Hollywood Movies and Time Travel

Time travel movies annoy me.

They annoy me because they play dumb, refusing to consider any of the real-life consequences that would exist if such a thing as time travel were possible.  If time travel were really possible, the actual consequences for the present moment where someone travelled into the past would be devastating.  It's called the butterfly effect, and it suggests that if you go far enough back in time, a time traveller that killed a butterfly say a hundred thousand years ago, would cause such a ripple effect in time, that if they came back to their present, the world would be entirely different.

Consider a time traveller that goes back to the year 1950 and begins interacting with people, having just a five minute conversation.  This five minute conversation causes the person they were speaking with to now be shifted five minutes from where they otherwise would be.  This could change a person's entire day from what it used to be.  Because they're delayed by five minutes, they now miss running into that colleague in the hall and don't have the 15 minute conversation they would have had.  Because they don't have that conversation, they're now at their desk when the phone call comes through, which makes them spend ten minutes following-up on the phone call that previously they waited until the next day to deal with.  They now get in their car to go home at a different time and this added car to traffic has a ripple effect on every other car on the road - a small effect to be sure - but it causes other cars to get caught behind red lights, or to pause for a turn, small effects which stagger the days of hundreds of people by just seconds, seconds that end up having a multiplying effect as they now are on a different timetable for a whole litany of conversations, phone calls, and interactions with people that will, eventually, lead to vastly different life outcomes.

And these hundreds of people that were affected by traffic, they in turn now engage with hundreds of other people.  Maybe they arrive home just a minute later than normal but this means the ensuing conversation they were to have with their spouse now goes a bit differently, and the outcome of the conversation changes.

 Now their spouse is staggered from their original timeline.  And on and on it goes.  Most of these changes are benign.  But because this ripple effect continues exponentially, over days and weeks and months some of these changes are significant:  Arguments that did or didn't happen in this new timeline, meeting new people in this new timeline that previously they didn't, new interactions with people that previously weren't going to happen.  And the end product of all these human interactions sometime lead to huge changes:  Marriages, divorces, fights, career changes.  These bigger changes have a huge ripple effect.  Now children aren't born that otherwise would have been, which means the people they were going to marry now marry someone else.  Now someone else has that job, now someone else is at a newly created point in traffic and has an accident that kills them.

Small changes in time can entirely change the future.  A single time traveller going back to 1950 who does nothing important but nonetheless walks around in society and talks to people, could create such a ripple that when they returned to the present day, everything could be different:  The President could be different.

 If you go further back, tens of thousands of years and step on a butterfly, entire nations could no longer exist.

But most time travel movies suggest that nothing will be changed except those details that are relevant to the plot.  I'm thinking particularly of Star Trek IV, one of the worst time travel movies, where Kirk and company go back to the 1980s, and seemingly have no fear of their existence changing anything about the future.  In most time travel movies, characters can exist in the past without a worry.

One of the truly worst time travel movies is a Van Damme movie called TimeCop.  In this movie, bad guys have access to time travel and travel into the past to play the stock market, bet on baseball games, and never once does the film play with the idea that a villain might have had some significant effect on history - it's all just petty crimes.

When I analyzed bad time travel movies for my article on bad time travel movies, I realized that bad time travel movies are the ones where the films don't acknowledge anything special about time travel.  Time travel is just a plot point to put characters in a funny situation.  It's just a gimmick.

On the other hand, the best time travel movies are those that profess to take time travel seriously, and explain the rules for how time travel will exist within that particular world - and then they have fun screwing with the implications of time travel.

My favorite are the films that play with the idea of whether time is mutable or whether time can be changed.  In Looper, one of the characters goes back in time in an attempt to kill a child, a child that he knows will grow up to be an evil crime lord and cause the world much pain and heartache.  As it turns out, the film tells us, it's this very attempt on the child's life (an attempt that fails), which sends the otherwise sweet kid on a different track in life, a path that leads the kid to become...an evil crime lord!  The protagonist thinks time can be changed, but the film suggests that the script is already written, and even this character's trip to the past, was always how things had been.  (The film then has further fun by switching things around, and having a younger version of this same character - both at the same point in time (it's a complex film!) - commit suicide, so that the older version suddenly disappears, because his younger self is now dead, so he can never grow to be old.  And if he's dead, he can't try and kill the child, which means the little boy won't grow up to become an evil crime lord.  Maybe, time can be changed after all?

Other films that had fun playing with the difference between a time stream that is either changeable or not changeable are 12 Monkeys and the original Terminator.  In The Terminator, in a dystopian future a man named John Connor sends a soldier named Kyle Reese back in time to protect his own mother from a cyborg, also sent back in time, who is trying to kill her.

 In the future, humans have been hunted almost to extinction by a computer network named Skynet, which has in its employ, many killer cyborgs called Terminators.  John Connor is on the verge of destroying Skynet, which, as a last ditch hail mary, sends a Terminator back in time to kill John Connor's mother so that he can never be born.  When Kyle Reese goes back in time, he ends up falling in love with John Connor's mother and impregnanting her.  Their child?  John Connor.

Of course, even time clever films like The Terminator and 12 Monkeys are guilty of another mortal sin that annoys me to no end:  Using time machines as if they can also move characters geographically across space.  In the time ugly TimeCop, a character is in the future at Location A in the time machine, and then appears in the past, not at location A (only in the past), but is suddenly in the past in New York City, or in the past in the Appalachian mountains.  Unfortunately, in 12 Monkeys - a film that is otherwise one of the good time travel films - Cole, the protagonist, appears and disappears randomly from different locations, as if the time machine wasn't just bending time, but also space.

In summary:  A note to Hollywood.  If you're going to make a time travel movie, take the idea seriously, and have fun with time travel, but make sure you treat time travel with respect.  And please, don't treat time machines as if they're also taxis able to move characters around to different locations...unless, of course, your time machine is a Delorean.