Do Time Travel Movies Have to Have Rules?

By  · Published on October 15th, 2012

Beware of Massive Spoilers for Looper after the jump.

Should we enjoy time travel movies for their entertainment value despite any plot holes that might arise, or are those pesky nitpicks enough to sink the sci-fi ship? That’s the question at the heart of a metric ton of gold-bricking discussions about Looper – a film that playfully and smartly waves away the specifics in search of a larger metaphor. But is that really okay? To step away from the heat of the conversation, I’d like to give an example from the past that falls in the sweet middle spot of that main question: the liquid metal absurdity of Terminator 2.

My central problem with the time travel in that fun-as-hell film is that it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. Granted, from the “present” that we’re watching, it all seems fine. The original plan failed, so they call in Robert Patrick to take over. But put yourself in the room when the machines sent back Arnold Schwarzenegger in the first one.

They would have known instantly whether the plan worked or not, and that causes a lot of problems for the internal logic of what goes on in the sequel.

  1. Why would they have an advanced model all ready to roll? If they were truly on the brink of losing the war, they wouldn’t have time to develop something new and improved, and if he was available, why send an inferior model in the first place? And when did the rebels have time to kidnap and re-program a T-101?
  2. And why send the new model to a different point in the timeline? The T-101 couldn’t kill the mother, so they send the T-1000 to a point where she’s still around, more aware, and now he has to kill a teenage boy instead of a fetus? They made it more difficult? That doesn’t sound like ironclad robot logic. It sounds like the thinking of screenwriters charged with making a sequel.
  3. Plus, if they sent The Terminator back, and they were still losing the war, they’d also know that they’d lost the element of surprise. Why not send the T-1000 to an even more vulnerable time in Sarah Connor’s life?
  4. And why is Schwarzenegger always naked? They can send back inorganic material except for clothes?

These are all points that I’ll never get over (flame me as much as you want in the comments section). They can be explained away by enthusiastic fans, but they’re inconsistencies that James Cameron and William Wisher overlooked or chose not to deal with between the credits.

The thing is, that’s okay. The movie is a roller coaster. It’s thrilling, inventive and makes you forget completely about the world outside. Chalk it up to a success despite its logical nerd failures.

The same (as illustrated with endearing goofiness by Adam Rogers at Wired) can be said about Looper and any other time travel movie that bends the rules a bit but gets away with it. The ending of the film is the biggest question mark – not only when it comes to a dramatic outcome, but what it means for the reality of science in that universe. Arguing about why hiding a body is hard in the future is one thing, but when a character kills himself and erases the older version of himself so that he could have never time traveled back to force the character to need to kill himself…the urge to lay down concrete rules feels a bit more immediate.

Rian Johnson and company get away with it because the rest of the film delivers, so there’s a great argument for eschewing strict structure when everything else is done skillfully or even because it causes the kind of parking lot discussions (and internet editorials…) that we salivate over. Johnson didn’t include “Be a Slave to Details” in his filmmaking tips for a reason.

Of course, all of this is in the eye of the beholder. Some time travel movies with massive plot holes still earn love, while others with tighter science fall flat. On the whole, are you willing to overlook some loose time travel logic? If so, when?

If not, what bothers you the most?

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.