Saturday, March 13, 2010

Movies: Advice for time travelers, Part 1.

We here at ANTSS like to think that we give you more than simple opinion pieces on fright flicks. Instead, ANTSS strives to give you info you can use! In previous posts we explained why, against conventional wisdom, splitting up is always the best strategy for escaping a slasher and how game theory can help you survive Jigsaw traps. Today, we're going to use the film Triangle to explore what you should do if you find yourself in trapped in what appears to be a time loop. That's right. One day, you're minding your own beeswax. Next thing you know everyday is Groundhog Day and there's screaming and blood and more screaming. Fear not! We got you through the slasher and the Saw traps, we'll get you through this.

As with all survival situations your first and most important move is to stop and figure out what the hell is going on.

So, what the heck is happening in the movie Triangle?

This isn't going to be a standard review. I'm about to spoil this movie nine ways through Sunday and be waiting to spoil it again on Monday, so if you haven't seen it and you think you might, read no further.

However, I'm also going to assume you've seen the flick, so I'm not going to discuss plot and character enough to make the flick make sense. It isn't that I'm afraid to spoil the movie for you so much as I worry that reading this without seeing the movie might be the horror blog equivalent of reading Malone Dies in Martian.

And if you're confident that you don't want to see the movie, I urge you to reconsider. It's a hoot. Since my initial exposure to his 2005 CHUD-on-the-loose flick Creep, I've always cautiously categorized director Christopher Smith as a man who is, frustratingly, always about to arrive. I felt he was a cat whose flick always showed potential, without ever realizing that potential. Now, after seeing Triangle, I think I was approaching Smith's work's from an unhelpful perspective. If Smith has yet to make to make his masterpiece, it's because he's too uncomfortable with the easy cut-and-paste methods of modern horror. He could "pull a Aja," as they say in the Fright Game, and, after establishing a bit of indie cred, turn his attention to cranking out proficient retreads at the bidding of his new corporate masters. But, instead, Smith's decided to walk his own route, even at the cost of stumbling. We've yet to get the Chris Smith masterpiece, but when Smith falls it's because he reached further. In a genre as conservative and nostalgia besotted as horror, the willingness to accept risks bred of ambition is refreshing. Triangle, like all of Smith's films, is imperfect. But the promise derives from Smith's refreshing belief that horror doesn't have to pander or be stupid. What frustrated me, in the end, wasn't Smith's unfulfilled potential, but the the genre's vast unfulfilled promise.

If that's not enough, you should go if only to see the spectacle of a horror film that believes it's possible to have fun even though you didn't turn your brain off.

Okay, either you've been convinced or you ain't been. ANTSS assumes no responsibility for possible spoilage.

On to the flick at hand.

The central tangle of Triangle involves an abandoned ocean liner that appears to be, somehow, stuck in time. Our protagonists get on the boat and find themselves in conflict with a mysterious assailant. This assailant turns out to be another version of Jess, sole survivor of off the "previous" time our protagonists arrived on the boat. We're going to call the heroine of the piece Jess Prime. Despite the loopy structure of the film, the narrative logic is fairly straight forward and we follow a single version of Jess throughout most of the film.

As Jess Prime and her friends battle the murderous Jess -1, Jess Prime puzzles out that she's stuck in a general pattern. Whenever a particular set of our original cast is removed from the boat (she mistakenly believes that they must be killed, though her own trip through the complete cycle of the plot disproves this), a fresh set of characters arrives on the boat. Or, more properly stated, the boat returns to a previous time-position shortly before our protagonists arrive. (From the relative vantage point of the "new" protagonists, the action on the boat would be "going backwards" - that's to say that the time spent on the ocean liner is actually time spent traveling back to a point before they arrived on the ocean liner. More on this later.) In order to get back to her son, Jess Prime decides that she must break the pattern. At first she attempts to do this through non-violent means. Eventually, she becomes convinced that the only way to break the pattern is to stop it from happening in the first place, and prevent the party from setting foot on the boat. (Though this is only part of her motivation: We eventually discover that she's also attempting to use the time traveling properties of the boat to prevent the death of her son, who in the normal world-line of the plot dies while she's on her way to the sailboat that ultimately takes her to the time traveling ghost ship.) She attempts to prevent Jess -1 from killing the remaining folks in her party. In the course of defending herself from Jess -1, she forces Jess -1 overboard. This fully eliminates Boat Party -1, introducing Boat Party +1 to the ship.

Jess Prime realizes that the moment Boat Party +1 steps on the ship, she got to eliminate them all in order to get another chance to stop the party from boarding. Consequently, she begins a murder spree inspired by the work of Jess -1. But, of course, Jess +1 forces Jess Prime overboard in a near perfect recreation of the battle between Jess Prime and Jess -1.

Cast from the boat, Jess Prime doesn't die (disproving the hypothesis that everybody in the party must necessarily die to start the cycle over again). Rather she washes up on a beach several hours prior to her launch on the sailboat that will take her to the time traveling ocean liner. She promptly heads back to her home, witnesses her (Jess -Prime - so named because her roll is to repeatedly not enter in the plot cycle, and therefore her position is oddly as stable as Jess Prime's) own brutal behavior to her autistic son, kills herself (Jess -Prime is killed by Jess Prime), and stuffs the body in the trunk of her car. She grabs her boy and rolls out to ditch the body. She gets involved in a car accident that kills her boy. Thinking that another round on the ghost ship would throw her back to Jess -Prime's house prior to his death, she grabs a cab to harbor and gets on the sailboat that will take her back to the time traveling ghost ship.

We've got an overview of the situation, less discuss options.

First, there's a potentially supernatural explanation. We need to face the possibility that Jess Prime is dead and being punished by the gods for her abusive treatment of her son. Throughout the flick, Jess Prime is exposed to portents that suggest that what she's experiencing is not exactly materialist in origin. The ship is named after the father of Sisyphus, the mythological king who was punished for violating the privacy of Zeus and doomed for eternity to fruitless toil. One of Boat Party Prime wonders aloud if Jess Prime's behavior isn't due to guilt over her son, a double edged comment the multiple levels of which the character would be clueless about. There are several references to seagulls, perhaps a satiric jab at the Buddhism manque wisdom of Jonathan Livingston Seagull: "Begin by knowing you have already arrived." Plus, there's a host of smaller, odder coincidences that wouldn't suggest time travel. For example, the drummer in a marching band that witnesses Jess Prime's car accident carries a drum that bears the same logo as the ghost ship's house band's drum kit. Certainly one could argue that this is just thematic playfulness on the part of the filmmaker, but what if these bits of data were not window dressing? What if they were somebody or something telling Jess Prime about her fate? Good as any other theory, really.

If, in fact, the problem is supernatural in origin, then it is safe to say that you're pretty much screwed. Humans are the playthings of the gods, yo. Clash of the Titans aside (besides, Perseus is more properly considered a demigod, so using him as an example of a human who took destiny into his own hands is stretching things), when the gods want you SOL, you are most definitely S, O, and very L. Not that you might not, eventually, negotiate your way out of it or escape briefly (Tantalus himself conned his way out of Hell for a brief moment), but this will basically be at the discretion of the gods. My recommendation is to take your lumps and hope that some legendary hero comes by and saves you at some future date. Not a great plan I know, but that's what you get for pissing off the gods.

Honestly, the supernatural thing seems a cop out to me. So let's assume that the situation depicted in Triangle is materialist. It's weird and unlikely, granted, but it is the product of a wrinkle in natural laws and not the result of otherworldly intervention. Given that, what are we looking at.

Here's what were not looking at: Eternal return. Criticism of Triangle has provoked bloggers to dig into their storehouse of allusions and invoke La jetée and 12 Monkeys. The connections are both thematically obvious and factually incorrect.

The concept driving both those excellent flicks is the idea that time protects itself by making paradoxes impossible. One of the classic theoretical problems of time travel is the creation of paradoxes. Y'all know the sort of time warping shenanigans I'm talking about: Could you time travel back 90 years and kill your own grandmother, meaning you'd never been born and therefore could not travel back in time and kill your grandmother? One answer to this question is that time will always already be protected from your intervention. The past is set in stone and if you're in the past, your actions have already been determined. The sticky wicket here is the "self-consistency principle" advanced by physicists Igor Novikov and Kip Thorne. Basically, the concept of "self-consistency" preserves the past: Because any moment in time requires a specific structure of events to "arrive," then that structure is immutable. If you leap back into the past, then your actions were always a part of that structure. You can't change the past or the present.

On first glance, this seems like an attractive explanation of what we're seeing in Triangle. Attractive but inaccurate. Like my pick-up lines.

Jess Prime regularly changes the details of her present and sees evidence that previous incarnations of her (Jess -1 through -infinity) have altered her present. There's one glaring example of this and two less obvious, but kinda more interesting examples.

The most blatant evidence that Jess Prime is not, in fact, stuck in a permanent loop comes when Jess Prime and Jess -1 first come in conflict. Jess -1 is blowing away members of Boat Party Prime in the theater with a skeet shooting rifle. Jess Prime fires back, grazing Jess -1's forehead with some buckshot. When Jess Prime consigns Jess -1 to Davy Jones's locker, Jess -1 has clearly taken a few pellets to the forehead. Jess Prime never suffers a similar injury. When Jess Prime becomes the baddy and starts chasing around Boat Party +1, she takes cover pronto. When Jess +1 brings on the lead for lead trade, Jess Prime never gets nominated with buckshot.

It's a small thing, but time travel is annoying like that. It's all details.

If Jess Prime's fate was etched in stone, than her fate should be identical to fate of Jess -1. But it ain't. In fact, her experiences should also be the immutable blueprint for Jess +1's experiences, but they aren't: Jess +1 experiences missing the baddy and facing a version of herself that isn't sporting a head wound, both experiences that Jess Prime did not experience.

Another crucial, but more subtle difference is the fact that no person in an eternal return scenario can ever complete a full loop of a cycle. Recall La jetée and 12 Monkeys. In both cases, the moment both characters realize that they are in an self-consistency trap, they die. The Man and James Cole can't carry this knowledge back to the beginning of the cycle. Why not? Because that would change the timeline. Even if they were unable to prevent the actions that formed the past, the fact that they were now going through the motions aware of the cycle would be different from the first time they did it, when they were unaware of the fact that their actions were leading to the very timeline their actions helped create. Consequently, we can state that no character in an eternal return story can ever complete the cycle with their awareness of the cycle intact or the cycle wouldn't be self-consistent. Jess Prime manages to go full cycle with her awareness of the cycle intact. For shits and giggles, we can actually extrapolate that no version of the cycle is ever the same for Jess Prime because, at the very least, she's going through the motions with an awareness of having gone through the cycle n - 1 times before where n = the number of the cycle she's about to go through. At the end of the film, for example, Jess Prime is about to start the cycle over again for a at least a third time (her actions reveal she's getting on the sailboat because she knows it will give her another shot at time travel, so we've done it at least once before the flick starts), aware of the minimum two times she's done this before. This is different than the time before, when she would only be aware of having done this whole dance once before. Difference means no eternal return. Therefore, Triangle isn't an eternal return story.

"Okay, CRwM, so there's little differences," you say. "Perhaps time doesn't sweat the small stuff. Maybe, so long as you don't alter the final outcome, the timeline ain't picky and the little stuff comes out in the time wash."

Related to the awareness issue, there's the issue of relative experiences of time and aging. From the view point of the killed of members of Boat Party Prime, the time it takes to complete any number of cycles is always equivalent to a single cycle. They "start over" whenever a cycle is finished with no knowledge of the previous cycle. From Jess Prime's frame of reference, however, all the cycles occur in a linear sequence with a single unbroken thread of time-space experience shooting through them all. She doesn't "start over" so much as she arrives at yet another replay of similar events. That is to say, an infinite number of cycles would always be experienced a single stretch of four or five hours to the boat party, but every cycle is experienced as an additional four or five hours in the life of Jess Prime. In short, Jess Prime is aging while her companions in Boat Party Prime are not. While not immediately noteworthy, eventually Jess Prime's aging would be a clear violation of self-consistency. Since an infinite number of cycles are experienced as a single cycle, the only cycle anybody in Boat Party Prime, except for Jess Prime, would have an experience of would be a final cycle. This means Jess would go through 156,000 cycles and eventually reach the age of 100. From the viewpoint of Boat Party Prime, Jess Prime would have never showed up to the sailboat. Instead some insane old woman would come to the boat, rant that she was actually the late twenty-something Jess, and then croak on the dock of old age.

This leads us to the third and perhaps most subtle proof that Jess Prime isn't stuck in a story of eternal return. We're going to call this proof "The Pile Problem." On three major instances, Jess Prime comes across a pile of objects that reveal the loosely cyclical nature of her story arc.

1) While searching for a way to defend herself from Jess -1, Jess Prime loses a locket. Its chain snaps and it falls on a pile of similar lockets.
2) During Jess -1's kill spree, the wounded Sally attempts to crawl away from Jess Prime (thinking Jess Prime is the killer) and crawls to a section of the ship that is littered with mounds of dead Sallys.
3) Leaving to bury the body of Jess -Prime, Jess Prime hits a seagull with her car and tosses it off the side of the road, where it lands among the bodies of several other seagulls.

Aside from being a neat dramatic flourish, these piles are one of the best indicators that we're not in a self-consistent trap. First, because the presence of previous objects prevents the latest object added to the pile from falling exactly the same way. In a self-consistent eternal return loop, Sally's body would always give out at the same spot, in the same place. The locket would always land the same way, so would the corpse of the seagull. Even if we dismissed the idea that small tweaks to the timeline don't screw everything up, there's actually a far more serious violation of self-consistency going on here. The big problem isn't where the bodies and trinkets fall, but the fact that we keep adding mass to the universe at every cycle, mass that is apparently created ex nihlo every time Jess Prime goes through a cycle. Which gives a problem not unlike the aging issue we've discussed before. Assuming Jess Prime made through 150,000 cycles (as long as it would take her to reach 100 years of age), she would have added nearly 10,000 metric tons of dead Sally to the universe. That's a lot of dead flesh. And it's an impossibility in a closed system like an eternal return model of time travel.

There's other contradictions worth mentioning in passing. While exploring the ship, Jess Prime and Boat Party Prime run across messages painted in blood on bathroom mirrors and various trails of blood on the floor. Why doesn't this stuff pile up like Sally Prime and Sally Various Negative Numbers' bodies? Shouldn't the blood trails be rivulets of crimson after a handful of cycles. And how many bathroom mirrors does this ship have anyway?

So, we can safely say that we're not in a story of eternal return. And that's a good thing for you my impetuous little chrononaut, because there's crap all you can do if your stuck in a eternal return loop. Eternal loops do wacky stuff to free will. You've got it, in a theoretical way, but you've also always already used it. The practical result is that you've already done anything you could do. The upshot is that you'll never actually experience the feeling of going through cycle after cycle. If you're in an eternal loop, you might get a "oh crap" moment right before you die or something, but the principle of self-consistency ensures that you can't ride the loop again with any awareness of the loop you didn't have on the first ride. It's science's little gift to people stuck in that eternal hell; for the most part, the trapped never realize that they are trapped. So you've got that going for you.


Sasquatchan said...

man, I can't find it quickly, but I thought somewhere on wiki, under/xref from the terminator series was a list of the various attempts to "explain away" all the possible paradoxes within time travel etc.. And so I wondered where/if/how this approach would fit into it.. (yeah, ok, I'm ignoring the mystical of it, since the paradoxes I think all implied "scientific control" of time travel..)

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

I haven't seen the list, but in the next section we're going to trot out a explanation of how you could theoretically time travel and not be bound by the self-consistency problem. Having never seen the list you're talking about, I don't know if any of it answers the problems viewers feel are inconsistent in the Terminator franchise.

The Igloo Keeper said...


CRwM said...


Shon Richards said...

I saw this movie tonight based on your recommendation. I stopped reading your plot breakdown as soon as I saw Jess-Prime. That is my kind of movie.

I don't know why, but the 50 Sally's lying around dead cracked me up. That is a perfect 'You are screwed' message to the main character.

At one point, me and my wife figured that one out of four Jess's survive the experience. We fully expected Jess to wake up on a beach filled with Jess's.

It is such a careful movie in some aspects that I have to beleive it was not meant to be a time travel movie with the usual paradoxes that drives me mad. For once, I thought a supernatural explanation was a welcome logic failsafe.

Wonderful movie.