ALL-TIME BOX OFFICE (by dollars)

The charts below show the top ten movies of  All-Time Box Office, as they would have been calculated at the end of each calendar year.

The dollar amounts are for domestic gross only. (U.S. and Canada) Many high-ranking films have been released multiple times over the past century, and the dollar amounts reflect that.

Dollar amounts for many earlier films are estimated due to missing or inexact data.

Follow this link to see the adjusted all-time box office record tables.

Ten different films have held the #1 spot:

The Birth of a Nation (1919-1939)
Gone with the Wind (1940-1955; 1967-1975)
The Ten Commandments (1956-1964)
The Sound of Music (1965-1966)
Jaws (1975-1977)
Star Wars (1978-1981; 1997)
E.T. (1982-1996)
Titanic (1998-2009)
Avatar (2010-2015)
The Force Awakens (2016-Present)

Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies (1963) dir. Peter Brook 

Lord of the Flies is a rebuke to Rosseau and anarchy, but it is no paean to civilization.  Peter Brook’s 1963 adaptation brings this into further clarity.

The opening credits use photos of nuclear missiles, and the film omits sidebars such as Roger’s early inability to toss rocks at other boys.

I believed that the reason for translating Golding’s very complete masterpiece into another form in the first place was that although the cinema lessens the magic, it introduces evidence.

The book is a beautiful fable—so beautiful that it can be refuted as a trick of compelling poetic style. In the film no one can attribute the looks and gestures to tricks of direction. The violent gestures, the look of greed, and the faces of experience are all real. – Peter Brook

 Lord of the Flies - Hugh Edwards

Lord of the Flies is largely an anti-utopia, with its target being the 1857 adventure novel The Coral Island, referenced itself in the text.  The ability of boys to live among each other peacefully may have seemed somewhat realistic during Pax Britannica.  The 20th Century however, demonstrated that even Piggy has a heart of darkness.  What else but Western empiricism could produce Marxism, Zyklon-B and the hydrogen bomb?

…adult life appears, dignified and capable, but in reality enmeshed in the same evil as the symbolic life of the children on the island.  The officer, having interrupted a man-hunt, prepares to take the children off the island in a cruiser which will presently be hunting its enemy in the same implacable way.  And who will rescue the adult and his cruiser? – William Golding

La Jetée

La Jetée (1962) dir. Chris Marker

Time travel is a popular device among sci-fi writers, and have often provided a glance at possible utopias and dystopias.

Throughout the history of film and literature, only a tiny number of works on time travel have attempted to portray a realistic outcome.  La Jetée is one, and derives its power from its crushing logic.

The Block Model

It seems useful to imagine time as a 4th dimension.  So if Davos is in Paris in 1962, we can describe his latitude, longitude, altitude and year as (+48.86, +2.35, 130, 1962).

We are all moving through the 4th dimension, but only in 1 direction and it is difficult for us to significantly increase our relative speed.  Causality seems to hold up in all circumstances thus far tested.  What I do at (+48.86, +2.35, 130, 2010.8) will affect (+48.86, +2.35, 130, 2010.9), similar to how adjacent events and objects along the X, Y and Z axes affect each other.

In La Jetée, Davos is a child on the pier at (+48.86, +2.35, 130, 1962.0) where he sees the woman and sees a man killed.  War breaks out, and he is a prisoner underground at (+48.86, +2.35, 130, 1982.1).  Through the experiments, he jumps back in time to (+48.86, +2.35, 130, 1960.8).  Then, he travels to (+48.86, +2.35, 130, 2101.5) to visit the advanced humans.

The 2101 Parisians are reluctant to help the 1982 Parisians.  But, Davos reminds them that “because humanity had survived, it could not refuse to its own past the means of its survival.”

Davos is technically wrong, but he is basically right.  The fact that humans exist in 2101 proves that they do not go extinct before that date.  It doesn’t matter why they don’t go extinct – we just know for a fact that they don’t.

(It does seem to create a closed time loop.  They seem weird, but as long as they’re consistent, they’re not any weirder than the closed loop of existence itself.)

Davos then brings the new energy core to (+48.86, +2.35, 130, 1982.1) and is sent to (+48.86, +2.35, 130, 1960.0) as an adult, where his child self sees his adult self killed.

The narrative problem with this block model is that it appears to be a fatalistic world.  “There was no escape from time.”

You can’t go back in time and kill Baby Hitler.  You can try, but we already know you fail.  If you succeeded, the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened, but we know it did.  Furthermore, you wouldn’t have reason to go and kill Baby Hitler anyway.

 Time Travel - Single Universe, Block Model

The anxiety time travel movie characters have about “changing the past” or running into their past selves is ridiculous, especially in a block model.  We already know you didn’t change the past.  And if you ran into your past self, you’d already know about it.  You don’t have to worry about accidentally killing your infant grandfather, because there’s no way you did so.

Personally, I don’t think that foreknowledge changes anything about the determinism v. free will argument, but that’s far from a settled philosophical question.

Anyway, it’s not a relevant one.  In a block model time travel movie, the problem isn’t that the characters know what’s about to happen, but that the audience does.  Greek tragedy doesn’t play well to modern Americans.

The 5th Dimensional Model

Time travel fiction typically avoids fate by introducing a 5th dimension.  Alternate, parallel universes or histories exist.

Easy enough to imagine.  A mainstream interpretation of quantum physics suggests that an infinite number of alternate universes or timelines exist, each with one of an infinite number of permutations.

The time machine doesn’t just travel along the 4th dimension, but along the 5th as well.  Personally, I find this to be a much more impressive technological feat than time travel, but most fiction doesn’t dwell on this aspect.

So, let’s say I am an Austrian, living in 2010, in our own alternate reality.  My coordinates could be (+48.15, +13.20, 351, 2010.8, 1).  I decide to go back in time to kill Baby Hitler.  I hop in my machine, and visit (+48.15, +13.20, 351, 1889.3, 2).

I snatch little Adolf from his mother’s arms and toss him in the river.  Job done, I hop back in my machine.  What have I accomplished?

 Time Travel - Infinite Universes - first two

In universe 1, Hitler grew up to lead the Nazi Party and cause the Holocaust.  I accomplished nothing.  The 12 million universe 1 people still died.

In universe 2, I did save millions of lives.  But if we’re talking infinite universes here, I’m not sure I ‘changed’ anything either.  Universe 2 was/is/will be always only one of the trillions of infinite universes along the 5th dimensional axis where the Holocaust didn’t happen.  If every possibility exists, there’s no possibility to change any one possibility.

Our choices in this infinite universe model don’t change the world – they simply reflect whichever world we happen to live in.

 Time Travel - Infinite Universes

Its really just the block model with a whole bunch of blocks.  The activity of travel between different universe blocks only increases the number of permutations in an already infinite set.

From a practical narrative standpoint, what coordinates do I set my machine to after drowning Baby Hitler?  At (+48.15, +13.20, 351, 2010.81, 1), there will still be a Holocaust Museum.  At (+48.15, +13.20, 351, 2010.81, 2) the me born in universe 2 will co-exist.

Ignoring It All

The overwhelming majority of popular time travel fiction – Back to the Future, Primer, etc. – doesn’t follow either model.  Or rather, it follows both models.

Sometimes time travel exists in the same universe, and Marty can co-exist with himself.  Other times, time travel brings Marty to a different dimension, where he has “changed the past,” relative to his memory.  These instances are especially odd, because universe 2 Marty mysteriously disappears just before universe 1 Marty shows up.

Here’s a link to a descriptive model made by a fan of Primer.

We’ve got 9 different universes on the 5th axis, and you may notice some rather odd things.  Sometimes time travel brings you along the same universe, and other times it doesn’t.

Time travel is the least of the things this accidental device can accomplish.  Entire universes are occasionally created ex nihilo, depending on nothing other than whether the plot requires it or not.  Peoples’ memories are patched over onto new-universe clones, in an Omphalos-style creation.  Randomly, Aaron and Abe were sometimes born in these new universes, and sometimes they were not, but everyone acts like they were anyway.

Most popular time travel fiction simply doesn’t make sense.

 Time Travel - plot driven model

Now, there’s no need to get pedantic about it.  The rules don’t really apply to fantasy like Groundhog Day or A Christmas Carol, and soft sci-fi like Back to the Future aren’t intended to pass logical rigor.

Ellen Page and Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception

Ellen Page and Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception

Inception (2010) – dir. Christopher Nolan

Inception‘s ambiguous ending and plot has garnered an endless number of interpretations and debates.  Cobb has systems and methods of discovering when he’s in a dream and who’s dream he’s in at any given time, but these methods ultimately fail both him and us. How do we know we’re in the “real reality” and not in a dreamlike state, in someone else’s dream, in Tommy Westphall’s snow globe, in The Matrix, a brain in a vat, in Plato’s Cave, on The Truman Show or creations in The Sims 12?  As Nolan demonstrates in Inception, we can’t.

Last month, director Errol Morris wrote a New York Times series on ‘The Anosognosic’s Dilemma.’  It’s about Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns.”  We simply don’t know when we don’t know the limits of our own knowledge, either individually or collectively.

We can’t not even know if our senses are interacting with reality or not – we can’t be completely certain about anything.

Notebook from the film 1984

An extreme example I enjoy is from dystopian literature.  Dostoevsky’s underground man can’t make 2 + 2 = 5.  Winston Smith manages to believe it after torture, but I can’t wrap my head around it.  However, simply because I can’t conceive of a universe where 2 + 2 = 5, that doesn’t mean I can’t conceive of the possibility of a universe where it does.  Perhaps 2 + 2 has always = 5, and we humans just have faulty, pitiful brains that trick us into making basic mathematical errors, and we can’t even realize that we’re wrong.

Most simply, the fallibility of human methods of knowledge can be cast as the Münchhausen Trilemma.  When we attempt to prove something, we fall into one of three patterns:

  1. The circular argument, in which theory and proof support each other (e.g. we repeat ourselves at some point)

  2. The regressive argument, in which each proof requires a further proof (e.g. we just keep giving proofs, presumably forever)

  3. The axiomatic argument, which rests on accepted precepts (e.g. we reach some bedrock assumption or certainty)

Let’s try it out with Inception:

1. The thimble tells Cobb he’s in his own dream because it continues to spin when he dreams.  He knows it stops spinning when he’s in reality, because each time he’s been in reality, it’s stopped spinning.  He knows he was in reality each time it stopped spinning because when Cobb is in his own dream, it continues to spin.

2. The thimble tells Cobb he’s in his own dream because it continues to spin when he dreams.  He knows it stops spinning when he’s in reality, because the laws of physics function in reality whereas they do not always do so in his dreams.  He knows the laws of physics function in reality because of decades of observation of reality.  He knows his observations of reality were accurate because… (continue ad infinitum)

3. The thimble tells Cobb he’s in his own dream because the thimble system is a properly basic belief and just self-evident, dammit.

We’re simply not able to explain beliefs without referencing other beliefs.  It’s like trying to write a dictionary without using words.

The spinning thimble in Inception

It seems perfectly reasonable to go along with the game and act as if we’re in reality and not a dream, and it seems rather difficult not to use human reasoning on at least an occasional basis.  But the fallibility Inception reminds us of might lead to some epistemic humility.