Andy's Anachronisms
Time Travel Film Reviews

Retroactive - Poster
Retroactive (1997)
"On a lonely Texas road, time, space and murder are about to collide"
Directed by Louis Morneau


Warning: May contain some spoilers

Karen (Kylie Travis) is a psychiatrist working with the Chicago Police Department. After she is involved in a botched hostage negotiation that leaves several of the hostages dead, she heads for Texas and her childhood home to rethink her career choice. On the trip through Texas her car breaks down and she is picked up by Frank (James Belushi) and his wife Rayanne (Shannon Whirry).

Frank is a loud-mouthed short-tempered thief, who moments earlier received some stolen computer chips is on his way to meet his contact and exchange the goods. Frank’s wife Rayanne, is a timid women obviously afraid of her husband’s temper. It is soon revealed Rayanne may be cheating on him and Frank snaps killing his wife in the process.

Witness to this crime and nearly a victim herself, Karen flees into the desert with Frank in pursuit. Karen stumbles upon a government lab where she is rescued by the sole occupant of the lab, a young scientist Brian (Frank Whaley) who is attempting to perfect his time travel experiments using the government particle accelerator. During the initial confusion of Karen bursting into the lab and Brian attempting to contact the police Karen is accidentally sent back ten minutes into the past. She finds herself in the back seat of Frank’s car not long after Frank and Rayanne picked her up. Karen soon realizes what is about to happen again for a second time and takes steps to prevent Rayanne’s murder. However Karen Discovers that changing the past is not easy and her well meaning intervention leaves a higher body count than the first time around. The process repeats itself several more times each trip to the past has even more disastrous results than the previous. Review

You have to wonder how bad a movie is going to be when its tagged as straight to video. I went into this movie expecting the worst, but was pleasantly surprised by some aspects of it. While the plot is implausible to say the least, it suffices in setting up all the elements necessary for the premise to succeed. What I found most enjoyable about this movie, from a time-travel perspective, is that even knowing what is about to happened doesn’t necessarily mean that the outcome will be any better.

If I may digress for a moment, I enjoy playing a computer strategy game called Civilization II, whose basic premise is that you nurture a civilization while trying to keep from getting creamed by other civilizations that may be bigger, or smarter than you. A friend of mine who also enjoys playing this game has a unique way of cheating, he saves his game after every turn and if the outcome of his turn or his opponents are unfavourable, he reloads the game and tries again. This form of time travel, while useful to a certain extent, become rather pointless at some level. I’ve found that even if you succeed in diffusing one situation in the game by going back to an earlier juncture its quite possible to make matters worse in other areas. I often shrug my shoulders after a disastrous outcome and move on dealing with the events at hand.

What has this to do with the movie Retroactive? Well, everything and nothing. I feel my example parallels Karen’s naive and misguided attempt to use time-travel to set things straight and that the results were often worse than had she left things to play out themselves. I realize that her motivation was to redeem herself for the botched hostage negotiations in Chicago, but that said it could have been equally motivation enough for her to keep her nose out of Frank and Rayanne’s situation.

Retroactive, while scoring several points for showing a past that’s not easy to set right and even easier to make worse, lost some points in my opinion for its muddled explanation of time-travel in operation.

Unlike many time-travel stories the time-travelers in Retroactive do not return to the future via a time machine but rather relive the time and in theory catch up to the future on their own time. This however suggests an alternate/parallel universe theory that I have problems with in this context.

One view of the alternate universe theory is that different outcomes of an event or events can produce unique timelines. Whether these alternate timelines co-exist naturally with our own reality or whether they are manufactured by meddling time-travelers is another issue. One view of this theory says if it were possible to travel back to your own time after the new outcome (how you can distinguish between the two is another matter), the new changes may not have happened to your own timeline, but rather the alternate time line that you created. Conversely the changes may have completely affected your timeline and only you are aware of the changes. Either view of the alternate theory leaves unanswered questions for this movie. Since Karen leaves the present and returns to the past, what happens to the present? My interpretation of the events in the movie is that Karen leaves the present (her first reality) and ventures into the past where she creates an alternate universe for herself, where new events unfold. The first reality she left behind continues along without her. Each subsequent trip to the past leaves that universe void of her and creates an alternate one. This becomes rather complicated at one point of the movie when characters other than Karen travel to the past to change the events, in this instance I would suggest we have lost track of the original Karen and are now following one of her selves from the previous alternate universe.

The other possible explanation, which I find difficult to reconcile is that by traveling back 10 or 20 minutes into the past to relive the events has erased the present with the new set of events. I believe that this is what the movie may actually be trying to suggest, but logically doesn’t seem to have any basis. Why would everyone cease to exist, simply because one person left the timeline and traveled backwards in time? Once Karen zaps into the past, is Frank still not pounding on the door of the lab trying to get in?

I’d be interested in hearing other opinions on the use of time travel in this movie. I'm still divided on whether it makes sense or not. Regardless I found it to be a fun ride, with some interesting takes on how having 20/20 hindsight doesn't mean you can easily fix the past.

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