Doing it over: set up in time-travel films (#SFWApro)

One of the problems I’ve notice as I keep watching movies for my book is how a lot of time-travel films (parallel world and do-over in particular) have to devote the opening scenes to setting everything up.
The opening scenes in Back to the Future, for example, are probably the weakest in the story, because they’re a prologue. Not that they’re bad—they have good actors and show off the McFly family and what a mess it is—but it doesn’t really have an direction; the actual plot doesn’t really kick in until Marty (Michael J. Fox) meets up with Doc (Christopher Lloyd) to test the time machine. But without the opening, the power of Marty’s time trip to 1955 doesn’t make sense. In the opening scenes we learn:
•Marty’s dad George (Crispin Glover) is a bullied loser whose supervisor, Biff (Thomas Wilson) is a bullying douchebag.
•Mom (Lea Thompson) is apparently very prim and proper with strict rules for how girls behave.
•Marty plays guitar and dreams of taking his girlfriend up to the lake in a fancy, four-wheel drive truck for an overnight stay (unaffordable and Mom wouldn’t approve)
•A lightning bolt hit the city clock tower back in 1955.
Plus a couple of other details.
All of this pays off as the movie unfurls. The lightning bolt is how Marty gets to power his time machine for the ride home; his mother turns out to be anything but a pillar of virtue in her teen years (and Thompson, may I say, does an awesome job playing a nominally good girl with seething lust).
Although the scenes at the start are slow, the rest of the movie doesn’t make sense without them.
Likewise the opening of Nicolas Cage/Tea Leoni’s Family Man establishes the baseline from which Cage’s alt.timeline diverges: the moment when he separated from his girlfriend, his current life as a womanizing corporate shark and the various people in his life (co-workers, neighbors, doorman at his condo), all of whom show up in the alt.world wondering why this whack-a-doodle claims he’s known them for years.
This works because the characters are fun and Cage carries the plot along, but it’s not so easy in poorer movies. Kevin Sorbo’s Family Man-clone, What If? has the same set-up but Sorbo isn’t strong enough to make it interesting (or the inevitable Don’t You Know Me? scenes later in the book). Likewise Butterfly Effect spends a of time focusing on the protagonist’s childhood blackouts, which become significant later when we learn they’re the result of Ashton Kutcher jumping into his own past.
Some movies pass the hurdle better. Shuffle doesn’t have much set up at all, and neither does Fetching Cody, poor as it was. The Bing Crosby Connecticut Yankee could easily have shorted the opening scenes in which Crosby shows off his knowledge of ancient Arthurian history.
I’m not sure this would be so noticeable (or annoying) if I wasn’t watching so many movies that employ the trick. But with the poorer ones it probably would, even if they were stand-alones, though maybe I wouldn’t pinpoint just what it was that bothered me.

2 Comments

Filed under Movies, Now and Then We Time Travel

2 responses to “Doing it over: set up in time-travel films (#SFWApro)

  1. Pingback: Destiny is a stacked deck (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: Time Travel and Parallel-World Films, Plus Some That Aren’t Either (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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