Time travel: why do we bother? We’ve been fascinated with it for so long — hell, I published a story that discusses it — but we do it so poorly. There are some stories that break past the challenges of the topic. I just wrote an entire essay about one of them last week. But for every good example of time travel in fiction, there are a number of bad examples to accompany it.
Time travel is a theme and plot device that is pretty hard to sell these days. This is in part because of how heavily saturated the market is with fiction involving time travel, which is no surprise given just how long the theme has been in existence. The exact origins of forward and backward time travel appearing in fiction aren’t easy to discern, though one of the earliest notable examples would be Samuel Maddon’s Memoirs of the Twentieth Century from 1733, in which characters from the late 1990’s write letters that are sent back in time. These earliest examples of time travel were achieved via supernatural elements; in Memories of the Twentieth Century, the letters are successfully sent back in time to the narrator via his guardian angel, and although it’s never explained how the angel acquired these letters, it’s notable that this is one of the earliest examples of fiction discussing the idea of precious artifacts being sent back in time. Later, science fiction writers would begin to toy with the idea of time travel being achieved via scientific and mechanical means. H. G. Well’s The Time Machine is likely the most prominent piece of fiction to conceptualize such a device, and is often attributed with popularizing the concept.
The bigger reason that time travel is hard to sell, however, is because it’s so damn difficult to do well. It’s a concept that naturally tends to create logical paradoxes if the writer doesn’t fully think things through. Part of this depends on the rules of time travel, which are different for each piece of fiction. Generally speaking, a writer may seek to establish such rules during the course of their story so as to possibly explain away any possible paradoxes. The rules of one piece of fiction don’t apply to another, so a writer has a choice. That writer may choose to define the laws of time travel in their fiction, in which case the reader must take those laws into account when considering paradoxes. Barring this, the writer may choose to keep the laws of time travel as vague as possible so possible paradoxes can’t be considered because the reader doesn’t have enough information. I’ll admit to choosing the latter in my own fiction.
Take Back to the Future as a good example of time travel. The protagonist Marty realizes he very well could disappear from existence altogether due to the changes he’s made in the past, but the fact that he manages to set things right allows him to continue his existence, thus preventing a paradox (if he were to cease to exist, then he could have never come back in time in the first place, thus he could have never changed the natural course of events, thus he would exist once again, and so on and so forth ad infinitum). The fact that he continues to retain his memories from his life prior to the changes brought about by his actions in the past is then explained in Back to the Future 2 with the use of a split timeline.
An even better example of time travel in fiction would be the short story ” ‘—All You Zombies—’ ” or its film adaptation Predestination. I actually won’t go into detail about that one. I don’t have plans to do an essay on it, but I won’t spoil it because I think it’s something that anyone with an interest in time travel fiction should read for themselves.
Then there’s the opposite end of the spectrum. The stories that do time travel poorly, the ones that don’t consider the ramifications of their actions, the ones that failed to see the flaws in their laws and how they apply to the events of the plot. These are the bad ones, the worst of the worst, the ones to be nitpicked from now until the end of time.
Stories like Looper.
Yeah, there’s spoilers.
First, understand that there are three main timelines, or loops, that we need to consider, all revolving around the main character Joe. The first one, which is the one that Young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) originates from, will be referred to as Loop A. The second one, the one that Old Joe (Bruce Willis) originates from, will be referred to as Loop B. The third one, which we never actually see, will be referred to as Loop C. The point at which Old Joe is sent back in time will be referred to as the end of a loop, and the point at which he appears in front of Young Joe will be referred to as the beginning of a loop.
Next, consider all the information that we’re provided. At the beginning of Loop B, Old Joe appears back in time from Loop C, at which point he is immediately killed by Young Joe with no problems. We see Young Joe go on with the rest of his life until he finally settles down and marries. This happiness doesn’t last long however, as a violent telekinetic known as the Rainmaker is hunting down old Loopers and sending them back in time to be killed by their younger selves. Old Joe is finally captured, and in the process of being captured his wife is murdered. Seeking to prevent this from ever happening, Old Joe decides that he’ll attempt to kill the Rainmaker while he’s still a young child. Old Joe succeeds in thwarting his captors at the end of Loop B, and as he appears at the start of Loop A, he manages to escape before Young Joe can kill him.
It’s immediately established in the film that an assassin will sooner or later have their future self sent back in time and killed, at which point they receive one last big payment and then are given thirty years to do as they please. The act of killing their future self creates a time loop, and they can do pretty much anything they like for the next thirty years given that their fate has been set in stone. Inevitably, after thirty years have passed, they’re captured and sent back in time, at which point they are immediately assassinated by their younger self. Joe refers to this as “closing your loop.” As a result, we as an audience come to expect that the film revolves (if you’ll forgive the pun) around a time loop, a never ending predestination paradox going around and around in a circle from which we can’t seem to escape. If we were to follow Joe through his entire life from the Loop Start to the Loop End, we would never pass the Loop End because to do so is to follow Joe back in time to the Loop Start, where the younger version kills the older.
However, the film wastes no time in showing us that change is possible and that the loop, the predestination paradox, is not infallible. More importantly, the idea that change is possible suggest that these loops are not a natural consequence of time travel as other fiction would suggest, but rather are the product of men trying to keep things nice and neat to avoid complications. We’re forced to address this with the character of Seth, a fellow Looper who fails to kill his older self. All illusion of the predestination paradox is destroyed when Seth’s employers capture him and carve an address into his arm, which in turn appears on the arm of his older self. They then begin to remove limbs from the young Seth, causing these same limbs to disappear from the older self until he has no choice but to go to the address, where he is killed.
The problem with this is that if the younger version of Seth were to have these wounds inflicted upon him, then the older version of Seth should have arrived back in time with this wounds already inflicted. The fact that he doesn’t is a paradox. Further complicating this is the film’s climax, in which Young Joe kills himself to save someone else, causing Old Joe to disappear from existence. If Young Joe were to die in the past, then Old Joe should have never been sent back from the future, which means Young Joe would have never had to kill himself, causing Old Joe to exist again and be sent back, and so on and so forth forever.
The trouble with Looper is that it offers no real clues into the exact nature of time travel. Writer and director Rian Johnson is purposefully vague about these details. Everything I’ve been able to discern about its rules come from trying to apply logic. I can explain away most of the paradoxes that come into the film, but not all of them. Bear with me on this.
In order for Old Seth to come back without his injuries or for Old Joe to come back at all, the only logical explanation for this would be Multiverse theory or Split Timeline theory. These theories suggest that an older iteration coming back and changing things in his past will have no consequence on him as far as potential paradoxes are concerned because he comes from a different universe or timeline altogether. This would explain why Old Seth doesn’t come back with injuries despite the fact that his presence will result in Young Seth receiving them. It would also explain why Young Joe killing himself doesn’t create a never-ending paradox either, because this timeline would be separate from the one which Old Joe originated from.
If this is truly the case, however, this still begs the question of how changes made to the timeline, such as Young Joe killing himself or Young Seth having his limbs amputated, can still affect Old Joe or Old Seth when they most likely come from completely separate timelines or universes. The trouble here is that Looper is trying to suggest that single-timeline theory and split-timeline theory are coexisting at the same time with each other, and that in itself is a paradox. So here’s where my idea comes into play: Looper is displaying split-timeline theory and a weird, delayed one-way form of quantum entanglement.
If you aren’t familiar with the concept, quantum entanglement is this thing that happens in quantum physics in which two particles become entangled. This doesn’t mean that they’re stuck to each other physically; instead, it means that anything that happens to one particle inevitably affects the other, regardless of the distance between the two. In a famous experiment called the Quantum Eraser Delayed Choice Experiment, light is sent towards two slits, on the opposite side of which is a crystal meant to split each photon that comes through into two, half-strength photons. These pairs of photons, which are entangled, are sent in different directions. When the experiment is done without the Quantum Eraser, the results show these photons acting as particles. Even when there’s a significant delay between a photon reaching the primary detector and its pair reaching another, the fact that the second detector tells us which slit the original photon entered through causes the other paired photon to behave like a particle. When the Quantum Eraser is introduced, it becomes impossible to determine which slit the original photon entered through, and as a result the photons reaching the primary detector behave like a wave instead of a particle. This experiment shows that two entangled particles can influence each other even in a retroactive manner. Despite the fact that the photon reaching the secondary detector does so after the other photon reaches the primary detector, its entanglement with the other photon allows it to influence that photon’s behavior from the future. You can see more about this here.
Apply that same logic to Looper, but in only one direction. Old Seth and Old Joe can both arrive back in time in the fashion they do without paradox because they come from alternate universes or timelines, but because they are entangled with their younger selves, changes that occur to the younger self inevitably appear to effect the older self. This is the only manner in which most of the film’s paradoxes can be resolved without consequence.
However, even with this explanation, we cannot resolve the biggest paradox of them all. At the climax of the film, we discover that Old Joe killing the young Rainmaker’s mother is the exact event that will cause him to grow up to be the Rainmaker in the first place. This is the realization that pushes Young Joe to kill himself, thereby wiping Old Joe from existence and sparing the young Rainmaker’s mother so that he may never grow up to be the violent telekinetic individual Old Joe knew him as. It’s this moment at the climax of the film that possesses the single greatest amount of emotional charge, just as any climax should.
The trouble with this is that it’s impossible. If Old Joe’s actions were the cause of the Rainmaker, then this doesn’t account for why the Rainmaker existed in Old Joe’s timeline in the first place. As we saw in a montage, Old Joe successfully killed his older self without problems when he was still a young Looper himself. This means that an Old Joe was never around to kill the young Rainmaker’s mother in Old Joe’s timeline. So either A) everything we’ve established about how time travel works in Looper is false and the film continues to suffer from its unresolvable paradoxes due to Rian Johnson trying to mingle single-timeline theory with split-timeline theory, or B) — the most logical conclusion — Old Joe was never the original cause of the Rainmaker growing up the way he did, which means the Rainmaker will likely grow up to be the violent telekinetic of the future. If the former is true, then the film is riddled with plot holes and logical paradoxes from which it can never be repaired. If the latter is true, then the climax is completely robbed of its emotional charge as Young Joe’s death is made pointless.
This is the paradox that destroys the film. No matter how you try to explain the rules of time travel in Looper, this final paradox is the one that completely defies all explanation in a manner that resolves the paradox without robbing the climax of its significance.
So why do I like the movie as much as I do?
That’s kind of a misleading statement. Bear in mind that I don’t like the movie by a lot. I think it’s a good movie, though not a great one, with its biggest setback being the numerous paradoxes scattered throughout the film. The acting is pretty damn good, the film is shot beautifully, and the story successfully takes the audience for a ride. As for the paradoxes, I have to reiterate the fact that every time Rian Johnson has an opportunity to clear the air and let us in on the rules of time travel in his world, he purposefully avoids doing so, keeping things as vague as possible. This isn’t because he can’t be bothered with establishing rules, but because he doesn’t believe they matter. One doesn’t watch Looper for the time travel elements, or at least, Johnson doesn’t believe one should. Instead, he’s delivering the message that Looper should be watched for the character study. As much as the story is about a guy trying to kill himself from the future, it’s also about a guy trying to understand what exactly could ever drive himself to become a baby killer. Remember that this is the same guy who made Brick, a film that was less about teenagers being more adult than they actually are and was more about teenagers appearing how teenagers think they act.
So yes, setting aside the paradoxes and the logic, Looper still succeeds in being an entertaining film. Just don’t go into it expecting Donnie Darko.
All images taken from Looper are the property of Endgame Entertainment and DMG Entertainment. They are used for non-profit purposes in accordance with the Fair Use doctrine.