Saturday, April 26, 2008

You asked for it...

Ok, this is super long, but if you are as committed to navel-gazing time travel movie analysis, you will get through it. Basically, my college has this sort of internal blog-like network that I still sometimes post on, and I posted this. Then some people responded on their own pages. I don't have the responses handy but I've included my two main posts:

Ok, so the Onion article brought up a thought I had about the massive plot hole in Back to the Future. And I'm not even talking about the alternate reality stuff from Back to the Future II, which was awesome and blew my fourth grade mind, even if it probably doesn't stand up to logic.

Instead, I'm talking about the ending of the first movie. In the beginning of the film, the McFly family is a bunch of losers-- the mother is depressed and overweight, the father is a wimpy nerd who accomplished nothing and his brother and sister are lazy and worthless. Marty, perhaps to escape his dreary family life, hangs out a lot with an eccentric local inventor, who one night calls him up to go test out his new time machine before (SPOILER ALERT) getting shot by Libyan terrorists. At that point, Marty goes back in time and the movie as we know it plays out. While in the past, Marty shows no concern for the "Butterfly Effect" and, in fact, dramatically changes the future of his family life.

Then when he goes back to the future/present, he finds that his family life has changed-- his father is a successful science fiction writer, his mother is confident and attractive (not unlike how she was in 1955- va va va voom!) and his brother is gainfully employed ("What? I always wear a suit to the office!"). Now, I'm going to put aside the implausibility that with all those changes the exact same sperm/egg combos would have resulted at the same times, producing Marty and his siblings exactly as they were before, genetically speaking. And he even had the exact same girlfriend (and had made the same plans to go to the lake that weekend-- only this time he's got a kickass truck!). There will of course be problems when his family's like, "hey remember that time last year when you did such and such." And he won't, because he had a completely different upbringing.

But here's the weird thing-- when he returns to 1985, he goes back to the parking lot to find the scene from the beginning of the movie play out exactly as it did the first time (except of course that (MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT) the Doc is now wearing a bullet proof vest). Except the Marty who he watches go back in time had a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT SET OF LIFE EXPERIENCES. I'll accept that to protect the space time continuum, Doc Brown made sure that he still became friends with Marty and he still sent him back to the past at the exact same moment as before (he had seen the video footage of same). But here's what I'm wondering-- and this would have been an interesting additional sequel. What exactly did the alternate, better-1985 version of Marty do when he went back in time. He would have, of course, heard about his parents' meeting and falling in love, all thanks to their mysterious friend Calvin Klein who was never heard from again after totally rocking the dance with his Chuck Berry/Pete Townshend/Eddie Van Halen-like guitar heroics. So he would have had a different set of priorities while back there, and moreover would have been especially taken aback that the meek, deferential Biff with whom he had grown up, was a bullying asshole who pushed his dad around. I wonder what that movie would be like....

Well, here's the thing-- I don't have to wonder! In Back to the Future II, Marty goes back to the past from the future (in order to get the sports almanac back from Biff). And he sees the exact version of himself that I was just talking about and, as he sees, that Marty does the EXACT SAME THING HE DOES IN THE FIRST MOVIE!! That's weird!

As I think about it, maybe that's not a fundamental flaw, as much as it is overwhelmingly unlikely. On the other hand, maybe it raises some interesting questions about fate and free will.

[As a sidenote, while you can come up with plausible explanations how this would happen, I feel like the filmmakers weren't expecting the audience to think about these issues. We were just expected not to question the concept of Marty basically revisiting the first movie because, on a meta-level, that's just really cool (which it was)].

Anyway, so I posted that and then some people responded and I responded to them:

I think that's the paradox I was getting at. One answer, sent to me via email by [redacted] is that time travelers are constant, like the speed of light. Truth be told I'm not sure I understand that from a physics perspective, but it does sort of explain the answer to your question, which is why his own memories didn't change immediately upon his father kissing his mother at the dance.

So then, yes, the space time continuum trumps. And that leads to the exact thing I was musing about-- what were the life experiences of Marty 2? (Marty 2= the one who Marty 1 sees escape the Libyans at the end of the first movie). We know that he basically reenacts the first movie, because Marty 1 sees him in Back to the Future II. But what happens to him after that? I think he's stuck in some kind of feedback loop-- bc think about it. For whatever reason he finds himself in the exact same circumstances as Marty 1, having performed the exact same actions too (ie, calling himself Calvin Klein, getting his parents to kiss, and finally playing Johnny B. Good at the dance). We also know that he gets sent back to 1985 via the lightning storm. When he gets back to 1985, he is in the exact same position he always knew. His parents are cool, his siblings are cool, Biff is a wuss. That's how he grew up, thanks to Marty 1, and he goes right back to it and continues on his way. Now, of course, his story is much less compelling because he doesn't go through that same emotional journey that Marty 1 went on-- his family was always ok, so he didn't have that same existential dissatisfaction that Marty 1 originally had.

BUT, meanwhile, we also know that Biff went back to 1985, gave himself the sports almanac and ended up becoming rich, creating the dystopian 1985 from the middle section of the second movie. At that point, i could be wrong, but there should be three Marties existing in the same place and time (at least).

Marty 1- the one we all know and love

Marty 2- he should have gone back there too, because Biff gave himself the almanac the same night.

Marty 3- the one who GREW UP in that alternate reality. To get around this last one, the writers concocted the idea that he was away at school in Switzerland (which incidentally would really screw up him going back in time in the first place-- especially now that Doc Brown, as we know, is committed to an asylum in that reality).

UNLESS-- Marty 1's actions in the second movie (retrieving the sports almanac and burning it) insured that Marty 2 never saw that dystopian 1985 because by the time he went back there, Marty had already fixed everything. Thus Marty 2 can continue to exist happily ever after in the happy Marty 2 loop.

What's also weird to wonder is which set of memories and experiences does the Marty of 2015 have. He of course is a bitter, failed man because he drag raced with Needles (Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers!), and hurt his hand, thus runing his very promising music career playing instrumental versions of Huey Lewis hits. But which set of time travelling experiences does he have?

I think at some point the story definitely collapses in on itself. All I know is this: only seven more years until we have HOVERBOARDS!!!

And that's it. Two final thoughts:

1) While I was home last week I watched part 2 on demand, and it's still awesome, though it's hilarious how futuristic they expected the world to be by only 2015. On the other hand, I was in Grand Central the other day and they had these weird ads projected up on the pillars there and it totally reminded me of the kind of constant advertising they often put in movies set in the future (I think Minority Report had a lot of stuff about that).

2) The best resources for all of this are

    A FAQ written by the filmmakers-- shows that they were well aware of these issues. It's actually really fastinating
    Wikipedia, as always, comes through. The graphic showing the various time lines is especially useful. It also links to the entry on "The Grandfather Paradox," which is interesting too.


Quinapalus said...

You raise a lot of definite problems: I think ultimately the answers to your questions rest in whether we are indeed living, as some of the more far out contemporary physics (at least to my very limited degree of understanding) predicts, in a "multiverse", in which it would be possible for multiple versions of Marty to be created and exist in different universes simultaneously, and thus the past can be changed in such a way that the time traveler himself is the only one conscious of the change.

Personally, this way of thinking has always felt instinctively wrong to me: a little too unnecessarily complicated, a little too much like, in Einstein's words "God playing dice with the universe". Certainly I can't speak to this on the level of the physics involved, but I'm partial to the idea that time can't be played with so nimbly, and that you can not, in fact, change the past. Call it the "12 Monkeys" school of time travel thought: if you go back into the past, you were always meant to go there, and may even have been a integral part of events in the past playing out the way they did.

By the way: any of you guys seen the film La Jetee, on which 12 Monkeys was based? It's French, only about 45 minutes long, composed entirely of still photographs with a voice over, and AWESOME.

Eric said...

I've always meant to see La Jetee actually. And it's funny that you used that terminology because when I discuss this, I always refer to it as the 12 Monkeys vs. Back to the Future school of time travel. (There's also a third one, the Terminator school of time travel, which is basically the "Narratively Unnecessary Paradox" school: ie, John Connor sends his friend back to protect Sarah Connor from the first Terminator and ends up fathering a child-- John Connor; the hand and chip from that terminator become the basis of Skynet's research that leads to the creation of....that Terminator!).

I think 12 Monkeys is more elegant but it's also harder to wrap my head around in some ways. Also, Back to the Future kind of tries to have it both ways (which is where you get the various plot holes I outline in my "essay.").