|Posted on July 29, 2009 at 8:22 AM|
Part 1 of 10 in a series on time travel.
Marty McFly is in a sticky situation. Thanks to his friendship with an eccentric scientist named Emmett Brown, he gets involved with the doc’s latest wild-eyed experiment in 1985: outfitting a DeLorean as a time machine. He uses something called a flux capacitor, powered by plutonium, to make it work. But through an unforeseen series of events, Doc Brown is shot down and Marty jumps into the DeLorean to escape. He pushes the pedal to 88 miles per hour—and instantly vanishes in a trail of sparks and fire.
Marty finds himself in 1955, where he meets his own mother Lorraine, now a teenager living with her family. Eventually he realizes he met her the same way his father George did: by falling out of a tree, and her father nearly ran over him—which means Lorraine falls in love with Marty instead of George. Unless Marty can make his parents kiss at the Enchantment under the Sea dance, he and his siblings will disappear from existence.
To return to his own time, Marty finds this era’s Dr. Brown—still white-haired, though 30 years younger—and they hatch a plan to harness a historic lightning strike on the town’s clock tower. That would give the DeLorean the oomph it needs to send it and Marty back to 1985.
The dance and the lightning storm are key elements in the Back to the Future trilogy, a fun romp through time that displays fantastic unity among the three episodes. The second movie has Dr. Brown returning in a flying DeLorean to whisk Marty and his girlfriend Jennifer into 2015, where their children are in trouble. The school bully and all-round bad guy, Biff Tannen, has traveled from 2015 to 1955 to hand his high-school self a book that lists all the sports statistics through the end of the century. By this means, Biff becomes a billionaire, always betting on the winners and messing up the 1985 Marty knows. He and Doc Brown must “set things right”—that is, back to the way they were.
Movie number three takes us to the Old West, to 1885 to be exact. That’s where Brown decided to retreat after events in the second outing, and there he meets a new schoolmarm named Clara Clayton. Since she shows a keen interest in astronomy and other sciences, just like Brown, he quickly falls for her, even though Marty knows she inadvertently places Brown in danger. The story culminates in a wild train ride toward the edge of a cliff, pushing the DeLorean before it, for this is the best 19th-century method of reaching 88. It also places Clara in extreme danger when she comes after him.
The trilogy is way too complicated to get into all the plot twists and turns in one short article, so my comments will be generalized, based mainly on the above description. Even though the movies are fun to watch with edge-of-your-seat action, when one stops to think through the dialogue, compared with the events shown, one tends to become confused. Perhaps, as some say, it’s better to watch movies like Back to the Future for the pure entertainment value. But in matters which ignore God’s Lordship over events, there’s also a danger.
Let’s start with the most obvious discrepancy. Several times throughout the trilogy, Doc Brown gives wild and frenetic predictions of what would happen if one should ever meet himself in the past. “We may have to abort this entire plan,” he tells Marty in Episode II, “it’s getting entirely too dangerous. … Whatever happens, you must not let your other self see you; the consequences could be disastrous.” The consequences he names range from cosmic disturbances to destruction of all life in the Universe as we know it—but fortunately it will be restricted to this galaxy.
“Perfect!” says Marty in resignation.
Thus, Marty is to avoid meeting himself at the Enchantment under the Sea, and even Brown nearly runs into himself while the younger one rigs up the cable to transfer lightning charges to the street. Yet in the same episode, when Biff hands his younger self the sports book, he carries an extended conversation, complete with warnings. When Jennifer comes face-to-face with her counterpart, they both faint, and the Universe remains intact. Are we really to take Emmett Brown’s mad ravings as solid truth? Even the internal movie evidence suggests no.
Somewhat less obvious is the fact that some events appear destined to never change, while others could alter the future forever. Lightning strikes the clock tower at the exact same time every time; neither Marty nor Dr. Brown worry that the weather would vary. I see this as an unconscious acknowledgement that God has some say in events after all, since God controls the weather. Yet, Episode III has “the weather service” of 2015 controlling when the rain stops, to the precise second. (Considering that 2015 is now only six years away, this episode gets funnier all the time.)
Marty and Jennifer are always assumed to get together, as are George and Lorraine, though that undergoes some setbacks in Episodes I & II. Marty always has two siblings, Uncle Joey is always a jailbird, and Brown always speaks in frenzied and sometimes cryptic words. Hill Valley is always Hill Valley, never going by another name; and the presidency never changes. (“Ronald Reagan, the actor?” cries the 1955 Brown.) And what are the chances of Brown’s preliminary drawing of the flux capacitor looking exactly like the final working model? What cosmic power determines which items are invariable and which can change?
But the most comical aspect of these movies, in my opinion, is how constants like paper and ink continually convert, reflecting alterations in the time flow. No doubt this is meant to generate the drama, as well as help us understand what is happening. However, it’s also why I consider Back to the Future a fantasy more than real science fiction.
A picture of Marty and his disappearing siblings demonstrates how little time Marty has left to get his parents to kiss. In Episode II, we have a newspaper that fades from a headline about Marty, Jr., being arrested, to one about Biff’s son Griff and his gang being arrested. In Episode III, it really gets crazy. Dr. Brown’s gravestone engraving changes between the time he’s supposedly shot by Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen, Biff’s Western ancestor, and the time he avoids the showdown. And at the end, a paper Jennifer received from the future, indicating her husband was fired, completely went blank.
So in spite of the series’ best efforts to show otherwise, everyone’s innate knowledge of God’s sovereignty still comes through. Though the morality and language of the series are far from the greatest, it demonstrates a few mores being still intact—such as Marty’s resistance of his teenage mother’s advances, and Dr. Brown’s uneasiness around Clara’s affections.
If paper and ink are invariable, so is time. If a granite slab and its engraving cannot change, neither can future events. No matter what you watch or read in various fantasy sources, especially regarding time travel, it’s best to accept each story on its own merits, and not attempt to define reality by them. Reality operates by its own rules.
Today, no one can travel through time. But if we could, a sense of God’s sovereignty—of events following a predetermined timeline, regardless of what men may do—would keep us from worrying about changing the future.
In the next nine weeks, I will examine nine more concepts of time travel from various sources. They all vary in some way, but in the final analysis, they all come down to the same basic fact.
“I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so men will revere him. Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account” (Ecclesiastes 3:14-15).
A footnote in NIV gives an alternate interpretation of the last Hebrew phrase: “God calls back the past.” Just as God has predominance over outer space, He also has predominance over time. No matter how the rebels may shout and rage, He never changes.
Jesus is Lord!