Paradox and Self-Annihilation in Hot Tub Time Machine


After watching Hot Tub Time Machine, a raunchy, slightly funnier-than-average buddy comedy set against the backdrop of 80’s nostalgia, I left the theater with the peculiar feeling I always get after watching movies that involve time-travel.  It’s the peculiar feeling of asking myself “did what I just see make any sense whatsoever?”

As a bit of a time-travel aficionado, I’m always engaged by stories that utilize the trope to explore ideas of causality loops, paradox, pre-destination, and free will.  The best mind-bending time-travel movie in recent memory is called Primer, an independent film shot on a $7,000 budget, that presents a hyper-realistic and chaotic vision of time-travel so dense and confusing it has spawned flow-charts like this one, as audiences attempt to unravel the head-scratchingly dense plot.

Hot Tub Time Machine doesn’t spend much time questioning the inevitable paradoxes of time-travel all that deeply.  The movie takes the “inhabiting the body of your younger self” track of time-travel, as opposed to the “existing alongside your younger self as an older double” route that is more commonly seen in such thinking-man’s time-travel classics like Back to the Future and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.  What HTTM essentially does is give its characters a chance at a do-over, sending their 2010 mind-selves back into their 1986 body-selves and asking them “if you knew then what you know now, what choices would you make differently?” Certainly a question we’ve all asked ourselves at one time or another. But has anyone really stopped to think about the terrible consequences of such a do-over? Sure, the film engages in the standard blather about the notorious “butterfly effect” and warnings that changing the past could end up “making Hitler president” or even cause one of the lead characters to never have been born. But of course, all the light treading on history doesn’t last too long, as there wouldn’t be much of a movie without the characters taking advantage of their do-overs to try and change things for the better.

(Spoiler alert from here on out, although there is honestly nothing about the plot of HTTM that is in any way surprising or revelatory, and if you are actually worried about having the plot of a movie called Hot Tub Time Machine spoiled for you — well, you must be a blast at parties…)

In any case, the friends set about trying to better their timelines. Songs are plagiarized, bets are lost, forks are stabbed into eyes. Some things go better, some things go worse, and some things end up exactly the same way, with little rhyme or reason as to why. Rob Corddry’s character “Lou” is revealed to be the father of Clarke Duke’s character “Jacob” in a possibly juicy paradox, as it is never made clear whether Lou slept with Jacob’s mother the first time around, or if it was only this second go-round in which the fathered the boy.  Eventually, they all return (albeit not all of them by the same route) to the present, where everything has changed (surprise!) for the better.

Or has it? Upon even the most cursory investigation of the movie’s ending, things start to fall apart. This shouldn’t be too surprising, given that looking for internal consistency and scientific factuality in a movie called Hot Tub Time Machine is like trying to learn about physics from a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. But regardless, the investigation raises some fascinating time-travel questions.  So let’s get on with it, yes?

One of the biggest problems with the ending — outlined expertly by Christopher Campbell in his review of the film (which was also addressed in the hilarious open letter “To the Writers and Director of Hot Tub Time Machine, from a Physics Professor” – is that the three characters who return from the past to the “new and improved” future have no knowledge or memory of the 24 years between 1986 and 2010 that elapsed differently this time around.

While Lou stays behind in 1986, his son Jacob, John Cusack’s “Adam” and Craig Robinson’s “Nick” jump back into the hot tub and literally wake up to a brand new world.  It’s a world where Adam is married to a girl he met (to him) just once, Nick has a successful musical career that he never got to experience, and Jacob now has a wealthy, loving set of parents who probably gave him a much different childhood than the one he remembers.

As sad and problematic as this is for these original characters, I can’t help but wonder about the versions of themselves they were replacing. Let’s do a little thinking on this, shall we? We’ll just consider Nick for the sake of simplicity, but the concept applies to all three of the guys who didn’t stay behind. So “Old Nick” gets into the Hot Tub and is returned to the future, presumably leaving “Young Nick” behind to become a successful musician and producer, rip off the Black Eyed Peas, and stay friends with Adam and Lou.

Now the question must be raised as to whether “Young Nick” remembers anything that happened while “Old Nick” was occupying his body. There are two possibilities here. One is that he does remember everything that “Old Nick” did – from performing on stage to calling his 9-year-old wife-to-be — all of it.

This is problematic for a number of reasons that we’ll get into, but first let’s look at the second option – “Young Nick” wakes up in the Hot Tub, still in 1986, and doesn’t remember what happened with “Old Nick” occupying his body. He doesn’t remember killing it at the concert, and thus is still the shy and insecure guy who choked away his big chance the first time around. He certainly doesn’t remember “writing” a Black Eyed Peas song, and while his band might remember the chord changes, who is to say “Young Nick” was changed at all by an experience he can’t even remember?

But, because “Old Nick” returns to a world where “Young Nick” did go on to become rich and famous, we have to assume that “Young Nick” was somehow aware of what had happened while “Old Nick” occupied his body, at least enough to be changed by those events.

This creates a tragic conundrum, because the majority of what “Old Nick” was trying to do while in “Young Nick’s” body was get back to the present. This makes it incredibly likely that, for the rest of his life, “Young Nick” knows (if not literally, then at least subconsciously) that someday in 2010, he’s going to get into a hot tub, and somehow magically be replaced by a lesser version of himself, one who never accomplished anything close to what “Young Nick” was able to achieve.

Add to that the fact that Lou, who stayed behind in his young body (so there never was a “Young Lou” to worry about) probably had a hard time keeping quiet about the fact that his two best friends, “Young Adam” and “Young Nick” (and even his son, “Second Jacob”) were all living with expiration dates — due to be replaced by inferior versions of themselves at a predetermined time.

Talk about a mind-fuck.  That’s the kind of time travel movie I’d like to see — the story of “Young Nick” and “Young Adam,” growing up afraid of hot tubs, dreading that day in 2010 when through fate or destiny or who knows what, their existence would be snuffed out forever. Who knows if they even needed to be in the hot tub?  Maybe they just disappeared, poof?  Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide — your “Old Self” is coming to replace you, and there’s nothing you can do about it! Not exactly the formula for a raunchy buddy comedy, but maybe I can get an option for “Hot Tub Time Machine II:  Revenge of the Young”?


Rumpus original art by Lucas Adams.

Kevin Hobson is a writer of fiction, essays, nonfiction, songs, music reviews, and industrial copy about chocolate. His stories have appeared in several journals and magazines, most recently Instant City. His is also co-curator and co-editor of BANG OUT Reading Series and Online Journal. Kevin lives in San Francisco's Mission District, where he enjoys his chronic addictions to burritos and internet television. More from this author →