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The Different Types of Time Travel According to Movies

Time travel is hard, man.

By Jonathan SimPublished 6 years ago 8 min read

I really love time travel movies. And the thing is, when it comes to time travel movies, they usually seem to have "paradoxes". That is, a situation that ends up being impossible or self-contradictory.

A good example of a paradox would be the "Grandfather Paradox", which states that if you go back in time and kill your grandfather, then it would prevent your own birth. And if you weren't born, then you wouldn't have been able to kill your grandfather. Thus, a paradox.

But here's the thing: as time travel doesn't actually exist, we don't have a true way of knowing what it actually looks like. There are a bunch of time travel films that have demonstrated multiple different ways that time travel could work.

And as I've always been fascinated with the concept, I thought it would be fun to talk about some of the different types of time travel. And this is, of course, to all five people that are actually gonna read this.

**SPOILERS AHEAD FOR Terminator 2, Terminator 3, Back to the Future, Men In Black 3, and Looper**

An Unchangeable Future

In this type of time travel, the past, present, and future have already been written, and it is impossible to make any real change to them. This concept may have been explored in the Terminator franchise.

So, if the terminators went back in time and successfully killed John Connor, it wouldn't have mattered, because someone else would have taken Connor's place in the army and performed the same acts that he did in the future.

And in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, John, Sarah, and the T-800 blow up Cyberdyne and supposedly stop Judgement Day. However, in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Judgement Day happens anyway.

Even if John and Catherine were able to stop Judgment Day in T3, Skynet would've still been able to find a way to eventually cause Judgment Day. As the T-850 said in the film, "Judgement Day is inevitable."

So, under this time travel type, no matter how much the past or the present change, the future will remain the same.

Go back in time and kill Trump? Some other angry orange billionaire becomes president in 2017. And if the past, present, and future are unchangeable, then a paradox is impossible.

This is known as the Novikov self-consistency principle, and it's got a few flaws in it, but I'd say it's a pretty interesting concept. I believe the time travel in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban also used this principle.

Changeable Past, Changeable Future

This is the type of time travel that allows for the Grandfather Paradox. So, if you go back in time and you change the past, it can drastically change the future.

So, in Back to the Future when Marty accidentally stopped his parents from meeting and falling in love, he needed to bring them back together again because if he didn't, they wouldn't have kids and therefore Marty wouldn't have been born, and he would've never been able to go back in time in the first place.

And as you saw in the picture above, the paradox nearly occurred, as we saw Marty slowly begin to fade from existence, and had his parents not kissed right then, the paradox would've been complete, and he'd be erased from existence.

So, with this kind of time travel, you can change the past, and this would end up resulting in a drastically different future.

Multiple Timelines

So, in this type of time travel, you can essentially change the past all you want and change the future all you want. However, a paradox wouldn't be made.

Take what Marty did in the original Back to the Future. If this type of time travel was used in the film, then when Marty split up his parents, it wouldn't have mattered if they had never gotten together. He would've just created a different timeline in which Marty McFly doesn't exist.

This concept was later used in Back to the Future Part II. When old Biff uses the DeLorean to travel back in time to 1955 to give his younger self the sports almanac, the young Biff grows up rich, and by 1985, Doc has been committed to a mental institution and Marty is in a school in Switzerland.

And if Doc was in a mental institution in 1985, then he wouldn't have been able to build the time machine that allows Biff to go back to 1955 in the first place. Had the laws of time travel been the same as the first BTTF, then a paradox would have been made.

Now, under the "Changeable Past, Changeable Future" type of time travel, if you were to go back in time and kill Hitler as a baby, this would create a paradox because if no one knew Hitler existed, then you would have no motive to go back in time and kill anyone, meaning you wouldn't go back and kill Hitler.

But with this type of time travel, you'd go back in time, kill Hitler, and successfully go back to the present. However, it would be a different timeline than the one you left. It would be your altered timeline in which Hitler never existed.

I think Men In Black 3 also used this principle. Boris the Animal went back in time to kill Agent K and therefore prevent the extinction of Boglodites, creating an alternate timeline.

And as a result, J goes back in time, kills the old Boris the Animal before he can kill K, and gets young K to kill the young Boris and put up the ArcNet, which successfully causes the extinction of the Boglodites.

Time Reversal

This is a less common form of time travel that's been used in films and shows. In this type of time travel, when you go back in time, you actually get younger as you go back.

So, if I were to time travel back to 2013, when I arrive in 2013, I'll be five years younger than I am now. But I'll have all the knowledge that I currently have.

This type of time travel also raises some questions. If you were to go back in time to before you were born, would you just slowly age backwards until you find you're nothing but a fetus?

And if you went forward in time to, I don't know, the year 3000, would you just see yourself grow old and then die in the time machine? Point is, with this, you age with the time you travel.

The time jump device in Men In Black 3 was initially using the "Multiple Timelines" type of time travel, but in the scene you see above, it uses the "Time Reversal" type.

So, when Boris shoots at J, he remembers the shot pattern, tackles Boris, and sends the two of them back to a few seconds earlier. Instead of there now being TWO Js and TWO Borises on the structure, the two have simply aged backwards. J remembers traveling back in time while Boris doesn't.

Yeah, I like that movie a lot, but that scene honestly made zero sense.

Now, I've brought up a bunch of time travel theories and I've used examples from movies to make it clearer, but one of my favorite time travel movies, which I can't quite yet figure out is Looper.

Let me go over what happens: in the year 2044, Joe is a looper. Killers in the future send a person back in time to 2044, where Joe waits, and kills the person when they arrive in 2044. Eventually, they send back the old looper to be killed by their younger self, ultimately "closing the loop".

Joe kills his older self, and retires from his job as a looper. He moves to Shanghai, and gets a wife there.

One day, a man known as the Rainmaker arrives in Joe's house, kills his wife, and prepares to send him back in time to be killed by his younger self.

Enraged by the loss of his wife, he fights off the Rainmaker and his men. He sends himself back to 2044 and knocks out his younger self before he can be killed.

The old Joe and the young Joe talk in a diner. Old Joe says that he heard stories of the Rainmaker; how the Rainmaker watched his mother die, and has a fake jaw. Old Joe then takes off to kill all the children who may grow up to become the Rainmaker, in order to save his wife from death.

Meanwhile, young Joe has found one of old Joe's possible candidates: a child named Cid with a mother named Sara.

Young Joe deduces that Cid DOES grow up to be the Rainmaker, and old Joe heads over to kill Cid. We find out that the reason the Rainmaker has a fake jaw is because old Joe shot him as a child.

The Rainmaker also watched his mother die. Why? Because old Joe shot Cid's mother. The "stories" that old Joe heard about the Rainmaker were a result of his own future actions. But the next part ends up being a mind-f**k.

In order to stop old Joe from killing Sara and eventually turning Cid into the Rainmaker, young Joe shoots himself, therefore killing old Joe as well.

But if young Joe ended up dying, then old Joe would have never been able to go back in time and give young Joe a reason to kill himself. And we have the issue of how old Joe was affected by the Rainmaker's actions before he got the chance to turn Cid into the Rainmaker. I guess this might be the "Multiple Timelines" type? I don't know.

I love Looper, but it can be kind of messy, honestly.

Anyways, I was just interested in all the time travel theories that existed, and how so many of them have been incorporated into sci-fi movies. Thought it'd be pretty interesting.

I also wanted to show my knowledge of sci-fi movies as well.

scifi movie

About the Creator

Jonathan Sim

Film critic. Lover of Pixar, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Marvel, DC, Back to the Future, and Lord of the Rings.

For business inquiries: [email protected]

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