The Complex Emotions of Time Travel
This video is brought to you by MUBI, an online cinema streaming handpicked exceptional films from around the globe. Get one month free at MUBI.com/likestoriesofold I had a dream once where I travelled back in time. I wasn’t transported physically like Martyin Back to the Future for example, it was more like Wolverine in Days of Future Past, whose present day consciousness was transportedinto the body of his younger self. Except, I didn’t wake up shredded in the 70s, I woke up in class back in high school, .
And it seemed I had to relive my whole life again from that point. After I woke up, I wondered what it all meant. We are so bound by time. By its order. Like many others, I’ve always been fascinatedby the concept of time travel. There is an undeniable appeal about their ‘what-if?’ scenarios; what if you could go back in time? What if you know what is going to happen inthe future? What if you re-lived the same day over and over? .
I think we better start over, don’t you? It is pretty understandable too given thenature of our existence. We exist within 3 spatial dimensions, which gives us a certain degree of spatial freedom. We can move left, right, up and down, backwards and forwards. And we can re-organize the space we move around in, thereby increasingly turning it to our advantage. Naturally, there are still dangers to be found here, but overall, I think it is fair to say that we, at least to some extent, have mastered our physical environment. When it comes to time however, .
We are bound to just one temporal dimension. We are pushed into a single direction, into an unknown future that we observe from the infinitely tiny sliver that we call the present, a brief instance of conscious awareness that almost instantaneously slips away to become the past. In this dimension, there is no going back,there is no going left, or right, there is not even standing still. No matter how much we struggle, no matterhow much we resist, we are utterly at the mercy of time. It can't be bargained with. .
It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop… ever. As such, time is also a source of existential dread. We fear the future,both in the sense that it is unknown, and in the sense that it will inevitably,and unstoppably, impose itself on us. The Terminator films are perhaps the most famous depictions of this feeling of being essentially attacked by the future, of being defenseless in the face of our impending doom. What do you think we’re seeing? .
The detritus of a coming war. Beneath its espionage action, Tenet also presents an interesting conflict in which future humans are inverting time to attack the present, as they blame our society for ruining the planet, and therefore, the future. Don’t try to understand it. Feel it. Basically, it reflects our fear for the consequencesof our actions. Films like Looper, in which an assassin who eliminates targets from the future is faced with his older self, and Mr. Nobody, in which the main character can envision all the possible outcomes to his actions, .
Also show this dread on a more personal level. They show how we fear who we might become, how we fear what happens if we make the wrong choices. We cannot go back. That’s why it’s hard to choose. Or, as the series Devs explores, if we canmake any choices at all. You knew I was going to come here. And you know what happens here every moment? Yes. .
A mysterious thing, time. And so again, it is understandable that we have a natural desire to break free from the firm grip time has on us, to claim the same freedom we have in our spatial dimensions, the freedom to make changes, to re-arrange things,to have more agency in the unfolding of our lives. Now you need to tell me what your plan isto save the world. For one, it could resolve some of the majorexistential issues we are facing as a society. In Interstellar for example, the main character leaves our dying planet to find a new home in another galaxy. Ultimately, we learn that he is guided by higher beings, which he believes to be future humans who have transcended the dimensions that we are bound by. .
They’re not beings, they’re us! Either way, they reach back in time to providehim with the information that is necessary to give humanity another chance. The series Terra Nova shows our planet ina similar state of decay, and also uses time travel to overcome these issues, although here it is not done by searching the depths of outer space, but by simply going back to prehistoric times. We are at the dawn of a new civilization. Though the series itself wasn’t great andwas cancelled after its first season, its premise was an interesting reflection of our desire to return to a point where our planet was still unspoiled, unpolluted, .
Like the garden of Eden, a place where we could start over. Except, of course, this time we’ll learnfrom our mistakes. This time, we’ll get it right. So you’re saying that you and granddad, and his brothers, could all travel back in time. Absolutely. But, probably more interestingly, at leastbased on how many stories focus on it, is how time travel provides us with more freedomin our personal lives. We see this in a variety of films like Primer, About Time, The Butterfly Effect, Avengers: Endgame, The Prisoner of Azkaban, and even Hot Tub Time Machine, .
All of which focus around individuals whogain the ability to travel back in time. Each of course have their own set of rulesand limitations, but still, we immediately see how this increasedtemporal freedom can be used for our benefit. Today before 12.30, we’re gonna buy as manyshares as we can of RGW. We could use the knowledge of the future for financial gains, we could re-do awkward interactions, or we could utilize the extra available time to expand our knowledge, this is how I’ve been getting to my lessons all year. or to enjoy more leisure time. .
For me, it’s books, books, books. I’ve read everything a man could wish to,twice, Dickens three times. If we would want to, we could even make larger changes, and significantly change the course of our lives, or that of others. I’m reliving the same day over and over. Another way our fantasy to escape from thelinearity of time is reflected in stories is through the concept of time loops. Today is yesterday, and tomorrow is also today. Time loops have characters repeating the sametime frame over and over. .
This can be a day like we for example seein Groundhog Day or Palm Springs, or it can be shorter amounts of time. In the film Source Code, the main characterkeeps reliving the last 8 minutes of his life. Please just explain to me what the hell is happening. In Edge of Tomorrow, the timer runs as longas Tom Cruise manages to stay alive, which also isn’t that long. And in the video game Outer Wilds, you play as an explorer who ventures into space to solve a mystery, only to discover that after 22 minutes, the sun explodes and you wake up back where you started. Are you allright? .
At first, becoming stuck in a time loop isdisorienting, frustrating, a lifetime is reduced to a day, or even less. And as a result, temporal progression becomespointless repetition. So, as I was saying, you just have to find peace. But there is also something liberating about this. For while it may seem that you only have asmall window of time, you in fact have an infinite amount of small windows of time. You are still progressing, except time isnow working to your advantage, it becomes a familiar ally. .
What's next? You can learn what will happen and where. You can re-do the same situations, the same encounters, again and again, until you master them. On top of that, as is often the case in time loops, if you die before the timer runs out, the clock also resets, So we can’t die? No, the loop just starts over. which means that mortality is no longer an issue. .
It takes away one of our most fundamental fears and allows us to have some fun with it. We can take bigger risks, or take the easyway out at the slightest inconvenience. Playing the Outer Wilds lets you experiencethis for yourself. Once I got used to the dynamics of the time loop, I found that my whole perception of and attitudetowards time and death, at least in the game, changed as a result of it. I was no longer worried about getting lostin deep caverns, or about drifting away into the dark emptinessof space. After all, whenever I got stuck, I could justlet my oxygen run out, or crash into something, .
And try again. I started taking bigger risks. I tried landing on a space station near the surface of the sun, I skipped around on an icy comet and made daring leaps I would never have made if I didn’t have the comfort of knowing that if anything went wrong, I would always wake up safe and sound. But, no matter the freedom gained by the variousways of breaking the natural progression of time, it is never quite as complete and fulfilling as we would like. Sooner or later, time always re-affirms its grip. .
In time-loops, there is always the momentwhere you have learned all you can, done everything you wanted to do, where you have completely exhausted your small window. It is the moment where you realize that youare still trapped, that you haven’t escaped time’s limitations as you thought you did. This becomes especially clear the moment thetime loop is about to be broken, and you realize that you are once again estrangedfrom time, that you are once again facing an unknown future, and that there are once again real consequencesto your actions. .
The same goes for travelling back in time,which also quickly re-introduces the uncertainty of an unknown future, and the impacts of individual actions, as changes made in the past inevitably lead to side-effects, to different outcomes that weren’t intended. All of it telling you that your perceivedtemporal freedom was little more than a fantasy. This is also emphasized in stories like La Jetée, the quintessential time travel film that later inspired 12 Monkeys, and the show Dark, which feature the ability to travel to the past, yet also the inability to change it. The characters in these stories all try toredirect the past into a different direction, only to discover that their attempted intervention was precisely that which shaped the present they wanted to change. .
Stories like these question if time travelwould actually give us any meaningful agency, or if it still binds us to the same limitationsthat are now experienced in a slightly more complicated way. As the show Dark goes on, and its tinkeringwith the past becomes more complicated, it also inadvertently shows how you can onlymaintain a non-linear timeline for so long before losing its internal logic and runninginto paradoxes. So, what are we to make of all this? What is the purpose of time travel storiesbeyond being momentary fantasies of temporal freedom, fantasies that inevitably end up as tragic reminders of how we are still imprisoned by time? In my dream, time also slowly reclaimed its dominance. .
At first, I was excited about being back inhigh school. I saw all kinds of opportunities. I could get another degree because I alreadyhad the knowledge from the one I previously did, I could invest in bitcoin, Facebook, Instagram… needless to say, I would never have to worryabout money again. I could use the same holidays to travel tonew places. In short, I could greatly expand my knowledge,my experiences. But then, I came to realize that travellingback in time wasn’t just a potential to gain new things, it was also a loss of the life I already had, .
Of the life I wasn’t willing to lose. I thought I had gained freedom from time,when in fact it was merely the illusion of freedom. I wasn’t able to move around like I wasin the spatial dimensions, I was still restricted to the exact same spot,and the only sense of freedom I had gained, was gained from destroying what I had built within it. I remember being overcome with a sense of panic, and with the sudden urge to retrace my steps in the exact same way. But was this even possible? Would I still connect with the friends I gotto know after high school? .
Would my girlfriend still like me if I wereto meet her again for the first time? Could I pinpoint what actions of mine ledto which outcomes? And even if I could get my life back on the same track in general terms, then what about all the small things? I thought of all those cherished moments thatwere so specific, so unique, so beautifully incidental… and I realized I could not even begin to re-create those even if I did everything exactly the same. I realized those moments were all gone, forever. There was an obvious revelation here, the revelation that despite the mistakes I had made, despite the time I had wasted, despite all the things that could have been a little better,when it really comes down it, .
I wouldn’t want to do anything differently. Despite knowing the journey, and where it leads. I embrace it. And I welcome every moment of it. And this, I think, is what time travel stories are truly about. They are not so much about changing what is, but more so about changing your perspective of what is. They are about gaining new understanding. About recontextualizing unresolved issuesin our past, .
About coming to terms with our temporal limitations,and in that process, finding closure, appreciation. Time travel may not change the course of time,but it can change the traveler. And we are all time travelers in a way. We are continuously reflecting on the past based on new information, on new experiences, or emotions. We alter memories by adding nostalgia, gratitude, or regret, or by disconnecting once associated feelings,be they positive as we let go of anger, fear, or negative as we lose our sense of joy, of playfulness. Our past is ever evolving, always in motion,as we are in the present. We know that time will continue to move forward,steadily, dependably. .
But when used consciously, this can be a profoundsource of hope as well. The great director Andrei Tarkovsky referredto filmmaking as sculpting in time, but this is essentially true for our own lives too. We may be bound to linear progression, but we can choose what to pay attention to. We can choose what to hold on to, what to let go. We can let time heal what was damaged,we can let it break down what must be rebuilt. We can learn to trust that all the things that confuse us, worry us, that cause us to suffer, will all make sense in the end. That, for better or worse, it will all eventually fit into a greater understanding. .
And we can let it make us aware in the present,make us notice the life that so easily passes us by, as if we are already here for a second time, and relish it. We're all traveling through time together, I just try to live every day as if I've deliberately back to this one day, to enjoy it, as if it was the full final day. The arrow of time pushes us ever forward, which can feel especially true when trying to decide on what film to watch next. Luckily, to save us from the stress of endlesslybrowsing streaming services, there is MUBI. MUBI is a curated streaming service showinghandpicked exceptional films from around the globe. .
Every day, they present a new film,whether it's a timeless classic, a cult favorite, or an acclaimed masterpiece,there’s no better way to explore the riches of cinema. They feature hundreds of carefully selectedfilms that are definitely worth your time, including time travel masterpiece La Jetée,which is streaming on MUBI in most countries. You can try MUBI for free for 30 thirty daysby going to MUBI.com/likestoriesofold. So be sure to claim your extended free trial,and begin your month of great cinema today.