Hello, friends in time, and welcome to a very special edition of Time Out. When I first set out to watch at least one time travel movie every week of 2013 to offset the effects of watching Back to the Future every week of 2013, most people responded appropriately by not having sex with me. A few, however, began to question what really counts as time travel (and still refrained from sex with me). Is a ghost technically traveling through time? What about the mummy from The Mummy? Isn’t there a bootstrap paradox in White Chicks?
One subject that came up frequently was Minority Report, the movie about the tub people that see murders before they happen. “C’mon, Bill, you have to do that one,” these frigid film fans cried. “There’s one of those Bill & Teddish scenes where they do stuff before it happens; that totally counts.” Which brings us to our first This Might Not Count But Let’s Do It Anyway subcategory: prophecies.
NO. Doesn’t count.
I absolutely hate prophecies. I hate them in movies, I hate them in short stories, I hate them in religion. Here’s why: 95% of prophecy stories are some vaguely described hazy vision or a parable for what actually happens. Examples include:
- “I can’t quite make everything out, but I see the letter H.”
- “When the blue sword enters the pink cave, the stars will be set on fire.”
- “Don’t leave the house on August 9th! Bad stuff.”
Then we wait for two hours / twenty pages / two thousand years and are supposed to be satisfied that the events that occur could be shaped to fit these idiotically simple predictions. Why is that fun? Why is that interesting? It’s all magic and horseshit.
No, if I’m going to do prophecy movies, I want the methods to be scientifically based, I want the predictor to be spot-on and not just vaguely hazy, and, time permitting, I want them to actually be correct. Also, for no good reason, they should be based on the works of Philip K. Dick. Let’s begin!
The movie: Paycheck (2003), starring Ben Affleck, Aaron Eckhart, and Uma Thurman, directed by John Woo
The source material: The short story “Paycheck” by Philip K. Dick
The suckiness: I actually give the premise a lot of credit here. Michael Jennings (Affleck) gets paid to work on secret corporate projects, then has his memory erased at the end of each one and somebody else takes the credit. Most sci-fi concepts would stop there, but after Michael completes a three-month engagement and has all that time wiped from his brain, he receives an envelope containing various items that are exactly what he needs to get out of every situation that comes his way. How is this possible? Skip to Next if you don’t want to know.
“How will the audience know it’s a mystery if he doesn’t make a question mark?” – John Woo
Nope, not psychics or anything. The project Michael was working on was a window that can see the future, and he foresaw a war. He sent himself all these items so he could prevent the war regardless of having his memory wiped. Here’s my problem: while the envelope never had to travel through time, Michael had to see in the magic science window that giving himself all of these items would work. But his goal is to prevent something he saw in the window, so either anything can be changed or his plan is doomed from the– ooh, explosions! Thanks, John Woo!
If you’re playing the John Woo drinking game, yes, there is a dove. It’s CGI.
Overall, a relatively neat idea is brought down by constantly crumbling logic and stylized but mindless action. John Woo just wasn’t the right match for this material. He’s better suited to really dumb high-concept sci-fi involving face-swapping.
The science: Is a lot of the science in science fiction mostly bullshit? Absolutely. Nevertheless, I appreciate it when movies try to elevate the how and the why beyond “I dunno, fuckin’ deal with it,” and I will give Paycheck a gold star for trying. Paul Giamatti riffs on how time travel is technically impossible, but using a lens and a mirror, you could make a laser that could… bend… light… time… curve… hey, this thing.
“Oh no, Paycheck‘s on in the future.”
Okay, so I guess you’re seeing the light bounced off of events that haven’t happened yet, which leads us to an idea that will be repeated in the other two movies in this article: once you’ve seen the future, you can change the outcome, or as Affleck melodramatically puts it, “If you show someone their future, they have no future.”
The clarity: Just look at that HD picture! While Paycheck‘s magic time window looks the clearest (save for some science-y lightning zaps), a lot of the visions in it look suspiciously edited like a John Woo movie… I guess even future lasers adhere to the Magical Security Cam trope.
The accuracy: The problem with this movie is that the visions in it can be timed down to the microsecond (at one point somebody dodges a bullet by setting an alarm on his watch), which makes you think we’re dealing with immutability, but once you realize things can be changed, none of that matters. So no, not only are the visions ultimately not accurate, they’re inconsistent. This would make relying on the laser TV a fool’s errand, especially when you trust the odds of your mind-wiped future self to, say, discover microscopic documents on a postage stamp.
The movie: Next (2007), starring Nicolas Cage, Julianne Moore, and Jessica Biel, directed by Lee Tamahori
The source material: The short story “The Golden Man” by Philip K. Dick
The suckiness: This is the kind of movie that actively forces you to write a better one in real time as you watch it. Next is the “story” of Cris Johnson, a Las Vegas magician with a self-described ability to see two minutes into the future. That’s what he says, at least, but the movie chooses to portray it about nine different ways. Anyway, Cris meets Liz Cooper (Jessica Biel), a woman he’s been having visions of beyond the two-minute window (gasp!) which we find out is significant because… boobs? I’m gonna go with boobs. They wouldn’t be that prominently displayed on the poster if they weren’t important to the plot.
“Never let them out of my sight. The future depends on it.”
Juliane Moore plays an FBI agent who’s been following Johnson so she can force him to use his powers to find the location of a nuclear bomb before it goes off. He’s not interested because… he’s a dick? I’m not really clear on that. I guess he doesn’t want to be a lab rat, like one of the tub people in– whoa, is this a prequel to Minority Report? I hope so. Please, stick Nicolas Cage in a cum jacuzzi and never let him out.
I’d describe more of the plot, but, you know, why? Oh, there’s a disturbingly unerotic scene where Nicolas Cage quotes some Italian painter while barely looking at Jessica Biel and lights a paper rose on fire, at which points she practically yelps, “GET IN MY VAGINA.”
“I’d be as surprised as you if I couldn’t see the fifty things that don’t get you moist.”
The science: None to speak of. This is pretty much just a thing this guy can do and nobody knows why. Magic, mutation, alien tracking chip that emits tachyon particles, take your pick.
The clarity: The visions themselves must be crystal clear to Johnson, but not so much to the audience. Here’s how the prophecies typically play out in the movie. First, something bad happens, like Cris getting hit by a train…
Pictured: something “bad.”
Then everything jumps back and we see what Cris has chosen to do instead…
Pictured: the logical choice of speeding up slightly.
So here’s what I don’t understand… Cris died in that train vision. Boom. Splat. Dead. So these “first passes” can’t be actually happening, unless he has some kind of Groundhog Day reset button when he dies. However, in another scene, we watch him attempt to introduce himself to Liz at a diner over and over and over, because Groundhog Day hasn’t been ripped off enough yet. What’s happening here? Is he seeing all possible scenarios at once? He can’t be actually trying all these things and then jumping back in time two minutes. Is this ability just “on” constantly? Why doesn’t he just see one vision, the one that works? How long does it take for him to see each of these? Is he just sitting at the counter for a full ten minutes? This couldn’t be more confusing if they showed all of his visions layered on top of each other at the same–
Oh, for fuck’s sake.
I know. How could the director of Die Another Day make such a baffling movie?
The accuracy: I’m not even fucking done with how they portray this shit. I’m too angry. Spoilers, whatever, skip down to Maverick: this movie has visions within visions. Yes, really. It happens a couple times, but the most intellectually offensive one is the big twist ending… half of the entire movie is just a prophecy. Fuck off, Next. That doesn’t make any sense.
The movie: Minority Report (2002), starring Tom Cruise, Tom Cruise, and Tom Cruise, directed by Steven Spielberg
The source material: The short story “The Minority Report” by Philip K. Dick
The suckiness: Minority Report is when Steven Spielberg was going through his Kubrick phase. It came out right after A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the movie Stanley Kubrick wanted to make but eventually handed over to Spielberg. As a result, we get a darker sci-fi film than Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial with plenty of disturbing moments, but then there’s some cutesy wacky bullshit for no reason. Still, it’s a more competently directed film than the other two, so that counts for something, right?
Okay, so Tom Cruise plays a Tom Cruise named John Anderton, who works in the field of pre-crime. Basically, three autistic people called “precogs” soak in a giant swimming pool, and they have psychic powers because their parents did too much “neuroin.” They can all see murders that haven’t happened yet, and these visions are recorded so John can study them and go nail the bad guy before he commits the crime. Short answer: Tom Cruise studies future crack baby dreams.
Wait, I think I’ve seen this tub somewhere else.
The story really kicks off when a vision of Anderton committing a murder comes up. Time to run! The system must be flawed! Or is it? It is? It isn’t? Whatever.
This movie looks all milky and washed out, so thank it for Man of Steel. You know, it’s dark and gritty, but still the cleanest dark and gritty you’ve seen? And with way too many random comedy bits. Try not to hear Benny Hill music when Tom Cruise goes blindly pawing around for a sandwich and some milk and instead grabs a rotten sandwich and a rotten bottle of milk. Fart!
Plants that kiss you and bite you! Why the hell not?
The science: Yeah, they have cool wires and fancy touch-free computer screens in this future, but guess what? They’re still hooked up to messy humans who ramble about nothing and have wavering degrees of reliability. You can throw all the technobabble you’ve got at me, that’s still magic. It’s a neat idea, though, not knowing how the precogs do it but exploiting the shit of it. If you cut open the psychic goose, no more psychic eggs. What now, Science?
The clarity: The videos received from the precogs are fuzzy with little bits of visibility here and there so Tom Cruise can look like he’s smart at decoding stuff. The visions mostly look like they’ve seen a lot of modern horror movies and have adopted their editing styles. And yes, you can zoom and enhance.
“The… meat? Something about meat… we’re going to Five Guys! Let’s move!”
The accuracy: Ha! Ha ha ha! Ha. I’m nowhere near the first to point out how the precogs don’t predict a damn thing right. Since that topic’s already been touched upon, there is one scene where a precog describes future events in a successful, immutable fashion. John has stolen one of them and is on the run with her. She goes full Bill & Ted and tells Anderton exactly what to do to escape. It’s an excellent sequence and I remember being wowed by it in the theater.
“Wait. Stand still. Don’t do The Last Samurai.”
What robs it of being impressive is that nothing else in the movie makes sense. In addition to not actually predicting anything that ultimately ends up happening, there’s a scene where Little Miss Precog, having been released from the restrictions of the tank, tells John Anderton the life his dead son would have had if he weren’t kidnapped. Um, yeah, I can make that up, too? He, uh, he gets a job at Google at seventeen, marries a supermodel, and becomes a senat– no, president! Yeah! He’s real tall and he makes laws and stuff! And he’s a rock star! He’s President Rock!
What, this isn’t cheering you up?
FINAL VERDICT: Prophecies are stupid.
I mean, look, they either come true or they don’t. When they don’t, that means they weren’t prophecies. When they do, they’re boring. And, like one of our movies today, when half of them come true… what the hell’s going on there? Who cares? That’s… that’s worse than being “spiritual but not religious.” That’s worse than “I love you, but I’m not in love with you.” That’s Smash Mouth.
I don’t care if they’re actually time travel, just because you’re sending light or your consciousness or your terrible haircut into the future and it’s relaying back the info via a space-time fart matrix. The bottom line is that prophecies just aren’t interesting. They’re like mysteries, but all the detective’s clues come from his drunk uncle. (Hell, even that would be entertaining. I’m going to write that right now.) Time travel allows you to poke around in a different decade, to see things from another vantage point, to experience the real impact decisions can have on our lives. Prophecies, on the other hand, are just rumors.
Want more time travel? Head on over to the Time Out archive.