Even as time machines remain as fictional as ever, time-travel stories hold important lessons for legal reasoning. Starting from the ancient paradigms of prophecy, the article explores the key features of the genre. Considering four key time-travel themes — the self-fulfilling prophecy, predictive policing, evil time-travelers, and getting one shot to undo a fateful moment — the article discusses how time-travel movies express subtle (and not-so-subtle) critiques of cornerstone legal concepts such as mens rea, culpability, obedience to law and individual freedom, regulation of information asymmetries, and negligence. Through this analysis, the article aims to introduce time-travel movies into the broader field of law and film studies.Miller states
Engaging with the law starts with imagining hypothetical situations: what would I have done if I we’re in the defendant’s shoes? What will I do if the other guy doesn’t keep to the contract? What will government officials do if I do this or that? We learn and teach the law through stories—cases—of real disputes and the judgements that followed them, and we calculate our interactions with government bodies and each other by tracing the law’s blueprint to help us anticipate their possible reactions to our actions. It is no surprise, therefore, that fiction and storytelling play such an important role for honing our ideas of laws and morality.
If all stories are thought experiments, then time travel stories choose especially good laboratory conditions. In the real world, the messy connections between knowledge, action, and outcome are hard to untangle. Time travel stories are like the frictionless universe of the theoretical physicist. Instead of uncertainty, the hero is given perfect foresight of a future course of events. The hero can then play with the variables, choosing a point on the space-time continuum to tinker with the trajectory of causes and effects. The hero’s success or failure brings into focus other determinants of our lives’ stories, such as fate, luck, morality, weakness, and folly.
Time travel stories1 are especially well suited for examining questions of moral choices and the pursuit of justice. Real-life judgment is invariably distorted by hindsight; the answer to the question “what should I do” is always different from the answer to “what should I have done”. The genre’s pattern is familiar: looking at the devastations of crime and calamity, a fictional hero is driven by a moral impulse to set things right, and is given a chance to do something about it. But even with 20/20 hindsight, it is not easy to do the right thing the second time around. Obstacles abound, and results are not guaranteed. In this way, stories of time-travelling heroes illuminate the factors that stymie and blind us from taking moral action and achieving justice.