Have you ever watched a movie about time travel and felt even more confused as the credits roll? Trust me, you're not the only one. The concept of time travel has existed for centuries, but it's become an even more prominent theme in cinema as of late. Why? Well, who wouldn't love to travel back in time and right a wrong? Who wouldn't want to stop a catastrophic event from ever happening? That's why we love watching time travel movies so much — because we get to escape into a world where traveling to the past or future is actually possible.
As a plot device, time travel can be incredibly confusing, extremely exhausting and difficult to keep up with. But fear not, my fellow moviegoers, I'm here to explain some of the paradoxes that our favorite time travelers have created through the exploitation of their timelines, as well as pointing out a few of the complicated plot holes and paradoxes time travelers often find themselves tangled in.
While there are other time traveling paradoxes, for the sake of brevity — and my own sanity — I will be discussing the two that are most commonly used in film.
The Grandfather Paradox
The grandfather paradox stems from the idea that if you were to go back in time and murder your grandfather, would this prevent you from ever being born, thus erasing your existence from the timeline? It's contradictory in itself. If you were able to kill your grandfather then you were obviously born, but by committing the act of murder upon your grandfather you are preventing yourself from being born. This unexplainable contradiction definitely falls into the category of a paradox.
If you've seen Back to the Future, then you may have figured out that this franchise uses the grandfather paradox. Marty McFly travels back in time and accidentally prevents his parents from meeting — in doing so, he runs the risk of erasing himself from existence.
The film suddenly changes gears and becomes less about getting back to present day and more about ensuring his parents get together as it becomes clear that he is beginning to fade from existence.
This is largely paradoxical; think about it for a second: Marty was only able to travel back in time because he exists in the present, but if he erases himself from the timeline then how would he have ever been born to time travel in the first place? Pretty confusing stuff, I know, but bear with me.
Another example of the grandfather paradox is seen in the 2001 romantic comedy Kate & Leopold, where the Duke of Albany, Leopold, time travels from 1876 to modern day New York. This fictionalized version of Leopold is credited as the inventor of the elevator, and thus when he arrives in the New York of today, the elevators stop working. Leopold soon realizes that if he doesn't return to his 1876 then he will never have been able to invent the elevator — the grandfather paradox.
As I understand it, filmmakers make no attempt to solve the paradox caused in Back to the Future; it is very much left up to the viewer to decipher. The paradox is shrouded in ambiguity, but perhaps this is deliberate. Perhaps the paradox is metaphorically representative of the timeline in the film; some things just shouldn't be messed with and exploring them can lead to problems. Kate & Leopold makes an attempt to uncover the paradoxes (the film explores several paradoxes) as fate. This allows us as viewers to almost forgive all the confusion because these events were always meant to happen. It's fate, and we shouldn't mess with fate, right?
The Predestination Paradox
The predestination paradox is the other temporal oddity that is often explored in film. This paradox stems from the idea that a past event motivates you to time travel back in time, only to discover you're presence in the past is directly linked to the event that made you want to travel back in the first place. The paradoxical element comes from the fact that in your attempt to prevent an event, you are actually causing this event and are therefore destined to repeat it over and over again.
The primary film example of the predestination paradox is the 1984 sci-fi classic The Terminator. John Connor is the leader in a war against the machines, and they are near victory. However, the machines know that they are about to lose and send a Terminator back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor — John's mother —before John is conceived. In retaliation, John sends back his best soldier Kyle Reese to protect Sarah. After traveling back to 1984, Kyle falls in love with Sarah and, after a night of passion, Sarah becomes pregnant with John. If Kyle Reese had not been sent back through time by John, then John would never exist. It's a contradictory story that should make no sense at all — yet it does.
Donnie Darko similarly explores the predestination paradox, but in a much more subtle way. Time travel is more of an underlying result of the events that take place in the film. Donnie Darko is set in a tangent universe and Donnie has been chosen as the living receiver to restore balance between the tangent universe and the primary universe. His task is aided by the imaginary Frank — a man dressed in a disturbing bunny rabbit suit. Later in the film, Donnie's girlfriend Gretchen is run over and killed by a man dressed in the same bunny outfit — also called Frank. Donnie shoots this Frank in the eye, killing him.
Using the evidence from the book seen in Donnie Darko: The Directors Cut, it appears that anyone who dies in this tangent universe is known as the manipulated dead, meaning they are manipulated by a higher power to help the living receiver, i.e. Donnie, restore the balance. Since Frank was murdered by Donnie on October 30 (the end of the film), he traveled back to October 2 (the beginning of the film) to save Donnie from the falling aircraft engine and aid him on his journey.
This is an example of the predestination paradox because if Frank wasn't killed in this tangent universe, then he wouldn't have been unable to travel back in time to save Donnie from the aircraft engine. Similarly, if Donnie didn't kill Frank in the tangent universe, then Frank would've been unable to time travel to save and guide Donnie. You can see why this film is often listed among the most confusing of all time, yet we still love trying to decipher it.
Problems In Time Travel Films And The Solutions They Offer
Exploring time travel on film can be difficult — it's a topic that is always open to interpretation. Moreover, if the filmmakers are not careful, working with such complicated subject matter can result in storytelling problems.
Take Back to the Future for example, did Doc actually die early on in the film, or had Marty previously warned him about the consequences 30 years earlier? If not, was this the first time in the space-time continuum that Marty time traveled? We assume so, because certain elements of his life were vastly altered when he returned to the present — this was due to the changes in the timeline while Marty was in the past. There is always the possibility of interpretation in time travel movies.
Director Richard Kelly did a great job at tying up all the loose ends in Donnie Darko, specifically through the culmination of the tangent universe. All of the characters that had played a crucial part in Donnie's life during the 28 days of the tangent universe were haunted by memories of said universe, even though they had not experienced it. This eliminated the possibility of Donnie being perceived as mad and it also proved that the events of the film did not take place in Donnie's head because everybody else remembered it.
"The future is not set, there's no fate but what we make for ourselves."
The Terminator franchise is very similar in this respect, except director James Cameron's use of the above line allows for any loopholes and avoids continuity errors. It allows for alterations to be made to the timeline without ruining the story or causing continuity problems. Problems did arise in later Cameron-less Terminator films when writers and producers began to mess with the timeline, thus creating several plot holes, such as John Connor being the wrong age in Terminator 3.
While there are other time traveling paradoxes, these two are the most commonly used in film. As time moves further on, we continue this obsession with time travel — and who can blame us?
The notion of time travel allows us to fulfill our fantasies of changing the things that we dislike about the past and giving us hope for a better future. We all love movies that transport us into a character's world, which is why this theme continues to captivate audiences around the world and across generations. Our bodies may remain in the real world, but through film we are transported into an entirely different one and that, in itself, is a paradox.
What paradoxes or plot holes have you noticed in time travel movies? Let us know your favorites in the comments section!