It’s Debate Day! This week: time travel! Which movie did it best? To see Aaron’s paradoxical arguments, follow this link: Terminator 2: The Best Time Travel Movie. To see my meticulously thought-out opinion, read on!
Time travel is one of the most problematic concepts in cinema. As much fun as it is to speculate about leaping backwards and forwards in time, it generally ends in headaches and consternation when you think too hard about what’s going on. For example: how can Harry Potter use the time turner to go back in time and save himself, if he would have died in the past without his future-self savior and thus never lived long enough to save himself in the first place? Holy predestination paradox, Batman!
Sometimes, though, the nitty-gritty details don’t matter. Oh sure, some films, like the amazing Primer, think everything through to such a methodical extent that it’s hard to find any plot holes, but then the plot gets so convoluted that you hurt your brain anyway. No, the best time travel movies are the ones that acknowledge the absurdity of the premise and run with it. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is an amazing time-travel farce that defies critical analysis. Looper has Bruce Willis dismissively blow off the idea of making diagrams with straws trying to explain the mechanics. But for my money, the best time travel movie of all time is the rip-roaring, reality-bending second chapter of the Back to the Future franchise.
Spoilers for a movie that came out in 1989 ahoy!
Back to the Future Part II sees Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) travelling to not just one time period, but three: the past, the future, and an alternate version of the present. Most time travel movies limit themselves to one period, but Robert Zemeckis was like “nuts to that.” The scope of this movie is incredible, and that’s the first and most obvious thing to say about it. The first stop is the future (the year 2015!), which looks suspiciously like Universal Studios, but it’s amazing nonetheless. I want to live in a world with flying cars, hoverboards, clothes that shrink to fit you, and a young Elijah Wood who makes fun of adults for playing “classic” arcade games like “Wild Gunman.”
From there Marty travels back to present-day Hill Valley, only to discover that his hometown has turned into a dystopian hellscape run by an ultra-rich Biff Tannen. This setting is full of awesome touches like Marty’s old teacher threatening to shoot him in the face if he doesn’t get off his property, propaganda-like documentaries about how wonderful Biff is, and of course, rampant crime. Apparently the world goes to shit if Biff is successful! Also, Biff forces Lorraine to get amazing breast implants, which, let’s be honest, no one can really fault him for.
After that it’s back to the past again to sort out the mess that led to the dystopian Hill Valley in the first place. This involves revisiting the swingin’ ‘50s and the classic cars and poodle skirts of the first movie. While the movie spends the least amount of time here, it’s a neat way to play with what happened in the first film and squeeze one last destination into Marty’s time-travel epic. Parts I and III of the trilogy each only deal with one time period (not counting the regular, non-hellish present). II is the only one that gives us more than one time period, and that sets it apart.
It goes without saying that Back to the Future Part II is an awesome movie with great character arcs, a brilliant script, and tons of hilarious gags. That’s not really the point of this post, since we’re talking about time travel, but I think the strength of the plot is relevant when time travel serves as a device for character growth and change. Marty McFly is far from perfect, and his pride is his own undoing. He can’t back down from a challenge, and has an apparently Pavlovian reaction when someone calls him “chicken.” In the future, Marty is a broken man, having hurt himself badly in an accident and trapped himself in a dead-end job from which he gets unceremoniously fired after his co-worker, Needles, goads him into a shady business deal.
This doesn’t really get paid off until Part III, but I love the use of time travel to give a character insight into their own faults and foibles. Most time travel flicks deal with using time as a mechanic to correct past mistakes or experience fantastic adventures. Very rarely does a time traveler get to encounter their future self and have their own imperfections so starkly revealed. This gives Marty a chance to grow as a character and overcome the flaws that hold him back.
I gotta spend some time singing the praises of Christopher Lloyd as Emmett “Doc” Brown. He’s one of the best mad scientists in film — who else is nuts enough to build a time machine out of a DeLorean? Lots of time travel movies have really slick and futuristic looking time travel devices, but a DeLorean with a Y-shaped glow light strip in the back? That’s what I call “rad as hell.” Doc Brown is an insane madman who loves nothing more than meddling with the fabric of spacetime and occasionally spouting maxims about the dangers of screwing with continuum (but this is a guy who brought his best friend to the future to save his son from being an idiot, so clearly Doc’s standards aren’t that high). Doc isn’t above taking advantage of the future to have his spleen and colon replaced, adding thirty to forty years to his life. And upgrading his DeLorean so that it can fly and run on garbage are mods that would make Xzibit weep. Doc is brilliant and insane, the perfect guy to have on your team in a time travel adventure.
A key part of any time travel movie is coming up with interesting plot devices that require the characters to think about the mechanics of time travel (sensical or not), and unravel a Gordian’s Knot of paradoxes. Marty and Doc start the movie with the simple goal of stopping Marty’s son from messing up his life in the future, but when old Biff Tannen takes a sports almanac to the past and gives it to his younger self, everything comes unglued. 1955 Biff uses the almanac to amass a fortune betting on sporting events and turns 1985 Hill Valley into a nightmare city, proving once and for all that Biff Tannen is the greatest villain of all time, a despicable asshole no matter when or where he is. Marty and Doc have to evade evil Biff and travel back to 1955 once more, where they must stop old Biff while avoiding Marty’s previous self from the first movie. After Doc gets blasted into the 1800s by a lightning storm, Marty has to turn to the Doc Brown of 1955, who has just sent Marty back to 1985 in the first movie. The intricacy, and ridiculousness, of the plot is played for maximum entertainment and comedic effect, and it works perfectly as an exciting adventure tale that captures the imagination.
There are a lot of great time travel movies, and Terminator 2 is certainly among them. But Terminator 2 takes place in the present and features a scant two robot time travelers to remind us that we’re watching a science fiction movie. Back to the Future Part II is a movie that lives and breathes time travel, exuding it in every scene and masterfully toying with the concept in an always fun and playful way. At the same time, it manages to use time travel as an effective catalyst for compelling character arcs. That’s what makes it the best time travel movie of all time.
So who got it right? I know my arguments seem as unassailable as a sports almanac from the future, but perhaps you’ve considered Aaron’s silly writings? Either way, let us know in the poll!