Time travel movies enchant me. Our everyday lives go on without the advantage of movie magic; we charge forward within the construct of time always experiencing events in forward progress. Time never bends beyond its linear concept; blink, and time seals another occasion. Maybe it was an occasion for joy, celebration, or sorrow, most likely it encapsulates another moment of the mundane.
It’s not the possibility of reliving the highs or having a new perspective during the lows that draws me to time travel movies. It’s because sometimes when we blink, time seals another occasion for regret. We dwell another moment on the rued occasion and the regret compounds. Even while I know that God ordained all my days before one of them came to pass, that God plans to give me hope and a future, I struggle to resist the notion that I am living a less-than life because of my choices.
Time travel opens the window to my imagination where I can change the here and now. If only we could have a second chance, we would do better, right? Doesn’t time travel promise a rosier tomorrow by offering the chance to iron out our past?
What I Want from Time Travel
Regret shades many of my memories. I first came to believe in Jesus at age five, but as a young adult, I rebelled and spent decades in a spiritual wilderness. In my early adult years, I threw myself into my work as a theatre designer and the messy lifestyle that it offered. One bad choice opened the way another and foolishness became my companion. My self-destructive behavior culminated in four years of dating a man who was bad for me. I knew the relationship had no future, I wouldn’t even introduce him to my family, yet I persisted refusing to hear any advice or caution to the contrary.
Despite my rebellion, God pursued me, and eventually, I broke off my unhealthy relationship and started a serious relationship with Jesus instead. I accepted his forgiveness and grace and surrendered the burden of guilt for my sinful ways.
However, a new wave of horror and regret over my past life engulfed me. I daydreamed about what my life could have been. The deception of an alternate life seduced me—a present I could possess, a future I could attain, a past I could cherish, if only I had chosen a different path. If only I could go back in time.
What if I could go back to when I first laid eyes on that man and looked away instead? What if I could travel back and pay heed to the red flags? Rather than taking every step on the path of self-destruction, an alternate forked timeline could let me make a different choice that would lead to a history I applaud and a future I welcome.
Moving the Plot Forward
The best time travel movies don’t actually meet my expectations. Instead of reinforcing the idea that we can seize control of our own fate, they subvert the notion entirely. The Novikov self-consistency principle that governs time travel in physics holds that “even if an event exists that would cause a paradox or any ‘change’ to the past whatsoever, then the probability of that event is zero.” Time travel movies that abide by this theory reinforce a fixed history that encompasses all possible changes due to time travel. In other words, Whatever happened has already happened. We simply cannot go back to undo what we did in the past.
The movie Groundhog Day employs the time-loop as a time travel device to compelling effect. The main character, Phil Connors, gets trapped in a time loop and relives February second on repeat. Every character lives through each replay of that day afresh—except for Phil. Phil must negotiate the same routine in a multitude of new ways. A jerk at the beginning of the movie, Phil Connors emerges a kinder and gentler man by the end thanks to his time-loop voyage of self-discovery. Essentially, February second repeats itself for Phil until he learns his lessons.
In the original script—which had its more philosophical leanings cut for the theatrical version—Phil says, “Even in a day as long as this, even in a lifetime of endless repetition, there’s still room for possibilities.”
We might obsess over past mistakes and fantasize about manipulating others to suit our aims, but each new day brings with it new particularities. Even with a perfected past, we have no guarantee against future missteps. Instead of encouraging the harping back to our past and wishing we could do it better, Groundhog Day thwarts the defeatist trap and proposes the idea that perhaps we would do well to move forward from where we stand today.
Giving the Scenes Depth
About Time offers a different lens on time. The men in the Lake family can travel back to any moment in time once they turn twenty-one, but not beyond the birth of a child without changing that child’s identity. In this sweet-natured film, Tim Lake travels back in time to find love and to spend additional moments with his father, James, after he dies from terminal cancer.
Then, Tim and his wife become pregnant and expect a baby who will soon arrive. After the baby’s birth, Tim can no longer travel back to spend time with James in the past. On the night of the birth of his child, Tim travels back to before James’s death, to let him know of their “last bit of extra time.” It’s a heart-wrenching scene where Tim Lake and his father go back in time to the fond memory of a day spent at the beach during Tim’s early childhood.
The palpable melancholic tone in the movie dredges up a visceral reaction to the relationships we all have. I cried for the day on the beach I would never have again with my mom. We live in the present, yet our minds can return to the past. As Tim realizes, he has forever lost his yesterdays up till the birth of his child, just as for everyone else. We may not travel back to spend bits of extra time with our lost loved ones. We can still do better, however, as the movie concludes, and enjoy each day and the relationships we have, and relish the remarkable ride and gift of our extraordinary, ordinary life.
Appreciating the Plot
In The Terminator, Kyle Reese arrives from the future to protect Sarah Connor so that her as-yet-unborn son could one day lead the human resistance against hostile artificial intelligence and save humankind from extinction. Clearly a different take on time travel. Kyle Reese goes back in time because he falls in love with a photograph of Sarah Connor, which her son gives Kyle, knowing that Kyle becomes his father. Kyle later dies on the mission to the past. In the last scene of the movie, Sarah records audio tapes to pass to her unborn son and reminisces over the brief love she shared with Kyle. A boy at a gas station takes an instant photograph of Sarah and she buys it—the same photograph that her son will give to Kyle.
The poignancy of that photograph captures the interweaving of our past and our present, of pain and promise, of heartbreak and hope. Kyle fell in love with the very moment of Sarah’s anguish over her loss of him—a moment captured, unchanging, that brought him back in time to her and made the future possible. Sarah Connor’s son sends Kyle Reese back in time not to change the past, but to make sure it happens without deviation. The past gets us to our present and makes the present beautiful, even if only because of its fact and reality.
Living My Story God’s Way
I still struggle sometimes with nostalgia over a past I never had. But I also believe God calls me to faithful stewardship of my reflection, and trust that he can yet redeem what I may consider irretrievable. Only God has the full picture and sees the entirety of my life. I find comfort in knowing a facet of God’s grace is that he ensures we stay within the linear limits of time while still promising to redeem our past.
As I move through my life I know to look for God’s promised hand present at all times. Sometimes reflecting—mentally time traveling—leaves me more prepared for the future because I’m learning my lesson. Sometimes he transforms my perspective on the past by relishing the beautiful, mundane moments it has brought me now. At other times I see God redeem my history by molding my present and our future with it in unexpected ways.
Time travel movies remind me to be more enchanted with the God of time than my experience within it.
Cover image by Alexandre Debiève.