I’m not a movie guy. I’m the guy who would watch Avengers at home, alone, on my 36″ TV if I didn’t have to wait four months to do it. So I mostly only read movie reviews to see if some movie that actively annoys me is being panned. Usually movies that annoy me are the ones that air too many obnoxious commercials, but in this case it’s Men in Black 3, which is a completely unecessary sequel to a completely unecessary sequel.
So I’m reading the MIB 3 review on Time.com and I come across this passage:
The average moviegoer is well educated in the particulars of time travel. Even if your high school curriculum didn’t include any H.G. Wells, thanks to Back to the Future, Terminator and dozens of other films, just about everyone knows how it works. Why don’t the fleet of screenwriters who cooked up this script? They have J wake up the morning after the bloodbath at the Chinese restaurant to a world already missing K. This makes no sense. Boris hasgone back in time, but given that he hasn’t found or killed young K yet, old K ought to be alive, well and doing that “sort of surly Elvis” thing he does in contemporary Manhattan. Instead he’s dead and gone, and at headquarters, only the boss and former paramour, O (Emma Thompson, 53 and playing 65 or so, every actress’s dream) even remembers old K.1
It says something about our society’s perception of time that the reviewer apparently thinks Back to the Future makes perfect sense and this plot does not. Let’s be honest, most time travel stories are completely illogical poppcycock,2 but in general we do not care as long as we’re satisfied that the story follows certain rules we’ve come to expect, which I have given snazzy names because why the hell not:
- Brown’s Law: A time traveler is capable of preventing events he has already witnessed, but it is extremely dangerous (in some nebulous, end-of-the-universe, don’t-cross-the-streams kind of way) and should be avoided.3
- Connor’s Berth: The effects of a time traveler’s changes to the timestream are synchronized with the timeframe from which he departed. That is, if I go back in time and a week after I arrive I prevent your conception, you have a week from my time of departure to send somebody to stop me before you cease to exist.
- McFly’s Confidence: Time travelers are “immune” from the effects of changing history (even when the changes directly affect their own lives) and retain full knowledge of whatever nonexistent timelines they’ve witnessed.
- Guinan’s Exception: “Stationary” observers are only “immune” to changes in history through extraordinary circumstances, like being a special kind of alien or standing next to the Guardian of Forever.
- Simpson’s Razor: The only changes a time traveler must concern himself with are the ones he can perceive; he needs only to make additional changes that restore history “close enough” to his personal satisfaction.
- Beckett’s Mandate: The morality of altering the timeline is subjective and ultimately determined by the sympathies of the audience, represented within the story by the will of “God, time, fate, or whatever.”4
So yes, the setup of Men In Black 3 apparently breaks several of these rules, but the rules are arbitrary to begin with–they have no logical basis and aren’t rigorously applied even in the stories that purportedly follow them. As long as the good guy needs to fix time, the bad guys are trying to stop him, and the viewer isn’t completely lost, everything else is just gravy. This is why so many Star Trek time travel episodes suck–not because they don’t play by the rules, but because the writers confuse themselves, give up, and end with an explosion that puts everything back to normal.5 In the end the only rule is to tell a good story, although I am dubious that the 10,000th variant of “Let’s go back in time to the late 1960s!” can do that.
- If you’re wondering why I read Time’s movie reviews, it’s for the elitist attitude. “Oh, your average mouth-breather at least saw an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, but my school could afford actual books by H.G. Wells!” [↩]
- The Bill & Ted duology being a notable exception that follows Novikov’s self-consistency principle. [↩]
- Incidentally, Thunderbolts #174 recently broached the subject of what the danger actually is, which was quite satisfying. [↩]
- You might say “But the audience wanted Sam to save his dad!” but we really didn’t because that would fundamentally alter Sam’s history, and thus Sam as a character. Similarly, Sam can’t fix Al’s past until the series is over and we don’t need Al to be a lovable creep anymore. [↩]
- Jim’s Law of Time Travel clearly states that if you think your time travel story is so confusing that you decide to have a character point out how confusing it is, you probably should not be writing a time travel story. [↩]