Monday, November 12, 2012

Time Travel and Free Will

The Terminator” is the classic sci-fi film that spawned arguably the best sequel of all time and redefined the genre. It was not the first film to use time travel but it did change the way time travel was used in films. Prior to “The Terminator,” time travel in film was often relegated as a plot device to move forward a fish-out-of-water tale or as a way showcase futuristic special effects. “The Terminator,” however, took place in the present with the time travelers coming back to duke it out over the unborn John Connor’s life.

By doing this, director James Cameron was able to make a futuristic sci-fi on a budget. More importantly, however, he posed a number of philosophical questions relating to fate and destiny that have never been fully answered, despite attempts made by a number of other time travel and sci-fi films, including “12 Monkeys,” and, more recently, “Looper.”

These movies deal with the idea of destiny and whether or not fate can be changed. In “The Terminator,” it is revealed that Kyle Reese fathered John Connor, which means that, in a huge paradoxical loop, if the T-800 never went back in time, John Connor would have never been born because Kyle Reese would have never gone back and if John Connor would have never been born, the machines would have enslaved humanity. However, if the T-800 never went back, Skynet could have never existed because it was the technology (arm) left behind by the T-800 that led to the creation of Skynet. Therefore, in the universe that the film is set, everything had to happen and humanity really had no free will because destiny trumped all.

Ditto for “12 Monkeys.” Bruce Willis going back in time ultimately proves to be the reason that the virus forced man underground. Had young child Bruce Willis not seen a disguised Bruce Willis in the airport, he wouldn’t have been so hell-bent on proving that Jeffrey Goines, in an amazing performance by Brad Pitt, with his powerful father and ponytail was, in fact, the terrorist responsible for the virus. By becoming so focused, Bruce Willis did not investigate other likely terrorists, including the death-obsessed mad scientist who, coincidentally enough, also had a ponytail and the means to end life on the surface.

In both circumstances, despite attempts to use time travel to prevent future calamities, those incidents could not be prevented. In fact, time travel was the direct cause of those future calamities but in a bizarre twist, especially with “The Terminator,” the time travel had to occur, confirming an idea that goes back as far as Ancient Greek literature: you can’t escape your fate.

Without Kyle Reese, there could be no John Connor and without John Connor, there would be no resistance, but without both of them, there would be no reason for a resistance as the technology the caused the calamity would not exist. It would seem that, at least in movies, free will is not a thing. Challenging that notion, however, was “Looper.”

(Because “Looper” was only released a few months ago, I feel obligated to say that from this point forward, spoilers will abound. However, the film made $63 million at the box office, which is not huge but it is enough to demonstrate that the people who wanted to see it likely did.)

The entire plot of “Looper” challenges the notion that a person cannot change their fate. In fact, the implication of the movie is the future is entirely fluid a la “The Butterfly Effect.”

In the film, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt plays young Bruce Willis. He is also a hitman for the future mob, which employs illegal time travel to erase all trace of their victim. JGL first got into the hitman game with the guidance of Jeff Daniels, who was sent back in time by the mob to run the operation. However, a future entity known as the Rainmaker has begun closing loops, which is when the future self of a hitman gets sent back in time as the victim of the hit.

In the initial timeline of the film, present JGL takes out his future self, which also means that he retires from the hitman game. He lives for 30 years before the now-present mob abducts him and sends him back to get “whacked” by the waiting JGL. However, things go awry and Bruce Willis escapes his hit and begins to seek out the Rainmaker, who at this point, would is a small child.

Craziness ensues and people who had originally lived, like Paul Dano, die. Bruce Willis also begins to methodically kill small children that he believes may be the Rainmaker. Naturally, the child he is after is also the one that JGL is protecting. As Bruce Willis and JGL begin to alter the past, Bruce Willis actually acknowledges that his memories change, proving that the future is fluid, at least in film’s universe.

At the film’s climax, JGL realizes that the Rainmaker exists because of the actions of his future self, Bruce Willis. With this realization, JGL turns his gun on himself, thereby eliminating any trace of Bruce Willis and preventing the Rainmaker from taking over.

By doing so, JGL drastically alters the course of world history. The Rainmaker, who caused pandemonium to occur in the future, no longer comes to be because the traumas in his life, caused by Bruce Willis, never happen. By taking his life into his own hands, JGL “escapes” his fate and changes the fate of the small child, whose life could have been far more influential than JGL’s.

Ultimately, it would seem that, much like in real life, movies also cannot agree on the existence of free will. Even Biblical texts also contradict on the subjects. For example, in the Book of Genesis, God gave Adam and Eve free will, which led to Eve eating the fruit off of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the expulsion of humanity from the Garden of Eden. However, in Exodus 4:21, God admits to removing the free will of the pharaoh, saying to Moses "When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.”

While movies seem wrestle with the existence of destiny, no one can know for sure. The question has been asked for as long as stories have been told and, based on both recent cinematic trends and the sheer longevity of the narrative, the debate will continue for as long as stories are told. Ultimately, however, it is not the role of a movie or a story to tell a person what to believe. It is to entertain and, if time has shown anything, it is that stories relating to the question are surely entertaining.
--Tony Fioriglio


Anonymous time travel evidence said...

I feel as if the movies are real and that is how the goverment test things with the majority population. A good time travel movie is "the time machine" one of my favorites.

September 18, 2013 at 4:45 AM 

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