How Time Travel Works According to Rian Johnson

By  · Published on September 11th, 2012

Rian Johnson’s Looper is fresh from being showered with praise in Toronto and Chicago (see our praise here), so it’s fortunate that Johnson possesses the technology to go back and live through the adoration all over again. Of course, that’s the toughest technical part of writing a movie about time travel. The mechanism itself is both used frequently and difficult to get right.

If the logic behind the time travel is off, audiences might be forgiving, but there’s a special brand of nerd (I’m raising my hand) who has extreme difficulty looking beyond illogical time travel. The perfectly legitimate reason is that bad time travel reduces down to a gimmick used for convenience instead of momentum. It’s like introducing a gun into the plot but having it shoot banana pudding at the climax. It’s giving yourself license to do things over, and few filmmakers seem to have the discipline to resist the easy path.

So it’s encouraging to see Johnson talk about his time travel element in Looper. As Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis attempt a game of cat and also-cat, this is what we can expect to see in their temporal-jumping:

“Well, first and foremost, and this sounds like a cheat, but, in reality, this is the only thing that made sense to me: I feel like so often the paradox element of time travel is approached from a chart perspective, or from a timeline perspective – from a mathematical perspective where “A” happened so “B” happened so “C” happens,” Johnson told Mike Ryan recently. “In my mind, it made much more sense to look at the universe and the way the universe deals with these paradoxes. To look at it as an organic body and to look at it … it’s almost like you push a foreign object into an organic body. It doesn’t have a machine like response to it. It kind of figures out what it is and tries to do its best to adjust to it.

And, so, that’s why when the older self is back in the present, a physical thing, like a scar, that’s kind of like more of a one-to-one simple thing – so that happens and then that appears on the younger person. But, in terms of the memories changing ?? and there was originally a longer thing in the diner, where the old Joe character went into this in more detail – but the memories are kind of doing their best, and so it kind of gets really, really cloudy when things are still in flux. And in the present moment where they’re defined, they become sharp again. But the main thing is, the memories are just trying to adjust and trying to figure out how to deal with this paradox. Which, to me, is how the universe actually works. You know, it’s a big, organic mass.”

The writer/director also name-checked Primer, Back to the Future and the first Terminator. We’ll have to wait until September 28th to see where his film lands in the pantheon of time travel flicks, but it seems obvious at this point that it’s poised to be a breakout for Johnson. Unless someone goes back and kills Hitler. Then who knows what will happen.

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