Movies with Time Travel Paradoxes...Do they make sense?

05 March 2023

I was watching the second season of Star Trek: Picard recently and the final 10 minutes, while a lot fun, produced a classic Time Travel Paradox to ensure the ending of the season made sense (in terms of concluding the story). 

While Borg Queens are cool and all, this ending got me thinking of Terminator and them back to other Star Trek films (Looking at you The Voyage Home) and started wondering what the great time travel paradoxes in the history of movies...

12 monkies time travel paradox

So what is a time travel paradox?

A time travel paradox in a movie occurs when the events of the movie's time travel storyline create a contradiction or inconsistency that defies the laws of logic or cause and effect.

For example, one common time travel paradox is the "grandfather paradox." In this paradox, a character travels back in time and accidentally prevents their grandfather from meeting their grandmother, thereby preventing their own birth. 

This would create a paradox: if the character was never born, how could they have gone back in time to prevent their own birth?

Other time travel paradoxes include the "bootstrap paradox," in which an object or information is sent back in time and becomes its own origin, without ever having been created or discovered in the present, and the "predestination paradox," in which the events of the time travel storyline are revealed to have been predetermined, and the time traveler's actions in the past were the cause of the present.

Time travel paradoxes can be used in movies as a source of conflict or drama, as characters attempt to navigate the effects of their actions on the timeline, or as a way to explore philosophical questions about the nature of time and causality.

Here is a list of 20 movies that feature some of the greatest time travel film paradoxes, along with a detailed explanation of how the paradox occurred and how the movie was resolved as a result.

Back to the Future (1985) - Screenwriters: Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale

  • In Back to the Future, Marty McFly travels back in time to the 1950s and inadvertently interferes with his parents' meeting, putting his own existence at risk. The paradox occurs when Marty realizes that his actions have caused his future to change, and he must race against time to fix things before it's too late. Ultimately, Marty is successful in repairing the timeline, ensuring his own survival and that of his family.
  • The subsequent sequels continue the paradox by creating many unintended consequences that Marty must resolve, even though he inadvertently caused them. 
Primer (2004) - Screenwriter: Shane Carruth

Donnie Darko (2001) - Screenwriter: Richard Kelly

  • Donnie Darko is a mind-bending movie that defies easy explanation. The paradox occurs when Donnie is tasked with preventing a catastrophic event that will destroy the world. However, in doing so, he ends up creating a paradox that ultimately leads to his own death. The movie leaves many unanswered questions, but it is a fascinating exploration of time travel and its consequences.

12 Monkeys (1995) - Screenwriters: David and Janet Peoples

  • In 12 Monkeys, a prisoner is sent back in time to prevent a deadly virus from wiping out humanity. However, his attempts to change the past create a paradox in which his own actions cause the virus to be released in the first place. The movie leaves many questions unanswered, but it is a gripping and thought-provoking exploration of time travel and its consequences.
The Butterfly Effect (2004) - Screenwriters: J. Mackye Gruber and Eric Bress

  • The Butterfly Effect is a movie about a man who discovers that he can travel back in time and change events in his past. However, each change he makes has unintended and unforeseen consequences that ripple through time, creating a butterfly effect. The paradox arises when the man realizes that every time he changes something in the past, his present changes as well, making it difficult to keep track of what is real and what is not.
Timecrimes (2007) - Screenwriter: Nacho Vigalondo

  • Timecrimes is a Spanish-language movie about a man who travels back in time to prevent a crime but ends up causing it himself. The paradox arises when the man realizes that his actions in the past have already happened and that he cannot change the outcome. This creates a loop in which he is doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again, leading to a tragic and inevitable ending.
About Time (2013) - Screenwriter: Richard Curtis

  • About Time is a romantic comedy about a man who discovers that he can travel back in time to fix mistakes and improve his life. However, the paradox arises when he realizes that his actions in the past have unintended consequences that affect his present and future. Ultimately, he learns to appreciate the present moment and live life to the fullest, without relying on time travel to solve his problems.
Predestination (2014) - Screenwriters: Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig

The Time Traveler's Wife (2009) - Screenwriter: Bruce Joel Rubin

  • The Time Traveler's Wife is a romantic drama about a man who involuntarily travels through time and the woman who loves him. The paradox arises when the man realizes that his actions in the past can have unintended consequences in the present and future. Ultimately, the movie explores themes of love, loss, and the fleeting nature of time.
Interstellar (2014) - Screenwriters: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan

Source Code (2011) - Screenwriter: Ben Ripley

Time After Time (1979) - Screenwriter: Nicholas Meyer

  • Time After Time is a classic movie about H.G. Wells, who invents a time machine and travels to the future to stop Jack the Ripper. The paradox arises when Wells falls in love with a modern-day woman and must decide whether to stay in the present or return to his own time. The movie features a charming and witty script, along with excellent performances from its leads. Meyer would go on to write The Wrath of Khan.
Time Bandits (1981) - Screenwriters: Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin

Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) - Screenwriters: Jerry Leichtling and Arlene Sarner

  • Peggy Sue Got Married is a comedy-drama about a woman who travels back in time to her high school years and must choose between staying in the past or returning to the present. The paradox arises when Peggy Sue realizes that she cannot change the past and that her actions have unintended consequences in the present. The movie features an excellent performance from Kathleen Turner and explores themes of nostalgia, regret, and the fleeting nature of youth.
The Terminator (1984) - Screenwriters: James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) - Screenwriters: James Cameron and William Wisher Jr.

  • Terminator 2 is a classic action movie that features a time-traveling cyborg who must protect a young boy from a more advanced model sent to kill him. It is revealed the remains of the first Terminator, were discovered and studied by Cyberdyne Systems, the company that will eventually create Skynet and thus Terminators itself. Meaning we have a predestination paradox.
  • We will skip T3 eh? No fate but what we make...
The Butterfly Effect (2004) - Screenwriters: J. Mackye Gruber and Eric Bress

Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel (2009) - Screenwriters: Jamie Mathieson and Gareth Roberts

  • Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel is a comedy about a group of friends who discover a time portal in a pub and must navigate the complications of time travel. The paradox arises when they inadvertently create a time loop and must find a way to break free from it. The movie features witty and irreverent humor, along with a clever and well-executed plot.
Timecrimes (2007) - Screenwriter: Nacho Vigalondo

  • Timecrimes is a Spanish-language thriller about a man who accidentally travels back in time and becomes embroiled in a series of increasingly complex and dangerous events. The paradox arises when the man realizes that he is caught in a loop and must find a way to break free from it. The movie features a tense and suspenseful plot, along with excellent performances and clever twists.
Let's not get started on Rian Johnson's Looper eh? Nor The Avengers: Endgame

When it comes to time travel paradoxes, movie viewers can appreciate or accept them in several ways:

  1. Suspension of disbelief: Many movie viewers are willing to suspend their disbelief and accept the existence of time travel as a plot device, even if it defies the laws of physics or creates paradoxes.Acceptance of fictional rules: Some movies establish rules for time travel within their own fictional universe. Viewers can accept and appreciate a paradox as long as it follows these rules. For example, in the "Back to the Future" franchise, changes to the past create a branching timeline, rather than altering the present directly.
  2. Enjoyment of the story: Some viewers might not concern themselves with the scientific accuracy of a time travel story, and instead appreciate the story for its characters, themes, and entertainment value.
  3. Analyzing the paradox: For viewers who enjoy thinking deeply about the concepts presented in a time travel movie, paradoxes can be an intriguing and thought-provoking aspect of the story.
Ultimately, how a viewer appreciates or accepts a time travel paradox depends on their personal preferences and their willingness to engage with the story on different levels.


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About the author Jimmy Jangles

My name is Jimmy Jangles, the founder of The Astromech. I have always been fascinated by the world of science fiction, especially the Star Wars universe, and I created this website to share my love for it with fellow fans.

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