do… time loops? Yeah, that sounds good. Just so we’re on the same page here, I’m referring to the act of a person or group of persons being forced to relive the same period of time over and over again (as opposed to simply travelling to the past or future). And because I’m as concerned with the particularities of your pop culture ingestion as conservatives are with the structural integrity of Dan Savage’s anus, I’m providing you with a handy list of films featuring time loops to get you better acquainted. Snark peppered throughout, because of course it is.
One of a few films on this list that deals with questions of self-fulfilling prophecy and the notion of fate, Timecrimes (a Spanish film) was quietly released eight years ago, and has since garnered a fairly substantial cult following. It concerns a man named Hector who, after watching a young woman disrobe near his house in the countryside, is caught up in a bizarre series of events involving a mysterious scientist, two other versions of himself and, frankly, some darkly comic slapstick.
It’s notable on this list — or just when you’re generally considering films about time travel — for featuring very few special, or even practical, effects. The time jumps are all indicated by editing, dialogue and — stay with me here — how many Hectors are running around at any given time. It’s a gruesome, bare-bones little film, and is further commendable for how well it resolves itself without going Hollywood… though the upcoming American remake might take care of that.
I’m surprised, and also not, that this film kind of flew under the radar when it was released. Bruce Willis was and is still a fairly bankable star, but you’ve also got a pretty good idea of what you’re going to get when you cast him in a movie: gruff, no nonsense, mildly self-effacing, bald. Aside from his role in “Death Becomes Her” — easily his greatest performance to date, for what it’s worth — that’s par for the course. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, by the same token, still hadn’t fully formed his identify as Hollywood good-looking dude cum indie darling-by-choice, so no one was sure what to expect here.
I certainly didn’t expect much; I went to see this thing for $2.50 on a Sunday afternoon at the local second-run theater. I ate Sno Caps. SNO CAPS. That’s where my head and heart were at. But it delivers on all fronts: the atmosphere is somewhere between “Blade Runner’s” sci-fi noir vibe and an episode of Marvel’s “Agents of Shield.” It’s dirty, but a bit clarified to be labeled “dark.”
Anyway, Gordon-Levitt plays a “looper,” an assassin paid to kill targets sent into the past by criminal organizations from post-2074, the year that time travel was invented. The catch, for a looper, is that they know going into the profession, that they’ll have to eventually kill their older selves — essentially, the assassin sent back from the future. This is known as “closing your loop,” and it functions as severance pay; the assassin is paid enough for that hit to set them for life. Some can handle the stress of that knowledge; others try to avoid it and go nuts in the process. As you might have expected, Willis is Gordon-Levitt’s older self, and when the younger man has to kill the older, it goes wrong, and temporal f***ed-upedness ensues.
It raises a different question than Timecrimes and other films of its ilk: namely, the nature of action and consequence, and how willing we may be to act, depending on who suffers those consequences, and when. I.e., do you kill a child if you know he’ll grow up to be Hitler… or in this case, a telepathic supervillain known as the Rainmaker, who will go on to create the timeline that results in you losing everything? On the flip side, can you pull the trigger, literally, if you know that the consequences won’t be suffered for years to come… even if you’re the one suffering? Time is deceptively powerful when it separates action from consequence, and “Looper” underscores it.
La Jetee (1962)
Ostensibly the inspiration for the film “12 Monkeys,” this French short film tells its compact story mainly in black-and-white still photographs. A man, a prisoner in a post-World War III society, is sent back to before the nuclear war that devastated the planet to try and change the events. He is able to withstand the sheer impact of time travel only because he has obsessively held on to a vague memory as a child on a train platform, but can’t recall what it is. He makes it to the past, falls in love, and seemingly completes his mission, but faces a great consequence because of it, something that brings the narrative full-circle.
La Jetee is an absolute tone poem of a film, and a gut punch at that. Most of this has to with the man’s realization that, in the words of the Filmslie blog, “the moment that has marked his entire life is the memory of his own death.” Thus, as in real, linear life, death defines us by its finality, by the context in which our lives are held after the fact. The weight of all of this comes crashing down on the man at the very instant of his death, and the existential impact should knock us all out of our chairs.