Since I’m writing my next assignment on Time Travel movies, and I was feeling tired last night, I decided to watch Hot Tub Time Machine – it’s about four guys whose magical hot tub experiences transplants their c.2010 minds into their c.1986 bodies, basically over the course of one 24-hour period. It’s a classic-sounding set-up for a light-hearted screwball comedy. It’s the sort of thing that I’d expect from Ben Stiller or Vincent Vaught rather than John Cusack, but oh well.
Due to its essentially comical nature they make no attempt to explain the time travelling, it just happens. Chevy Chase does pop up and phone in a cameo as the tub repairman who warns them not to change anything and hence sets up the comedy of the movie, as the night went badly for all three of the adult protagonists. Faced with all the benefits of 25+ years of experience, they must re-make all their mistakes again.
It’s not as cringe-worthy as it sounds, but it’s not as funny either. The cast as a whole try to play it deadpan, but the gags are largely of the wacky/crazy variety, and so the lack of a cue from the cast damps down the laughter rather than egging it on. The only player who seems to let go and revel in the chaos is Rob Corddry, formerly of The Daily Show, and as a consequence he steals every scene he’s in.
Oh the whole, I thought this was a fairly poor effort until I started to think about the themes and motifs of the film – until I started to think about what kind of a picture it painted of character types.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this movie is deeply misogynistic. Forget about passing the Bechdel test for starters. All the women fulfil no other purpose than to service the male characters in some way. The most charitable way of viewing the various subjugations is that in some way most of the men are emasculated and are restored to a more “normal” situation through those actions. However, I don’t think that this redeemed any of the characters, who remained flawed and unappealing; if anything, the one not-completely-awful character is rendered into a monster by his effective use of time travel that leaves his apparently strong wife as meek as Kate at the end of Taming of the Shrew… but without Petruchio’s dubious merits.
However, I didn’t watch the film to be entertained (luckily) but to see how they handled the various axioms of the time-travel narrative. How did causality work, and how did that support or undermine the various plot movements and character arcs?
I’m going to make a generalization – most films that use Time Travel as a plot foil, but which aren’t specifically about Time Travel in and of itself, have a weak causality. That means that changes in the past might affect the future of the characters, but that the characters themselves can sustain some level of paradox. This usually operates in a binary where characters can be removed from the narrative if their birth is prevented, but are otherwise unaffected by changes in the past. Clearly this form of the time-travel physics is self-contradictory, but films use this as a dramatic device and I think as logical errors go it’s fairly unobtrusive.
In effect, the ability of the character to suffer “future death” places them in a constant “now”, where past events are reflected in “narrative time” – a change to the future is reflected at the point which causes the change. This is what allows the possibility of a paradox. Let’s say a character does erase themselves – that means they can’t exist in the future to travel back in time and kill themselves, but moreover, since they never existed they can’t cause the change to the past that caused them to destroy themselves. A paradox. It is actually less paradoxical if a character is immune completely to future changes – the only “true” timeline then becomes their personal timeline. This is, broadly speaking, the situation with the Doctor.
Positioning the character as the only continuous point of reference places them as the sole agent in their world – a variety kind of solipsism. The malleability of all other characters and their inability to affect the true causal nature of the universe because of their inability to affect time, makes them unreal and in the extreme, removes any narrative or dramatic tension from their actions.
Positioning the character as wholly affected by changes in their future timeline essentially makes their actions and reactions pre-determined. They have no true narrative freedom, as their actions are constrained by cause-and-effect across time. What has happened will always happen. To an extent, this also reduces their power and interest as story agents. At best, this is recoverable either by regarding an unfolding and inexorable tragedy, or by the shear intricacy of the plot convolutions, or both.
Positioning the character as partially free, partially affected, is therefore a way of maintaining a dramatic interest or tension without succumbing to either pitfall. They are clearly still important as story protagonists, but because they are somewhat affected by changes to the future they are still affected by events around them. Unfortunately, this is always somewhat undermined by the notion that the time-traveller’s only real objective is usually to not change anything. Also unfortunately, it creates a narrative disjunction at the point where the character re-introduces themselves to their proper timeline: the world around them has changed, often rendering their original journey problematic just in logistical terms. In other words – you can change anything about the future from the past except your point of entry into the time-machine… an entry with often doesn’t make sense for some or other reason. Not a major point usually, but still there for the pedantic.
Naturally, like all Time Travellers, these four attempt in some way to take advantage of their future knowledge. In the end, it all works out that their trip through time dramatically improves their lot in life, mostly through one of their number opting to stay in the past and re-live their life from that point on.
I think that decision is probably the most interesting thing about the movie, but it is not in any way explored beyond a few gags about the outcomes of (ab)using their knowledge of the future. The net result then, is to position time travel as the ultimate wish-fulfilment strategy – not wishes without a certain level of risk to be sure. Crucially though, while the characters are deposited in the future into their dream lives, they themselves have not in any way changed. The big-time music producer is replaced by a version of himself incapable of doing the job. This is not shown – the film ends at the high point, of them getting what they want.
In its handling of time-travel, and in most of its plot mechanisms, this film feels like an imitation of the far superior Back to the Future. Leaving Rob Corddry’s over-the-top performance as pretty much the only redeeming feature of the entire enterprise. And frankly, nothing in that line that I’ve yet seen is better than Chef!.
I give it 2 out of 5 stars. I sat through it in one go, so that’s not a 1-star, but it had nothing to recommend it either.