Terminator: Genisys Science Consultant Calls Terminator Time Travel a 'Horrible Mess'

Wednesday, 01 July 2015 - 3:49PM
Science News
Physics
Wednesday, 01 July 2015 - 3:49PM
Terminator: Genisys Science Consultant Calls Terminator Time Travel a 'Horrible Mess'
There are a lot of things wrong with Terminator: Genisys, not the least of which is the completely wonky altered timeline. But while that timeline is clearly a narrative contrivance, is it scientifically inaccurate? Or, at the very least, is it less scientifically accurate than the franchise as a whole? Vice recently sat down with Sean Carroll, the Caltech theoretical physicist who consulted on Terminator: Genisys and concluded that the time travel in the entire Terminator franchise is a "horrible mess":

Opening quote
There's no question that it's a horrible mess, really, which is very, very common in time travel movies. I think it's very very rare for a time travel movie to work hard to keep everything consistent and sensible. The movie will plod along in whatever way the writers want to get from point A to point B and messing with timelines is definitely a way to do that.
Closing quote


According to Carroll, the events of the first film make logical sense, as the time travel doesn't change the past, but rather sets off a "chain of events that leads to itself." The Terminators are clearly operating under the assumption that the past can be changed, but since the initial event doesn't change, there is no inherent paradox.

In the second film, the timeline gets a little more complicated, as Sarah and John presume at the end that they have successfully prevented Judgment Day from ever occurring. The idea that one can "change" the past or future is scientifically untenable, according to Carroll, unless you add the wrinkle of alternate timelines. 

Opening quote
A layer that you can try to add to this is, "Can we imagine a set of timelines that are different from each other, and yet the whole shebang is consistent?" So let's say we have a simple world where the first terminator succeeded, and John Connor was killed. Then you can imagine there's a timeline where John Connor was killed, and one where he was not, and they're sort of separate from each other.
Closing quote


Carroll explains that alternate timelines are potentially scientifically accurate, if the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is accurate. This theory asserts that when every possible outcome occurs in a quantum experiment, but only one is observed, the other possibilities actually occur in parallel universes. Whenever these possibilities arise, the history of the universe branches off into so many alternative timelines. The new world is an exact duplicate, but with a different history from the point that it branches off.

This theoretically occurs on the quantum level, so it's probably a bit of a stretch to apply it to more macro events like a person being murdered, but the general concept holds true. So in T2, we can assume that in one branching timeline, Judgment Day is successfully averted, while in another timeline, Judgment Day occurs and the Terminators are sent back in time, setting all the events of the franchise in motion.

Terminator: Genisys explicitly refers to these alternate timelines, as the arrival of the Terminators in 1973 caused a branching timeline in which Sarah was raised by a T-800, who trained her to face her destiny. I won't go any further into it, as the film only came out today, but this part at least has a basis in science. 

But while the branching timelines are somewhat "plausible," at least by movie standards, the real inaccuracy is the method of time travel seen in all of the Terminator films. We've grown used to seeing Arnie disappear in one moment in time and reappear in another, but Carroll explains that if time travel were achieved, this would still never happen.

Opening quote
Einstein taught us that time and space are both part of one four-dimensional thing called spacetime. So in general relativity, which is Einstein's theory of spacetime, if you want to go backwards in time, you just move through spacetime in a particularly curvy way, so that your path takes you to a point before you left. But there's no part in physics that says I can just disappear and reappear somewhere else. There's nothing even remotely respectable about that.
Closing quote


So in order to travel in time, you have to travel through space in a linear way, rather than just ending your existence in one timeline and showing up in another. Or, in Carroll's words, you would need to "hop in a spaceship and fly around for several years until you finally got back to the year 2011 or whatever."

And finally, Carroll revealed the substance of his discussions with Terminator: Genisys director Alan Taylor about why Terminators are always naked when they travel back in time: "Who cares, really? They wanted to show Arnold Schwarzenegger naked." Hard to argue with that logic.
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