Movie Contrivance #13: Traveling Back in Time

Yes, I know that Back to the Future is one of the most well-liked, well-written, entertaining movies ever, and its plot hinges entirely on traveling back in time.

But consider this: Say I created a time machine that allowed me to travel back in time. I travel back to 1983 and steal the script for Back to the Future from Robert Zemeckis, and I tell him that he can’t write another word. Let’s just say he believes me and abides by my demands. You know what would change in the future?

Absolutely nothing. From your perspective.

From your perspective–and from the perspective of everyone in the world except for me–everything would be exactly the same. The script would still exist, Zemeckis would make a great movie, and I’d still be writing this blog entry.

The only thing that would change would be that from my perspective, I would have created an alternate universe that came into existence the second I arrived in 1983. In that universe, everything changes from that moment on.

But who cares about that universe? You care about your universe. The one you occupy right now at this moment. One that can never, ever change as a result of anyone other than you traveling back in time.

Time travel movies aren’t really time travel movies. They’re alternate universe movies. Doc Brown even explains this in Back to the Future 2. Except in his explanation, the alternate universes can join back together. Nope. Doesn’t work that way. Your reality is your reality, and it can never change unless you are the time traveler.

Why does this bother me? Because traveling back in time to “fix” things is used in movies and TV shows all too often. Frankly, it’s just too easy. It’s lazy. It’s a cheat. And it doesn’t change anything from anyone’s perspective other than the time traveler.

This whole thing was triggered when I saw the poster for Men in Black 3 the other day. “Back to the past…to save the future,” it reads. Rather, it should read: “Back to the past…to save the future of the time traveler and the people in the alternate universe that he created. As for the people in the universe he left behind, nothing will change.” But I guess that isn’t as catchy?

Coincidentally, the novel I’m writing (57,500 words and counting–9 days to go!) hinges on time travel…but only forward time travel. None of these backwards time travel shenanigans for me. So far I’ve described the book as, “The Hunger Games + Harry Potter + The Time Traveler’s Wife + Oryx and Crake.” It’s time to roll out a better pitch than that, so here’s my first attempt at it:

In the near future, exponential population growth is causing the world–and its inhabitants–to crumble. Just as things start to get really bad, a husband-and-wife scientist team discovers a way to send people to the future, thus relieving the Earth of their burden.

The catch is that time travel is one-way–once you jump forward, there’s no going back. Thus the United Nations decides to financially incentivize citizens of the world to choose time travel, but people are hesitant to trust the unproven technology. As a show of confidence, the two scientists decide to send their only son to a boarding school 71 years in the future with the promise that they’ll catch up with him…someday.

Thus begins the journey of 16-year-old Daniel Gold, who will soon discover that although the Earth has a bright future as a result of the time travel remedy, his own future is complicated by the trials of young love, friendship, and a battle to claim his right to live in a world that doesn’t want time travelers–or “Wrinkles”–like him.

How do you feel about time travel? Is there anything in your life worth creating an alternate universe for, even though nothing will change in this universe?