Matthew Makes You Think About… Time Travel Movies!

Familiarity with plots and characters is presumed. Spoilers abound.

Matthew David Brozik
5 min readMay 9, 2017


I love time travel movies. Some of my favorite movies feature time travel! One of the things I like best about movies with time travel is that something is going to make little or no sense, and that is what’s most worth thinking, talking, and writing about. Let’s begin!

Time keeps on slipping. Or something.

Back to the Future (1985, 1989, 1990)

What’s that? Today’s the day Marty McFly travels to in the “future”? No, it’s not. That was two years ago. But consider this:

Marty (Michael J. Fox) is the protagonist of the BttF series. Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) is the very close deuteragonist. Doc Brown is the one who built the time machine, because he wants to travel in time, and indeed when he does, he mostly has a good time doing it. Marty, on the other hand, also travels in time… but whenever he does, it’s the stuff of nightmares. So at the end of the series, when Doc Brown says that he’s going to destroy “this infernal machine,” you’d expect Marty to agree wholeheartedly. Because that infernal machine has led Marty to see things that will likely mean he’ll never sleep soundly again.

Doc, to the contrary, enjoys his time in 2015 — he gets a facelift for himself and a hover conversion for the DMC-12 — and happens to learn that Marty’s kids get into trouble. (More on this below.) Doc Brown brings Marty (and Jennifer[s]) back to 2015 with him, where (when) Marty sees his own lousy future… and then they return to a horrific 1985, which is bad for them both, but really much, much worse for Marty (…he sees his father’s grave and his mother’s implants, and Biff tries to shoot him, in the only good scene in BttFII).

Then, from 1955 (again) Doc gets zapped back to 1885, which turns out to be a lovely time/place for him. He doesn’t know that he’s going to get shot in the back by Buford Tannen. Marty knows it, and Marty brings that knowledge back to 1885 with him. And Marty sure as hell doesn’t have a good time in 1885, either. So Marty should be the one who says, “Doc, blow this motherfucking car up as soon as we get back to (the nice) 1985, or I will.” Turns out, he does, in a somehow very sad scene on some very sad train tracks, albeit only by accident. But that car was evil, and Marty shouldn’t be at all sorry to see it destroyed. If anything, he should be relieved to see Doc Brown again, but horrified that he’s built a time-traveling train! Am I right? I’m right.

Back to the Future II (bonus thought)

The plot of BttFII is set in motion when Doc Brown takes Marty and Jennifer from 1985 to 2015 because each of their kids in turn gets in serious trouble on the same day in the future, and they — Marty, Jennifer, and Doc Brown — need to go to that day to prevent this from happening. So they cram into a time machine and travel forward in time.

Do you know what else would have worked? Other than using a time machine to tell someone in the future not to do something? A pen and a piece of paper. You can even try this at home: Write yourself a note today. Read it tomorrow. Look at that! You sent yourself a message in the future… and you didn’t risk screwing up the past.

Arrival (2016)

Ian (Jeremy Renner) will leave Louise (Amy Adams)—in the future, after the main events of the film—when Louise reveals that she knew well ahead of time that Hannah (their daughter) would get a rare, unstoppable disease, yet Louise will have kept this secret and chosen to have a child with Ian anyway, which Ian believes (will believe?) was the wrong choice. Whether Ian’s reaction — to run away from Louise and Hannah — is the “right” reaction, his anger at Louise is completely understandable. If you knew for a certainty that your child would get an untreatable disease and die at age 12, and that your husband/her father would leave you both before then, and you went ahead with having that child, then you are a monster.

Now, you’re going to tell me (as my dad already has) that with the gift of the heptapods, humans can know the future (because time/memories does/do not flow in just one direction) but can not change it… to which I say: That can’t be, or else the heptapods would not have come to Earth in the first place. They came to preëmptively help humanity because they will need humanity’s help in the future, and helping/getting help in the future means changing the future (as it has been foreseen). Moreover, if the future can’t be changed, then the “gift” of being able to see into the future would be no gift at all. It would be a curse.

Looper (2012)

This isn’t so much nit-picking as it is appreciation for very clever writing… that’s just plain ridiculous. But it’s in a time travel movie, so here it is:

When Young Seth (Paul Dano) lets his loop run, Abe (Jeff Daniels) finds him and has a message carved into his arm (before having his body parts cut off). The carved message begins, in large letters, BE AT (and an address is revealed as Old Seth pushes up his sleeve). It is very important that we, the viewers, see BE AT first.

Later, after Young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) lets his loop run, he vows to find Old Joe (Bruce Willis) himself and bring him to Abe (or just kill him). The movie now jumps between scenes with Young Joe and scenes with Old Joe, and there comes a point when we have reason to fear that Young Joe has been caught by Abe’s men… and we know what they’ll do to him to get Old Joe. Indeed, we see Old Joe discover something (new) on his arm. What’s that? A message in the form of a scar? Oh, no! It begins BE AT — but it’s not an address. It’s the start of a name: BEATRIX, the very unlikely name of a waitress at the diner where Young Joe goes after he closes a loop.

The viewer is relieved! Young Joe was not caught and carved. Old Joe does not have to BE AT an address! Rather, Old Joe meets Young Joe at the diner. And then comes the best part, the part that closes the loop of this bit: Old Joe comments that it must hurt Young Joe to have a fresh wound… and that there’s another waitress there — Jen — which has fewer letters than Beatrix. But that wouldn’t have worked for the gag. At least Rian Johnson appreciated that the device was ludicrous, so he had the characters themselves joke about it. And I dig that.

Primer (2004)

Hell, no.