March 29 2020
From age to age: on time-travel films that have made, or missed, a mark
15 October 2018

Time-travel films that have made, or missed, a mark

Ellen Burstyn is one of Hollywood’s underrated greats who has nonetheless been steadily employed in film and television for as many as seven decades. She is a six-time Academy Award nominee, winning Best Actress for 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, one of the early films to be caught up in the swirl of the burgeoning women’s movement. Two back-to-back movie parts that Burstyn took on in recent years brought into focus a trope that is very much a part of sci-fi culture, but perhaps not as over-used as one might like.

Apart from being one of the talking heads in the faux documentary that opened the Christopher Nolan space epic, Interstellar (2014), she appears in one other scene as the octogenarian Murph, a character inhabited in her younger years by Jessica Chastain. When Murph was just a 10-year-old, her father Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) set out on an impossible space mission which entailed passing through a ‘worm-hole’ — a warp in the space-time continuum.

Filial force

When he is finally reunited with his daughter, she is an old woman on her deathbed, surrounded by an extended family, generations of his own blood Cooper has never been acquainted with. The daughter-father relationship, even in absentia, is one of the driving forces of the film.

In fact, Murph’s flourishing career as a space physicist owes much to coded messages relayed by her father during a spell in which he was lodged in a ‘tesseract’, where he could see across time. His interaction with his aged daughter, if only for a few moments, makes for a touching scene. Burstyn’s eyes gleam with the joy of filial affection even as she eggs him on to continue on his mission, a goading that is never maternal.

Contemporary setting

In her very next film, Burstyn played another child who ‘out-ages’ her parent. In The Age of Adaline (2015), Blake Lively steps into the title part of a woman who stops ageing physically after a near-fatal accident at the age of 29, circa 1937. Her daughter, Fleming (Burstyn), ages normally.

The film is not a period venture; we catch up with it in a contemporary setting in which Fleming is now in her 80s (Burstyn was 82 when she shot the film). For almost all her life, Adaline has always been on the run, lest her ‘quirk’ of fate is discovered. Her daughter has been Adaline’s only confidante, and the women have many scenes together.

It is remarkable how Burstyn weaves in both a perceptible reverence as well as an eagerness to please that immediately establishes her relationship to her mother, a young woman in all respects. There is a deftness to her performance that allows audiences to take the proverbial leap of faith that speculative fiction such as this might ask for. Lively, by contrast, is never the ‘old soul’ that Adaline is purported to be, which is perhaps the reason why the film never takes off.

A similar dynamic in reverse can be seen in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), in which Cate Blanchett is a woman who ages into decrepitude, even as her lover (Brad Pitt) grows younger with each passing day, because of the peculiar condition of ‘reverse-aging’ he was born with. In time-travel films, protagonists have often encountered their ‘young’ parents when they went back in time.

In Back to the Future (1985), Michael J. Fox turns the clock back 30 years and becomes the agent that kindles his parents’ romance but not before the film flirts with faintly incestuous undertones. It was a film that was slated to be remade in Hindi in 1992. The much touted Time Machine featured Aamir Khan and Rekha as the Oedipal pair, but the film was ultimately shelved. It was perhaps one of the earliest of director Shekhar Kapur’s many creative miscarriages.

The writer sought out cinema that came at least two generations before him, even as a child. That nostalgia tripping has persisted for a lifetime.



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