After watching X-Men: Days of Future Past, I began to revisit the Terminator series to understand its puzzling depiction of traveling through time. I came up with an alternate ending for the first entry in that series that led me to think that it’s all a giant temporal loop. Or, to steal a quote, “time is a flat circle”. Predestination paradoxes are a go-to section when filmmakers incorporate time-travel aspects in their stories. It’s gotten so rampant that it now qualifies as a deus ex machina device: Explaining everything without explaining anything. But there are plenty time-travel movies that have no reliance on that plot device and actually make sense all the way through. For all of the movies below, movement through space plus movement through time equals the speed of light.
Back to the Future: This trilogy’s depiction of time-travel is in the form of a modified DeLorean. A specific date and time is set by the driver. Once the driver reaches 88 miles per hour in the DeLorean, the flux capacitator (which makes time-travel possible) is activated and allows the massive object to move through time to the pre-set coordinates. To apply a metaphor, this series depicts space-time as a river that flows in only one direction: Forward. If you go in the opposite direction of the river and throw a rock in it at certain point, a ripple effect is created (depending on the mass of the rock) that changes its flow, but not the direction. In this series, present and future events are altered due to new events introduced in the past. Marty McFly from 1985 travels to 1955 and when his presence nearly keeps his parents from meeting, he begins to fade from existence as a result. Eventually, he ensured his existence by convincing his parents’ younger selves that they belong together. Returning to 1985, he finds that his parents are more assertive and successful. After the DeLorean was stolen in the second film and used to alter the past (again in 1955) to make Biff Tannen wealthy and powerful, the change altered Marty’s present-day 1985 for the worse. Him, Emmett Brown, his girlfriend Jennifer and pet-dog Einstein were not affected because they existed outside of time when the change was made. Eventually, the proper 1985 was restored when Marty prevented 1955’s Biff Tannen from ever using the sports almanac that made him a rich man in the alternate 1985.
In this series, time is simplified as a straight line going forward. It has zero reliance on predestination or parallel timelines.
Terminator Series: This series now screams “never-ending loop”, an assessment that the third entry in this series established and pretty much invalidated anything portrayed in the second entry. In the original history, a computer company named Cyberdyne Systems creates an artificial intelligence for the U.S. government to be used in place of the US Defense Department. The A.I. (called SkyNet) began learning at a geometric rate and determines that all of humanity is bad and a threat. Launching American missiles against targets in the former Soviet Union in 1997 created a worldwide nuclear holocaust resulting in the deaths of over three billion humans. SkyNet creates cyborgs, aerial/all terrain vehicles to exterminate the remaining humans. The human resistance, led by John Connor, fights back against SkyNet and destroys its defense grid. That should’ve ended the war, but SkyNet prepared for this contingency by creating a time-travel device. Its logic was that killing John Connor in the present would make no difference, but erasing his entire existence would. SkyNet sent a total of three human-looking cyborgs called Terminators back into the past to kill Connor at various stages in his life, from when he was nothing more than an itch-in-his-daddy’s-pants to adulthood. Each time, the Terminators failed partly because the future John Connor sent warriors into the past to protect his younger selves. The third film established and depicted the inevitable holocaust that SkyNet would bring about. The first film ended when Jon’s mother, Sarah, smashed the Terminator sent to kill her in the year 1984. Cyberdyne found the remains of that Terminator and reverse-engineered the technology that would eventually lead to SkyNet. Future John sent one of his soldiers (Kyle Reese) back in time to protect Sarah. Reese died protecting Sarah, but not before impregnating her. In a way, Connor and SkyNet sending their agents back in time to 1984 to get destroyed ensured their own existence. In the second film, John, Sarah and another Terminator (acting as a protector for the pre-adolescent John) destroyed all of Cyberdyne’s research. By the third film, we learned that the U.S. government had back-up copies of Cyberdyne’s research and advanced SkyNet much later than in the original history, but the outcome was still the same. The series relies on both predestination and parallel timelines, but think of this: What if the Terminator in the first film succeeded in its mission? If it had killed Sarah Connor, not only would John be erased from existence, but so would the Terminator. It never would’ve gotten smashed in a hydraulic press, so its remnants would never be found by Cyberdyne, and they wouldn’t have created SkyNet, which sent the Terminator back in time in the first place. It would’ve caused a paradox that would erase the future timeline and would result in Sarah Connor being alive again as she could not have been killed by a non-existent Terminator. Kyle Reese also wouldn’t have gone back in time to impregnate Sarah, so John wouldn’t exist in this case either.
Every time SkyNet or John sends one of their agents into the past, nothing is changed. Their actions just create timelines that run parallel to each other, but all tie into the same circle. It’s all a giant time loop, everything we’ve seen in the Terminator films will happen over and over again.
Source Code: This one is more like Quantum Leap meets Groundhog Day: Astral time-travel repeated until the mission is completed. Colter Stevens was a decorated US Army helicopter Captain. Reportedly killed during combat in Afghanistan, his remnants were appropriated by the United States Air Force and he was kept on life support. Because of the extent of his injuries and the damage to his brain, scientists determined that Capt. Stevens was the most viable candidate for a classified experimental computer program called “Source Code”. Source Code basically projects the consciousness of comatose individuals into the past of parallel timelines:
The brain has an electromagnetic field that remains charged, just briefly, even after death. Circuits remain open. The brain also contains a short term memory track that’s approximately eight minutes long. It records the last eight minutes of an individual’s total experience. In combining these two phenomena, circuitry that remains viable post-mortem and a memory bank that goes back eight minutes, Source Code capitalizes on the overlap. By pinpointing to a specific location in the past, Source Code projects the user’s consciousness over that of a compatible individual’s (compatibility in terms of gender, body size and synaptic maps), enabling the user to occupy his temporal counterpart’s body for their final eight minutes. Once that duration expires, the user’s consciousness occupies an intermediary space. The scientists have connected the user’s partially active brain to machines for communication, deployment into Source Code, and mental conditioning.
Because Capt. Stevens’ body is severely mutilated and his brain barely has awareness, his mind projects the intermediary space as a cockpit (he also perceives his body as whole, not maimed). To further explain, his mind is interpreting both his last fully conscious experience (in the cockpit of the helicopter right before and during his crash) combined with the deteriorating state of his body as it actually is and where it actually is (in a life support chamber). Since Capt. Stevens’ subconscious mentally “shapes” the intermediary space as a mix of both a damaged helicopter cockpit and the life-support containment pod that his physical body actually in, it is indicative that his brain still possesses some level of sensory awareness. His last conscious memory (the helicopter crash), combined with the meager sensory input about his current environment, are his subconscious’ method of helping him cope with all that is happening to him. The cockpit’s leaking fluids, temperature fluctuations and such reflect the occurrences with his real body and bodily fluids and physical states, and how his brain is interpreting those based on his sensory input.
Both this film, and The Butterfly Effect below, depict astral time-travel: Projecting minds backwards through time to inhabit certain bodies in the past of real or parallel timelines. Astral forms are not composed of mass, and the rules of the physical universe are different for both massive and massless quantities. Massless particles move at an unalterable speed of light. Movement doesn’t change their speed, because they have no mass that drags. So light and related energies are constantly time traveling, because they’re moving through space at a different rate of time than that of massive objects (like people or a flying DeLorean).
The Butterfly Effect: Evan Treborn and his father both possess the power of astral time-travel. Evan suffered from blackouts during his childhood and kept a journal of his daily life until the blackouts ceased in his young adulthood. As a college student, he read one of his old journals and discovered he could time-travel by focusing on the events described therein. When he travels to the past, he’s occupying his younger self’s body during a blackout (it’s implied that his blackouts were caused by his future self, which kind of makes it predestination). His aim was to change the past to make for a better future for him and his friends, but in every case where he changed an event, somebody (even himself) had to lose. What’s more is that every change he made caused his memories to change to adjust to the new temporal event sequence he created, causing him massive migraines and nose-bleeding. Eventually, he altered his timeline so much that he had no journals to use as a focus for his astral time-travel. By focusing on home movies instead, he was able to rewrite history for himself for good once and for all.
Clockstoppers: This film kind of made me wonder if super-speed is a form of time-travel. In the film, that idea is implemented with a device called Hypertime. Any person wearing the Hypertime has his/her own personal timeframe rapidly accelerated. They would be moving so fast that they perceive other people or objects as moving very slowly or at a stand-still. We’ve seen a similar occurrence recently in X-Men: Days of Future Past with the character of Quicksilver and how he perceives the world because of his speeding ability. In Einsteinian physics, time dilation at relativistic speeds comprises a large portion of it. As previously stated, for any given object, its movement through space plus its movement through time are equal to the speed of light (186,000 miles per second). If an object is traveling through space at 100 miles per hour, it must be progressing through time at an equally reduced speed in order to balance the equation. Traveling through space at nearly the speed of light will reduce movement through time (aging) to less than a crawl.