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Posts Tagged ‘time travel’

I don’t often get feelings of deja vu at the cinema, but I did the other day: there was an odd sense of detachment from reality, and not in a good way, rather akin to the atmosphere at the showing of Bloodshot (the last film I saw in March before lockdown kicked in). Not to put too fine a point on it, the various short films with messages like WELCOME BACK! and LET THE LIGHT OF CINEMA SHINE AGAIN! felt a bit disingenous given that Cineworld and Picturehouse are – as previously discussed here – closing their doors again as of Friday, and the local Odeon is going down to weekend openings only.

Given that the postponement of No Time to Die is at least partly responsible for this, it’s rather ironic that this was pretty much the only film for adults being trailed on the trip in question – trailers are intended to provoke a range of emotions, but I doubt irritation is quite what Eon had in mind (the same run of trailers also included one for Peter Rabbit 2, so my negative psychic energy gauge was pretty much topped up to the brim by the time the actual film arrived).

In the circumstances I suppose one should feel grateful to anyone who’s taken a chance on releasing a mainstream movie at all, as they’re in the minority – both the Odeon and the Phoenix in Oxford have been showing Akira every night this week, just to fill their screens, but much as I admire Katsushiro Otomo’s epochal cyberpunk vision, I doubt there’s the audience there to justify this. In line for a medal along with the makers of Tenet, The New Mutants, and a handful of others are the people behind Bill & Ted Face The Music, a film which has apparently been ten years in the making (now that’s just plain bad luck).

Was there a burning appetite  for a third instalment in this particular series? I’m not sure, but post the John Wick movies, Keanu Reeves is apparently ‘hot’ again, which I suppose amounts to the same thing. Dean Parisot directs this time around. The movie opens with the revelation that, nearly thirty years on, Bill and Ted have yet to write the song which unites the world and paves the way for utopia, with the result that reality itself is starting to unravel: figures such as Babe Ruth, George Washington and Jesus are popping out of existence and reappearing in the wrong places. This struck me as quite a hefty piece of exposition to casually dump on the audience as part of an opening montage, but the film is nothing if not breezy and fast-moving.

Anyway, we find Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Reeves) reduced to playing at a family wedding (a complicated dynastic history means that in the course of the ceremony the groom becomes his own stepfather-in-law, or something). They go on to unveil their latest effort at musical immortality, a prog-rock horror concerning the meaning of meaning which involves Winter throat-singing and Reeves playing the theremin, the trumpet and the bagpipes in quick succession (and, frankly, if the idea of this doesn’t at least make you chuckle, this probably isn’t the movie for you).

Pretty much their only supporters are their daughters, Billie (Samara Weaving) and Theadora (Bridgette Lundy-Paine): their wives (who, the film takes pains to remind us, are former princesses from medieval England) are doing their best to be supportive, but finding this hard, and Ted’s father still refuses to believe any of their stories about travelling in time or visiting the afterlife. Ted has even begun to entertain thoughts of packing the music in, monumental destiny or not.

Still, there is that pesky matter of the impending implosion of the universe to consider, and the duo find themselves summoned to the future to explain their lack of progress on the world-unifying-song-writing front. The song must be written, toot sweet, or an alternative prophecy will be entertained – one where the universe is saved not by Bill and Ted’s music, but their deaths…

What ensues is pretty much of a piece with the two original movies (which I must confess to not having watched in absolutely ages): it’s either deceptively clever or deceptively silly, depending on where you stand, but all put across with great energy and commitment by the players. Reeves and Winter spend most of the film travelling into the future trying to steal a copy of the song from themselves, which basically produces a series of sketches where they appear in increasingly preposterous prosthetic make-up. The script is surprisingly generous in the amount of time it gives to the daughters, who essentially reprise the plots of the first two movies as they assemble the greatest band in history to back their fathers up – this includes bass-player Death (William Sadler), despite an awkward split (musical differences) needing to be resolved.

All of this is telegraphing a climactic twist which is obvious virtually from the start, as we are now living in a cultural climate where it seems deeply problematic to suggest that two white dudes can actually achieve anything positive and noteworthy. But so it goes, and Bill & Ted Face The Music is mostly very engaging stuff, hard to dislike, and often very funny. There is something undeniably touching about seeing Reeves and Winter back together, and there’s no sense of Reeves leveraging his superstar status (which is not really surprising, given the plethora of stories about what a lovely human being he is) – this is the same double-act from thirty years ago.

In the end you can’t help feeling a bit sorry for a film which is so laid-back and cheerful making its debut in such awkward times: in any previous year, the upbeat final message about bringing people together through music would be an unexceptional one, but at the moment the world feels deeply and (in some ways) necessarily divided on all kinds of levels. A lot of classic science fiction films of all kinds share an essential kind of naivety – it’s perhaps one of the charms of the genre – so you can’t really criticise Bill & Ted Face the Music on these grounds. One could wish the film’s optimism were a bit less at odds with reality right now, though.

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‘Cinema is Back!’ proclaimed the advertising at the multiplex, finally open once again. If it’s true, then it certainly feels like we owe this to one man: Christopher Nolan, now more than ever elevated to the status of a heroic figure – the hero we need right now, and perhaps better than we deserve. With Marvel, Disney, and the Bond franchise all running for cover, it is Nolan who has stepped up and taken the hit by insisting on a theatrical release for his new movie, the first major release since March. Is this the kick that will awaken cinema? Too early to say. What’s certain is that the circumstances of Tenet‘s release would normally threaten to overshadow the substance of the movie, were it not so… well, extraordinary is the only word that springs to mind.

John David Washington is commandingly cool as the protagonist, who is known as the Protagonist (a slightly smug piece of knowingness, but much of a piece with the rest of the movie). Initially an operative with the CIA, when a mission goes wrong he finds himself initiated into an even more shadowy organisation with grand, existential concerns. He is sent off to meet Clemence Poesy, playing a sort of Basiletta Exposition character, who explains (if that’s not too strong a word for it) that weapons and other items with negative entropy have begun to appear with increasing and worrying frequency. The Protagonist is quite understandably slightly baffled by this, but what it boils down to is objects travelling backwards through time, their causality inverted. Bullets obligingly jump out of the target into the Protagonist’s gun when he is given the chance to try out some inverted-entropy gear for himself.

It seems that the forces in the future have declared war on the past and are using advanced technology to reverse the specific entropy of objects and project them backwards this way. The chief representative of these future forces is an arms dealer named Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh, giving us his Bond villain), whom the Protagonist must get close to – which requires, first of all, for him to get close to Sator’s wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki)…

Well, the first thing to say is that Nolan has either missed a trick or is being a bit perverse by not calling the new movie Inversion: it would suit the story perfectly and mean that those of us who keep our DVDs in alphabetical order could have a whole batch of Nolan movies all together. The second thing is to comment on the way that a lot of the publicity material is stressing the fact that Tenet is essentially a spy thriller, full of people in sharp suits effecting unusual entries into secure facilities, chasing each other around in cars, and swanking about on yachts in photogenic locales. All this is, of course, strictly speaking true – although suggestions that this is essentially Nolan auditioning for the job of Bond director seem to me to misjudge the power dynamic involved – and it does keep the form and structures of a spy movie pretty much intact, and indeed handles them in a way which is almost formal and stylised – the Protagonist and his chief sidekick Neil (Robert Pattinson) aren’t so much fully-realised characters as charismatic collections of plot functions, and there is something stark and austere about the way the film proceeds from one grandiose set piece to the next, with a minimum of exposition.

What all of this overlooks, of course, is all the other stuff which the publicity people have decided not to make a big deal of in the trailer and so on, possibly to retain a sense of surprise, but more likely because they just couldn’t make sense of it. Nolan-watchers are used to the director’s penchant for films with bold and ambitious narrative conceits and transitions; there are plenty of those here, but what is a little unusual is that for once his sources are showing: what Nolan has basically done here is hit upon the slightly insane scheme of taking Mission Impossible or a Bond film and mashing it up with Primer (Shane Carruth’s baffling 2004 time-travel film): the closest equivalent I can think of would be Looper (on which Carruth apparently consulted).

Nevertheless, he makes it work, although the result is what initially feels like a ferociously convoluted and challenging narrative: no-one gives such good boggle in such generous helpings as Nolan. Characters proceed through events in the usual way, then have their entropy inverted and experience them again, in reverse: in a sense the film is largely building up to the moment when the Protagonist steps out into a world which, for him and the audience, is moving backwards, and the genuinely disconcerting sense of this is very well achieved. The narrative bends back on itself as slightly mystifying events from early in the film recur in reverse, from the point of view of inverted characters: the whole structure of the film is to some extent palindromic.

Clemence Poesy gets in early with some dialogue about how it’s more about how things intuitively feel than the hard logic of what’s happening, which is sensible: negative-entropy bullets leave holes in a wall before (or until) they’re fired, which seems reasonable until you consider that someone must therefore have built that wall with bullet-holes in it, mustn’t they? Trying to keep track of this sort of thing while you’re actually watching the film is impossible; I suspect it certainly passes the Primer test in terms of demanding a second or third viewing in order for any normal person to understand all the intricacies of the plot. Perhaps some of the storytelling is not quite as clear or clean or user-friendly as it might be – but you still can’t help but be astonished at Nolan’s ambition and cleverness in even conceiving of a narrative like this one, regardless of any slips in its execution.

Nevertheless, this is an almost entirely left-brained film (a fairly common and to some extent justified criticism of Christopher Nolan’s movies): technically brilliant, but also lacking in some of the depth and heart of his very best work. The emotional element of the film, such as it is, mostly comes from Debicki’s character, trapped in an abusive relationship for the sake of her son: it just about fills the hole which has been left for it, but still feels a bit perfunctory. The core of the film is made up of its ideas about causality and our perception of time, and there isn’t really any space here for a more human metaphor, as there was in the dream-scapes of Inception.

I would not be surprised if Tenet turns out to be the year’s most complex narrative, and also its most impressive action movie – we knew 2020 was turning out weird, and here is the confirmation of that. It’s a bit too spare and formal and cold, consumed by its own narrative folds and tricks, to really qualify as Nolan’s best work, but it still delivers everything you expect from a film by this director: a remarkable experience, and a compelling reason to go back to the cinema.

.semordnilap fo raef lanoitarri nA*

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Something notable happened to the perception of SF and fantasy in the UK in the middle of the 1980s: when I was very young, SF programmes like Star Trek were on in prime time on one of the main channels – this is the main reason why original Trek acquired its cultural traction in the UK. On the BBC at least, there seemed to be relatively little stigma attached to the science fiction genre prior to the late 80s – the network produced Survivors, Blake’s 7, and Star Cops all in the preceding ten years or so.

After this, however, the BBC largely stopped making SF, and the imported programmes that it did broadcast usually turned up on its minority network in an early-evening slot. This happened to re-runs of The Invaders and the Gerry Anderson programmes throughout the 1990s, and also to every episode of Star Trek the BBC has broadcast since about 1986. (The Beeb has never had the rights to Enterprise, but at one point in 1997 they were showing Voyager on Sundays, Next Generation on Wednesdays, Deep Space Nine on Thursdays, and the original series on Fridays.)

As you can see, in the UK all Star Trek was treated equally – as disposable cult-fodder – and so we never got the sense that some iterations of the show might be more popular or successful than others. Certainly, I was a little surprised last year to discover that most general-audience histories of the franchise focus primarily on the original series and TNG, treating the last three shows as being rather obscure and only of minority interest. Still, at least it explains why there was never serious talk of doing DS9 or Voyager movies, and also the slightly odd, semi-detached relationship between the Next Gen movies and the TV shows that were in production simultaneously with them.

This is most noticeable in Star Trek: First Contact, directed by Jonathan Frakes and released in 1996, when there were two other TV series running which were ostensibly set contemporaneously with the movie. I remember going to see this movie on its opening night with a group of other people, some of whom knew their Trek, some of whom didn’t, and I seem to recall we all had a pretty good time: we concluded it worked well as both a Trek film and an SF action movie. These days – well, sitting down and watching the movie more thoughtfully, I’m inclined to be just a little more critical.

I suppose some of this is simply down to my unreasonable fondness for sprawling fictional universes and my expectation that they try to stay coherent and plausible, on their own terms at least. Certainly there are very sound real-world reasons why the Enterprise has retained the virtually the exact same senior staff for nine years, but from an in-universe perspective one is forced to wonder why the Federation flagship is crewed by people whose careers seem to have ground to a halt. (At least Worf (Michael Dorn) seems to be getting on with his life, although this does require the movie to ‘spring’ him from Deep Space Nine in rather the same way the rest of the A-Team were frequently required to extract Murdock from a mental hospital.)

In the same way, the opening of the movie does feel a little peculiar. Picard (Patrick Stewart) and the gang are safely ensconced aboard the shiny new Enterprise-E, when alarming news comes in of a new attack by the Borg (an implacable cyborg menace to civilisation as we know it, who may or may not be knock-offs of the Cybermen from Doctor Who). Picard has history with the Borg, which forms the basis of his arc in the movie – but this also means Starfleet consider him a bit suspect, so the ship is packed off to the Neutral Zone in case the Romulans try to take advantage of the havoc wreaked by the Borg incursion.

Quite apart from the very rum decision-making on the part of the Admiralty – if Picard is considered likely to go fuzzy round the edges in a pressure situation, what is he doing commanding the flagship of the fleet? – and the fact that this bit of script is obviously just here to give the captain a big hero moment where he decides to disobey orders and go to the aid of the fleet, doesn’t the Federation have more pressing concerns than the Romulans at this point in time? Pointedly not mentioned at all is the ongoing cold war between the Federation and the Dominion, which was the basis of DS9 episodes around this time. Which in turn leads one to wonder what the Enterprise-E was doing throughout the Dominion War. It is almost as if the movies and TV shows operated in slightly parallel universes, rather in the same way as Marvel’s movies and TV shows do at the moment.

Well, anyway. Picard and the Enterprise, along with the rest of the fleet, manage to destroy the invading Borg cube by cunningly, um, shooting at it a lot, but not before it disgorges a Borg sphere (big on geometrical designs, these Borg) which promptly disappears back in time. Realising the Borg are planning on conquering Earth in the past (no respecters of temporal integrity, either), it’s up to Picard and the others to follow them and save history.

They find the Borg have gone back to 2063 and are trying to avert Earth’s first contact with an extraterrestrial civilisation (hence the title), which was triggered by the first flight of Zefram Cochrane’s prototype warp-drive ship. (Cochrane is played by James Cromwell, at the time most famous as the dancing farmer from Babe.) Fixing the prototype and getting a reluctant Cochrane to stay off the sauce long enough to fulfil his destiny is tricky enough, but somehow the Borg have managed to infiltrate the Enterprise, and the crew also have to battle to stop them from taking over the ship…

We shall skip over the nagging questions of why it is that the Borg don’t just travel back to 2063 near their home planet and make the whole journey to Earth in the past, thus avoiding Starfleet’s response entirely, and the convenient way in which they establish a foothold on the Enterprise so easily, and think about more general matters. You can kind of see the thinking that went into the general shape of this movie – I think everyone assumed that with the original series crossover movie done and dusted, the next one would concern itself with Round Two between the Enterprise and the Borg, while after the success of Star Trek IV and many other time-travel episodes of Trek, it’s understandable that the studio should want a film built around that sort of premise.

But having said that, this is (as far as I can remember) pretty much unique in being a mass-audience SF movie in which characters time-travel from one made-up future world to another (as opposed to something recognisable as the present day, or a point in history). This is not necessarily a terrible choice, but it is a peculiar one – I’m reminded of the current discussion of ‘incorrect’ song writing. If the concept has any validity, then I would suggest that Star Trek: First Contact has touches of incorrect scriptwriting about it. (Earlier drafts of the story went by the title Star Trek: Renaissance and saw the Borg going back in time to assimilate Leonardo da Vinci in 15th century Italy, but this more ‘correct’ idea was apparently vetoed by Patrick Stewart, who refused to wear tights in a movie.)

Once you get past the byzantine complexities of Star Trek continuity and the slight oddness of the premise, this is an undeniably solid movie, and certainly the best of the Next Gen films. Alien invasion movies were back in fashion in 1996, most notably in the form of the all-conquering Independence Day, and this is very much in tune with the zeitgeist even if it can’t quite match Roland Emmerich’s epic roller-coaster for thrills, scale, or sheer entertainment value – something of that slightly staid and worthy Next Gen sensibility persists throughout.

Then again, the moves away from the Hollywood SF movie formula do provide some of the film’s most memorable moments. The business on Earth with Cochrane provides a good-natured change of pace when set against the rather grimmer goings-on on the ship, the obscurely kinky scenes between Data (Brent Spiner) and the Queen of the Borg (Alice Krige) are distractingly odd, and all the various space battles and ray gun fights are well-mounted. But the heft of the film comes from Patrick Stewart, and Picard’s struggle to overcome his own rage and desire for vengeance against the Borg. The moments you remember are Picard ferociously tommy-gunning Borg drones while howling in fury, accusing Worf of cowardice for not being willing to fight to the death, lashing out in anger when confronted by his own irrationality and helplessness. All credit due to Patrick Stewart, of course (and also to Michael Dorn, whose ability to create memorable character moments from the slightest material is almost miraculous) – but this is also interesting in the wider context of Star Trek as a whole.

Gene Roddenberry’s vision for the future of humanity, inasmuch as it became a defining feature of the Star Trek he was involved in during the final years of his life, was that human beings were somehow perfectible, and that the people of the Federation had moved on beyond their recognisable human hang-ups. Writers on TNG came to call this notion ‘the Roddenberry box’ as it limited the possibilities of interpersonal drama so much – any script built around the idea of conflict between the regulars got spiked, for example. And yet First Contact seems to be commenting on this idea in a manner which I’m not at all sure the Great Bird would have been happy with – never mind the fact that Picard has clearly been left significantly damaged by his previous experiences with the Borg, the film presents Cochrane, architect of the bright future which the Federation will come to exemplify, as a rather ambiguous character – overly fond of a drink, motivated by self-interest, unwilling to face up to responsibility. Is the whole notion of perfectible humanity built on rather shaky foundations? The movie is wise enough not to go too far with this.

It adds a welcome, if subtle piece of heft to what is otherwise much more of a straightforward action movie than most of the other good Star Trek films. The tendency of Star Trek films to turn into action movies has been bewailed by others in the past, not just me, but if you’re going to turn Star Trek into an action movie it should at least be a good one, with some interesting ideas and strong characterisation still somewhere in the mix. Judged by this standard, First Contact is certainly a success, if not quite up to the standard of the very best films in the franchise.

 

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Before we go any further, a brief recap of this blog’s position when it comes to the Terminator franchise: The Terminator is a stone-cold all-time classic, and a practically perfect movie (possibly because it’s the only one in the series not conceived of as a blockbuster), Terminator 2 is very decent in a deafening-overblown-James-Cameron-big-budget-remake sort of way, Rise of the Machines passes the time in a not actively painful manner, and Terminator: Salvation is a pointless and puny waste of money and talent.

Given this general trajectory, the omens are not great for Alan Taylor’s Terminator Genisys even before we consider the silly title. This is a film the rights to which essentially went to the winners of an auction, so perhaps one’s expectation management should be even more severe than that.

Anyway, the film initially appears to be playing it safe and heading down the route of being a more polished remake of the original film, as, in the year 2029, Kyle Reese (this time: Jai Courtney) prepares to go back in time and save Sarah Connor (this time: Emilia Clarke) from cybernetic assassins. She is a target due to her being destined to give birth to John Connor (this time: Jason Clarke), the man who will lead the human race to victory following a nuclear war sparked by a rogue AI, Skynet. (Does anyone not know the Terminator backstory…? I feel obliged to recap it anyway.)

But when Kyle arrives in 1984, pursuing the Terminator already dispatched back there, he finds that time is out of joint: the Terminator has already been dealt with by another, somewhat wizened machine of the same model (I need not tell you who plays this role, I suspect), who is working with an entirely clued-up Sarah, while Kyle finds himself hunted by a T-1000 Terminator, which likewise shouldn’t be here at all.

What on Earth is going on? Kyle never actually asks this, so far as I recall, but he should clearly be thinking it, as should the audience. Well, to cut a long story short, this film takes the nuclear option when it comes to time travel as a plot device, and sticks anti-matter in its microwave (if that’s not too tortuous a metaphor). Basically, all the major characters end up in an entirely pre-apocalyptic near future, where they find out that Skynet is now an app or a mobile phone or the new version of Windows or something, and the reason this is happening is because…

I have two good reasons for not going any further. One is that it would involve heavy spoilers for the second half of the film, and the other is that I really haven’t got a clue what’s going on. To be fair, Terminator Genisys probably isn’t much more full of blinky-blonky techno-cobblers and suspect determinism than any of the other sequels, but it’s a lot more up-front about it, predicating its plot around some startling narrative developments it never properly bothers to explain: what exactly is going on with the grumpy old T-800 that was apparently sent back to the early 1970s? Not only does the film not bother to explain, it essentially says ‘we’ll get to this in the next sequel’, which I feel is relying rather too much on audience goodwill. (It may be significant that playing a small but important role in this film is one – it says here – “Matthew” Smith, an actor more experienced than most in dealing with byzantine time-travel plots that may not, in the final analysis, properly hang together.)

The first act of the film has fun re-staging and screwing around with sequences from the original Terminator (Bill Paxton doesn’t come back, by the way), and this stuff has a sort of demented energy that serves the film rather well. Once everyone decamps to the future, though, the film becomes rather more predictable and even pedestrian: you’ll never guess what, but they’ve got to stop Skynet being created! Just like in number 2. Oh, and number 3. And, I’ll hazard a guess, number 6, when it’s finally made. Hey ho.

What is perhaps surprising is what a peripheral presence Arnie is in the movie, given I doubt they’d have made it without him. When his CGI double isn’t being chucked through walls in the action scenes, he spends quite a lot of his time just standing around, occasionally waking up to deliver comic relief or bafflegab exposition. He’s still clearly up for it, however, and this is surely his best work since that odd political interlude in his career.

Much of the film is left to Courtney and the Clarkes to carry, and they do a decent enough job, supported by a script which actually manages to find decent moments of emotion and thoughtfulness between all the crash-bang-wallop and tortuous temporal wrangling. J.K. Simmons pops up as – I think – a new character who was supposedly mixed up in the events of 1984, but he’s mainly just there to do exposition and comic relief as well.

Like all the other sequels, this knows the audience it’s pitching to and sticks in all the appropriate explosions and jokes and lingering shots of heavy weaponry, as well as enough references to the original film to gratify the fanbase (though Brad Fiedel’s theme is saved for the closing credits), although I would be really very hesitant about taking anyone to see this who wasn’t already familiar with the first film (at least).

If it doesn’t have the raw energy, inventiveness, and dramatic charge of The Terminator – well, hardly anything does, and at least it’s more fun to watch than Terminators 3 or 4 (in places, certainly). But the prospect of yet more, even more convoluted sequels, kind of makes my heart sink a bit. Blowing up the existing timeline and letting the bits fall where they may is what powers this movie, but it’s not exactly a long term strategy, and I can’t imagine them managing to drag the story back to a place where it actually makes sense any more. On its own terms, this is a rather unsatisfying film, narratively at least – but I still think that any further sequels will find the law of diminishing returns biting them very hard and very fast. Enough, Arnie, enough.

 

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When it comes to stories about time travel, there are two main varieties: ones which are about the destination, and ones which are about the means of travel. The first type includes HG Wells’ original The Time Machine, most Doctor Who worthy of the name, that Star Trek film with the whales, and every other story where time travel is just a convenient method of getting the characters to an interesting venue for a story. The second type includes all those stories where the characters find themselves on the wrong end of a time paradox, whether intentionally or not, due to the fact they have – for whatever reason – interfered with history.

It’s very easy to write a bad Type II time travel story, and many people have done so over the years: ones that don’t make sense even on their own terms, or have to resort to outrageous and unsatisfactory plot devices just to reach some semblance of a conclusion (recently there’s been a displeasing tendency to assume that as long as the – excuse me while I clear my sinuses – ’emotional arc’ of a story hangs together, the actual coherency of the plot can go hang).

Nevertheless, people keep writing them, because the appeal of this kind of story is obvious: everyone has regrets, wishes for second chances, ponders the road untaken. Time travel stories offer a chance to amend the unhappy past, even if only fictitiously. And if you really want to write something with wide appeal, what about writing about – and fixing – a tragedy that colours everyone’s past?

European writers indulging in this kind of thing usually plump for doing a story in which the central idea is the prevention of the Second World War and/or the Holocaust. Americans aren’t averse to this sort of thing either, but they have a few other, more recent possibilities to toy with. September 11th and all that followed are still a bit too raw to be fooling around with in genre fiction, but that still leaves them with the Kennedy assassination, which is packed with potential. There have been lots of save-Kennedy time travel stories, admittedly of varying quality, and of them Stephen King’s 11.22.63 is probably towards the top of the stack.

11-22-63_uk_cover_hdThis being an orchard-massacring King doorstop of a book, the great man enjoys himself in the telling of the tale. The protagonist is a nice enough 21st century guy who stumbles upon a fissure in the space-time continuum connecting the present day to one moment in the late 1950s: you can go back as often as you like, but you always arrive at the same time and place, and each visit basically erases all trace of your previous journeys. King does a pretty good job of selling you this idea, but it remains a fairly outrageous piece of physics (there are severe conservation of energy issues, as when the lead ends up owning multiple versions of the same shirt bought on separate visits to the past) and it’s basically just there as a very specific plot device.

To cut a very long story fairly short, our hero decides to go back, live through the late 50s and early 60s and – assuming he can prove to his own satisfaction that the Kennedy assassination was indeed the work of a Lone Gunman – kill Lee Harvey Oswald long before the fateful day in November 1963.

There is, of course, much more to the story than that, as the protagonist carries out a test case in altering the past, discovers that history is resistant to being changed, finds himself going native in the 1960s, and so on. And, to King’s credit, while I’m dead certain that 700 pages is more than a story like this one really requires, I’m stumped if I can offer suggestions as to what could be cut that wouldn’t entail a major rewrite of the whole thing. There are some parts of the book I liked less than others – there’s a slightly cutesy romance that made me grimace somewhat, and a slightly self-indulgent crossover with the events of It that I could’ve done without – but very little that actually screams filler.

And, this being Stephen King, the story grabs you from the start and doesn’t really let go, even when the pace slows down (as it does for quite a long section in the middle). And when the story gets to the business end, it is properly electric, page-turning stuff, as you find yourself wondering: what’s the But… going to be?

Because there is always going to be a But… in this kind of story. Permit me to explain. Stories of this kind have at their heart the hero trying to change history in a fairly major way. You would have thought, with a good degree of rightness, that there are only two possible outcomes – Hero Succeeds and Hero Fails. Now, the problem with the history-changing story is that both of these outcomes are beset with difficulties. Hero Fails is simply not an option: nobody would want to read a 700 page book about someone who, in the end, simply doesn’t manage to do what they set out to do in the first place (what a downer!).

However, Hero Succeeds isn’t much better, but for subtler reasons to do with things like suspension of disbelief and reader identification. I’ll happily believe in a story about someone who goes back to 1920 and has various adventures before coming back to the present day, but my goodwill towards a story about someone who goes back to 1920, kills Hitler, prevents the Second World War and returns to a utopian 21st century is considerably more limited. It’s quite difficult to say why: maybe because it smacks in some way of wish fulfilment, maybe because it’s palpably not real, maybe because it’s arguably in quite poor taste.

Interestingly, when the makers of Quantum Leap did their Kennedy assassination episode, they tried to get round these problems. At the end, the hero (having failed to stop JFK being killed) is bemoaning his failure to his sidekick, distraught at his inability to change anything. But you did change something, the sidekick reveals. In the original timeline, Jackie Kennedy was murdered too.

Now, I instinctively didn’t like this plot twist, and it took me a little while to figure out why. In the end I realised that the appeal of a changing-history story is the suggestion that one can make a better world, which is a subtly different thing from a less-bad one. The ending of the JFK episode suggested that by changing history, the Quantum Leap guys were not making our world better, just making it. And I looked around me and thought, is this the best they could do?

However, their Hero Fails, But… conclusion worked better than a straight Hero Fails or Hero Succeeds ending, even if it was still flawed. To go with the Hero Fails, But… twist, there is of course the Hero Succeeds, But… twist – a formulation which is probably more common both in SF about the Kennedy assassination (popping up in the Profile in Silver episode of The Twilight Zone and the Tikka to Ride episode of Red Dwarf) and that about the Second World war (for example, Stephen Fry’s Making History).

So, as I say, there’s always a But… in this kind of story – at least, there is when it’s written by someone halfway competent. When it’s written by someone of the calibre of Stephen King, what you get is actually a whole series of Buts, nested very elegantly inside one another. We’re getting quite close to the point where I can’t say more without spoiling the ending of 11.22.63, so I must be careful.

In the end, King’s resolution isn’t as original as you might hope for, in plot terms at least – but in the context of this particular book it is fit for purpose, and does a decent job of explaining some of the more way-out elements of the story (the protagonist finds himself bedevilled by a sort of hostile synchronicity at several points, which makes for convenient plotting, and which I thought King was just going to dodge explaining or pass off as something usefully abstract like Destiny). Not all of it completely worked for me, but enough did.

As I said, it’s very difficult to talk in even general terms about the ending of 11.22.63 without spoiling it, for obvious reasons. Suffice to say that I found the conclusion surprising and quietly rather moving, and somehow not at all what I would’ve expected. This isn’t my favourite King book, but it’s a good one, more disciplined than Under the Dome and less cheerfully lurid than many of his earlier works – the work of a master still in prime condition. I’m not sure if this quite qualifies as a classic treatment of a classic genre trope, but it’s a very effective piece of entertainment.

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