My Favorite Temporal Paradoxes in Movies

Chalk Board Timeline

Figuring out Time Machine speeds reminded me about my all time favorite temporal anomalies and paradoxes. For those of you unfamiliar with Star Trek or comic books or science fiction of any kind, a temporal anomaly is any sort of change a time traveler causes in his or her many wacky time travel adventures. It's the butterfly effect, where a butterfly's wings in the past cause this thing to happen that cause this other thing to happen and so on and so on until Toaster Strudels were never invented. A temporal paradox is a temporal anomaly which causes the time traveler to never go back in time to create the temporal anomaly that made him never go back in time. Huh? This is how perfectly good universes are ruined.

Back to the Future II
for example has my all time favorite paradox. To avoid spoilers, I suggest if you've never seen Back to the Future II to leave this website and never return. Go on... I'm not kidding... hit the back button, it's in the upper left corner there.

The original Back to the Future was about Marty McFly trying to stop a paradox from happening, i.e. changing the past to prevent his birth and consequently never going back in time to change the past that prevented his birth. Back to the Future II, however, throws out all pretense of temporal anomalies in favor of hover boards. Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg don't want you to look at the plot, they want you to look at hover boards. Look there's a hover board. Don't look at the temporal paradox. Four hover boards and a baseball bat! Don't look at the paradox. But we all looked at the paradox, even as a young boy I knew something just wasn't right.

Old Biff stole the DeLorean and gave young Biff the Gray's Sports Almanac from the future, which created an alternate timeline. Doc and Marty travel back to alternate 1985 and wackiness ensues (gambling and fires and shotguns, oh my). They then travel further back in time to prevent all this from happening. The problem is the timeline veers the moment old Biff gives young Biff the sports almanac meaning old Biff could never travel back to his original timeline to conveniently drop off the time machine for Doc and Marty to travel back in time in. Old Biff would travel to a future 2015 where he was a millionaire and Hill Valley was in ruins. Furthermore, alternate Biff muddied the timeline enough to prevent time travel from being invented and Doc Brown and Marty from ever meeting: Doc was in an insane asylum and Marty was sent to private school.

Old Biff should have given young Biff the almanac and then the universe should have imploded, where old Biff and young Biff float in a white void of nothingness calling each other “Butt Head” for rest of eternity.

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Timeline by Skippy

Some of my other Favorite Paradoxes

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

Bill and Ted

Bill & Ted is actually a temporal unodox: meaning nothing causes time travelers to create a future that would have never existed had they not interred with the timeline. The movie is about future Dudes that go back in time to help past Dudes so they can supply most excellent elevator muzak for other future Dudes. Nothing messed up the space/time continuum to prevent Wyld Stallyns from being successful. They were just natural, boring, temporally uninteresting fuck ups. For some reason the future Dudes deemed them worth unraveling space/time for.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Terminator 2

The entire concept of the Terminator franchise is a paradox itself. The machines are trying to kill the one human that's causing them problems in the present, but if they kill him in the past, they would never have needed to send a robot in the first place.

Terminator 2 revolves around trying to prevent Judgment Day by destroying the chip from the first movie that created the technology for Skynet. Terminator gets around paradoxes through preordained destiny. No matter what John Conner does, Judgment Day will happen, maybe, not exactly the same way but it happens. Skynet will be created and conveniently named Skynet in any hundred robot/man war scenarios.

12 Monkeys

12 Monkeys

Bruce Willis as we all know is the best, and the best at helping unravel space/time anomalies. A virus has wiped out most of the human race, and only a random collection of geniuses and retards have survived. Bruce Willis's role is to calibrate the time machine and gathering random bits of intel, pretty much the equivalent of a time traveling helper monkey. If the scientists from the future succeed, they can stop the virus from spreading, but that would also prevent the scientists from inventing time travel to save the world from the virus. 12 Monkeys though never states that time is fluid or changing history is possible, a paradox cannot occur if time cannot change. The experiment might be for naught, but I say GO TIME MONKEY GO!



The Time Enforcement Commission were created because historic events indicated time crime. Of course the government will fund time cops to stop time crime. But the senator at the head of time travel commission that created the time cops was the one causing the time crime to being with. No Senator McComb means no temporal crime wave, which means no need for time cops to police history, which means the senator is free to commit crimes. Doing a split does little to repair the timeline.

Biggie Smalls was right: Mo Time Travel, Mo Problems. Check out more detailed breakdown of Temporal Anomalies in Time Travel Movies.

All this to erase my toaster strudel... way to go, McFly.

  • Dean
    Comment from: Dean
    01/12/10 @ 01:19:06 pm

    fantastic article!

    I know these temporal paradoxes cause changes to the time-line, but when did it effect it that much that Marty became Mary? Have I now become a temporal anomaly?

  • Comment from: Wolf
    01/12/10 @ 01:29:16 pm

    Marty could have totally changed which kind of sexual positions George was into, which could have totally altered his own conception. Thus resulting in a Mary.

    On a separate timeline, George and Lorraine would have to have recreate each sexual outing to the T to exactly replicate each kid.

  • Dean
    Comment from: Dean
    01/12/10 @ 01:47:21 pm

    great scott!…the time-line changed again!

    Don’t tell me you travelled back in time, suggested to the production team that the movie would work better with a Male lead, thereby changing the present, altering the text in this article so that Mary never existed?

  • Comment from: Wolf
    01/12/10 @ 03:40:47 pm

    Erased from existence? This is heavy.

  • Pacrimgirl
    Comment from: Pacrimgirl
    01/20/10 @ 12:56:50 am

    Actually re:12 Monkeys, the scientists are not trying to stop the initial spread of the virus in the past, they are trying to get a sample of the original virus to take back to the future to develop a cure so mankind can re-surface. As Bruce Willis says himself in the movie “this is the past. this has already happened. how can I change what’s already happened?” Or something to that effect.

  • Paul
    Comment from: Paul
    01/21/10 @ 03:16:36 pm

    A question about BTTF2 that has always bothered me. How many Marty’s were there in the alternate 1985? Did Marty-A cease to exist at the Swiss Boarding School when the DeLorean came back?

    Same goes for Doc

  • Comment from: Wolf
    01/22/10 @ 09:28:22 am

    There shouldn’t be a problem with multiple Marty’s, any alternate McFlys would be erased.

    The bigger problem is Jennifer. They left her in an alternate 1985 and just assumed it would work out. Which is a pretty big assumption considering the alternative is being lost in time.

    However, BTTF establishes that there is a temporal snap back, meaning all objects from timeline A in timeline B get snapped back to timeline A should timeline B get destroyed. This is why the matchbook, newspaper, and photos change back to the original form when the time line is altered.

    The biggest problem with this is Marty himself, if objects change, Marty himself should instantaneously change to the alternate Marty and not retain the thoughts and memories of Marty prime.

  • poker bot
    Comment from: poker bot
    04/18/10 @ 01:28:59 am

    Bill and Ted’s good robot us’s would kill all them other bots with ease.

  • Fiona
    Comment from: Fiona
    07/03/10 @ 08:40:41 pm

    When Old Biff brings the Almanac from 2015 to young biff in 1955, when he uses the time machine to go back to 2015 after giving young Biff the Almanac and therefore altering the timeline, it should be ALTERNATE 2015 that he goes to, where Biff is rich and powerful and hill valley is corrupt, but instead he goes back to the other 2015 and conveniently leaves the DeLorean back with Marty McFly and the Doc, which shouldn’t be possible D:
    I think that’s a bigger fault in The Trilogy than in the third one where there are two DeLoreans, because with that there’s no indication to whether the DeLorean buried in 1885 even has gas in it to siphon into the DeLorean brought from 1955.
    Just sayin’ :)
    Back To The Future.. Aah, my favourite movie ever!!

  • Crystal
    Comment from: Crystal
    09/08/10 @ 12:35:08 am

    I totally love the entire time travel movie concept. I enjoyed reading your favorite temporal paradoxes. I must admit Terminator franchise is my favorite and all the other ones you named. Have you seen Butterfly Effect or Happy Accidents? I’d like to hear your take on their paradoxes.

  • Tattoos
    Comment from: Tattoos
    09/09/10 @ 11:58:48 pm

    Here in Oregon people love to cover themselves with tattoos. It’s sort of hobby with us. So I am always interested in seeing what others are doing and learning new things. Thanks for the post.

  • AustynSN
    Comment from: AustynSN
    09/14/10 @ 11:23:56 am

    Concerning Back to the Future II, When (old) Biff gets back to 2015 from his trip to 1955, he seems to have a heart attack. On the DVD director’s commentary, it’s stated that what is actually happening is that the time stream is in flux due to the changes his trip made. He’s being erased because Lorraine shot him in 1996.

  • Joey
    Comment from: Joey
    06/07/11 @ 11:04:32 pm

    I think you forgot a movie: Minority Report. If the precogs were able to see the future, and consequently people were able to stop it, how could they see it if it was never going to happen?!

  • russ
    Comment from: russ
    11/23/11 @ 12:54:14 pm

    in 12 monkeys bruce willis wasnt just crazy he had precognition regarding many things there was also physical evidence placing him world war 1 and one of the scientists meet the terrorist at the end claiming to be in “insurance”