From The Time Machine to the Back to the Future trilogy and other films, Hollywood has been showing us what it might be like to travel backward or forward in time. Its latest venture into time travel is a film called Looper, directed by Rian Johnson. When I got a chance to see a preview of this film, I was interested in finding out if this one might top its predecessors.
But the time machine in this two-hour flick belongs to the mob, and it has a singular purpose—sending people back in time to be blasted into eternity by a hit man called a Looper, who then unceremoniously dumps the body into an incinerator. You see, in 2074, it's apparently not so easy to kill people and make them disappear. So the victims have to be sent back 30 years to 2044 to meet their fate—with their hands tied behind their back and a sack over their heads. The main character, Joe, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, makes his living as a Looper.
Unfortunately, this is the sole purpose of this unmemorable time machine. There's no one like Doc Brown explaining the intricacies of a flux capacitor in a DeLorean time machine, for instance, as there was in Back to the Future. All the moviegoer sees in Looper is a globe-shaped vehicle with lots of cabling around it. According to Johnson, he got his inspiration from a picture of the very first atomic bomb, which was called “The Gadget” and had a retro-futuristic design—a tangled mess of wires and cables and boxes surrounding a large sphere. In the movie, the time machine has a retro, simplified, down-and-dirty look.
In addition, this time machine provided only a one-way trip—back in time. The movie showed some characters from 2074 hanging out in the present (2044) to run the sordid operation. There’s a memorable line in the film from a character called Abe, played by Jeff Daniels, who’s a crime boss in the present but really from the future. At one point in the film, he says to Joe after giving him some advice, “You should listen to me. I am from the future after all.”
Naturally, the time machine is eventually used in an unintended way. Joe’s older self is distraught when the mob, now run by a character called The Rainmaker, kills his Asian lover and captures him in order to send him back to the past and have Joe essentially shoot himself. In the movie, this is referred to as “closing the loop.” But old Joe wants to change the past (and the future), by killing the little twerp who’s responsible for killing his lover 30 years later. The movie doesn’t explain how old Joe might return to the future to savor the fruits of his vicious deed; the one-way time machine doesn’t seem to be his ticket back. What happens to Old Joe, Young Joe and the Young Rainmaker? I’ll leave that part of the movie to your imagination.
The time travel hook got me interested in Looper, but I can’t really recommend the movie. However, when I got home, I found myself going to the bookshelf to re-read A Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell, both by renowned physicist, Stephen Hawking—not the entire books, mind you, just the chapters on time travel. I re-acquainted myself with Einstein's special and general laws of relativity, as well as clarified the concepts again of wormholes and curved space.
I had some questions, one of which A Brief History of Time answered, and a few that were answered by Dr. Edward Farhi, Director of the Center for Theoretical Physics at MIT. Farhi has been commenting on time travel and even turned me on to a book by a friend of his, Sean Carroll, who wrote From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time.
One of the questions I had was, “If time travel is possible, why hasn’t someone come back from the future to let us know about it.” Hawking answers this in Chapter 10 of A Brief History of Time. He writes, “A possible way to explain the absence of visitors from the future would be to say that the past is fixed because we have observed it and seen that it does not have the kind of warping needed to allow travel back from the future. On the other hand, the future is unknown and open, so it might well have the curvature required. This would mean that any time travel would be confined to the future.”
Farhi thought that time travel into the future was entirely possible based on Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. But I asked him what he thought about travel back to the past, as it is shown in Looper and other movies. “That’s tougher,” Farhi said. “In Special Releativity, there’s really no avenue for going back in time. If you could go back in time, there is a paradox associated with that, which is that if you go into the past you could then influence the present. This paradox probably means that it is very difficult to go back in time. The movie plays with that. But from a physics point of view being able to go backwards in time and effect the present would be disastrous for how we understand the laws of physics.”
Farhi related a story about reading a paper by a physicist at Princeton, Richard Gott, who proposed a time machine. The paper showed that if you had a certain dense collection of matter and the parts were moving quickly—in effect a machine that was moving very fast—if it encircled itself, it would come back before it left because of a strong warping effect. Farhi and some of his colleagues wondered if you could actually build the machine. With a premise of not violating the laws of physics, they were able to show that if you wanted to build this machine you would have to assemble at least half of the mass of the universe. Ha! So much for that.
I looked up Gott on the Internet, but didn’t find that particular paper. Instead, I found a reference to another book, written by Paul Davies, called How to Build a Time Machine, which credits Gott with proposing the physics needed to create a time machine. One of the elements that could have made Looper a “must see,” in my opinion, would have been a discussion of some of the latest ideas in physics regarding time travel, but the director was really focused on the narrative of the movie. As for me, I was disappointed in Looper, but I’ll be heading over to Amazon to purchase a book or two on time travel.