What would it feel like to travel in time? Would we be able to change the world for the better or would everything simply stay the same regardless of our intentions, influence and impact? Both science and movies have toyed around with these kinds of ideas. Time travel in film is represented as speculative and hence classified under the science fiction rubric. Although time travel may be theoretically possible (a big maybe is implied), our mind boggles under the weight of assumptions and paradoxes that such travel would entail. We can see ourselves easily traveling through space, whether horizontally or vertically, across the globe or towards the planets, but how would such a trip be possible across layers of time (without hallucinogenic drugs of course)?
There are generally speaking two options proposed (there are more, but I am limiting myself to a couple for our purposes here): Either we cannot change events despite our travel back in time, referred to as the predestination paradox represented in films like 12 Monkeys (1995), Timecrimes (2007) and (the aptly named) Predestination (2014), or our actions will have consequences across the ripples of time and change the events to occur in the future, as seen in films like Back to the Future (1985), The Jacket (2005) or even Looper (2012).
Some may say that Hollywood is merely simplifying these issues, especially when you notice Back to the Future on this list, and I could have easily added X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) to round it all out. But I believe some of the philosophical underpinnings regarding time travel can be presented and expounded upon with the movies mentioned above. Among the most sophisticated of them is the criminally underrated but brilliant film Predestination.
To sum up Predestination is not an easy matter. I will have to give away clue points for my discussion, while my synopsis might be confounding for those who have not seen the movie to begin with. You have been warned.
So basically, the movie starts with a terrorist nick-named the "Fizzle Bomber" whose latest action is about to be foiled by the Ethan Hawke character simply known as The Barkeep. Not only does he fail but in this process, he also burns his face. After reconstructive surgery, he is sent out back again in time to stop this mysterious terrorist, that is to find enough clues about his identity so that he can be targeted and stopped next time around. The goal is to change history and save and undo the biggest attack that killed a multitude of people.
He is called Barkeep because on his next mission he works at a bar. He meets a strange and rather depressive man who teases him with his life story. This man claims that his is the strangest story the barkeep will have ever heard and the latter assures him that he has heard many a bizarre story in his profession, so he bets a bottle of booze on it. Yet the story this stranger is going to tell us in flashbacks (yes I know flashbacks in a story on time travel!) is bonkers indeed!
In fact, this man used to be a woman. She has never met her parents but was delivered one day at an orphanage. One day she applies for a job to go to space. She is a very dedicated, applied and smart person. She also endures physical stress and outdoes her female rivals in the application process. Only when they undertake specific medical tests do they notice something strange that disqualifies her for the position: She has, in fact, a set of both genitalia with the masculine part lying dormant yet fully formed.
After she meets the man of her dreams, she gets pregnant but the man simply abandons her. The pregnancy is one of high risk and although the girl she gives birth to is well and fine, she has surgery and becomes a man as a result. So she takes hormone pills and has her breasts surgically removed. During her stay in the hospital, her daughter is stolen from the nursery.
Now to the shocking reveals. The man she meets is actually herself. It is the masculine version of herself, that is why they hit it off so wonderfully as soulmates. She basically has sex with herself and gives birth to ... herself! Then she, as the baby girl, is abandoned at the orphanage and we have the loop complete. Oh, except I forgot to mention that the Barkeep is also her. She did not recognize him because he had his reconstructive facial surgery! That is why they hit it off so well!
So all the characters are subsumed to one. It is quasi mystical / religious that the Father and the Mother and the child are one and the same. This means that according to the film's premise it is possible to be and coexist with yourself at the same time during different time periods. Similarly, the movie Timecrimes illustrates this idea when the main character Hector intervenes and interacts with himself on multiple time levels affecting the desired outcome of the future.
Secondly, all the characters in Predestination are caught in a loop and lack free will (the different versions of the protagonist in Timecrimes each believe they have free will, but they don't really). They are predestined to repeat their actions that add up with minor fluctuations to the same result. (As an added twist, the terrorist in Predestination is the same person as well: He is the older version of the Barkeep who has traveled so much in time that he has lost his mind completely. Too much time travel can literally mess with and mess up your brains!)
In other words, the characters are trapped the same way the Bruce Willis character James Cole of 12 Monkeys cannot change the future even if they have knowledge of it (perhaps events driven by a higher force?). In Timecrimes, the protagonist is willingly trying to change things to the way they need or ought to be. This is similar to the adjustors in the off-beat and also very good Adjustment Bureau (2011), where God's executive angels (strange word combination indeed!) try to ensure that the Chairman's (i.e. God's) plans of destiny and fate are followed to the T and are not hindered by the nasty bug of coincidence. These are the innumerable moments when your car breaks down unexpectedly or you accidentally spill coffee on yourself that lead to alternative outcomes in your life (supposedly) arranged by those invisible agents.
To sum up the predestination paradox, no matter how hard you try, there are forces at work that will ensure that the eventual outcome will be the same (perhaps with very minor variations). Good luck trying to assassinate Hitler or to prevent accidents and deaths as none of it would happen according to this view on time travel. There is the somewhat amusing albeit rather morbid example of you trying to save your friend from dying in a car accident, and after your trip in time you find yourself in the driver's seat helplessly running over your dear friend. The future in this view of time is set in stone.
The other main view on time travel is often called the many worlds theory. This view is generally more flexible about outcomes and gives the agent more room to operate within. This would be the Back to the Future scenario. It has been years since I have seen this movie, but in that situation our main time-tripping protagonist changes the outcomes of the future through his actions. He interferes with the relationship between his parents and his mother falls in love with him (Oedipus anyone?). Of course, all of this has repercussions for the future and the future will be different.
The same applies to Looper (another film that is complex to summarize) where the protagonist caught up in a time loop manages to track himself down in the past, but in a crucial scene the younger version commits suicide (don't ask me why) in order to eliminate himself alongside his older self thus changing future outcomes (the assumption is of course for the better of all involved minus the protagonist who is dead in the past, present and future and has definitely closed and sealed his own loop). Although the protagonist cannot save himself in The Jacket either, he creates an alternative and better world due to his actions and interference. A more humorous version of this was attempted on the Simpsons when Homer goes back in time, steps on a bug in prehistoric times and changes the whole course of human history and civilizations as a result!
The question boils down to free will and personal responsibility. It is succinctly stated as could we have done otherwise. Do we have control over our present? If so, can we choose what we do now? If we can, then it ought to be possible to change or correct events through our actions by repeating the time loop and by creating alternative outcomes as a result.
For example, I could choose not to get married in another life and test out that outcome and then decide to go back and take the same path I had taken in the first place and be back again in the position and circumstances I am in already! The problem with life is that it is a one-time experiment. We cannot go back and forth in time or choose alternative outcomes as we are trapped and bound within the time-space continuum.
In other words, we cannot experiment with life, but have only one life to live. What would have happened if I had done so and so instead of this and that is not really possible to figure out, or if it is so, then on a minor and often not so relevant scale. We can switch jobs, partners, countries, and sometimes have the opportunity to go back to where we felt best, yet our experience of time remains linear.
Time travel is a fascinating subject and no wonder that cinema has decided to represent it in its various possible forms. It is food for thought and it both entertains and confounds. For now we may not know what it would be like, but we can experience it to a degree through the lens of cinema. And who knows, maybe the next time you see a person who like James Cole from 12 Monkeys claims to be from the future, he may be right indeed and not a lunatic as you may think. Think about it. If time travel will ever be possible, it is quite possible to meet someone from the future. But for the time being that is the stuff of dreams (nightmares?) and cinema!