Not having a perfect memory sucks sometimes

I remember seeing 12 Monkeys back in 1995 and being very frustrated with some aspect of the time travel portrayed. For years I’ve been unable to remember exactly what it was that ruined the film for me, but I knew there was something. I put off watching it again because I knew it was so frustrating.

I finally broke down and watched it again, and damn it, I still can’t remember what I was pissed off about. 

Not that there aren’t obvious issues (spoilers ahead):

If someone is gunned down in an airport and the person with them is screaming out that that someone getting onto the plane is planning to release a deadly virus, would the plane still take off?


Correction: having typed the below, I’m now pretty confident that I know what pissed me off, and this is it:

If you are in the past (prior to 1996) and trying to convince people to take your warnings about the future seriously, how hard would it be to make predictions that would make it clear you know what you’re talking about? You might not be able to convince them immediately, but if you named a few presidents and a few wars, it seems clear that it wouldn’t be too hard. The film makes it clear that at least one time traveler ended up 600 years in the past, at least one ended up in the early twentieth century, and one ended up in 1990.

The film was based on the premise that you can’t really change the past: that everything that will happen to your future self in the past already has happened, and is unchangeable. So for example, when Bruce Willis was a child he saw his adult self get killed. There was never a time (sorry to overburden that word) when his child-self didn’t see his adult-self killed because it hadn’t happened “yet.”

Unfortunately, that’s just silly on the face of it. It’s hard to imagine a logically-consistent timeline where people from the future have free access to the past, free will to act/communicate in the past, but no ability to affect it. If someone in 1920 wanted to call out Hitler, would it be so hard to name enough “future” events to be taken seriously, and also call out Hitler? Is there any self-consistent (i.e. unchanging) timeline where someone could be in that position, say what was going to happen, and it not change events? Could a world that had access to a detailed chronology including the stock market crash, Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt, The Jazz Singer, and Shirley Temple (those from memory) not take seriously the subsequent predictions of the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, the Japanese attacks on China and Pearl Harbor? And if the world did, how could those events play out as they did?

If that were the case, the historical timeline in 12 Monkeys would have to be far different than our own, having been affected by numerous time travelers. But if that’s the case, how could time travel be unknown in 1990 and 1996? Combine that with the doctrine of “what will happen has happened” and you get a fixed timeline where many people have gone back in time, but none has managed to do anything interesting while back there. Either no time travelers have made a serious effort to influence anything, or they have somehow been prevented. The former is clearly not true, even based just on Bruce Willis’s character, and there is no evidence of the second idea, which was so well explored by Fritz Leiber in a series of short stories.

If there’s a way for a timeline to be non-self-modifying, time travelling, information-sharing, change-motivated but change preventative, I don’t know what it is.


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