Tuesday, February 10, 2015

My genius time travel movie

So there's a new time travel movie out, Project Almanac, that The Wife and kids want to see. From what I understand, it's about a group of people who travel back in a time machine, change something in the past, and all hell breaks loose. Which is pretty much the plot of every time travel movie from Back to the Future to Hot Tub Time Machine. Yeah, there are some others that don't fit the mold, like Primer and 12 Monkeys and such, but when you want a go-to Hollywood time travel plot, changing up the past to screw up the present is a cinematic workhorse.

Naturally, my brain started turning this idea over, as my brain is wont to do. My first published short fiction was "Project Timespan," which showed why time travel could be discovered once and only once. I have an unpublished comic script titled "A Sound of Blunder" which is a shameless riff on the Bradbury story, in which hunters from the future travel back in time to hunt dinosaurs only to encounter a dragon instead. Hilarity ensues (not to mention massive destruction to the time line). So I can play around with time travel when the mood strikes me. And thinking of Project Almanac, the mood struck me.

What is the one constant in time-alteration plot movies? That the characters responsible for the changes to the timeline are aware of said changes when they happen. Think of Marty McFly with his fading photo, or his confusion when he returns to the future that is unfamiliar to him. Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. This is usually explained in a hand-waving way, that since he arrived from the unaltered future, his memories from that time are preserved. Or that reality has been split into an alternative timeline. Whatever. All of this is a conceit to keep a consistent viewpoint character to anchor the audience.

But what if one was to discard these shackles of convention? What if one was to write a movie where cause and effect were fully unleashed, that any changes to a single timeline reverberated through said timeline to impact the characters who traveled back in the first place? Any change they affected would not appear to them as a change at all, since it would be instantly incorporated into their remembered history. This has been done some in literature, but it's not terribly easy to pull off since the baseline is erased--none of the characters in the story remember what's happened if the author is playing by the rules.

My idea--which will never be made, mind you, because that's the way these things go--involves a group of time travelers whose every action impacts the time stream and is instantly incorporated into their history. From the instant they arrive in the past, things begin to change, starting with subtle alterations to their uniforms. And the characters are completely unaware, because for them, there are no changes being made. This is their established history. For the audience, however, the changes come faster and more furious as the story progresses. In essence, there are dozens of simultaneous divergent narratives of which only a few scenes of each appear on screen before being supplanted by another. Characters change gender, disappear entirely, relationships twist and flip, the mission goals change, the history of the world morphs over the progression of the film to something very, very different from where it started. No single actor would appear for more than half the total running time (let's peg it at 90 minutes for argument's sake) and probably less. A couple dozen actors and actresses would play the evolving lead roles. It would be a strange, frenetic film, essentially the antithesis of Richard Linklater's Boyhood.

The nice thing is that it could be made for a modest budget. It's not an effects-driven film, but rather a character piece, albeit with characters changing out with regularity (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus comes to mind as an example of multiple actors portraying the evolution of a single character). I do not see how I could convey this vision in prose--it is a visual conceit, and needs a visual medium. I'll not likely write it any time soon, but I'll file my notes away for safe keeping. Any ambitious indy filmmakers with access to a large cast and interested in the time travel genre should feel free to give me a shout.

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