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This is no time to argue about time, we don’t have the time…

The early reviews for Terminator: Salvation seem to be in – and they are not as bad as I thought they would be. Apparently if you leave your brain at reception, you might enjoy it. Still, it’s got me thinking. The original Terminator was one of the few Hollywood movies to deal with time travel relatively well. How come Hollywood seems to have such difficulty wrestling with such a common science fiction trope?

Warning: thinking about time travel might make your brain melt

Warning: thinking about time travel might make your brain melt

Time travel is one of those concepts that it seems television has latched on to better than film. There are entire series that base their premises on the notion (Doctor Who and Quantum Leap, for example), and there are others that aren’t afraid to play with the idea from – pardon the pun – time to time (Lost, Star Trek, Red Dwarf).

Maybe it’s the complexity of the subject matter. I mean, how can we estimate the impact of changing history? There seem to be any number of theories about time travel, of varying degrees of complexity:

  • Let the chips fall where they may. Once you go back in time, all bets are off. You can save Kennedy or kill Adolf Hitler without a second thought about the consequences. In fact that might be the point – to stop something terrible happening. That’s kinda the point of the time traveling in Terminator 2. The machines send back a robot to kill John Connor while he’s still a child and vulnerable. John Connor send back Arnie to protect himself. Rather than play it safe and hope for a zero sum gain (John stays alive to fight and beat the machines in the future), Arnie, John and John’s mother decide to stop the machines from taking over in the first place. Don’t think about it too hard – if they succeed (as the end implies), who would have sent back the first Terminator to assassinate John as Skynet no longer took over the world, and who would have sent back John’s father to stop it? This is really the most feel-good, fight-the-future type ending.
  • Slightly less positive, but still on the “free will” (sort of) side of the equation is the notion that you can mess up history (woot! take that fate!), but if you do so, you wipe out your own history. Marty mcFly’s saga in the first Back to the Future is an example of this. It derives tension from the fact that the protagonist has to fix things and make them right or else they will cease to exist. This seems to ignore the fact that if they didn’t exist, they couldn’t have caused this mess in the first place, so they would continue to exist, but then they would have caused the mess, so they wouldn’t exist, so they couldn’t… If you think too hard on it, your brain might bleed. Less dramatic examples include Sam’s adventures in Quantum Leap, setting right what once went wrong. Both this and the above seem to fit in the “branching history” theory of history – that history branches depending on any number of variables that can be altered, so an informed actor can almost direct the flow of events.
  • Somewhere between the above and the below is the idea that there is only one universe. Things only happen one way, like it or lump it. Time travelers merely play into these events, helping them reach their preordained conclusions despite their own intents. In short: whatever happened happened. In Terminator, John Connor sent back Kyle Reese to protect his mother. Kyle Reese became the boy’s father. The machines sent back Arnie to kill John’s mother. Arnie’s circuitry was discovered by the military and used to create the very cybernetic intelligence that would overthrow humanity. Lost also features the same principle, with time-traveling individuals playing into events that already occurred (Sayid was always going to shoot Ben, leading Ben to become the manipulative asshole that led Sayid to shoot him when presented the opportunity). This theory is quite complex and difficult to pull off. It’s also kind of depressing. If time travelers can’t prevent the inevitable, what makes you think those in the present can do better?
  • Finally there’s the fatalistic view point. You can change history, but history will screw you over because it doesn’t like to be dicked with. For example, Terminator 3 undermines Terminator 2 by explicitly stating that John and Arnie only delayed Judgement Day, they didn’t prevent it. The visions of the future in the Final Destination series may prevent those hapless students from all dying in one big accident, but fate contrives to kill them all in some sort of malevolent Goldberg Device. In the Red Alert series of games, assassinating Adolf Hitler doesn’t prevent World War II, it just sets the Allies against the Soviets. In this theory, fate doesn’t just exist, it’s actively a douchebag.

I think that those are the big four, anyway.

Confused? Yep, me too.

Hell, picking one theory of time travel and explaining it to the audience is troublesome enough. In fact, attempting to depict it realistically may just confuse your audience – think about Donnie Darko, or the independent production Primer, which is so complex that there are several different diagrams on-line explaining what might have happened during that film. Still for science geeks who are also film geeks, it’s worth a look. Just make sure to get your PhD first.

David Tennant proves that Britain has more advanced methods of traveling through time than simply visiting Wales...

David Tennant proves that Britain has more advanced methods of traveling through time than simply visiting Wales...

Once you ignore the nerdier aspects of time travel, it does provide a whole rake of story telling opportunities, from “fish out of water” comedy (as in the most-successful-Star-Trek-film-until-last-Sunday Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home) to a slightly more emotional moral dilemma or two (like the new Twilight Zone episode “Cradle of Darkness” where a time traveller attempts to kill a baby Adolf Hitler, even though the child has done nothing wrong yet). You might make a case that the most fun is had when the team behind the film “ignore” the physics of time travel (like Back to the Future – Why does Marty fade like some cheap 1980’s special effect? Who cares? It’s fun!) and just run with it. It’s always fun to laugh at earlier fashion trends and explore a culture separated from ours by years rather than miles.

For those with a nerdy interest in the “actual” science, as much as it is actual science, so far it looks like we may only be able to time travel forward, not back. But who’d let a bunch of real science interfere with good old fashioned story telling?

Terminator: Salvation is the third sequel to the original Terminator, directed by McG (Charlie’s Angels). It is the first not to star Arnold Schwarzenegger (though he does make a cameo). Instead, it stars Christian Bale (Batman Begins, The Machinist), Anton Yelchin (Star Trek), Bryce Dallas Howard (spiderman III), Michael Ironside (Starship Troopers, The Machinist) and Helena Bonham Carter (Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street, The Corpse Bride). It is released in the United States on 22nd May 2009. It will be released in Ireland and the UK two weeks later on 5th June, the first staggered release of this summer.

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