5 Reasons Time Travel Plots Are Usually Terrible
It's not impossible to make a good time travel movie, especially when the time machine is just used as a tool to set up a straightforward adventure, like in The Terminator or Back To The Future. But it seems like the more time travel is inserted into the story, the more the writers have to bend over backward to keep the plot from devolving into the kind of jargon-heavy nonsense you see in the later Terminator sequels. Here's why ...
WARNING: Contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.
It Almost Always Breaks The Established Rules
Science is hard, and I'm pretty sure time travel is impossible, so I'll give these movies leeway about how they choose to construct their mechanics. ("Damn, the Time Inverter is almost out of Time Pebbles!") But even then, they rarely stick to the generous rules they set for themselves. For instance, Avengers: Endgame introduces time travel to the Marvel Cinematic Universe because it's literally the only way to solve the problem introduced in the previous movie (half of everything is dead). The problem, of course, is that in theory, time travel can perfectly solve any problem, ever. Forget about Thanos, why not go back and kill Hitler while we're at it? Or go back a century and warn everyone about global warming?
This is why the movie states explicitly that any changes to the past don't affect the future; they only create new timelines. This is the reason given for why killing Thanos as a baby wouldn't help them. Which is fine, but then the film slaps on a happy ending in which Captain America travels back in time and lives out a normal life, turning up at the end of the movie having aged accordingly. This makes no sense no matter how you slice it.
So did Steve create another timeline in which he never became Captain America, never did anything heroic, never got frozen in ice and woke up in the present? A timeline in which his friend Bucky is still brainwashed and Sam "Falcon" Wilson is still some guy running in a park? And HYDRA was allowed to just keep doing its thing? He just blithely enjoyed his retirement, knowing that all of those horrors were some other universe's problem to solve? Or did he age as a civilian within the same timeline where he was Captain America, meaning he still stood by while a ton of other bad shit happened? There's no pretty answer here.
That's always the problem: These movies want to have it both ways. In The Butterfly Effect (which is most notable for losing the Best Thriller award in the 2004 Teen Choice Awards to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake), Ashton Kutcher's character has the power to travel between different stages in his life and make changes that affect the plot. The effects are only noticeable to him, except when the movie suddenly needs him to prove his abilities to someone to get out of danger. He travels back to his childhood and creates Jesus scars on both his hands. He then goes back to the present, where one person somehow has the memory from when the scars weren't present, at which point the hamfisted religious imagery takes over.
Something similar happens in Looper, where it's stated that any physical damage to a person's younger self is always present in their older bodies ... until it's time for a dramatic scene that shows someone's younger self being mutilated and their older self losing limbs in real time, the person screaming as their fingers vanish in front of them (rather than their memory calmly adjusting to having lost them years ago). Time travel offers almost limitless possibilities, but somehow writers almost always wind up painting themselves into a corner.
They Have To Manufacture Unnecessary Conflict
So your time travel movie has given the heroes the godlike power to solve any problem. This means that finding ways to give them some kind of a challenge often requires all sorts of distracting contrivances. This is why the aforementioned Looper takes place in a world in which technology is so advanced that it's impossible to get away with murder. Potential murderers get around this by sending their would-be victims back in time to be killed by their younger selves instead of li-ter-a-lly anything else.
But by far the most ridiculous time travel trope is when the heroes go back to solve a problem ... but go back the latest possible moment, so that there is still an inexplicable ticking clock on their task. In Endgame, during Nebula and War Machine's outing to get the Power Stone, she sends them to 2014. This introduces a fun opportunity to call back to the opening of Guardians Of The Galaxy, but it's also the exact moment in time when Thanos could find them and thus be reintroduced as the antagonist. This is something Nebula doesn't point out until after they're already there. Dropping in only few hours earlier would have avoided the entire movie, and now that I think about it, it's hard to think of a time travel plot where that isn't true.
In general, though, the heroes always have to forget what exactly time travel can accomplish (that is, literally anything). Edge Of Tomorrow makes Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt suddenly forget that Tom Cruise can reset the day with all his memories intact, forcing them to attempt to escape enemies in a high-speed chase. Blunt killing Cruise (which she does earlier to get them out of a similar situation) or having him kill himself would be the most logical thing to do, but no. The chase results in an accident which leads to a blood transfusion, and thus Cruise loses the ability to reset the day. Now if he dies, he won't come back, and the third act gains stakes purely because the time-traveling heroes forgot that their power has no logical limits.
This seems to always be worse in movies that aren't specifically about time travel. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban also introduces a powerful time travel device that's only used twice and then discarded for the rest of the series. Superman famously has Superman reverse time to save Lois Lane, an incredibly useful ability that never gets used again. It's literally a "Get Out Of The Apocalypse Free" card, but the only power Clark Kent doesn't have is the ability to remember it.
It Raises Important Questions That Are Almost Never Answered
Every time you watch a time travel movie, you're guaranteed to go "Wait, hold on" at least once. And this is usually because the movie has brought forth questions that the writers do not intend to answer in any way. For instance, take the mechanics of the Citizen Kane of Jean-Claude Van Damme's career, Timecop, which allows travel only between the past and the present, because the future hasn't happened yet. You can fiddle with the past to create changes in the future. But ... once you're in the past, doesn't the present become your future, one that is yet to happen? So how are you then able to return there, Jean-Claude?
Then you have questions that potentially change everything. Something like "This movie is saying that time unfolds in a closed loop, and the implication of this is that ... none of the characters have free will?" That's a great question for movies that explore it, such as 12 Monkeys, but not so much for one where we're rooting for plucky underdogs who are on a quest to make a real change in the world. Before Terminator: Genisys, the series constantly had us asking this question. Every sequel annoyingly had both sides (the humans and Skynet) try to affect events to their advantage, despite time existing in a loop and Rise Of The Machines pretty much stating that it can't be done. This resulted in an unintentionally meta loop of one movie ending with the humans celebrating a victory, which the next entry would nullify right at the opening.
The Prisoner Of Azkaban is also guilty of introducing this implication to Harry Potter. If everything that happens was predestined, they don't have free will, do they? If everything they plan on doing has already happened, what happens if they decide to sit the heroics out at the last minute? Does the Universe then gain control and force them to confront their destiny like they're a collection of British marionettes? Does J.K. Rowling only answer questions that no one was asking?
It's not like this is nitpicking. If time travel is the only reason the heroes were able to do what they did, but the mechanics of it imply that they couldn't have done anything else, then what was the point of your story in the first place?
It Always Winds Up Contradicting Other Movies In The Franchise
For over half a century, Star Trek has existed in multiple incarnations that have played with time travel so inconsistently that it's sucked all meaning from word "continuity." It never decides whether everything is predestined (The Original Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine), or if it's not (The Original Series, First Contact, Voyager, Enterprise, The Animated Series), or if it sort of is, except changes spawn a new timeline independent of the original (the 2009 reboot, The Next Generation).
And you might be able to give Star Trek a pass because it's a sprawling franchise made up of hundreds of episodes and multiple casts. But when a series is, like, five movies long, you'd expect at least someone to say, "Hey, let's try not to crap all over the thing that happened two hours ago, OK?"
The Terminator franchise is famous for having entries that blatantly contradict each other. And it happens with almost everything that time travel touches. The date for Judgment Day is always being moved around, despite the events occurring within a closed loop. And Genisys introduced alternate timelines for the sake of a reboot -- something that flies directly in the face of the concept that I just mentioned.
This enormous contradiction that essentially renders the events of previous entries pointless also shows up in Men In Black 3. J does some time travellin' and learns that K knew his father and had always planned for him to join the MiB since he was a kid. It's presented as something that had always been true, as opposed to a result of changes within the timeline. Except that's 100% NOT what happened. The reason J joined the MIB was that he impressed K by keeping up with a cephalopod on foot. You can't fool us, movie. We literally watched that shit happen.
It Weakens The Impact Of Big Moments
There's always an air of skepticism that surrounds deaths in movies that feature time travel. If someone we don't want to die kicks it, there's the option for the remaining characters to jump back and prevent it. The deaths are not believable, and it's because we've seen them reversed at the last minute in movies such as Deadpool 2, Prince Of Persia, and X-Men: Days Of Future Past.
It gets worse with movies that want to both have and eat their proverbial cake by introducing alternate timelines to an already-beloved series when rebooting it (Terminator, Star Trek, X-Men), allowing the writers to pick and choose what they want to bring along to the reboot. It's an attempt to placate fans of the previous entries by not having to erase their events, but we can't really care about a character when there's other versions of them across a possibly infinite number of realities.
Following Endgame, this is likely where the MCU is headed, starting with the return of (alternate versions of) Gamora and Loki, both fan favorites who were supposed to be for-realsies dead after Infinity War. But even though they're not the versions of them we've come to know and love, Marvel can -- and will -- try to have it both ways. They get to milk the emotion from the original deaths -- emotion caused by the knowledge that those characters won't be around anymore -- while still having those characters in movies to attract audiences, minting even more billions in the process. And that is what people are talking about when they refer to the "magic of cinema."
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For more, check out Why Time Travel Wouldn't Work For Everyone - After Hours:
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