What Fiction Writers Can Learn From the Broken Timeline

Learn from four films that bust time travel.

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Elles Rijsdijk/stock.adobe.com

Theorists throughout modern history have contemplated the effects of time travel, from Einstein and Stephen Hawking to Jules Verne. But you only need to look at modern films to see the havoc that a broken time narrative has on people's lives — not to mention on dating and romance. It tends to destroy not only relationships but any semblance of order in the universe.

No wonder it's impossible.

Here are some examples of how an upset timeline has been dealt with in modern cinema, and what it says about our collective psyches. In evaluating the pitfalls and tropes that storytellers have run up against, maybe creators can find ways to retain a greater sense of "reality" within these fragmented narratives.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2004, Directed by Michel Gondry

In this unsettling, brilliant journey through melancholy Joel Barish's disjointed subconscious (portrayed by an atypically understated Jim Carrey), he undergoes a procedure that obliterates his memories of eccentric ex-girlfriend Clementine. As technicians selectively sear Joel's brain cells in his sleep, we're flung into a disorderly kaleidoscope of moments from his life. Yet we're never traveling through time, we're maneuvering Joel's vanishing memories as he realizes he's still in love.

As Joel relives his relationship with Kate Winslet's wild child Clementine, the two of them re-ignite their mutual bond. Vibrantly alive in his memories, Clementine helps Joel duck the computer-guided brain probe that's wiping her out of his mind. And Joel and Clementine aren't the only couple in the story compelled back together after an erasure, hinting that love supersedes everything from time shifts to technologically induced amnesia.

Needle in a Time Stack, 2021, Directed by 12 Years a Slave's John Ridley

This is one of the more recent pieces to depict time rifts, hinting at how they could be leveraged to further the income divide. The film presents a future where time shifts are as anticipated and localized as California tremors. Since these high-priced elisions can be purchased by morally dubious people to change fate, insecure architect Nick Mikkelsen (played by Leslie Odom, Jr.) becomes obsessed with the idea that his wealthy rival — and his wife Janine's ex — is manipulating their chronology to steal her back. The film raises questions about the ethics of altering time, life and death through the right application of dollars.

Based on a short story by 1960s science fiction writer Robert Silverberg, its time shifts take the form of aqueous tidal waves that give the characters moments of forewarning, eventually swapping-out elements (and people) from their current environments. The remaining characters call home to check on the status of their loved ones as if touching base after a blackout.

Eventually, a mere glimpse of Nick's former love interest reverses the damage of their alternative timeline, drawing the two back together. You can see a trend here, one that genre authors seem devoted to — love transcends even the distortions of time. As romantic as that is, filmmakers may want to give more due to the anomalies that might develop in the physics of the world where people can bend timelines. If two objects can't occupy the same space at the same time, then can more than one version of a person exist in time simultaneously? Most such flicks tend to ignore that in favor of more noble depictions of time-jumping. That's why the economic aspect of this particular film is interesting.

About Time, 2013, Directed by Richard Curtis

It's notable how so many on-screen time-travelers employ their powers to improve their romantic lives, as if these most miraculous abilities would be used not for financial gain or political privilege, but for love. Even the original Terminator turned out to be a love story.

About Time's hero, Tim Lake (played by Domhnall Gleeson), uses his ability to replay life events to correct his every misstep with Mary, the object of his affection (Rachel McAdams). She has no choice but to fall for him, since he takes several practice runs at their most important interactions, including their first night of sex. This leads one to wonder whether the filmmaker has created a relationship that is inherently dishonest, since Mary falls for a continually corrected version of Tim.

The Time Traveler's Wife, 2009, directed by Robert Schwentke

Based on the best-selling novel by Audrey Niffenegger, Rachel McAdams again plays the romantic partner of a husband who time-jaunts through his life. Henry, the traveling husband, played by Eric Bana, has no control over his displacement — it's the result of a genetic disorder. This often puts him in precarious positions, since his clothes never make the transition with him.

This vision of time travel reveals some heartbreaking potential realities that, once in the mundane setting of everyday life, show how the impracticality of this timeline would devastate any marriage. For instance, the patterns of Henry's reappearances reveal to his wife, Clare, how long he will live, and some harrowing scenes show the impossibility of enduring a pregnancy with a fetus that extracts itself outside the womb without warning.

So many of these discrepancies remind us why skipping through time must simply be physically impossible. If chronology could be forsaken, we'd be forced to relinquish any kind of orderly existence. The principles that hold the universe together would dissolve. As authors, screenwriters and content creators, we should take more opportunities to explore the unpleasant realities of the potential physical impact of such romps — which this version at least attempted to show, even if only on a domestic level.

At the risk of being cynical, it might be more intellectually satisfying if the rigors of time travel wreaked disastrous physical effects on the beings who attempt it, resulting in some kind of slow, molecular deterioration — a symbolic moral judgment on those with the audacity to alter the continuum. This is less romanticized than having some flickering vision of a past love heal the damage of a time warp — but maybe it's more compelling. And using the term loosely, more "realistic."

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