Borne Back Ceaselessly Into the Past

My time on is coming to a close, much to my dismay.

A natural topic for my final article is cinema. I’m a movie fanatic, probably a 6 out of 10, where 1 is “watches a movie a week” and 10 is “recognizes the type of lens used in every shot.”

My favorite part of watching movies is the vicarious experience that you get seeing what someone else’s life is like and hopefully coming away a broader person. A close second is the storytelling aspect of film. I love books as well, but I think it’s a lot easier to experiment with storytelling forms in a film than in a novel. Watching Memento feels like a revelatory experience, but reading Ulysses feels like a chore (to most people, anyway).

So anyway, I thought I’d pick a category and share some of my favorites in that category, and explain what I like about them. Since I wish I could go back to last Monday and start writing for you guys all over again, I chose Time Travel as my category.

For some of these movies, the category itself is a bit of a spoiler, but if you haven’t seen them already, I hope you won’t mind in the name of me trying to suck you in.

12 Monkeys

12 Monkeys is classic storytelling — a dyed-in-the-wool time travel mystery. The movie adheres to time-honored sci-fi tradition by assuming that the past is unalterable; the hero trying to change the past is a tragic hero doomed to failure.

The mystery unfolds in a slow and steady manner while clues accumulate until you think your head is about to burst for not being able to piece them together. Then as the cold truth finally splashes over you like a bucket of ice water, your heart breaks for the poor sap crushed by forces beyond his control. But then there’s that last meeting . . .

Happy Accidents

Happy Accidents is an “Is he or isn’t he?” love story/mystery. Like Bruce Willis in 12 Monkeys, our hero is befuddled by his travels through time and struggling to make anyone believe him. Unlike 12 Monkeys, however, we don’t know whether he might be lying or possibly just crazy. The romance is cute and the clues are fun. One thing I like about the storytelling is that the movie sets itself up to break the usual rules of time travel well in advance, so that a crucial moment toward the end feels triumphant instead of feeling like cheating. The movie is light overall but worth watching.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

(Why is Judgment so hard to spell correctly the first time?) There are so many things to like about Terminator 2 that I don’t know if I’ll even be able to list them all.

First of all, I really like that the story abides by rules it doesn’t bother to explain but is consistent with. For example, there is obviously some rule about how often people (and Terminators) can come back to the past. Perhaps there is some great energy cost associated with sending them back. Perhaps there are nodes in space-time which are the only places that time travel is possible, which would explain why the time-travelers end up coming back so close to each other. Whatever the rules are, they are consistent and lend themselves to an interesting story — one time traveler each for the humans and the machines, roughly every 16 years. These rules, whatever they are, end up being violated for the spin-off TV show, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, to its detriment (there are time-travelers everywhere) and aren’t even addressed in the miserable Terminator 4. Once time-travel becomes “free,” then the story becomes much less interesting, because you get bogged down in questions of “Why didn’t they just . . .”, which is the death knell of interesting discussion.

Judgment Day also does a great job of one-upping the previous film — which was a B movie — in every aspect. The previously unstoppable machine is now outdated and struggles to keep up against superior killing technology. The acting is better across the board. Linda Hamilton is now playing the character who can’t get people to believe that she knows the future (a common theme in these movies), a part that makes it easy to sympathize with her because you know that she’s right. But she plays the part with such animal ferocity that she almost pushes you back onto the side of the loony bin people, as she holds a syringe full of cleaning fluid to a guard’s neck.

The moment where she comes face to face with the specter that killed her lover and haunts her nightmares is one of the finest moments in the film. A lesser storyteller would play the moment for laughs. A better one would have her lash out in anger. Cameron, then at the height of his powers, knows that pure terror would overwhelm her despite all her training, and in that moment you understand all her earlier ruthlessness and fall back into rooting for her.

Ok, I was right, I don’t have time to talk about everything T2 does right. Moving on.


Looper is such a departure from storytelling norms that I’m still working through how I feel about it. On one hand, it’s easy to say that the movie is really two movies — the first half is a sci-fi/time travel movie about Bruce Willis in the city, and the second is about a small boy on a farm in the countryside.

On the other hand, the movie really works. It’s involving, and I cared about all the principle characters.

I liked that they decided to just throw all the conventional rules about time-travel right out the window. Time travel doesn’t make sense, right? There’s no way you can say that “this movie depicts time travel correctly and this one doesn’t,” because there’s no such thing as time travel (yet?). So whatever you decide to do in a movie is perfectly fine, as long as it’s consistent and isn’t so stupid as to be distracting.

For instance (BIG SPOILER), in Looper, there’s this bizarre phenomenon where a younger version of one character is having his limbs lopped off, and the effects are playing out immediately on the “older” version of him that has traveled back to the same time as his younger self. This doesn’t “make sense” because in theory, the older version of the man would have been crippled and would never have lived a life that allowed him to come back in time at all. But because time travel itself doesn’t make sense, we can always find some way to explain what’s happening. In this case, we could postulate that the effects of the mauling will make their way through space-time eventually. It’s just that it will take years for the effects to make themselves known “in the future” and prevent him from coming back, but right now they can propagate through the very short space-time to the older version who is trespassing in the past. He’s literally around the corner in space-time terms, and he’s the same entity as the younger man. Of course that violates the law of conservation of mass, but who cares about laws? Time travel!

In short, I liked Looper and I hope you will too.


Primer is the holy grail of time travel movies for time travel nerds. Written and directed for a paltry sum by an ex-engineer in Dallas, the movie is delightfully and willfully obtuse, resisting all attempts to be consumed as pop culture (easily digested, easily forgotten). Repeated viewings are a necessity.

I like to call it the only Gene Wolfe movie that will probably ever be made, although I don’t know that anyone has ever agreed with me. I’m not going to spoil one iota of the film because it speaks for itself, especially when it doesn’t.

After you’ve seen the movie, there’s some fascinating history about the director and his attempts to do something in the Hollywood system, his ultimate detachment from said system, and the saga of his new movie Upstream Color, which I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t seen yet.

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This is a guest post by Nate Spears, who has taken over the while Shawn is on vacation at an undisclosed location.

Borne Back Ceaselessly Into the Past