According to Einstein, time is a relative concept, which in its own way is taken seriously by the film industry. But what is the real driving force and physics behind cinema’s exploration of the time loop phenomenon?
The concept of the time loop
The time loop phenomenon is closely related to time travel and the relative nature of the passage of time. Time in this case is not a linear infinite dimension, but a circle, or a looping ring. This also implies a kind of predestination, that certain events had to happen in a certain way. Time is thus a repetitive process, a snake biting its own tail and finally devouring itself.
Theories of time travel
Regardless of the different time machines (be it cars, capsules, rooms or spaceships), there are two typical views on the nature of time travel. The “Back to the Future” films have very much established the popular assumption that if time travel exists, then the time traveller may even unwittingly alter events in the past, which may have an impact on his or her own present or future.
Often referred to as the grandfather paradox, the main problem with time travel is that it interferes with the past: if someone goes back in time and kills their grandfather (or, in some cases, themselves), they cause a disruption in the space-time continuum.
In contrast, there is a more physics-based view, but one that is less common in science fiction literature. According to this view, time travel is in fact a trip to a parallel universe, so that the visit has no impact on the traveller’s own time.
This view is also supported by Terry Gilliam‘s classic „Twelve Monkeys” (1995), in which the time traveller travels to the pre-catastrophic past merely to gather information, not to prevent it. This view therefore holds that the phenomenon of the time loop is not possible.
A further important aspect of the time loop is that the characters and the environment outside the protagonist experiencing the phenomenon are unaware of it. One of the main sources of tension is therefore that the protagonist is aware of something against which he is apparently completely powerless or hopeless.
More scientific films
Time looping and time travel is one of the most important themes in science fiction literature and, in keeping with this, most works on the subject fall short of portraying the phenomenon as mere magical witchcraft.
Thus, in most true science fiction, some sort of background is provided for the creation of the time loop, which can be caused by a time machine („Back to the Future”; 2003’s „Timeline”) or by a natural phenomenon (1980’s „Final Countdown”), such as a black hole („Interstellar”), or even by extraterrestrial influence („Edge of Tomorrow”) or artificial intelligence (the Terminator series).
“Looper” (2012) mixed time loop and gangster movies with the so-called grandfather paradox. In “Looper”‘s vision of the future, murders are committed in the past using time travel, and then eventually get themselves killed by assassins living in the past. The film is a gripping drama of crime and moral issues, although Joseph Gordon-Lewitt‘s ‘Bruce Willis make-up’ seriously spoils the overall effect.
Christopher Nolan, the grand master of thought-provoking cinema, has created his own interpretation of the time loop, which he has fused into a thoroughly sci-fi based film, „Interstellar” (2014). The film is also a powerful homage to Kubrick’s Space Odyssey („2001: A Space Odyssey”; 1968), while seemingly relying heavily on the quantum mechanics theory of world-renowned astronomer Kip Thorne on the physical nature of black holes and wormholes.
At the same time, “Interstellar” is a depressing yet optimistic film about the ultimate triumph of the human mind and ingenuity, in which the time loop plays a surprisingly emotional role in shaping the fate of the characters.
Where the time loop is only background
Unlike true science fiction, there are also works where the reason for the time loop remains completely mysterious and unexplained. The filmmakers do not aim to reveal why it might have happened (perhaps some simple magical reason might assuage our curiosity). In these films, the time loop is merely a means to show the development of a character and to dazzle the audience with an unusual story.
Surprisingly, perhaps one of the best-known time-travel films does not approach the unusual phenomenon from the perspective of science fiction or quantum physics, but from the perspective of comedy and romance. Until „Groundhog Day” (1993), the hero of the film relives the meteorologically unique Groundhog Day, reassessing his life, his relationship with other people and his love for them.
Recently, the comedy „Naked” (2017) brought the phenomenon of the time loop into the consciousness, which is actually an American remake of the Swedish comedy „Naken”. Netflix has tried to combine the atmosphere of Hangover movies and blackspoitation cinema with the absurdity of the situation, and of course there is no scientific explanation for the time loop phenomenon.
Our protagonist (after, for example, losing consciousness in a fight) wakes up naked in an elevator car again and again. If this ingenious idea were not enough, the realisation is also borderline unworthy of appreciation.
Hungarian time loop
Thanks to István Madarász, we Hungarians now have nothing to be ashamed of either, as „Hurok” (2016) is a quality time-loop crime thriller of international quality. The time-looped drug smuggler’s ordeal is presented in an exciting way. But the scientific or mystical background of the time loop itself is not revealed here.
In these types of less scientific films, the time loop is more of a chance for new life, a literal new beginning or even the possibility of stagnation and stuckness for the characters. In most cases this is true even for science-themed films.
These films are an excellent way to address the existential questions that viewers are concerned with in a way that is accessible and less philosophical and abstract. Do we really hold our destiny in our own hands, or do the laws of nature and/or God determine our own fate?
These are questions to which the films described above offer rather different answers. While the Back to the Future series clearly argues that man is the architect of his own destiny, “Interstellar” assumes a kind of deterministic (almost predestination-like) approach.
The time loop can hold exciting possibilities for filmmakers, while the quality of the treatment of the subject is often quite hectic. Nevertheless, the subject will always offer us something new, since the path of time is difficult to discern even with a crystal ball.