Two time travel movies are premiering today, and a none of those astounding mysteries of the universe that Hollywood creates every couple of months. Tony Scott’s Deja Vu (directed with his usual great skill and creativity) is the bigger-budgeted and promoted film, and will probably do well at the box office. Darren Arnofsky’s The Fountain promises to be a bit quirkier and probably won’t make as much money but might obtain more critical accolades.
Time travel fictions are certainly interesting and have been around for a long time. Peter Suderman suggests, in National Review Online, that their appeal is based on a natural human obsession with mortality, which time travel naturally brings to the fore. I can’t say I agree that human mortality is a special interest in time travel fictions, given that pretty much any narrative has a good deal to do with human mortality.
I think that the real appeal of time travel is in the possibility of changing things—time travel is the ultimate power trip. We’ve all done things we wish we hadn’t, and failed to do things we wish we had. (Cf. the Lutheran rite of confession and absolution.) And we’ve all experienced things that we wish hadn’t happened. Thinking about what things would be like if we had done things differently is a natural human endeavor, every bit as natural as mortality itself. And this is a particularly strong element in time travel narratives, such as the recent BBC-TV mystery series Life on Mars, and is in fact the central issue in time-repetition stories such as Groundhog Day and Daybreak.
That’s what is really behind Deja Vu. Denzel Washington plays a BATF agent investigating a terrorist bombing, who discovers that he might just be able to go into the past—at a good deal of risk to his personal well-being—and prevent the attack, thereby saving several-hundred lives and possibly the lives of his ATF partner and of a beautiful, young, single woman who was murdered as part of the "collateral damage."
Of course, he does what people typically do in such movies, but this being a Denzel Washington film, there is a good deal of Christian imagery and thematic material, including a couple of prominent acts of self-sacrifice and a resurrection from death. There is a brief exchange about morality early in the film, but what is always at the forefront of the story is the desire to change our conditions, to make things right and avert trouble for other people.
As in Back to the Future, The Time Machine, and other such narratives, Deja Vu is most intensely concerned with the here and now, the present conditions of our lives. That’s what makes it so absorbing and interesting, and well worth seeing.