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Time Travel in the Movies

Why Hollywood Can’t Get it Right

I am a science fiction fan. I have been one for as long as I can remember. I have read tons of science fiction books from famous authors such as Ray Bradbury and George Orwell to authors whose names I will likely never recall. Science fiction movies and television shows have dominated my viewing habits since childhood. To say that I consider myself somewhat of an aficionado of sorts would be an understatement.

I am writing a series of articles dealing with some of my favorite sci-fi topics. The first is something that bugs me to no end: why can’t the movie-makers ever get time-travel and temporal anomalies right in their movies? When you think of any movie that deals with the space-time continuum, you will inevitably find something in the movie that makes you say “huh, no wait…how”. There is a reason for this.

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Let’s pretend for the balance of this article that we have been able to crack the time-travel puzzle (backward time travel) and we have found a way to travel forward or backward in time to any point that we like. This has been the source of many sci-fi books and movies, but to my great disappointment, none of them ever get it quite right. Let me start with a really simple example. I watched with some great amusement the movie Meet the Robinsons (Disney, 2007). I really enjoyed this movie for its entertainment value for my kids. Once it was over, though, I felt it necessary to point out a couple of things to my daughter (age 12). It went something like this:

Me: “Hon, you know that this movie had a lot of flaws to it don’t you?”

Her: “No, Daddy. Like what?”

Me: “Well, if the little kid was actually the dad in the future and he had traveled to the future with his future son, then why would he be surprised when he came home to find the garage door open?”

Her: “Yeah, wait, huh?”

Me: “If he, the little kid, was the dad, wouldn’t he know that on this date, his son would take the space car that he, the little kid, invented back to the past and that when he did so, he would leave the garage door open?”

Her: “Uh, yeah, I guess…”

Me: “Then, why would he be surprised to find the door open and the time machine gone?”

Her: “Uh, yeah, that’s right.”

Now, when you can get that from a 12 year old, you have to be on the right track. As simple as that little oversight was, it demonstrated just how difficult it is for any movie to get this thing right.

My all-time favorite time-travel-mistake-ridden movie is The Terminator and the whole Terminator series. I know this is dangerous territory because it is such a beloved movie with a beloved hero (The Great Arnold). Consider, though, the premise of the movie. In the future, machines have successfully solved the puzzle of time travel and have sent back in time a machine to assassinate the mom (Sara) of the leader of the revolution against them. Sara, however, is able to ward off the attack and destroy the first terminator. She then goes on to live off of the grid until she is imprisoned as this mentally insane person because no one believes what she is trying to tell them, although you have to wonder what they thought of the remains of the terminator.

Okay, first question: if Sara defeated the terminator and its mission indeed failed, exactly how long would it take the machines in the future to realize the failure? Think about it for a moment. That’s right, they would know it instantly! “What, no wait, huh?” Seriously, if they sent someone into the past to assassinate someone, they would know it immediately because in their world, that person would be dead and there would suddenly be a record or history that states that this person is dead, right?

That brings me to my second question: if this is the case, why wouldn’t they immediately send another machine, then another to the same point in time until they were successful. Sara had so much trouble with the first, imagine if another one suddenly popped up just as she finished off the first. Better yet, since time travel isn’t linear (meaning that just because they went to a certain point in the past that they can’t return to that same point), why not send it to the exact same time as the first so that she has to battle two or even three at once? Perhaps the movie would have been too short if they had taken this approach.

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Want another question: what would have happened if the Terminator had actually succeeded? How would they (future robots) know that they succeeded? After all, they would have stopped John, the leader they wanted to kill, from ever being born. This means that he would never have existed in the first place for them to send someone back in time to destroy him. Indeed, there would never have been a need for the mission, right? Let that marinate for a moment.

So, what is the solution? Well, in the perfect time travel movie, one in which someone travels backward and forward through time and space, the answer is that the traveler could never truly change the future. The traveler would absolutely have to become a part of the past and his or her actions would be a part of everything that happened in the past. There is simply no way around this, because, as the saying goes, you cannot “un-ring the bell”. You cannot change the future; you can only become a part of it. Some of the time-paradox TV shows and films attempt to incorporate this principle, but most of them go for the glamorized notion that you can change the future by going back into the past. This is a fun, but flawed notion. I believe that one of the movies that did it best wasn’t a “time-travel” movie in-so-much as a “temporal” movie. This was Premonition (2007, Columbia) with Sandra Bullock. In this movie, Ms. Bullock’s character husband is killed in a car wreck one day, but Ms. Bullock finds that he is alive in the next. The chain of events that follows is such that Ms. Bullock does everything that she can to try to prevent the tragedy. The irony of it is that no matter what she did, she actually contributed to the course of the outcome. In the end, she actually caused her husband’s death by trying to save him. How’s that for irony?

It is certainly more fun to watch the Terminator come back from the future into various points of our timeline to wreak havoc and destruction than to see them accomplish their mission in a five minute film, isn’t it? Or, perhaps it would have been kind of interesting to see what would have happened to the actual future should the robots have succeeded. Personally, I would love to see that movie, wouldn’t you?

Why Hollywood Can't Get it Right I am a science fiction fan. I have been one for as long as I can remember. I have read tons of science fiction books from famous authors such as Ray Bradbury and George Orwell to authors whose names I will likely never recall. Science fiction movies and television shows have dominated my viewing habits since childhood. To say that I consider myself somewhat of an aficionado of sorts would be an understatement. I am writing a series of articles dealing with some of my favorite sci-fi topics. The first is something that bugs…

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Time Travel in the Movies - 87%

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I am a science fiction fan. I have been one for as long as I can remember. I have read tons of science fiction books from famous authors such as Ray Bradbury and George Orwell to authors whose names I will likely never recall. Science fiction movies and television shows have dominated my viewing habits since childhood. To say that I consider myself somewhat of an aficionado of sorts would be an understatement.

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