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About Time: Time Travel Logic, Paradoxes and Looper…

I watched Looper again at the weekend. It’s still a pretty great movie, well-constructed and thoughtful. Of course, it still doesn’t feel like a proper “time travel” movie, because the time travel element doesn’t logically gel as easily as it otherwise would. After all, the original time line sees young!Joe kill old!Joe as soon as he appears. Therefore, old!Joe can’t logically kill Sara. If old!Joe doesn’t kill Sara, then why does Cyd become the Rainmaker? After all, we’re told (or it’s heavily implied) that young!Joe killing himself (and old!Joe) prevented Cyd from becoming the Rainmaker. So if this never happened in the time line where young!Joe grows into old!Joe, how did the Rainmaker come to be?

Oh no, I’ve gone cross-eyed.

This is the thing with time travel movies, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about. How important is internal consistency to a time travel movie? How necessary is it for a time travel movie to flow relatively logically from its own premise? At what point do we just stop trying to apply rules of logic and just enjoy the movie for what it is?

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After all, I’d argue that the time travel elements of Looper are relatively incidental. It’s really a story about love, and about how love can do strange things to people. It’s a moral story, about how certain decisions have particular repercussions, and how those decisions shape and define us – even if they aren’t the decisions we make. Looper seems to imply that Joe grew up to be a remorseless killer due to his mother’s decision to abandon him. The loss of Sara, Joe intuits, would turn Cyd into a murderous “holy terror” crime boss. Meanwhile, a random meeting between old!Joe and a nice lady is enough to turn him into a brutal child-killer.

These are all examples of causation – one thing leading to another. As such, time travel seems to be a logical narrative tool to connect them to one another. The vast majority of time travel stories are, by their nature, centred around causation. Decisions or chance form an interlocking chain of events that can be broken, forcing a hero to “set right what once went wrong” and all that. However, the fact of the matter is that time travel is obviously fictional. We have no idea how it would work if it existed.

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Even ignoring big philosophical questions like “free will” or “determinism”, how would the simple mechanics of changing history work? If a time traveller changes the past in even the slightest way, are they affected? After all, they are from the future. If the future they came from no longer exists, how could they be sent back in time in the first place? Or, once they arrive in the past, are they suddenly wrapped up and protected in that time? Is their subjective “present” what defines them? So the fact that the future doesn’t exist any more only matter from here on out, and it doesn’t matter once they’ve already arrived in the past?

And that’s before we consider things like paradoxes, the idea that certain events are fated to play out a particular way, with the time travel inadvertently already part of the event. The most poetic example, of course, being that occasion where the traveller accidentally causes what they may have been sent back to prevent. Paradoxes assume some measure of determinism, that history is essentially a book and we are just characters in it, and all our actions are already accounted for, whether they unfold in the future (the fact the person goes back in time) or the past (because history unfolds as if they went back in time, even though they have yet to do so).

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Of course, these are merely two ways of looking at a technology and science that doesn’t actually exist. There are all manner of wacky alternative theories as well. Do universes branch? Can multiple futures exist from a given moment and, as such, does changing the future of a particular moment only disconnect that moment from the future that existed before you changed history? Time travel is, for all intents and purposes, a piece of science-fiction, so who is to say that it should work one way or another, or even any way we could possibly fathom?

Of course, this means that including time travel as a plot device in a movie or a television show can be a little strange at times. Primer offers perhaps the most robust exploration of time travel I have seen, but pop culture’s perception of time travel seems to defined by the admittedly not entirely illogical Back to the Future films. However, if we accept time travel as a narrative tool, how much logic and consistency should we expect?

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The answer, of course, is that time travel should probably work consistently within that particular narrative. Audiences don’t expect Looper to follow the exact same causal rules as 12 Monkeys, but we probably expect it to adhere to the rules that it sets down. And this is where Looper becomes a bit frustrating. Looper proposes a model of time travel that, contrary to the idea of “loops” rejects paradoxes. There’s no stable time loop created by sending a person back in time. At each point, they alter history. There’s no chance, it seems, that you are sending a person back in time to do what they were meant to do or anything like that.

So it’s possible to disfigure or disable a person in the present, and for their future self to only feel the affects as it happens. So if old!Joe is driving a car, and young!Joe has his leg chopped off as a result of old!Joe escaping, old!Joe will suddenly lose his leg, but we won’t ask how he could have been driving a car before this moment – never mind how, if young!Joe grows up without a leg, old!Joe could escape in the first place. The changes for old!Joe don’t seem to reach backwards, except for his memories.

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The problem is that this undermines the logic of the film’s climax. The fact that old!Joe was sent back by the Rainmaker, only to be responsible for creating the Rainmaker, feels a little inconsistent. That’s a stable paradox, the kind of thing that re-written memories and suddenly missing limbs would argue against. So it feels like Looper isn’t necessarily being internally consistent when it comes to its own rules of time travel.

Then again, should it have to? Watching Looper, it almost feels like the the time travel is just a plot device. It’s really about a bunch of young kids selling their future short, and about what love does to men. The time travel aspect is just something that gets this particular plot moving. If you’re looking to tell a story about patterns of cause-and-effect, then time travel does make sense as a narrative tool. And the very idea of Loopers is a fascinating hook.

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I’m not sure I can give Looper a complete pass on that, though. After all, the movie spends so much time establishing a particular style of time travel, that to change it suddenly and suggest that old!Joe somehow killed Sara despite the fact that he didn’t exist in his original time line feels not only arbitrary, but illogical. Then again, I suppose that it’s more than possible that I am just thinking too much about it all.

And, of course, there is another possibility. Maybe Cyd was just going to grow up to be the Rainmaker anyway. Maybe young!Joe’s last-minute guess was wrong, and old!Joe killing Sara had nothing to do with turning Cyd into a vicious psychopath. That feels a little nihilistic, and it undermines a lot of the subtext about the importance of mothers in the film, but it would be an exceptionally cruel twist that would make some measure of Looper‘s time travel logically sensible.

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(And, if you don’t want to be completely downbeat, you could suggest that his few interactions with young!Joe were enough to steer Cyd right, and to stop him from becoming the Rainmaker in this version of reality. Although Looper seems much more concerned with maternal love than father figures. Or, you could be cynical and suggest that young!Joe’s suicide actually changed nothing and Cyd will still grow up to be the Rainmaker, like he must have in the version of reality before old!Joe killed Sara.)

I don’t know. Time travel makes my head hurt.

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2 Responses

  1. Have to rewatch , but to me the timetravel and its consequences felt perfectly in line with innerlogic of the movie.
    Young Joe killed Old Joe.
    So when Young Joe becomes Old Joe he knows he is gonna get shot by his younger self.
    And he thus prevents (New) Young Joe from doing so and enabling himself/Old Joe to Kill Cyd.
    New Young Joe realizes this and knows it will end in Cyd becoming The Rainmaker.
    New Young Joe than kills himself thereby eliminating Old Joe from this time(and future)and hereby preventing this chain of effects.
    And as Old Joe tells Young Joe about the time paradoxes ; it does not matter. Especially since the movie has so much heart and smart intent!

    • I now realize that the real question is; why did Cyd became the rainmaker in the original timeline if Sara was never killed?
      Have to re-watch…

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