The Paradox of Paradoxes (and my review of Looper)

I’ve discovered after some reflection, that I didn’t much care for Looper. The issue is admittedly asinine, and I fully confess being absolutely wrong in my opinion (against a previous rant where I exclaimed opinions weren’t wrong, however stupid). The film is entertaining. I know, I just said it wasn’t very good, but it is…and not. Damn it. It’s a good script. The problem is that it’s marred with logical glitches I can’t forgive…though everyone else should…and probably will. So yeah, go see Looper.

Unless you’re me.

Stories involving time travel, though often fun, keep breaking my suspension of disbelief. Not in the development or mechanics of time travel technology but rather in the inevitable paradoxes which frequently occur. There are several trains of thought on this subject, a few I’m willing to entertain while others generate varying levels of aggravation. One concept involves the out-of-place traveler. If someone moves through time, it can be imagined that time would work around said traveller, a popular time travel staple as it removes the possibility of paradoxes. The issue it brings up is that it assumes parallel realities also exist. Postulate: you travel back in time and by intention or accident, prevent your birth. Using this train of thought, you wouldn’t vanish; rather, the timeline would warp around you. If you traveled back to your present, you would have no identity, no home, but would still physically exist. Circumventing personal apathy, you could instead simply prevent your younger self from traveling through time. Once again, avoiding the paradox, you would return to your present and meet an alternate you, with possible different memories and motivations. The convoluted masterpiece Primer dealt with this subject at length, and I recommend it as brilliant take on time travel storytelling (prep a pad and pencil before watching).

Stephen Hawking once made a challenge to any time travelers to meet him at a specific place and time for a meeting. It never occurred. If you apply the parallel element, it’s entirely possible that our time-stream has no interference from time travellers despite being the source of the travellers in the first place. If your time machine was rooted at your point of origin, then by returning, you would be pulled you into your original time-stream, and nothing would appear to change. Even if you went back and talked to yourself, you wouldn’t remember it upon your return because that was another reality which you created, one which you cannot interact with unless you remained in the past to see how events carried themselves out.

If you had vanished per the paradox by interfering with yourself in some way, the universe would reveal its intrinsic flaw, leading to my reasonable conclusion that if time travel (into the past) were possible, then parallel realities would also be by consequence. The instance you declare (in your story/game/postulation) that the time traveler can be affected outside of the time-stream he or she left, all sorts of problems arise. This is dealt with heavily in Looper. If a traveller inflicts an injury on his or her younger self, the older form would suddenly discover the new scar, followed shortly by the memories of the incident. The problem with this is that the old self would also remember encountering the young self and thus should have been able to prevent the injury (unless intentional). If you prevent your younger self from traveling back in time, then you can’t travel back and thus could never prevent your…

…and this is when Austin Powers goes cross-eyed.

One way to explain this would be to subscribe to determinism—there’s only one time-stream and everything is predetermined and unavoidable. The universe is fixed beginning to end, and as result if you could travel back in time, you’d already have memories of that encounter and would still carry out the actions you remembered, even if actively trying to change them. Most films involving determinism don’t include time travelers as much as premonitions, with the only good one coming to mind being Alex Proyas’s Knowing. The problem with solving a time travel crisis involving travellers being susceptible to the changes they inflict is that the moment you prevent the traveller from moving through time in the first place, you create a paradox where the story never existed. It is entirely possible that whatever mechanic you introduce in your story/game/postulation could include fail-safes to allow you to do whatever you want. Perhaps the damage the traveller inflicts in the timeline (which doubles back and affects him/her as well) is isolated from the effects the traveller has on those around. If you kill your younger self, you cease to exist but the death still remains, as does everything else you did before being rendered nonexistent. I don’t personally like this explanation because it honestly feels a little arbitrary.

These arbitrary decisions play heavily in Looper, as the rules regarding time travel remain relatively inexplicable, leaving a viewer to accept the “just ’cause” justification. Oddly, this is not my biggest issue involving Looper. I’m more bothered by the basic setup, which postulates that when time travel is discovered and quickly outlawed, those breaking the rules by using the technology will do nothing useful with it. The trailer explains that criminal syndicates send back people they want disposed of because of the difficulty in doing so in the future. Beyond the fact that this makes little sense, I kept wondering why they don’t send victims back a trillion years and into a pool of lava. Well, maybe the device only works thirty years into the past, a fixed point, and the two timelines run parallel. Evidence in the film can lead one to that conclusion, but then why not do something useful…like invest, which was the logical basis of Primer—the two main characters get rich from simply going back a single day. But in Looper, time travel is employed so irrationally, you have to accept it only as a device used strictly to justify the premise, like the writer had an idea and made provisions and excuses for it to occur, even running counter to logic. The result is an entertaining character study where two identical versions of the same character interact with vastly different and equally flawed moral outlooks. That’s praise; I only wished the story was restructured so I wouldn’t keep asking questions as to why the premise was presented in the way it was.

Maybe me think too hard.

I should have expected it; Looper was written by the same guy that gave us Brick, an underappreciated gem with memorable exchanges such as this:

“You’ve helped this office out before.”
“No, I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you fed.”

…and Looper can also claim its own colorful dialogue.

“Why the F%^$ French”
“I’m going to France.”
“Go to China.”
“I’m going to France.”
“Go to China.”
“I’m going to France.”
“I’m from the future. Go to China.”

Concluding with my own experience involving time travel storytelling, Amethyst “technically” forbids time travel in its canon setting. In its next supplement, Amethyst Factions, readers will conclude the previous statement to be a lie, but it’s not, a conundrum which has an explanation, but one readers may unfortunately never understand. Officially, although I don’t dislike time travel stories, I prefer those where the past moves into the future rather than vice-versa, though this format is rare in cinema. Inserting time travel in a game is risky and about the only time I ever included it as a mechanic was as a ritual for Goodman Games’ Book of Rituals.

Consult Paradox
You create a wrinkle in the tapestry of space and time and ask yourself a few questions about the dangers yet to come.
Level: 15 Component Cost: 2,000
Description: Binding Market Price: 5,000
Time: 10 minutes Key Skill: Arcana
Duration: 1 minute
You conjure an ethereal image of yourself from one hour in the future. Only you can converse with yourself. You are revealed the details of the opponents of the next three encounters, their locations, and their strengths as long as they are within 50 squares of your location. If there are any traps within 20 squares of your location, you know their positions and their lethality. If you are in a dungeon, you can map out a radius of the next twenty squares. Since you only have one minute with yourself, you know better than to waste each other’s time with commentary and go straight to critical points of information. Your future self is no more skilled than you and cannot impart information you could not possibly know. Your future self cannot move from the location it was summoned to. It also cannot be targeted by any attacks.
Because of the peculiarities of time and space, you are not contacted by yourself when the future becomes the present.

…And I thought the telekinetic element in Looper was inapt and one of the key plot elements of the story smelled too much like The Terminator. That’s my final word.


Chris Dias

Chris Tavares Dias is the literary equivalent of that crusty burnt cheese at the bottom of the fondue pot. Some people claim he looks like Mathew Perry. He would like that to be true. It's not. In 2010, Chris co-wrote and created Amethyst Foundations, a 4th Edition setting based on the previous version under 3.5. It has received critical acclaim for integrating science fiction into classical fantasy. In August of this year, Chris was last seen staring at a dead raven that had fallen beside his car. Two months later, his watch and notepad were found in the stomach of a basking shark that had washed ashore off the coast of Florida.