Imagine entering a time portal. You can rewind time to encounter your partner before you were together or seek out a future version of them when they are older. Would you still develop a close relationship with them? How about facing someone completely different from the one you’re used to and being too traumatised to confront the present?
Time travel is glorified in the science fiction genre. We think of grand possibilities where we can change the future or recreate a past where wars never existed. However, scale it down to the level of friendships and romantic pursuits – we often do not pause to consider how meeting someone at incongruous points in a timeline can burden human relationships. Is it then truly possible to love someone “forever”, as romantics love to preach?
Some bonds will inevitably be severed. Similar to managing long-distance relationships or dealing with National Service boyfriends going on oufield, travelling in time is like taking a blind leap of faith. After all, you cannot predict the outcome – it is impossible to see through and control all timelines.
Unnatural circumstances portrayed in films allow us to dramatise social inquiry, offering a fictional medium for audiences to examine the appeal of soulmates or even the idea of marriage or. Relativity and time travel present infinite possibilities for us to reflect upon the nature of love and relationships.
Figure 1: Time travel offers countless alternative pasts and futures. Image still from Unsplash courtesy of @zul_naz
We all encounter many missed opportunities in life – think about being too shy to confess to a crush years ago, or how a terminally ill cancer patient discovered that it is too late to spend a lifetime with the person they love. Age and mortality are ever-present hindrances to forming bonds, something that can potentially be altered through time travel.
With the disruption of time, experiencing a past or future version of the same world exemplifies science fiction writer Philip K Dick’s idea of dysrecognition. Coming to an alternate society that is “simultaneously recognizable and unfamiliar” (Flanagon and Booth, 2002) will generate a sense of dislocation, estranging the subject from what he recognizes as reality. Furthermore, there is also the problem of the butterfly effect, referring to the reliance on initial conditions where a minor alteration at one point on a nonlinear timeline results in huge differences later.
Love, as we can see then, is certainly not an easy game to play. These challenges are captured perfectly through four different science fiction films. Cosmic voyages in Ikarie XB-1 and Interstellar portray how the dilation of time complicates relationships, affecting sentimentality between loved ones.
Figure 2: Commander MacDonald calls Rena for the last time before communication signals to Earth become too weak. Image still from Ikarie XB-1 (1963) courtesy of Filmové Studio Barrandov.
Commander MacDonald from Ikarie XB-1 promises to return to his wife, Rena, on Earth after venturing out on a space expedition. However, due to relativity’s effects, Rena would have aged by fifteen years, while he would just be slightly more than two years older when he comes back. A similar predicament occurs in the movie Interstellar where ex-NASA pilot Cooper departs Earth on a secret mission to find another habitable planet, leaving his two young children behind. As time moves differently in space, his son and daughter grow up into adulthood, ageing faster than Cooper, who remains the same age.
It is naïve to think that nothing changes. All relationships are affected by time – time can alienate or bring people closer. It is almost certain that in Ikarie XB-1, MacDonald’s absence will cause strain between the two partners as much as they love each other. Rena, after all, is pregnant at the point of her husband’s departure, so MacDonald will not be able to assume his duty as a father until his daughter is well into teenagehood. As for Interstellar’s Cooper, he only reunites with his now-geriatric daughter Murph on her deathbed.
Figure 3: Tim reveals his crush on Charlotte. Image still from About Time (2013) courtesy of Universal Pictures.
However, perhaps in some cases, manipulating time can ultimately work out in one’s favour despite challenges along the way – which is what happens in the 2013 British film About Time. Tim, the film’s protagonist, discovers he can revisit past moments through time travel, so he attempts to use this power to make the most out of his love life. He confesses his feelings to a girl called Charlotte during summer vacation, but Charlotte tells him that he should have done so earlier. So, he went back in time to do precisely that, but this time she suggested he wait until the final stay of her stay before verbalizing his thoughts. In the end, Tim realizes that Charlotte is not interested in him, and that time travel cannot change her mind. It was all for nought.
But for another relationship, Tim manages to alter its outcome. He returns a time before his love interest found another boyfriend and convinces her to be with Tim, so she did, and the pair got married. Thus, it seems that true love sometimes shines through the ages and time travel can make modifications to achieve the ideal result for a relationship.
Of course, it is still difficult to weigh the risks and benefits. The butterfly effect shows that it is impossible to predict what will happen – anxieties associated with alternative endings may be too much to bear. There are just so many concerns, and so many events to think about that meddling with time can also seem unwise.
Figure 4: Marty’s parents kiss at their high school ball. Image still from Back to the Future (1985) courtesy of Universal Pictures.
In Zemeckis’ Back to the Future, for example, when teenage Marty travels back in time, he must make sure that his dad meets his mum at their high school ball and that they fall in love; otherwise, Marty’s existence is threatened since he would not have been born. Furthermore, over the course of Tim’s contrived marriage in About Time, his time travelling abilities did cause problems – by helping his family members avert tragedies, it undid the birth of one of his children.
Travelling to alternate points in a timeline thus always comes with risks. Some feel that it is best to stick to a regular timeline and avoid all complications. In the end, changing one event leads to a myriad of repercussions that might be even more headache-inducing to deal with. In Ikarie XB-1, Rena’s downward gaze for a moment during her last call to Commander MacDonald also hints at the sheer emotional burden she must bear from the distorted timeline and dealing with an absent husband.
So, if you could portal through time, would you take the leap?
- About Time. Directed by Richard Curtis, performances by Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy and Tom Hollander. Universal Pictures, 2013.
- Back to the Future. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, performances by Michael J. Fox, Christopher Llyod, Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover. Universal Pictures, 1985.
- Flanagan, Mary, and Austin Booth. Reload: Rethinking Women + Cyberculture. The MIT Press, 2002.
- Ikarie XB-1. Directed by Jindřich Polák, performances by Zdeněk Štěpánek, Radovan Lukavský, František Smolík and Dana Medřická. Filmové Studio Barrandov, 1963.
Our 2022 articles offered a selection across four broad categories to facilitate your perusal. This article was part of the CONSIDER category: Opinions shared by our writers after watching the programmed films. For the opinionated and open-minded.