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What if Time Travel Destroys the Future? The Big Problem with X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST

What if Time Travel Destroys the Future? The Big Problem with X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST

As a kid, I was obsessed
with the idea of time travel. What started as curiosity became much bigger in
my mind; as with many other children, the realization of my inevitable death overwhelmed
me, and thoughts of time travel helped, in their way, assuage things. Though I
was too young then to know about the existing theories on the subject (they
would have been over my head even if I had been familiar with them), I nitpicked
over the moral and logistical particulars. What happened if you altered history
in ways you couldn’t mediate? What if you got stuck in a time loop? What if
_____? Because I spent so much time fixating on time travel, I scrutinized any narrative
that dealt with it, and, over time, an unspoken knot tightened within me. I
became one of those curmudgeons who demands Primer-levels
of consideration if I’m to enjoy a given piece of media or literature that uses
the trope. After seeing the most recent installment of the X-Men franchise—something that activates in another way the ghost
of childhood—I was able to reflect on what time travel means psychologically,
and realized the potent metaphor it embodies in contemporary American culture.
There’s a beautiful escapism in it: the chance to use hindsight to prevent the
problems of the past from metastasizing into the even more daunting problems of
the present.

As the trailers indicate,
Days of Future Past merges the two X-Men
timelines: the one set in the “present” and the one in the “past.” In the
beginning of the film, we discover that the world of the “present” has gone to
shit. Humans trudge through their dreary slave lives (think Metropolis), enslaved by the sentinels,
android-y killing machines constructed of a virtually indestructible non-metal
polymer that shares Mystique’s ability to morph on a moment’s notice. What’s
worse, they’re programmed to sniff out the “mutant gene,” living with the sole intent
to destroy our heroes in the most grisly imaginable ways.

It’s so bad, it’s
hopeless; so hopeless that the finest of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters would
be long dead if not for Kitty Pryde’s ability to send knowledge back in time.
Reunited as they face a common enemy, Professor X and Magneto decide that the
only option left to them is to send knowledge of this dismal future far enough back
in time to prevent the creation (and the events leading to the creation) of the
sentinels in the first place, through the only vessel capable of sustaining the
resulting physical damage: Wolverine. So off we go to the ‘70s; bell-bottoms
and chest hair abound.

Without spoiling too
much, let’s just say that what we learn is that the sentinels came into
existence because America—motivated by fearmongering, greed, and bad timing in
equal measure—made some pretty bad choices in the face of some exceedingly
reasonable warnings against said choices. If this sounds familiar to you, you
may have been paying attention to the recent publications about the “irreversible
collapse

of the Antarctic sheet, which scientists expect will cause a the sea level
to rise by 4 feet over the next two centuries.

Or that our inability to
incorporate sustainable energy into our lifestyle will spur further
environmental damage
,
as evinced in the recent Oklahoma earthquakes.

Or that overfishing and
the swiftly dwindling bee population
(U.S. beekeepers reported 40 to 50 percent losses in the Winter 2012-13
alone) will leave us without major food sources alongside our own
overpopulation.

Or that, when the resulting
shortages hit home, likely externalities will be bumps in crime and class violence

Yeah, if you’re paying
attention, it feels pretty bleak. It would be amazing to go back to the year
1973 and try to stop those silly imbeciles from getting us into this mess in
the first place.

But that’s the point: we
can’t. And by perpetuating hopes for a reset button, we only distance ourselves
further from the solutions we need to be generating at present. Focusing on
what could have gone differently, while an entertaining exercise, averts our
eyes from the hard truths about the world we live in now. The world has provided us with incredible resources, and, to
borrow a cliché from another Marvel franchise: with great power comes great
responsibility.

So, here’s my claim:
movies that rely on time travel as a problem-solver are harmful for us right
now. The reasons we turn to narratives for entertainment are numerous and too
difficult to encapsulate, but maybe one of the most important reasons is to see
our ghosts turned into metaphor, to see fictional depictions of our problems
and witness how others opt to handle them. Whether or not our heroes succeed, we
enjoy the experience of seeing them (forced to) try. Last summer, I wrote about
a growing trend I called “apocalypse porn,” showcased in zombie and disaster movies, which, I argued, provided us catharsis
in its offering of a “clean slate.” Time travel films do the same thing, only
with the added gloss of the supposed reclamation of the lives we could have had,
rather than the imposition of messy new ones (a la World War Z). Time travel is hardly new, but there’s
been an inarguable resurgence in mainstream cinema in recent memory, seen in Star Trek, Looper, and most recently, The
Edge of Tomorrow
, among many others. Hindsight, and what we do with it, is
a valuable part of our existence, and there’s certainly something to be said
for the ways this type of narrative helps us see that, but we don’t have time
to focus so much on the past anymore. Except in maybe the broadest, most
metaphorical terms, we’ve never faced anything like the problems we face now.
New challenges demand creative solutions.

It’s likely that by this
century’s close, for instance, my hometown will be underwater, and even if it
wasn’t specifically any one of our faults, it’s still what we’re left to
manage. While developers focus more and more on creating virtual
realities,
we’re losing the opportunity to salvage the world we already have—or at least
our ability to continue living on it and enjoying it the way we have for millennia.
And, for all the problems any of us might face, this world is a pretty
miraculous thing, a thing worth fighting to save, even if we lose that battle.

Look, you’re not wrong
for enjoying Days of Future Past. I enjoyed
it too (I especially loved Quicksilver’s bullet-time jaunt to “Time in a
Bottle”). And I’m not implying I have the answers, or that writing this
crotchety ramble absolves me of my complicity in the system. To argue that art
has a moral obligation is a subjective viewpoint not shared by all, but it’s
important not to underestimate how integral media is in shaping our cultural
ideas and mores. Days of Future Past
got a few things right on that score, prizing teamwork over individual triumph and
empathy over revenge. With the kind of budgets afforded these franchise movies,
though, there were any number of plots—whether original or adapted—at the
filmmakers’ disposal. In choosing one that involves a convenient reset, there’s
an implicit hopelessness that, if not downright poisonous, is at least
unconstructive. With its hyperbolic depictions of human prowess and battles of
epic proportions, the superhero genre is perfectly suited to offer useful,
nuanced metaphors for ways we might confront our problems rather than wish them
away. If you ask me, we’re in desperate need of a wake-up call. We’ve been in
desperate need of a wake up call for a long time, but we can’t do anything
about that now. We’ll never get now back.

Jesse Damiani is Series Co-Editor for Best American
Experimental Writing (Omnidawn, 2014). He lives in Madison,
WI.

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Comments

Daniel

This is the dumbest article I've read this year.

Oh no, programmers are doing their jobs and making virtual realities. How dare they not have the knowledge and resources to fix our environmental problems.
Oh no, a movie is purely for entertainment and offers no practical solution for our real world problems. How dare a movie about fictional people and fictional history use a fictional solution.

DoFP was the best movie is this whole burnt out franchise, and basically gave the series a fresh start, acknowledging that they messed up in the past and now they're fixing it. Yknow, exactly what you want people to do. Acknowledge their past faults, and work towards fixing it.
The whole movie is a metaphor for the thing you seem to want to bad, so don't write bullshit articles about it.

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