Time Travel and Determinism

Determinism or Free Will: Time Travel in The Terminator (1984) and Back to the Future (1985)

by Hussain Fathah


Time travel allows the time traveller to go back in time to change the course of history as he may choose. However, does the time traveller always have the ability to change the future? As travelling back in time is currently nothing more than science fiction, one needs to study texts like time travel movies to get a better sense of how they were popularly perceived. When one thinks of time travel movies back in the 1980s, two movies that come to mind are The Terminator (1984) and Back to the Future (1985). The two movies portray varying forms of time travel. The Terminator (1984) depicts a deterministic and circular ‘self-consistent’ time travel where the time traveller can never change the timeline and the time-travelling event was always part of the timeline (King, 1999, p. 271). For example, in the movie, the terminator, a cyborg from the future, must fail in its mission to go back in time to kill Sarah Connor, the mother of the cyborg’s greatest opponent in the future, such that its parts are used to create Skynet (a self-aware Artificial Intelligence that wants to wipe out the human race), who sent the Terminator back in time. Back to the Future (1985) on the other hand, paints a freewill ‘multi-timeline’ time travel. In this form of time travel, a time traveller creates a new timeline when he goes back in time as he was never there in the original timeline. The time traveller has the ability to change the course of history as he chooses.

It is interesting to see two films from the Cold War era, both being written by Americans, have such different perspectives on time travelling. But which type of time travel was more aligned to the American sentiments of the time? Cold War-era America believed that democracy was the system that all countries should subscribe to. America believed that free markets and civil liberties would lead to economic, social and political prosperity. Within America, Americans that benefitted from this system would likely believe that they are masters of their own destinies and could mould their future. Looking at it through this perspective, one could say Americans would believe the world works based on free will rather than deterministically. And as such, the concept of ‘multi-timeline’ time travel depicted in Back to the Future (1985) matches the American sentiment towards free will.

Determinism & Free will: Time Travel

The way that time travel is presented can provide us with some insight into how creators and the communities they are in perceive how the world works. In this opinion article, whether they perceive the laws of the universe (time in particular) to be deterministic or directed by freewill.

Self-consistent time travel, as mooted by David King, dictates that the time-travelling event is part of the linear timeline. This means that the time traveller can never truly change history to his liking as there is no alternate history where the time traveller never time travelled (King, 1999, p. 271). This was the form of time travelling observed in The Terminator (1984). The Terminator and Kyle Reese can never change history without creating a paradox. The terminator needs to die for Skynet to be created and Kyle must go back in time to impregnate Sarah Conner so that John Conner can be born. The actions of the terminator and Kyle appear to be pre-determined and fixed even though they were sent back in time to change history. As such, self-consistent time travel presents a deterministic perspective on time travel.

Self-consistent time travel is a stark contrast to ‘multi-timeline’ time travel. There was a pre-existing timeline where the time traveller had never time travelled. The time traveller has the ability to affect or change events from the original timeline to his liking. The time-travelling event will create a new timeline that is different from the original timeline. This is illustrated in Back to the Future (1985) where Marty McFly time travels to the past and changes aspects of the timeline (e.g. making his father more confident and saving Doc Brown). Marty changing the timeline as he deemed fit shows that he had some free will in making decisions that will affect the timeline. ‘Multi-timeline’ time travel, unlike the deterministic self-consistent time travel, allows for the time traveller to assert his free will.

Determinism & Free will: Cold War

It is notable that both American movies highlight two varying viewpoints of time travel, especially since both were made in the Cold War era. The fight between America and the Soviet Union became a war between democracy and communism across the globe. America’s democracy brought civil liberties and free markets while the communist regimes were perceived to be oppressors of human rights and the implementors of a restrictive command economy. In the 1980s, many democratic cities saw economic prosperity while communist cities saw much slower economic growth. The communist-ruled the East and democratic West Germany was one of the clearest representations of the effects of democracy and communism on people’s quality of life and standard of living. 

America was the bannerman of democracy, trying its best to spread its brand of democracy as the golden standard of freedom. Americans argued for nations to determine their own fates (through self-determination) rather than be ruled over by imperialists or communists and advocated for nations to open up their markets just as America had. Locally, Americans benefitted from democracy by achieving their economic, social and political ambitions and goals. By having the opportunity to achieve their goals, Americans were free to chart out their own futures and destinies as they saw fit. As such one would think that Americans were more inclined toward the notion of free will rather than determinism. Determinism would mean that their destinies were cast in stone and that they could not control it. Americans would have believed that communism would have brought about such a deterministic world, where its people have no freedoms or control over their own lives of destinies due to the tyranny of oppressive communist regimes. Whereas, American free would have meant that they could write their own destiny. As such, it would be intuitive to say that American sentiments in the 1980s would lean more towards the idea of free will rather than determinism. 

Determinism & Free will: The Terminator (1984)

In this vein, The Terminator’s time-travelling ideology of self-consistency would be at odds with the American’s beliefs at the time. The notion that even a time traveller could never change his future appears misaligned with the principle of free will. In The Terminator (1984), the time-travelling Terminator was always destined for failure. It needed to be destroyed by Sarah and Kyle so that its parts can be found and be reverse engineered to build Skynet. In other words, had the terminator completed his mission, it may have never been destroyed and thus there would be no Skynet in the future to create the terminator. There would be a time paradox, which cannot happen in self-consistent time travel. Another example from The Terminator (1984) is Kyle Reese’s journey. He sets out to find Sarah Conner in 1984 but does not know that he will be the father of John Conner. Kyle needed to time travel into the past to ensure that John was born. There would have been a time paradox if Kyle Reese had not gone back in time as there would be no John Conner to lead the human resistance. In both cases, the timeline is pre-determined, and the time traveller does not seem to be able to display any free will to influence the timeline. The lack of free will in the concept of time travel is interesting as one may expect the American filmmakers to echo what would have been the American sentiments of the time; free will. 

Despite The Terminator’s inclinations towards determinism, there are signs of free will present. The terminator being a machine had no ethical or moral restrictions that it needed to abide by. In the movie, the terminator takes the clothing it needs from gangsters, assaults people that get in its way and even rams a car into a police station when it does not get what it wants. As such The Terminator (1984) allows people to fantasize about a world where they can do anything they want, no matter how dark or grim their actions may be. Looking at The Terminator (1984), it provides a different perspective that is in line with the American sentiments of free will during that time period. 

Determinism & Free will: Back to the Future (1985)

The ‘multi-timeline’ time travel showed in Back to the Future (1985) appears to be more compatible and inclined towards the American sentiments of free will. In this case, the time traveller has full control over his decisions which will impact not just his timeline but everyone’s timeline. The time traveller has free will to make his own decisions. In Back to the Future (1985), Marty nearly wipes himself and his siblings out of existence when he unwittingly stops his parents from meeting. He then fixes his mistakes but in doing so creates a more confident and dominant version of his father, altering the original timeline altogether. Marty had created a new and improved timeline and, in this case, he had the free will to influence the timeline as he saw fit. This representation of free will is more in line with how the Americans viewed it at the time.


Each movie displays differing perspectives with regards to time travel. The Terminator (1984) imagines a linear timeline and as such time travel must be self-consistent. This means that the actions taken by the time traveller may be considered to be pre-determined as there was never a timeline where the time traveller never travelled back in time. Furthermore, the time traveller’s actions are unable to change the course of the linear timeline but rather his actions were always going to cause future events in the said timeline. Back to the Future (1985), however, envisions time travel on the basis of free will, categorized as ‘multi-timeline’ time travelling. In this form of time travel, the time traveller has the ability to change the course of history at will, thus creating new timelines every time the time traveller makes changes. Looking at the likely sentiments of Americans in the 1980s, the Americans would have been more aligned to the idea that time (and other laws of nature) were subjective and non-deterministic. As such the ‘multi-timeline’ time travelling would be more compatible with the American sentiments at the time as compared to The Terminator’s (1984) self-consistent time travelling. In order to shed light with regards to this conclusion, there would be a need to question the true motives as to why the respective directors decided to portray time travel the way that they did.


Cameron, J. (Director). (1984). The Terminator [Motion Picture]. United States of America: Hemdale.

King, D. (1999). Time Travel and Self-Consistency: Implications for Determinism and the Human Condition. Ratio, 12, 271-278. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9329.00092

Zemeckis, R. (Director). (1985). Back to the Future [Motion Picture]. United States of America: Universal Pictures.