History Lessons

Time-Travel Films as Postmodern Parables

I. Introduction: Time Travel and "History"

Science fiction films often examine cultural issues through a magnifying glass of technology-tinged fantasy. The last decade's proliferation of movies about time travel comments on people's views of time and history.

Time travel, a plot staple of science fiction literature for decades, made no noticeable impact upon science fiction films until 1960 with George Pal's The Time Machine based on the novel by H.G. Wells. In the next two decades time travel served as a basis for a few low-budget films, but none were particularly successful. In the 1980's, however, time travel films became stunning box office hits.

The time travel film renaissance began at the turn of that decade. In Time After Time (1979) H. G. Wells actually invented his time machine and followed Jack the Ripper to modern day San Francisco. In Somewhere in Time (1980) a playwright falls in love with a woman from the past. In The Final Countdown (1980) a time storm transports the aircraft carrier Nimitz back to the attack on Pearl Harbor. In Time Bandits (1981), a bizarre British fantasy, midget bandits plunder history via holes in time. In the low budget Timerider (1983) a motorcyclist accidentally journeys into the past and becomes his own grandfather.

These films early in the decade were modest financial successes, but the block-busting successes of Terminator (1984) and Back to the Future (1985), ensured the endurance of this Hollywood formula. Many time travel movies were subsequently made. Nevertheless, many of the later movies do not qualify as simply Terminator and Back to the Future clones because many were already in various stages of production before the success of those two films. Time travel films became popular at least in part because something about them resonated with popular culture psyche.

Of these films, the most popular will be discussed here. In Terminator (I/II) (1984/91), Back to the Future (I-III) (1985/89/90), and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure/Bogus Journey (1989/91) time travelers journey into their past. Terminator's time travelers come from our future into our present. Back to the Future's travelers journey from our present into our past (and our future and an alternate present). Bill and Ted features both travelers from our future into our present and from our present into our past. (Hereafter, these films/sequels will be referred to in more economical shorthand: T1/T2 for Terminator, BF1/BF2/BF3 for Back to the Future, and BT1/BT2 for Bill and Ted.)

These series of films show history as fluid, fragile, mutable, changeable, unpredictable, and surprising. The "reality" time travelers find in the past often does not match their expectations. Time travelers interact with history, often creating anachronisms and paradoxes. They often attempt to "use" the past for their own purposes. The characters experience "time" as compressed and urgent.

This article's thesis is these time travel films can be viewed as parables or dramatic illustrations of postmodern concepts of time and history. In Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film, Vivian Sobchack states, "The new SF film brings postmodern logic to visibility--symbolically representing the new structures of experience in both the spatially material form of its figures and the temporally material form of its narratives."1

Defining "postmodernism," a notoriously slippery word, has fomented many arguments.2 As a concept, postmodernism began in architecture and rippled out to other disciplines, and it can be broadly characterized as a reaction to modernism. Postmodernism is a polymorphous mixture of multiculturalism, multivalence, multinational commerce, multiple perspectives, pastiche, pluralism, simulacra, self-reflexivity, subversiveness, irony, de-centeredness, ambiguity, juxtapositions, eclecticism, ephemerality, relativity, and compressed concepts of space and time. This article, however, will only discuss postmodern concepts of time, history, and their consequences.

II. Postmodern Historiography: Construct, Change, and Collapse

A. "History Isn't What Happened"

Postmodern thought is skeptical of "history." "History isn't what happened," says postmodern novelist Julian Barnes in A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. "History is just what historians tell us."3

We cannot know "history" as it really, really happened. We only know it as a construct of various texts (whether in eyewitness testimony, print, audio, or video formats). Each observer, each camera, each microphone has its own limited point of view. Each text is open to multiple interpretations, and different texts often disagree. We can never get beyond the text to the really real Truth. We can never get beyond our interpretive "history" to actual History.

Nevertheless, some perspectives of history must be "truer" than others. In BT1 Bill and Ted's initial ridiculously limited concepts of history include: Napoleon was a "short dead dude," Joan of Arc was Noah's wife, and Caesar was a "salad dressing dude."

Barnes comments:

We all know objective truth is not obtainable, that when some event occurs we shall have a multiplicity of subjective truths which we assess and then fabulate into history, into some God-eyed version of what 'really' happened. This God-eyed version is a fake--a charming, impossible fake, like those medieval paintings which show all the stages of Christ's Passion happening simultaneously in different parts of the picture. But while we know this, we must still believe that objective truth is obtainable; or we must believe that it is 99 per cent obtainable; or if we can't believe this we must believe that 43 per cent objective truth is better than 41 per cent. We must do so, because if we don't we're lost, we fall into beguiling relativity, we value one liar's version as much as another liar's.4

Bill and Ted do embark on a quest for the Truth about history--but more importantly for them, they embark on a quest to pass history class.

BF1 is an exercise in how we remember the 1950's. Nostalgic pop cultural artifacts abound.

But things are not as we choose to remember them. Marty's mother told him that when she was a girl she "didn't chase boys," but when Marty meets his mother in 1955, she, without realizing he is her future son, aggressively pursues Marty as a romantic object. His interpretation of history is quite different from hers.

BF2 goes back inside the original for an additional/alternate perspective on the events Marty first experienced in the 1950s. Marty goes back to 1955 again and sees himself acting out the first experience. He gains yet another perspective.

In BF3, Doc Brown's 1950's remembrance of the old West is parodied and contrasted with Marty's 1980's version. Doc Brown gives Marty an "authentic" cowboy costume with fancy decorated buckskin. Marty says Clint Eastwood would never wear something like that. Doc Brown, of course, does not know who Clint Eastwood is (will be) because he only knows the West through the 1950s' romanticized renderings.

B. "History is Going to Change"

Since history is only known from multiple conflicting perspectives, known history "changes" as we consider new information and different angles. Time travel tales take that logic to an extreme.

In the early part of BF1, the principal of the school, Mr. Strickland, catches Marty McFly in the hallway tardy (already he has trouble with "time") and berates him, "No McFly ever amounted to anything in the history of Hill Valley." Marty responds, "Yeah? Well, history is going to change."

Few words were ever more prophetic. No other science fiction film has ever explored to such an extent the temporal consequences of minute changes in history--or had such fun doing it. The slightest change in events inadvertently caused by time-traveling Marty unleashes huge changes in the future. To make the present and future end up the way they "originally were" (more or less) Marty and Doc Brown spend the entire film series hilariously and continually tweaking and fine-tuning time.

The Terminator series takes a much darker view of changing history. The opening of T1 shows the expository words printed on the screen: "The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire. Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future. It would be fought here, in our present. Tonight . . ." With the machine's command defense grid smashed and the humans' victory assured, the machines use time displacement equipment in an attempt to prevent the human leader from being born. They send a Terminator back through time to kill John Conner's mother, but Conner sends Kyle back into the past after the Terminator to prevent history from changing.

In T2 the good reprogrammed cyborg recites the future "history" of the end of civilization as occurring Aug. 27, 1997. The artificial intelligence in Skynet's computer defense system becomes self-aware, the human programmers attempt to shut down the Frankenstein monster they have created, Skynet starts a nuclear war and begins a systematic decades-long extermination of all surviving humans. This is the cyborg's history (our future), but by the end of the movie he himself helps terminate that particular history by destroying the genesis of the Skynet project. His past and our future change.

Sarah attempts to rewrite history by assassinating the scientist she determines has "invented" the advanced computer chip (actually copied from a surviving chip of the first Terminator ten years before) that will be used in Skynet. The scientist survives, but converts to her side. As they journey to destroy his lab Sarah narrates: "We were in uncharted territory now . . . making up history as we went along." In the end records and artifacts of cyborg technology are destroyed, and both cyborgs are melted down in a foundry. The basis for Skynet, for the war between humanity and the machines, vanishes. Future history changes.

C. Time's Collapse

Vivian Sobchack says, "The new [postmodern] SF film tends to conflate past, present, and future. . . . Back to the Future is perhaps the most explicit representation of SF's new conservative nostalgia and its conflation and homogenization of temporal distinctions."5 In the BF series Hill Valley is the stage for past, present (and alternate present), and future scenes. In Marty's experience all these times get collapsed together.

In The Condition of Postmodernity David Harvey claims, "We have been experiencing, these last two decades, an intense phase of time-space compression that has had a disorienting and disruptive impact upon political-economic practices, the balance of class power, as well as upon cultural and social life."6

Alvin Toffler's 1970 best seller Future Shock documented the acceleration of change in our society. He says in The Third Wave:

Each emerging civilization brings with it not merely changes in how people handle time in daily life but also changes in their mental maps of time. . . .

Today, according to John Gribbin, an astrophysicist-turned-science-writer, "Sober scientists with impeccable academic credentials and years of research experience calmly inform us that . . . time isn't something that flows inexorably forward at the steady pace indicated by our clocks and calendars, but that it can be warped and distorted in nature. . . . At the ultimate extreme, supercollapsed objects--black holes--can negate time altogether, making it stand still in their vicinity."

By the turn of the century Einstein had already proved that time could be compressed and stretched, and had dynamited the notion that time is absolute.7

In T1 Sarah vividly experiences the compression of time. With the evil cyborg on her trail like an unstoppable angel of death, she may have only hours to live. In numerous chase scenes she escapes death by seconds. The movie hurtles from one action sequence to another. The only significant break in the pace of hunted existence is when she and Kyle make love in the motel room.

At the end of the movie she records her thoughts into a tape recorder for her unborn son: "Should I tell you about your father? Boy, that's a tough one. Will it affect your decision to send him here, knowing that he is your father? If you don't send Kyle, you could never be. God, a person could go crazy thinking about this. I suppose I will tell you. I owe him that. Maybe it will help if you know that in the few hours we had together, we loved a lifetime's worth."

In the BF series we see the compression of time in the rate movie sequels are made. Making sequels to popular movies became a mania in Hollywood during the 1980's. Usually sequels were planned only after the original was successful, and years might pass before a sequel was planned, filmed, and released. (Twenty-three years elapsed between Psycho and Psycho II.) The two BF sequels, however, were worked on simultaneously. Robert Zemeckis edited BF2 while filming BF3. When BF2 was released and shown in theaters, the movie ended with a "To Be Continued" cliffhanger and previews of BF3. BF3 was then released just six months after BF2.

Between conflation and compression of time, it's easy to feel lost. Julian Barnes used being "lost at sea" as a metaphor for our postmodern existence: "How hopelessly we signal; how dark the sky; how big the waves. We are all lost at sea, washed between hope and despair, hailing something that may never come to rescue us."8

In T1 Kyle is lost in time. The first time he speaks, it is a desperate question: "What's the date? What year?" He knows the time displacer sent him into the past, but he does not know exactly when. He does know the trip was strictly one way--he cannot go back. He is marooned in his past. (This is also true for the Terminator, and for both characters in T2.)

Because of various problems with his time car Marty is temporarily temporally lost in 1955 in BF1, lost in 1955 again in BF2, and lost in 1885 in BF3. In BF1 he almost fades away into nonexistence before he reunites his parents-to-be in their first kiss--and saves himself from the paradox of never being born.

In BT1 Bill and Ted are "lost" in their history class and narrowly avoid flunking. Their time booth malfunctions--although they manage to fix it with chewing gum. In BT2 they die and become lost, on a Dantean scale, in the timeless/eternal place called Hell.

III. Conclusion: Moral of the Stories

Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale wrote the original draft for Back to the Future in 1980 but no studio expressed interest in it. One top executive told Zemeckis, "Time travel movies are not moneymakers and they never work."9 Marty McFly might have replied, "Yeah? Well, history's going to change."

Time travel films have indeed become moneymakers. Reasons for such success are complex, but part of it surely is that these films touched the public's psyche by reflecting our culture's emerging postmodern experience of time and history--and yet still have happy endings.

If these three popular postmodern film series have a common moral, it is: For better or for worse, the future is what we make it. The moral decisions of our past create (or at least change) our future.

On a light-hearted note, in BF3 Marty chooses not to drag race another car even though he has been called "chicken" (which always caused him to act irrationally before). That decision (his character has grown during his adventures in the past) keeps him from crashing his car and ruining his music career (the scenario viewers saw in BF2). Bill and Ted's postmodern Golden Rule, "Be excellent to each other," contained in their music eventually leads to a utopian society and excellent dancing.

T1 and T2, on the other hand, are chilling warnings against technology taken too far. The search for ever more powerful "smart" weapons leads to destruction. (In 1984 T1 could easily have been interpreted as a critique of Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative.) In the end, however, humanity gets a second chance, and new hope exists that if even a Terminator can be reprogrammed not to kill, perhaps humans can learn the same.


1(New York: Ungar Publishing Co, 1987) 244.

2Fredric Jameson's often-quoted definition is: "the logic of late capitalism." Bruce Handy in "A Spy guide to postmodern everything" declares in a decidedly postmodern way: "After months of intensive research and half-baked discussion, what we've learned is this: Basically postmodernism is whatever you want it to be, if you want it bad enough." (Excerpted in Utne Reader, July/August 1989: 55.)

3(New York: Vintage International, 1989) 240.

4Barnes 243-244.

5Sobchack 273-274.

6(Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1989) 284.

7(New York: William Morrow and Co., 1980) 313.

8Barnes, page 137, but the theme links the stories together in the book.

9Marc Shapiro, "Back to the Future Part II," Starlog Yearbook Sept. 1991: 22.

Copyright 1995 Mark D. Stucky.
Originally published in Integra, October 1995.

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