Monday, May 20, 2013

Some Thoughts on Somewhere in Time

Thirty-three years late, I finally watched Somewhere in Time last night and I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.  It’s maddening, how many unanswered questions there are in the movie.  Does Robinson (Christopher Plummer) really know Collier’s (Christopher Reeve) secret, or is he only pretending to know more than he does to control McKenna (Jane Seymour)?  If Collier already checked the dates on his coins before traveling back in time, how did he miss the 1979 penny?  How do Collier and McKenna fall so completely in love in less than three days?  Why did it take McKenna so long to find Collier again?  Did McKenna, in 1980, find her lover when she handed him the watch, or did she choose a lover to send back to herself?

According to Wikipedia, the movie’s fan club, INSITE, has published over 1,800 pages on the movie.  I don’t have access to any of them, so I can’t benefit from them to research answers.  I hope others have already reached the same conclusions I do below.

I’m going to tackle the last question first because it was Megan’s biggest issue with the movie and potentially derails the entire notion of a romantic love in the movie.  It is based on perhaps too large an assumption – that the elderly McKenna in 1980 somehow knows she is in possession of a pocket watch that is caught in a paradoxical time loop.  If time is immutable, then she must find the lover who gave her the watch in the past to give it back to him so he can give it to her.  If, however, time is mutable, then whoever she gives the watch to becomes her past lover.  There is some evidence to support this second possibility, like McKenna’s on-stage speech about having imagined the perfect lover.  She wants him to be real so badly that she spends her entire life seeking about the perfect candidate and then sending him back in time to become that lover.  But, if time is mutable, then giving him the watch is no guarantee he will use it to complete the time loop.  In that case, her entire life would have been used for one huge gamble.  And, if she really is just husband-hunting in the future, that still does not explain how she comes by the knowledge that the watch will send him back to her.

I reject the notion that it was the self-hypnosis that transported Collier into the past.  That may have been how it worked in the book the movie was based on, but the addition of the pocketwatch in the movie changes everything. I also find it implausible that love broke through time to bring them together.   People have tried and failed to hypnotize themselves into the past and people have been separated by time and failed to overcome it before.  The only unknown here is the watch in a time loop, so it is much more likely that it is the time loop the watch is caught in that pulls Collier back through time with it.  Or at least aids the transition of the self-hypnosis.  I am not completely ready to discount time travel through self-hypnosis, as you'll see below.

How does it take McKenna 50 years to find Collier again?  She may have given up searching after several or more years of looking for Collier before he was born, or come to believe he was lying about who he was.  But if she had really stayed determined, it would not have been too hard to find him at any time since the 1960s.  There could only be so many Colliers in Chicago.  She could have had a portrait sketched of Collier and given it to a private detective on permanent retainer, tasked with letting her know the moment he found a Collier in Chicago who matched his picture, which he probably would have ever since his teens.  I suggest that she did just this and probably knew where Collier was for years before approaching him.  But the real question is, why then?  Why approach him in 1972?  If time is mutable, why wait so long?  Then she ran the risk of waiting too long and missing her chance to give him the watch.  But if time is immutable, why give it to him so soon?  Then she was effectively immortal until she handed over the watch to complete its time loop.  Did she really miss him so much she could simply not bear to wait any longer to see him up close again, even if it meant completing her part in the time loop early?  Or was she compelled to complete the time loop as soon as she drew too near to him?  Maybe she had actually meant to approach him and talk to him on some other pretense, but time asserted itself at the last instance.

Which begs the question, what would happen if McKenna tried to resist the time loop?  What if her feelings for Collier faded over the decades and she forgot him?  Or if she loved him so much that she wanted to spare him from a love she could not remember lasting?  Could she choose not to give him the watch?  Would the watch still wind up in his possession somehow?  Would time itself be torn to pieces by the paradox of the watch existing in her possession without it having been given to her? (Or is this a common occurence?  I find stuff in my apartment and wonder where it came from...)  But these possibilities require too much conjecture.  We must assume that McKenna truly wants Collier to travel back to her, though whether it is for true love or selfish ends has yet to be proven.

Are Collier and McKenna truly in love?  If we accept love at first sight as being possible, the question is easily answered, but there are some places to look for explanations for why they are so quickly and powerfully drawn to each other.  One is, again, the possibility that time itself is compelling them, or at least their mutual role in the time loop is forcing their attraction to each other.  A more mundane explanation, from McKenna’s point of view, is the expectation and exciting sense of danger Robinson has built up in her mind about Collier for years before meeting him.  Ironically, then, it is Robinson’s very effort to shield McKenna from Collier that makes her most vulnerable to falling for him. 

And then there is the question of Robinson.  Does he have future knowledge?  The fan club's official movie site's FAQ suggests otherwise.  It suggests that Robinson's exchange with McKenna towards the end where she seems to see through his story proves that Robinson is simply a clever conman, using a gimmick (the life-changing man) that only ironically proves to be true to control McKenna all these years.  But this is Christopher Plummer we're seeing.  He simply lends too much gravitas to the role for everything to be as simple as that. 

Drawing from the book, the FAQ explains that Robinson dies on a cruise just a year later -- something one with future knowledge would likely avoid.  But Robinson's death date is not revealed in the movie and, even if it were, it is not an insurmountable obstacle to a more fantastic explanation -- that Robinson is a fellow time traveler.

It strikes me as a somewhat cheap plot twist that the penny Collier just happens to produce from his pocket is a 1979 penny, despite his having carefully checked all his change in advance of time traveling (we even see him do it).  But, what if the penny was planted there?  Not content to simply get Collier out of the way in the barn, Robinson knows what will send Collier back to the future and plants it on his person while Collier is tied up.  But how is this possible?  How can Robinson have the 1979 penny and not be thrown forward in time?  Because the penny is also from Robinson's past.  Robinson is from an even farther future where a more advanced form of time travel through self-hypnosis is available that does not require pre-existing time loops to accomplish.  This way, Robinson can have researched both McKenna's past and Collier's past.  He really does know Collier's secret.

This turns around everything.  Robinson is now not a selfish conman, but a man trying to be a hero.  He's really trying to save both of them by stopping their doomed romance from happening.  And, as we elaborate on his backstory, we see that Robinson is just as tortured as Collier.  If Robinson traveled back in time to guide McKenna's career, then starting when she was 16 does not seem so implausible.  But if he came back to prevent her from meeting Collier, then why so early?  Perhaps because he has done this multiple times already, each time meeting her earlier, obsessed with creating some turn of events that would change her future, only to fail each time? 

Megan doubts my theory, saying that Robinson could, if can travel in time, just as easily have come to Collier's time and tried to stop him.  But the whole movie is about the immutability of time and our inability to change what happens.  Robinson has tried, perhaps multiple times, to save McKenna in her past.  When she stands up to him in her hotel room and he backs down, it is not the moment she sees through him, but the moment when Robinson gives up.  He sees the futility of it all now, that he has no free will -- at least not in this chain of events.  The outcome has been predetermined by the watch's time loop and he can do nothing to change it.  Perhaps he does die the following year on a ship, feeling that a predetermined life is not one worth living.   

By the last scenes of the movie, I was so sure I was right that I was gravely disappointed that Collier finds not so much as a note from Robinson in his hotel room, explaining his actions behind the scenes.  A visit from Robinson himself, in 1980, would have been an even nicer surprise twist.  But oh well.  Instead of a neat package, we're left with a movie full of enigmas that give us much to think about.  And I guess that's why I still liked this movie.

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