This film bothered me from the moment I saw it--a disaster wrapped in a disaster. I did not expect I would ever tackle it, and nearly said as much. But I saw a copy at a good price, and people did ask about it periodically, so I decided it would be worth discussing. I did not, I think, expect it would be as complicated as this, but then, I also did not expect to be able to get it all covered so succinctly, either.
So put it down to a good excuse to watch Jean-Claude Van Damme in action, and an interesting exploration of some time travel issues, but not a great time travel film.
It seems that I saw Timecop ages ago, and I am almost surprised that it was in theaters as recently as 1994. Still, it predates my earliest published temporal analyses, and I may have viewed it before I began these efforts in 1997. What I remember is that it was an impossibly convoluted temporal disaster to which I was always reluctant to return to analyze. However, it's not always easy to find copies of the best and most current time travel movies, and people often ask about this one, so perhaps it is time to tackle it. It might not be as bad as first glance suggests--but it is, temporally speaking, pretty bad.
What makes the film difficult, though, is that the first temporal event we see (excluding the robbery of the Confederate gold, which has many of its own problems) is the last one the villain makes; thus we are in some sense seeing what is not quite the end of the story at not quite the beginning. It means that the history we see is not the original history, and that the history we see might be impossible. It will take quite a bit of unraveling to get to what happens; but there are a lot of other problems and complications in the mix as well.
These are also complicated by the "other" time machine, the one that someone else in the world apparently has, or perhaps does not yet have, or perhaps had first, for which we can only guess about at least some of what is done with it. However, ignoring that, and the Confederate gold trip which appears to have been connected to that, we can attempt to construct something of a starting point.
We begin in the mall. Melissa Walker is meeting her husband Max Walker, a police officer. We can note immediately that this is not a fixed time story, because later in the film the older Max is also here and alters some of the events (he stops the rollerskating pursesnatcher before the crime). We thus know that the thugs Max sees on the upper level are not there in this history. However, he is thinking of taking a new job with the Temporal Enforcement Commission (T.E.C.), which he has been offered by a colleague from the police, Commander Eugene "Gene" Matuzak.
That night his phone does not ring when Melissa is about to tell him she is pregnant; the only logical explanation for how Senator McComb and his thugs are able to ambush him is that they faked the call to get him out of the house (poor strategy, because it meant he was armed and wearing body armor, but they are not always bright). The Walkers are excited about the pregnancy, and he takes the job with the T.E.C.--he must, or he will never be targeted by the Senator, and his wife will not be killed. However, he never moves to the apartment in the city, because his home is not destroyed by a bomb and his wife is still alive and now with a family on the way they will want the space. And so the T.E.C. is formed, Walker is hired as one of its first agents, Senator Aaron McComb agrees to chair oversight of the program, and they begin trips to the past to prevent others from changing the past. The first of those trips ends our original history--but we know nothing about that trip, and indeed nothing about any of the many trips that follow it over the next decade. However, before we get to that, we have several other problems to address.
When George Spota brings the plan to launch the T.E.C. to the Senate Oversight Committee, Covert Operations, he reports that someone has apparently already traveled to the past and altered it. The evidence for this is that gold used in a recent terrorist arms purchase was stamped "Confederate States of America" and carbon dated to the approximate time of the Civil War. We have already seen this robbery occur, in Gainesville Georgia in 1863, when a lone highwayman with two fully automatic large-magazine pistols guns down five mounted Confederate soldiers. Yet it gives us a wealth of issues.
The first issue is, who already has a time machine? Someone traveled to 1863, stole gold, and then spent it in 1994. Either they have a functional time machine in 1994 before the T.E.C. is created, or they are clever enough that at some point in the future they traveled to 1893, stole the gold, and arranged delivery to someone in 1994. That means they may have changed history twice.
That first change, in 1863, has some peculiar features. The Confederacy did not use gold as currency; its currency was backed entirely by cotton, which was in demand in England. That's why the Union navy blockaded Atlanta and General Sherman burned it: the containment and destruction of the cotton was economic warfare, bankrupting the country and rendering their money worthless. It is doubtful whether any significant amount of gold would have been delivered to General Lee; he would have paid for things in Confederate paper money. Nor would there have been minted coins, that is, gold stamped with the Confederate States identity. But we'll grant the premise: there might have been a small shipment of gold coins or bars, and someone might have known where to go to steal it.
They have it; what do they do with it? We logically conclude that they take it with them to the future. However, Spota claims the gold was "carbon" dated (a mistake--that technique only works with organic materials--but we'll assume they used a different technique), and therefore the verification is based on the age of the materials. If they were transported through time, they did not age--that's the whole point of travel to the future, that you do not age in the process. Therefore if the gold is demonstrably old, it must have been stolen and hidden somewhere where those in the future could reliably expect that it would remain undiscovered for one hundred thirty-one years, and then be accessible to them. This is definitely a complicated scheme, and the more complicated if they are also delivering the location of the gold to their younger selves at a point in time prior to their acquisition of time travel. It seems most likely that they already have the machine. If so, though (not to invoke Niven's Law), why do they not simply use their time travel abilities to prevent the Americans from ever learning of Doctor Kleindast's discovery? There are probably innumerable ways they could at least delay it, during which time they would build an advantage that might make it impossible for anyone else ever to gain the technology they already have.
Our more serious problem is, how did the robbery alter history? It is complicated by the genetic problem--in a war, a few dollars one way or another might make a difference not in the outcome of the war but in the more important issue of who lives to have children and who dies on the battlefield. We take Max to be an immigrant, but the existences of Melissa, Gene, McComb, Fielding, and others who are primary actors in these events are threatened by the possibility that one of their ancestors died, or that someone else died and their ancestor married someone else. You can't have it both ways--either changing history in small ways creates dangerous ripples, or history cannot be changed.
That is undiscoverable. However, since it apparently happened before the meeting, the world we see, complete with our starting point at the mall, is all based on the history of the world as created by that trip; and it must have resolved to an N-jump or the meeting would never have taken place.
The telling of the tale jumps from October 10, 1994 and the formation of the commission to a presumed October 30, 2004, the date on the copy of U.S.A. Today from which Lyle Atwood, on October 30, 1929, is getting stock price information for the future. We gradually learn that Atwood was Max Walker's T.E.C. partner for three years, and we are introduced to at least a half dozen other agents (Munroe, Shepherd, Anderson, Burr, and Bartolo are introduced to Senator Nelson, Swain is given an assignment as Burr's partner, and Fielding works for the Internal Affairs division but has never met any of them). There is a functioning organization, and the morning briefing and assignments seem to be routine. It is thus reasonably evident that during that intervening decade quite a few trips have been made. There are at least two newly discovered problems today, on top of the Atwood problem just resolved. Given something approaching four thousand days and assuming this one is typical, there have been between eight and twelve thousand trips made by Temporal Enforcement Commission agents, to prevent changes made by a similar number of trips by those violating temporal law.
Any one of those could have been a disaster.
In fact, most of them quite clearly would have been disasters. The entire program is built on a flawed premise, that you can "prevent" changes to history by detecting the arrival of time travelers in the past and traveling back to prevent them from changing anything. They are in the past. By the time you, in the present, know that they have arrived, you have lived your entire life in the world they created, and cannot know what it was like before they changed it. You thus are talking not about preventing the past from being changed, but changing it back to what it was before someone else interfered. That, though, means that you are trying to change the world to what you never knew it to have been--we see this clearly when Max returns from his last trip to find Melissa is alive, and no one knows anything about Senator McComb.
The story has two advantages in this. One is that our agents do not appear to know what was changed, only when and where. They are headed to a point in the past at which someone arrived from the future and attempted to alter history, and their task is to identify who has come from the future and what they are attempting to do. They are not using some notion of what the original history was which they are trying to restore, but simply working on the assumption that all change is dangerous so they want to prevent it. We thus avoid the informational infinity loop created when a time traveler undoes his own reason for making the trip. The other is that they are responding to a detected arrival in the past, and they are not preventing that arrival, and thus the arrival still exists for them to respond.
However, that concept of detection is yet another problem in the system.
Imagine we invented a system that detects the arrival of time travelers in the past--not a specific time traveler, but every time and place at which any time traveler ever arrived. As soon as we activate it, what do we discover? We should at that moment register every arrival in the past that has occurred due to any trip from any moment in time, yes? Or no? Both answers are fraught with complications.
If this were fixed time the answer would be yes. All trips that will ever be made to the past have already been made; all arrivals will be detected. However, we concluded this is not fixed time, and so we work with replacement theory. Yet this does not resolve the issue.
Suppose we invent the detector on the 10th, and build the time machine on the 15th. When we activate the detector, there is nothing to detect, because no one has traveled to the past. On the 15th, we send someone to the 1st, and so create a ripple which the detector now detects--"now" as in on the 10th when we first activate it. At that point, that is the only ripple it detects; but assuming that this anomaly resolves (that on the 15th we send that same person to the 1st), on the 16th we decide to send someone to the 2nd. Now when we activate the detector on the 10th, we detect both arrivals.
The film attempts to escape this problem by asserting that travel to the future is impossible because the future has not yet happened, and at first glance that makes some sense. After all, if the detector detects all arrivals but the future has not yet occurred, those arrivals, dependent on those still future departures, did not happen until the detector reaches the date of departure. However, if it is possible to travel from the 15th to the 1st and return to the 15th, then time travel "to the future" is possible at least within the context of return trips, and the intervening history changes at least in that the arrival on the 1st, caused by the departure on the still future 15th, will already have happened on the 10th and so be detected, because in order for the arrival on the 1st to be part of the history of the 15th, it must first be part of the history of the 10th.
Not recognizing this impossibility, they make it more complicated, when Max is assigned to respond to a "level four" disturbance which abruptly rises to a "level six". Although they have not explained the designations, it is clear from their response that six is worse than four, but how did it become so? We take it that somehow the detector is detecting the "ripples", that is, how serious the change is--which is nonsense, since it attempts to quantify something that from the perspective of the time in which it is occurring does not exist. History is not really changing on the 1st because you arrived, it is becoming what it will be; it is only changing from the perspective of someone who knows what would have happened, and once it has changed no one knows that anymore. However, granting the nonsense, what we are seeing is that someone arrived in the past and made some changes, and then before T.E.C. agents could intervene they made more changes. Yet once they have reached the past, everything they do will happen before the detector announces that they were there; the T.E.C. is in the business of restoring history, not preventing changes. Thus whatever changes the time traveler is going to make have all been made before the detector finds him, and the level of ripples is not going to change.
It certainly will change when the T.E.C. agents arrive, which is another problem with the detector, because it cannot distinguish changes made by illegal time travelers from changes made in restoration by T.E.C. agents. This is a minor problem, perhaps, since the computer can be wired into the launch bay in such a way that it knows which trips have been and are being made to the past by such agents. It also can be configured to identify which detected arrivals are "new" based on memory of which ones were not detected yesterday, or twenty minutes ago. What it cannot do is determine whether this is the first time through or whether some of those "new" ripples are caused by travelers leaving from a future that is being rewritten but which must exist as the return point for those who have gone to the past and hit the recall device.
So the detection device is problematic; but then, so is the recall device.
When the timecop wants to return to the future, he presses a recall device, and in seconds he vanishes from the past and returns to the launch pad from which he departed.
We must be twice fair. First, we looked at such recall devices in analyzing Timeline, and found limited possibilities and serious problems with the concept that pushing a button in the past will return you to the future. Second, though, Timecop did it first; Timeline is the copy. Not that it matters; the problems are the same.
In essence, the core of the problem is that the recall device is not itself a time machine, and has no ability to send someone to the future; therefore for the time traveler to travel to the future, the recall device must be sending a signal to the future to tell the time machine to retrieve the traveler. Yet that future does not yet exist; that is, when the time traveler presses the button on the recall device he alters history--he was not there in the previous history to push that button--and before that signal can be received in the future, all of the events subsequent to the pressing of the button must unfold to create the history that leads to that moment (including that the time traveler must have been sent to the past). Meanwhile, while the signal is traveling to the future, the time traveler is stuck in the past up to the minute the signal is received in the future. With Timeline, that amounted to centuries; here the time is usually considerably shorter, a few decades, and short enough that the time traveler will have to make an effort not to interfere with the life of his temporal duplicate.
Eventually the recall signal reaches the future, the time machine activates, and the traveler is pulled out of the moment he pushed the button and deposited in the future, unaware that he was ever stranded in the past--unless somehow his actions prevent the time machine from existing in this world, or himself from being a time traveler. Agents should be trained for this, but they probably will not be, because no one will ever know that this happens. Either history will be altered such that the agent is snatched from the past at the expected moment, erasing all knowledge that he had ever been stranded, or the agent will never make his trip to the past, creating an infinity loop such that time is forever alternating between the version in which the time traveler is stranded in the past and that in which he never arrives.
Is there a solution?
Barring the possibility that the recall device is itself a time machine, there might in this case be one chance. Let us suppose that at the future end the time machine simultaneously transports the traveler to the past and returns him to the present. After all, at the instant the time traveler arrives in the past, from the perspective of the future end all of history is altered to whatever it is that he creates, including the moment he activates his recall device. It might be possible for the time machine to find the moment the time traveler hits the recall device as it is dropping the time traveler into the past, and pull him back as part of the same event. While this notion has some appeal, it fails: the time machine that returns the time traveler to the future is not the same one that delivered him to the past, because it is the one that exists in the new history, the old one having been erased. We hope that the machine is identical, but we already know that history will have changed the moment the traveler reaches the past, and this machine will be a temporal duplicate of the one that sent him. Besides, for the signal sent from the past to reach the future, the history from the moment it is sent to the moment it is received must be written--it might be that the time machine has ceased to exist in this timeline.
T.E.C. agents could, of course, return at the instant they left (perfectly reasonable--no reason for the the time they spend in the past to use time in the future), but this does not resolve the stranding problem created by the recall device. The only way around this is for the recall device itself to be a time machine.
As we noted, Temporal Enforcement Commission agents made hundreds of trips to the past before we see any of them. Against the odds, they managed to survive a decade without destroying history. Now we see them in action, as Walker travels to 1929 to capture former agent Lyle Atwood.
The first peculiar point is that Atwood has been in 1929 either long or frequently enough to be established. The doorman and elevator operator know his name, and he theirs; he has his own office, and the staff greets him. He has been here at least several weeks, and the familiarity suggests longer. He calls a stockbroker to order "another hundred thousand shares" of a company; he has done this before. On the other hand, he arrives with a copy of the October 30, 2004 edition of U.S.A. Today, and peruses it as if he only just obtained it, so either he just came from the future or it was delivered to him. Atwood's regular job appears to be buying stocks that are going to be worth more seventy-five years in the future.
This is not terribly well considered. He does not need "today's" paper to make money in the stockmarket of the past; it would be relatively easy to bring a list of companies worth more in the future. More complicated, though, is that even with the credit system of the twenties (investors often would put in a buy order in the morning and a sell order in the afternoon, and collect a check for their profits without having paid anything) eventually Atwood has to pay for those shares--and even if Middle States Oil is selling at a penny a share, he's talking two thousand 1929 dollars. Where is he getting the cash? What he needs is next week's paper, the 1929 November stock prices, so he can buy shares that are going to increase in the short term. These prices should be easy to get in 2004, although the 1929 market is so friable that his interaction with it, short-term, could change events significantly.
Perhaps, though, he is doing that; we just don't see it. It is still evident that Atwood traveled to 1929 some time ago, and that there has been a more recent trip to bring the paper, yet Walker is only arriving now, weeks into the scheme. Why did they not prevent the damage with an earlier intervention? Or was the transfer of millions of dollars of future assets not a significant enough ripple to investigate? Remember, once Atwood does anything in the past, the results of everything he will do (on that trip) reach the future before Walker can leave to arrest him. Also, remember that in later actions the agents arrived before the errant time travelers; there is no reason he could not have done so here.
They make more changes to the past, demolishing a Wall Street office with slightly futuristic weapons (the Thompson Submachine Gun was already common, so fully automatic pistols would have looked like new advances) then leaping from a window together but never hitting the ground, witnessed by a crowd on the street and confirmed by those in the office. That remains one of those mysteries in history while creating the new version of 2004, in which Atwood now is convicted of tampering with time, and rather poetically sentenced to return to that moment in the past in which he was falling, so the mystery becomes why two men leapt from the window and only one reached the ground.
Two other points are curious. One is why Atwood did not have a recall device, or having it did not use it to escape from Walker. The other is how they were able to pinpoint the moment from which they had snatched him and so return him to it. That level of accuracy is not generally seen in the other trips (were they aiming to drop Walker and Fielding in the water?), but in this case not only did they do it, they were confident that they could. This, though, might be a matter of the machine recording coordinates for future use.
There are other issues here, most notably what became of the stocks Atwood purchased. Surely McComb had some plan to transfer ownership to himself, and it seems likely that at least part of it was already in place. Being displaced in time, Atwood has no nearest relatives, and without a will or similar instrument his purchases will escheat to the state; but would McComb not have prepared for that, given that Atwood will not live long enough for McComb to be born quite apart from T.E.C. intervention? It is very messy in so many ways. The Beverly Hills property purchase is a much more plausible scheme.
Immediately after Atwood's execution, McComb wants to shut down the program. He speaks of the danger of rogue agents, but his motivation is transparent: Walker has already cost him millions in ill-gotten gains by interfering with his efforts to tamper with the past, and has expressed cryptically but clearly that he knows McComb is behind this and will pursue him until he catches him.
The timing seems quite natural, but there is something unsettling about it.
There must have been a history in which Atwood traveled to the past and bought stocks which probably eventually reached McComb; Atwood left the future before Walker, and therefore the entire history from his actions must unfold before Walker can leave to stop him. Then Walker undid that history, creating a history more like the original, in which Atwood bought the stocks but never delivered them to McComb. McComb is out millions of dollars. Yet there is a fourth-dimensional aspect to this: in this history, McComb never made the money, he also knew he never made it, that when he sent Atwood to the past there was not an immediate increase in his financial situation because Walker arrived in the past and took it from him before he got it. In a sequential sense, that happens when Walker leaves for the past (presumably on October 4th, 2004), but in a temporal sense it happened in 1929, and this version of McComb has always known that Walker was going to interfere. He knew probably when he was sitting in the Oversight Committee briefing and volunteered to chair oversight of the program; he certainly has known since he first sent Atwood to the past to tamper with history, because the expected advantages were prevented by someone traveling to the past from a point still in his future.
Of course, he might have been looking for reasons to shut down the system long before he expresses that here. Walker may have cost him money, but he also gives him the needed excuse.
That excuse is itself bogus, of course. Atwood certainly did not use the T.E.C. equipment to make his trip (or trips) to 1929, and the notion that a T.E.C. agent could build his own machine is pretty weak--weak enough that Matuzak and Walker don't even consider it a possibility when they want to know how McComb has been sending people to the past. Certainly that they know such technology is possible makes them something of a threat, but then, I know that atomic bombs are possible and I have a rough idea how to build one, and no one considers me a threat. (Sure, bomb-grade plutonium is difficult to obtain, but I expect Parker supercooled superconducting chips are not cheap, and that the construction of a time machine is a bit more complicated than that of a bomb.) So the danger of agents going rogue and traveling to the past independently is somewhat less than that of astronauts deciding to organize their own manned Mars missions. It is just an excuse for McComb.
The rogue agent problem is an argument in the wrong direction: the fact that an agent was able to travel to the past separately from the T.E.C. program demonstrates that there are other time machines in operation, and therefore if the United States government abdicates its enforcement responsibilities and these are not assumed by some other country we trust, we are giving the power to change the world to whoever has already been trying to do so. It is such an obvious response that it is surprising Matuzak does not make it when the issue arises.
It prompts Matuzak, though, to speak of the "real" danger of sending someone to the past, that he might encounter himself, in which case something terrible would occur because the same matter cannot occupy the same space at the same time; no one knows what will happen because it never has, but something in the math suggests it would be one of those Capital-B Bad Capital-T Things.
The "real" danger in time travel, according to Matuzak, is the danger that the same matter might occupy the same space, and thus that a time traveler might meet his younger self. No one knows what would happen, but we see the result when time traveling Walker throws past McComb into time traveling McComb. It is not pretty, and it is definitely fatal to both of them. It makes for a dramatic climax to the story--but is it at all credible?
Let's face it: matter cannot occupy the same space at the same time. That's a rule that defines matter. If a time traveler materializes in the past, he must displace the matter that is already there--usually air, sometimes water, hopefully nothing solid. When we touch objects, they generally move and our own bodies always compress slightly, precisely because matter cannot occupy the same space as other matter. The fear here, though, seems to be that the reaction would be different if the same molecules came in contact with themselves.
That seems immediately to be a ridiculous concern. It simply could not happen. In a very material sense, you are not the same person you were ten years ago.
Any such contact, assuming it happened to get past our clothing (and seriously, how often do you wear anything you owned ten years ago?), would be epidermis to epidermis--the outer layer of skin. What distinguishes the epidermis is that it is comprised almost entirely of dead dermal tissue, cells which died to create an outer shield for the body, and that that skin is constantly wearing off and being replaced by freshly dead dermal cells. It does not take very long at all for the entire exterior of your body to be replaced completely. We notice it with the slightly different cells that comprise our hair and our nails, but it is happening with our exterior constantly: the old is wearing off and being replaced with new. When McComb touches McComb, it is not the same skin.
Beneath that, there are some parts of the body that remain mostly the same--parts of the bones, the teeth, some cellular membranes--but not only are there many cells being destroyed and replaced (red blood cells, white blood cells), the human body is over half water by weight (estimates range from 45% to 75%, depending on factors such as age and physique), and the water is constantly recycled. Given a decade, if the same water molecule is anywhere in your body, it is likely to be a remarkable coincidence. That means that at least half the mass of your body will have been replaced given a decade.
Besides, if we're talking matter, we have to be talking molecules. Thus even if some part of McComb that does not constantly regenerate--such a a tooth--touches that of his counterpart, the precision necessary for this molecule to contact this molecule is incredible. There is about as much danger in the possibility that a time traveler would drink a glass of water in which there happened to be an atom of hydrogen already present in his saliva.
Apart from all that, there is no particular reason to suppose that molecules are individualized in some way. We know that they pass electrons to each other, and thus just as your body is constantly replacing its outer shell, so too all of the atoms within it are constantly replacing theirs. The notion of "the same matter" is almost devoid of meaning on any level.
There is danger in meeting yourself in the past, but that danger lies in the fact that you alter your own history, and your younger self will now have some knowledge gained from your older self that your older self did not then have. That, though, happens simply by seeing or hearing or otherwise sensing the presence of someone who was not present in the previous history, and is complicated even when the younger self does not know that something is different from what happened to his older self. Consider when Harry Potter saves himself. Those kinds of predestination paradoxes are very unstable. But despite its popularity in time travel stories, there is no reason why touching your past self should be any different from touching any other person in the past.
We next hit a problem that is caused by the time travel, but does not involve it. McComb decides that Walker needs to have a conversation of the sort one remembers for a lifetime, and sends two thugs to his apartment to assault him. They fail, of course; but when we reflect on the scene, we hit a problem: the attack occurs in an apartment that he takes after his wife is killed and his house destroyed at the beginning of the story, which in a sequential sense has not yet happened because McComb has not gone back to kill Melissa and set the bomb. Thus the first time history advances to this moment, Walker does not live in the apartment, he lives in his house outside the city with his wife and his roughly nine-year-old son. They must attack him there, or in some unpredictable outside location (such as in transit or visiting the mall), or not at all.
The scene is, of course, entirely different. He has that videotape of his wife made before she did not die, but she doesn't want to watch old videos of herself. They will spend some time unwinding before bed, and will be in bed together. The bedroom is on the second floor, so the assailants must breach the house somewhere below--and from the two views we get of the attack on him by thugs from the future, it seems that his house is not so easy to enter without alerting the inhabitants. Thus we have the complications, on the one hand that he will be ready for them before they find him, and on the other hand that he has two persons to protect (what in gaming are called "dependent non-player characters"), his wife and his son. McComb, though, is going to recognize that this is more complicated, and might send more assassins. It is anyone's guess what happens here.
What does not happen, though, is clear: Walker is not killed, because the story would end there if he were. It is possible that Melissa or the unnamed son might be, but in that case there is going to be an investigation (the killing of a member of the family of a government agent in what was clearly an attempt on said agent's life will be a high priority federal case) and it is reasonably likely to connect to McComb. The Senator must have considered that, though, since the murder of a federal agent would create a similar investigation (even absent the agent to drive it forward), so he has given himself plausible deniability somehow, despite the fact that any harm to Walker will raise suspicion, and Matuzak already knows that McComb is the suspect.
The house is farther outside town than the apartment, so Fielding will arrive somewhat later (assuming she starts at the same time), but generally we have the same kind of fight in a different location. The fight happens differently, of course--mostly in terms of the incidentals (the all-important spilled water, for example)--but it must come to much the same conclusion for the story to continue.
We now come to the most complicated and significant sections of the film, as the 2004 McComb travels back to 1994 to prevent his younger self from selling his part-ownership of Parker McComb Datalink, and Walker and Fielding arrive to attempt to arrest him (the older self) for illegal manipulation of history. To be clear, though, the agents are sent because a ripple was detected, and thus since McComb arrived in the past sequentially before Walker left the future, he must (under the film's premise) have left first. That means we have three histories, one in which Parker buys out McComb, a second in which McComb arrives from the future and interferes, and a third in which Walker and Fielding attempt to prevent that interference--unsuccessfully, but with further repercussions. There are also a couple of other issues which flow from this.
The original history is fairly straightforward: Parker has talked to a bank, and gotten a loan with which to buy out McComb. McComb takes his money, and Parker perfects his chip, and what is now Parker Datalink is the supplier of most of the equipment for the time travel project.
The first change is made when 2004 McComb persuades his younger self not to sell his share. That puts McComb in a complicated position, because on the one hand it is undoubtedly the case that his company's hardware is worth billions, while on the other hand he is in a stronger position to shut down the project. Yet that raises an ethics issue: Senator McComb is a principle owner of a corporation which supplies most of the hardware for a project of which he has primary budgetary oversight. He must either sell his interest in the company, or step down from the oversight position, or place his ownership in trust under someone else's control--each of which reduces his power over the program. Of course, he still has Parker as partner, and Parker appears always to have been the managing partner, so he might be able to avoid the charges of conflict by asserting that his is strictly a financial investment and he makes no decisions concerning what hardware the program purchases from whom, but he is skating very close to the line on this--and his efforts to shut down his own company's number one purchaser are not going to meet with his partner's approval by any means.
But does he have a partner? After all, when he traveled to 1994, he killed Parker. Ah, but he did it with Fielding's gun after the confrontation with Walker. Had Walker and Fielding not interfered, old McComb would have been content to allow Parker to continue as managing partner as long as young McComb keeps his stake in the company. That's also safer--Parker is the engineer, and the chip is not yet finished, so McComb is less likely to get what he wants without Parker to make it happen.
That also means that when Fielding and Walker leave the T.E.C. base for 1994, they leave from a Parker McComb Datalink facility. It also means that the project is probably closer to shutdown, since McComb has more control over it and is determined to find a way to end Walker's involvement.
Walker and Fielding then make their trip, and it goes as we see in the film, as Fielding betrays Walker and gets herself shot by McComb, who has already killed Parker, and the company becomes McComb Datalink by the time Walker reaches the future. That raises the stakes on the conflict of interest situation; McComb may have had to sell the company but included the rights to his name, or he may have gone public and hired others to run it. It again gives him more leverage for terminating the program, but also raises issues that might become problematic in his bid for President, if it comes out that he made a fortune selling high-tech computer hardware to a government program for which he was the budgetary overseer. But he has somehow gotten this far, and managed to begin closing down the program. Walker is fortunate that this did not start sooner.
Although there remains one more, albeit small, issue with that major event, it won't make sense without beginning to examine the remaining trips, two trips to the past, one by Senator McComb and his thugs to kill Walker and the other by Walker to attempt to get evidence from Fielding to arrest McComb. The question really is, who left the future first?
It seems complicated because Walker returns from 1994 to find the T.E.C. in chaos as it is being shut down and dismantled on orders from McComb, and as quickly as he can arrange it he persuades Matuzak to send him back. Meanwhile, on learning from his spies that Walker returned to the present, McComb decides that the only way to eliminate the threat he poses is to kill him in the past, in 1994 when he was only a D.C. police officer and not a federal temporal agent, and so plans his trip from his facility in Calverton Maryland, which Yahoo!Maps makes just over sixty miles and near one and a quarter hours away from Washington. He also has to get his goons and their weapons, and brief them. Further, this, the single most significant trip to the past reported in the film, is not detected by the T.E.C. The logic of the situation strongly suggests that Walker goes first; but the story of the film makes that impossible: unless McComb goes first, there is no history in which Melissa dies.
Consider: if Walker goes first, he reaches the past, finds Fielding, discovers the pregnancy test but does not react because he already knows Melissa is pregnant (she was not killed), organizes the proof that Fielding was in the past and leaves for the future to return her to testify. Before McComb can be arrested, he leaves for the past, changing events such that by the time Walker returns to move Fielding she is already dead. He wants to catch the killer, and also, having just seen Melissa's blood test, he realizes that he is vulnerable: if they killed Fielding in the past they might also go after him. Thus he picks up his own trail at the mall and keeps an eye on himself until that night, when the killers appear and he surprises them--not as he does in the film, but effectively nonetheless. Melissa is never killed.
Thus what must happen at this point is that McComb somehow manages to leave the future before Walker. That his trip is not detected is explained if the detection equipment has already been deactivated. He sends someone to kill Fielding in the hospital, and then organizes an assault on Walker's house that night. He kills Melissa, but inadvertently fails to kill young Walker because he was wearing a bulletproof vest when the thugs shot him.
From this history flow the events we see in the film--the Walker who never knew that Melissa was pregnant, who lives alone in an apartment, where he is ambushed by thugs. This is the Walker who leaves from the future to rescue Fielding, who finds the pregnancy test and remembers that someone attacked him on this night, makes the connections, and goes to fix the piece of history that was altered that they did not detect.
That of course underscores the problem with the detectors: we have been watching not the original history but a history which someone from the future has already altered, but the detectors did not recognize that there were time travelers running amok in 1994 because they had not yet left the future, even though the detectors in theory are scanning the past.
It also brings back that little problem concerning the scar on McComb's face.
Many people look for continuity errors in movies. I generally miss them--but in a time travel movie they can be particularly confusing. This film uses something which we saw in Looper, one of the tropes of that film which we found untenable and inconsistent. Here it only happens once, in a minor way, but in doing so raises flags: when Walker puts a gash on young McComb's face, old McComb almost immediately gains a scar. It is not just that careful examination shows it there after the injury; we see it appear.
Ironically, moments before this happens, old McComb, examining young McComb, touches his own left cheek and speaks of getting something fixed; but careful viewing shows that there is no scar there yet, so he must be talking about some other aspect of his face which he shares with his younger self. The scar perhaps made that less important.
We accept that McComb did not have that scar in the original history, and indeed that he did not have it until Walker came back from 2004 and kicked him away from a dropped gun. He should always have had it thereafter, and we note that there was a dressing on the face of his younger self and a scar on the cheek of the older McComb in all the scenes involving that last trip to the past. In temporal terms, McComb never had that scar before that trip.
However, in sequential terms, we have a separate problem. Throughout the history we see, McComb has no scar until the end, but Walker lives alone in an apartment--yet in sequential terms, McComb got that scar before he made the trip back to kill Melissa. Therefore, if Melissa is already dead, McComb already has the scar, and we should see it even when we first meet him at the oversight committee meeting: since that is the history in which the 2004 McComb comes back and kills Melissa, it has to be the history in which McComb has already met his future self the week before, and his face should at this point be bandaged. The only time we should see him without a scar is when he is trying to persuade Parker to buy him out of the company, because that is the only version of him we ever see that sequentially predates getting the scar.
It's a little thing, but in many ways these stories are about the little things, and how they become big. In this case, it leads to a highly questionable statement McComb makes in the climactic battle--but we have several other details to cover before we get there, so we'll return to the notion.
Mia Sara is undoubtedly a good actress, and she plays Melissa very well, with only one serious problem: she plays Melissa as a good actress. Melissa might be a capable amateur actress, but in the stressful situation in which she finds herself, she is not going to be able to do it, particularly as she is improvising without a script.
We saw the mall scene, in which young Max Walker meets his wife Melissa. We then see the same scene again, but this time she has just been visited by her husband from ten years in the future, who has cryptically pulled her out of the mall and told her a few lies and a few truths and made her very frightened about what is happening--and yet when she then meets the present version of her husband on schedule, she reproduces the scene she has never before played exactly as it would have been had none of this occurred.
The film seems uncertain about its theory of time at this point. On the one hand, it tries to fit future Walker's actions into the gaps, to suggest that he talks to Melissa when she is away from present Walker and might always have done so, and thus that this is the same history as it was; on the other hand, he changes things, such as interfering with the purse snatcher before the purse snatching, which prevents the purse snatching and means that his younger self will not do the same. Everything continues as it did, and for some reason she plays the part exactly the same. A normal person would have been changed by the conversation she had with the older version of her husband; only an actress following a script and pretending to feel what the script says she feels would have lived those hours unaltered by that meeting. Seriously, "Honey, before we make love, I need to tell you two things, first that there are thugs from the future trying to kill us, and second that I'm pregnant." She wouldn't be shaken enough to tell him this? I can't see how they got home from the mall without that being mentioned.
Incidentally, that little incident in which the older Walker stops the purse-snatching skater for what he is going to do winds up being fatal to the film. In the original history, young Walker sees the rollerskating purse snatching and stops the thief. In the new history, the old Walker recognizes the skater as the purse snatcher because he saw the crime when he was younger. Now the younger version of himself will not see the crime, and so when he is older will not remember the purse snatching and will not intervene, and thus his younger duplicate in turn will do so, and we are trapped in an infinity loop, two versions of history each causing the other. It is a little point, but it destroys history completely. (And that is the real reason why time travel is dangerous.)
We have another potential infinity loop staring us in the face, this one threatened by McComb.
I hope that every reader of these columns had the same reaction when McComb suggested traveling back to 1994 to kill Officer Walker before he became Agent Walker. This is a serious anomaly akin to killing Adolph Hitler: if you succeed, you will never have any reason to make the trip, so barring some application of the common understanding of Niven's Law, it leads inexorably to an infinity loop.
We can be grateful that he failed.
Note--and this is important--that although Agent Walker came to that time and place to prevent changes to the past, and did reverse numerous changes, he is not responsible for having saved his own life. We saw the version of history in which McComb's thugs shot him twice in the chest and left him for dead on the lawn, but his body armor protected him and he survived.
At this point, too, we commend Timecop for recognizing an aspect of replacement theory often overlooked: the stacking of variant histories. The history we are observing is not the original history in which the Walker family lives in the big old house outside town, nor the final history in which once again they live in that same house. We are seeing an intermediate altered history--a version of events created by the trip McComb makes to the past, and then undone by the trip Walker makes.
Having said that, we must mention that there is then a very common problem, one that we first noted in connection with Back to the Future: the Agent Walker that exists knows nothing of the history through which he actually lived, remembering the history that now never happened. In undoing the history McComb created, he should undo the version of himself who lived through that. He will not be surprised when the car delivers him to the house in which he has always lived, and his wife who never died comes to greet him along with the nearly ten-year-old son they have been raising for most of the last decade (whose name he knows, along with the boy's favorite ice cream, favorite toys, books, and television shows, and all the other things you come to know about your children).
Further, there are still at least two more rather significant problems in the film, still to be addressed.
During the climactic battle, when 2004 McComb has captured 2004 Walker by holding Melissa hostage, McComb tells his lackies to bring young Walker to the party, because he wants him to see what he is going to do. The goons respond that young Walker is dead, and McComb makes a significant statement. He says if young Walker were dead, old Walker would not be there.
It makes sense, but is it true?
The logic seems sound. Once someone enters the past, from the perspective of the future everything he does or will do is now history, and in a sense his history, the only history he has experienced. As we mentioned, the version of the time traveler that lives to see another day has to be the one who lived through the history that leads to that moment. So if Officer Walker dies in 1994, Agent Walker cannot be alive in 2004, and cannot make the trip to the past.
On the other hand, the film is inconsistent with this in this very scene. Moments later, young McComb enters the scene, and old McComb is surprised that he is there. Yet if it is true that what affects the time traveler's younger self immediately becomes part of the history of his older self (as with the scar), then old McComb should remember having gotten the message, not at that moment but earlier, not later than when young McComb received it, and perhaps as early as when old Walker arrived in the past. Similarly, since young McComb already lived through this encounter, old McComb should be able to anticipate that Melissa is going to hit him and escape and Walker is going to throw his younger self at him, destroying him.
Oh, but wait--that means that young McComb will be destroyed, and since he will be destroyed his older self won't be there for the collision with his younger self, and none of this can happen, and neither of them will be destroyed. That means that it can happen, and again we have an infinity loop. But in this case, that's beside the point. The question is whether what happens to the younger version of a time traveler immediately becomes the history of his older doppelganger, or if something else happens here.
In some metaphysical sense, such changes are instantaneous; however, in experience they must be worked through time. In the example of the scar, once younger McComb is wounded, he will seek medical treatment, it will be stitched and bandaged, and over the course of years we will come to the older version of McComb who has had that scar for a decade. Similarly, old McComb came from the future, and now if young McComb is killed, old McComb will not exist in the future; but before he ceases to exist here and now, we have to write the history of the world leading to the moment McComb does not leave the future so we can rewrite the history in which he does not arrive in the past. But then, presumably in that history McComb still travels to 1994 to persuade his younger self not to sell his interest in Parker McComb, and presumably that is a detected ripple, and presumably some Temporal Enforcement Agent is sent back to interfere, so we have a very different history at that point (which as we noted last time is another infinity loop). So if young McComb were killed in a history in which old McComb had arrived from the future, old McComb would still play his part until time reached the moment when he would have left for the past, and then the new history would exclude him entirely. He would not, Looper-style, suddenly vanish from the world. Although he cannot restore himself to life, the universe does not actually know that, so like Marty McFly he has time to try to fix the future before it arrives.
Now that McComb has died in the past, he no longer travels to the past, and no longer sets the bomb that destroys the house. Melissa lives and gives birth to their son, and they live happily ever after. McComb vanished the day the explosion did not occur, so he is not the head of oversight for the project and is not using the other time machine to attempt to enrich himself. He never travels to the past.
That, though, means that he was not there to destroy his younger self. It means, too, that Walker had no reason to send a message for young McComb to come to his house. In fact, there is no reason for Walker to have made any of the trips we have seen him make in this film--McComb never sent Atwood, never stopped himself from ending his partnership with Parker, and never killed Melissa.
Wait, no--we have three different histories interacting in a cycling causality.
I knew Timecop was a disaster; I warned you so at the beginning. Yet it was an interesting disaster nonetheless, showing us some aspects of time travel we don't often see, even as it got some of it very wrong.