What Two Time-Jumping Movies Have to Say About the New Year (Commentary)

(Spoiler warning: Contains lots of plot twists about “Arrival and “Your Name”)

The New Year encourages us to reflect on the past 12 months and make plans and resolutions for the arrival of the year ahead. But this year — like every year — is full of distractions that make it hard to stay focused in the moment.

Two 2016 films, Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” and Makoto Shinkai’s Japanese anime blockbuster “Your Name,” had complex stories that examine modern communication and connectivity. Despite fantasy and sci-fi elements, both felt oddly relevant to the election. But what made them feel profound was how they used time-jumping narratives to consider life in the present.

Each has a mid-film twist in which a new timeline opens up a new realm of possibility. In “Arrival” we learn the main character Louise’s flashbacks are actually flashforwards, and her story comes into fuller focus. In “Your Name,” two teens who keep swapping bodies abandon their efforts to stop switching when they learn that their shared memories take place three years apart. They begin to focus on how to meet.

Both “Arrival” and “Your Name” use their twists not just as plot devices but also to deepen their meanings and themes. The characters have to jump through time to realize that they need to focus less on aliens and future threats, and more on themselves in the present.

“Arrival” in particular mirrors 2016 election anxiety around division and miscommunication, but everything in the film hinges on one woman’s life. We see Louise spending time with her daughter as she grows into a teenager. But everything changes when we realize her daughter hasn’t even been born.

The aliens don’t view time linearly, and they’ve gifted Louise with the ability to see into her future, to know that one day she’ll have a daughter and suffer a tragedy. The consequences of her life suddenly become clear. Louise becomes more concerned with the choices she’s making now, because she has the foresight to process her past and future clearly.

This is highly unusual for a sci-fi film, even one that plays with timelines and time travel. The ending of “12 Monkeys” makes you contemplate free will, but these larger ideas are secondary to the main emotional thrust of the story. “Back to the Future” could still be a movie about a kid learning to mature and grow up even if it had no time travel. Movies like “The Fountain” and “Cloud Atlas” only use multiple timelines as parable. The time travel in “Arrival” fundamentally changes our understanding of the story.

In “Your Name,” the leads, Mitsuha and Taki, must first overcome their shock at switching bodies with someone of the opposite gender. It’s a screwball fantasy until a simple phone call starts to erase the history they’ve shared.

As it turns out, Mitsuha and Taki are of the same world, but their shared memories arrive three years apart. In Mitsuha’s present, Taki hasn’t lived their time together yet. And in Taki’s present, Mitsuha has shockingly already passed away, killed in a massive meteor strike that annihilated an entire town. “Your Name” no longer takes an interest in wondering why these two teens switched places or how they might switch back. It’s only concerned with preserving the connections they’ve already formed.

Those familiar with Japanese anime know how typical body-swapping is in these stories, so by introducing a new element, Shinkai is toying not just with genre but with meaning. Suddenly the teens’ texts and notes start to vanish, their memories begin to fade, and the more they rush around, the more they forget their love. The drama and suspense comes from how they’ll find each other in the same present, not in what will happen to them later.

Louise asks near the end of “Arrival”: “If you could see your life from start to finish, would you change things?”

Watching these two films, you might make a New Year’s resolution to live life as it happens. Happy New Year.