Midway through the once in a century year that is 2020, it seems like COVID has acted as an accelerant for every trend in media to jump ahead ten years and change the cultural landscape. With this kind of time leap, maybe it makes sense for time travel movies and time loop storylines to suddenly enter in to the cultural zeitgeist in such a profound way this year.
Tenet, the tentpole blockbuster from time master manipulator Christopher Nolan has been delayed multiple times allowing smaller summer releases like Bill & Ted Face the Music to capture the public’s attention and gain a lot more traction than they would have with a typical theatrical bow. Smaller still, independent films like Lonely Island’s millennial update of Groundhog Day, Palm Springs, has everyone at home talking and adding value to Hulu with each viewing; Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow plays with time and the notion of death in a profound way and the Canadian thriller Volition uses the phenomena of clairvoyance to explore deeper themes about regret and redemption.
What are these films telling us about the times we are living in? If Back To the Future can work as a fantasy film returning us to a simpler time in the romanticized 1950’s, does this year’s collection of time travel movies serve as a form of escapism from the upside-down world we’re living in? In a conversation with Volition director Tony Dean Smith, the bigger ideas behind these films are fleshed out in hopes of giving us a little insight into how the time travel trope can actually give us a little solace right now.
Smith is a massive Chris Nolan fan but Tenet‘s delay may actually have been a blessing to his small sci-fi movie and others like Palm Springs – both have found a much bigger audience and are a part of a new model for the summer season. “He’s the godfather of esoteric blockbusters,” says Smith of Nolan. “They’re hard movies to make and he does them so well. We’re gratified to be put anywhere close to Chris Nolan in the conversation.”
It is almost impossible to ignore that the absence of Nolan’s time-bender widens the playing field, however. “I guess it’s been nice in some ways to have smaller independent films have a bit more attention on them. I was writing this stuff way before Nolan was on the map with all due respect. We tackled Volition much more from a thematic idea of fate versus free-will. The time element was a natural outgrowth.”
In Volition, the lead character James suffers from a time affliction that allows him to see his own death, similar to the conceit of She Dies Tomorrow but approached in two totally different ways.
Smith explains, “If clairvoyance is a thing and they’re seeing ahead of their own present-day timeline, doesn’t it presuppose that we’re not on the cutting edge of time? We think we’re in the present-day reality but if you’re clairvoyant and you can see into the future, surely there’s something else going on with our perception.”
If you look at both films on a quantum level, the idea of clairvoyance and the idea that a thought is contagious are suddenly connected. Although Smith is waxing philosophical mainly on his film, his thoughts on the spiritual side of particle physics apply to Seimetz’s film as well. “There’s certainly a quantum physics spiritual level to it. The idea that all things actually are connected. There’s a really amazing experiment that was done where scientists had split a particle into two and they took one particle to France and the other particle was in the UK. What they did instantly to one particle, it would effect the other particle. The idea that we’re actually built from the same particles. We are quantum machines. Our perception and our ability to choose actually filters the way we see the world.”
The characters in Volition and She Dies Tomorrow are frightened of their own death and frightened by the vastness of the universe. That fear is justified, especially when you consider that if we were to blow up the size of an atom to the size of the Earth, the nucleus would only be the size of an orange. With that in mind, most of the universe is made of nothing. That is a terrifying notion, and maybe watching these kinds of films allow us to process ideas like this in a palpable, entertaining way.
So why are time travel movies so popular, especially when the reality of it will never be possible? Perhaps, it’s because if time travel were actually possible, then it suddenly feels like anything is possible. So, it becomes an extremely hopeful form of escapism, especially in dark times.
“In some ways, it’s almost the opposite spectrum to the Deus ex machina.” Smith continues, “We wish this messiah would come and save us and I guess time travel is actually similar. I have all these regrets and things I could have done differently if only I had known. Well, give me another kind of Deus ex machina to go and do that. It definitely feels like a primal need for a redo.”
The NEOWISE Comet has also appeared in recent weeks – a celestial phenomena that can only be seen by humans every 6,800 years. (Comet-inspired movies like Night of the Living Dead, Maximum Overdrive, Night of the Comet, and Coherence could have an article of their own). But it’s incredibly strange timing that the comet, the COVID pandemic and a plethora of time travel films are all intersecting in 2020. We’re all wanting to be in another place. We’re looking up to space in order to forget the planet. And maybe, going to a different time gives us a little bit of hope, too.
We wrapped up our conversation with a teachable moment from Smith. “The comet has always been the harbinger of things to come in all the ancient books. It’s interesting that it’s here now again. What we’re seeing with COVID…it’s almost shone a neon light onto the fingerprints of humanity and you’re seeing how dirty our systems really are. A lot of institutionalized systems both externally and internally are falling. I do think we might have to go through some, like any good movie, go through some darkness to get to the light.”