Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

The ethics of time travel (and the reality of Santa)

As far as I know all calendars currently in use mark some date as the start of the new year. No matter which date you pick, it has no effect on physical reality; selecting Jan. 1 as New Year’s Day, for instance, doesn’t affect the seasons or the Earth’s orbit. It’s an arbitrary construct that only matters to humans using the Gregorian calendar.

As far as I know, though, we’re all humans here (of course, on the Internet, nobody knows if any of you are dogs) so it’s worth marking the passage with a question of the day (followed by a late Christmas question): if you can travel in time, does putting right what you once did wrong get you off the hook?In Groundhog Day, for example, Bill Murray’s protagonist uses his time loop in multiple unethical ways, for example learning what a woman wants to hear, then using his know-how to seduce her. Because he learns better after endless looping, we’re supposed to overlook it. The female lead of 2015’s Project Almanac doesn’t: when she learns her boyfriend fixed a disastrous date by using their time machine for a do-over, she calls him out for manipulating her.

In Christmas Do-Over, as I mentioned recently, Jay Mohr is a jerk to his son and brushes it off — he’ll forget it when everything reboots, so bygones! I’m inclined to forgive Murray because his movie is funny, and not Mohr because his movie is anything but.

Some time-travel stories say no, correcting what you did isn’t an excuse. In VH1’s TV series Hindsight (2015) Becca (Laura Ramsey) gets thrown back 20 years to the day of her train-wreck first marriage. She calls off the wedding, quits the dead-end job she originally held for the next twenty years, then has to figure out what comes next. Eventually she meets her best friend Lolly’s (Sarah Goldberg) dream guy; in the old timeline Becca had a secret affair with him which cost her Lolly so this time she’s upfront about falling for the guy. Lolly, realizing the dude returns Becca’s feelings is fine with it … until she learns Original Becca wasn’t so honest. She storms out, leaving Becca in tears as the season (and as it turns out, the series) ends.

On the other hand, Broadway star Sheila Page (Joan Leslie) in Repeat Performance (1947) is willing to forgive her husband his affair if she can keep it from happening. Heck, she’s willing to forgive that right before the film opened, she had to shoot him dead in self-defense. It’s New Year’s Eve so Sheila staggers to a friend’s party to get some support while she calls the cops. As she walks there, she wishes that she could rewrite the past year, like a play that flopped in an out-of-town tryout … and when she arrives at the party, it’s Dec. 31 a year earlier.

Sheila doesn’t care that her husband’s an adulterer and attempted murderer: she knows what led him down that path and she’s going to see it doesn’t happen again. Everything will be fine, everything will be good, they’ll end the year still happy and in love … right? Needless to say it won’t be that easy, though it works out better than the William O’Farrell novel it’s based on (and it’s better viewing than the later TV-movie remake, Turn Back the Clock).

Repeaters (2010) puts the question front and center. One of the protagonists decides being stuck in a time loop means he has total freedom: kill people who piss him off, rape an underage girl, tomorrow it’ll never have happened, right? The other lead believes it’s worth doing the right thing, trying to save a suicide even though she’ll be attempting it again next iteration.

So I ask again: does undoing your wrong deeds wash you clean of sin?

The second question would have been better for Christmas Day but I thought of it too late. A friend of mine mentioned watching Violent Night (2022) on Facebook which prompted me to check it out Christmas Eve.

It’s one of those films in which the number of people on the Naughty list has turned Santa into a burnout case. His heart’s not in his Christmas Eve trip so when dropping off presents at billionaire Beverly D’Angelo’s compound he downs some booze, then takes a nap. By the time he wakes up, a criminal strike force has seized the building and taken the family captive in hopes of collecting D’Angelo’s $300 million slush fund. Not Santa’s problem — except there’s a pre-teen girl among the hostages and she’s solidly on the Nice list …

It’s a fun film though I doubt it’ll become one of my Christmas perennials. The reason I’m bringing it up is that my friend Jon Maki raised a question: how come none of the adults believe Santa’s real? Don’t they find it odd when they find a bunch of presents they didn’t buy around the tree on Christmas Day?

The movie sort of answers that by Santa saying most of his presents are for poor kids that don’t have anything — but then why is he stopping at the rich family’s compound? And this isn’t the only movie where this would be an issue: The Santa Clause, In the Nick of Time, Miracle on 34th Street and Arthur Christmas, among others, assume a real Santa in an unbelieving world. How exactly does that work without anyone catching on?

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