To Infinity and Beyond: The Function of Time in The Terminator

All films involve time travel. Referred to as “meta time travel,” the standard linear progression of film narratives involve elements such as jumping forward in time, flashbacks, and other such visual tools that take the audience back and forth in diegetic time in order to support the narrative structure, rather than as an attempt to challenge the audiences preconception of time flow (Mijic 2). In science fiction, time travel is a far more intentionally disruptive narrative element, which upsets the normal forward-moving direction of time, forms loops, and produces paradoxes. “A construction of time that runs counter to the dominant experiences of time” as put by Dimtrakaki and Tsiantis (211). This can be seen time and time again over the history of sci-fi in films like the ones on screen. The film The Terminator provides a narrative involving time travel that perfectly exhibits one of the most common paradoxes of the genre: the self-fulfilling time loop. Sci-fi philosopher Theodore Sider describes two possible ways of thinking regarding time: as a moving flow or as a dimension with the same characteristics as space (343). In order for the loop in Terminator to exist, time must be something that moves, and the very idea that time can flow allows for time to exist in the years before and after the ends of the loop via the creation of parallel timelines.

            In order to explain how time in The Terminator operates as a moving dimension, I have to provide an explanation for Sider’s two possible concepts of time. Let’s begin with Sider’s argument that time and space can be considered as essentially attached at the hip. He posits that just as objects occupy space by the mere fact that the parts of a tangible object occupy an area, the same tangible objects are comprised of temporal parts that occupy a time (346). Time is therefore not flowing, but is instead like space, and where space has multiple directions (up, down, left, right, etc.), time has backwards and forwards. To illustrate how time and space are unified in this concept, let’s consider the following: All objects move through space in relation to time. For example, a truck might travel 50 kilometers per hour, and at each 50 kilometer marker the truck has traveled a particular amount of time forward. In order to move through time, this must be reversed so that the truck moves through time in relation to space. “Moving back and forth in space: Some object is at spatial point p1 at time t1, point p2 at time t2, and point p1 at time t3” (Sider 251).

            In order to illustrate the relationship between space and time, Sider uses space and time interchangeably. An object is at position A and time A, it then moves to position B at time B, and finally returns to position A at time C. Sider argues that if time and space are unified, the reverse situation must be true: an object at time A and position A can move to time B at position B, and then return to time A at position C. If charted on a graph, with time along the x-axis, the result graphic visually represents the ability to move forward in time, away from the y-axis, and back in time, toward the y-axis (Sider 352).

            In the “time as movement” concept, there is no reversal as time and space are considered independent. Where motion is considered the change in distance over time, the motion of time must be thought of in terms of a change in time over time. A “hyper time” as Sider puts it. So for example time may move forward at 20 minutes per 1 hour of “hyper time.” But what about this “hyper time?” surely it must move too, in relation to “hyper hyper time,” and so forth to infinity and beyond (344-45).

            In order to understand how time in The Terminator functions as a moving dimension as opposed to a unified space-time requires an explanation of the time loop that is created in the narrative. The human revolutionaries, led by John Connor, manage to destroy Cyberdyne Systems’ defence grid, which means they have all but won the war. As a last line of defence, Cyberdyne Systems send their latest prototype terminator, the T-800, to the past in an attempt to kill John Connor’s mother, Sarah, so that John is never born and therefore never defeats Cyberdyne Systems. John sends his comrade Kyle Reese into the past in pursuit of the T-800, and arrives just in time to help prevent Sarah’s termination. Things start to get confusing when you discover that Kyle Reese impregnates Sarah Connor, and becomes John Connor’s biological father. We can now see that a loop has formed in which Sarah gives birth to John, who leads the human rebels to victory over the machines, causing the T-800 to go back in time, causing John to send Reese back in time, thus restarting the loop. Interestingly, due to the nature of the loop, the fact that Reese arrives in the past means that he has already won, because Sarah must have lived in order for John to exist and send him back in time in the first place, if the T-800 were to succeed despite Reese’s best efforts, it would create a paradox because how would Reese have been sent back if John Connor was never born? It is therefore impossible for the T-800 to win, the T-800 is dead before it’s even been created. However, the T-800 is an important factor in causing its own creation, because it is the scrap pieces pulled from the hydraulic press that is reverse engineered by Cyberdyne Systems that leads to the eventual technological advance that annihilates the world. You can imagine the T-800 as Marty McFly, being instrumental in its own creation.

            It becomes really difficult to then imagine what takes place AFTER 2029. Since the loop seems to be closed between 1984 and 2029, what happens to the year 2030? Kyle Reese dies in 1984, time must move forward without him as John Connor and the humans purge the remaining machines, but with the information that we’re given in the singular film we can’t know for sure. The only reasonable explanation is the existence of multiple timelines. In order for time to move forward while simultaneously being stuck in a loop, there must be parallel timelines in which the world continues after 2029. This is where the motion of time as describe earlier comes into play. Sider finds the idea of infinite “hyper times” aka timelines to be too farfetched. However, Sider’s dismissal of the possibility of infinite timelines is unsupported, he “we are stuck with believing in an infinite series of different kinds of time… [Sider] can’t prove that this infinite series does not exist, but surely there are better options.”

In reality there has been some evidence discovered that suggests there are in fact an infinite number of universes or timelines (Hawking. The important thing to note is that in order for the larger universe of The Terminator to make sense in regards to what exists outside of the loop, there must be an alternate timeline which continues from where the loop begins again in 2029. In order for The Terminator 2 to exist as a narrative alongside The Terminator outside of the loop, the timeline must be split. The space-time concept that Sider proposes as a more logical function of time does not make sense within the logic of The Terminator narrative, since limiting time to a forward and backward direction allows no possibility for parallel movement, or a divergence in any single timeline.