Shining Girls (Apple TV, 2022)

Another time travel fiction review with SPOILERS for the TV show (and to some extent the book as well)

I very much enjoyed the Apple TV series Shining Girls, an adaptation of Lauren Beukes’ 2013 novel The Shining Girls. I thought it was well acted, well shot, mostly well written and had a satisfying ending, albeit a problematic one since the killer is left alive and Kirby might now be forever bound to the house like he was. However, I was confused and somewhat annoyed by the time-travel aspects; the way the house worked as a time machine mostly made sense, but the way that  Kirby’s present (and later that of Harper and Jin-Sook) was shown to change moment to moment really makes zero sense. It made me very curious to find out if it was part of the book, and I soon found out that it wasn’t. I decided to read the book as much preferred the idea of a straightforward time travel version of the same story. As much as I enjoyed the book, it made me all the more annoyed that the TV version had made such a dramatic and nonsensical change. It wasn’t the only questionable change either. The focus upon Kirby and her ever-shifting reality resulted in a great deal being changed or removed, including most of the titular ‘shining girls’ including, surprisingly for 2022, the black, trans, and pro-abortion characters. The ones that are retained are significantly changed and a whole new character – Leo Jenkins – is added for no clear reason. 

Time travel in the novel is straightforward; you simply can’t change the past. It’s a clever twist on a closed loop like The Terminator or Twelve Monkeys. So nothing changes. In the TV show it’s more like Terminator 2 or Back to the Future – you can change the past and save the girls. This is a change that the 12 Monkeys TV show also made to the movie’s story, and I could have lived with the same here. Most people don’t share my love of closed loops and it’s fun to see a seemingly foregone conclusion averted/subverted (which is why James Cameron contradicted his own first movie with his sequel – it made for an emotionally satisfying ending at the expense of pure logic. No, what got me annoyed in Shining Girls (2022) was not the malleable timeline but the introduction of a second, wholly nonsensical mechanism for changing it. This is both more confusing than it need be and a direct contradiction because in theory changes made by one mechanism should impact those made by the other. Dark and Avengers: Endgame (see my review here) both introduced branching realities, to varying degrees of success – I would have been OK with this show doing something similar since under that system of time travel cause and effect is pretty much intact. Shining Girls makes the same mistake as Endgame, but whereas that logic only broke in the final scenes and can be ‘fixed’ with some off-screen assumptions, Shining Girls is fundamentally broken as a time travel story since its second mechanism is nothing to do with ‘many worlds’ and is, well, random. Drinking vessels, desks, haircuts, clothes, characters and locations all change, for absolutely no reason. No multiverse shenanigans are ever mentioned or even implied. The characters speculate at one point that the changes are somehow echoes of events that might yet happen; a laundromat changes into a bar for which Kirby already has a matchbook, and Kirby goes from single to married to a coworker. 

Dan: When things change for you, do you recognize it? 

Kirby: Sometimes. Other times, they’re just random. 

Dan: Maybe they’re what’s to come.

But then it’s shown that she doesn’t marry her coworker at all in the ‘final’ timeline, at least as far as we see. Is she still destined to do so at some point? If so then there’s no chance that she stays in the house and becomes some sort of time-travelling vigilante or whatever. They’ve shown that it’s possible to change reality, seemingly permanently, so surely the timeline where she marries him is no longer viable? When should the laundromat have been a bar and what are the consequences of it changing at the ‘wrong’ time? Kirby has the matchbook – why? Jin-Sook’s career is destroyed in the present because she isn’t killed…also in the present. At the same time Kirby’s present also shifts because Dan is stabbed, again, in the present. Why? The answer to all of this and the other seemingly random changes is deeply unsatisfying and illogical. The cause of these changes is not meddling in the past but rather (sigh) strong emotions experienced by someone who is ‘entangled’ (a clear if nonsensical attempt to reference quantum mechanics) with another person who is somehow detached from time – namely Harper (with Kirby’s fellow victim Jin-Sook joining the entangled mess later on). In Luisa’s own words:

“I always thought of time just there’s one string of time, and so wherever Harper is he’s still connected to Kirby so his emotions, his violence against other women it ripples forward kind of like a butterfly effect and changes her world, changes her, you know, her hair, her apartment depending on on what he’s done, and so if he kills Jin-Sook in April 26 it doesn’t matter that Kirby is, you know, at the same time, it basically ripples backwards and still impacts her life.” 

This (and another attempt to explain it here) makes absolutely no sense. The conceit of ‘mutable’ timeline time travel and much of our fascination with it is that when you change something, you’re creating a cause that has an effect. It doesn’t matter which way around – you can have something exist out of time in the past that is caused in the future; logically speaking there’s no problem with that. But two unconnected events are, well, unconnected. There IS no cause, there can be no effect. How the hell does Harper killing a woman that has nothing to do with Kirby’s past change Kirby’s present? How does him attacking her in the present change the past of the building that they happen to be in? Or where her desk is? How is Harper ‘entangled’ with Kirby in the first place? He’s affected by the house’s time travel magic – is this somehow contagious? There is no satisfactory answer to any of these questions. What Harper is doing in the present cannot logically affect events in the past. He can take an object from the present back or otherwise change the past IN the past, but he can’t just throw a spacetime tantrum and change Kirby’s past from the present. What Luisa is describing is some sort of psychic warfare – which might have been an interesting premise for a TV series, but not this one. The changes are not even consistent in their frequency or magnitude. At one point near the end reality shifts again but Kirby’s hair, clothes and makeup don’t. This was apparently because they “ran out of hairstyles” and liked her cool punky confident look so they just kept it. 

Of course it’s possible to (as some fans have) invoke ‘many worlds’ and say that every change we see is actually the universe branching, but that’s not shown or told to us. Instead, everything is shown to happen in a single mutable timeline in which trips to the past absolutely do change the present/future. Further, only causal events that take place in the subjective present (like the fight with the changing building) could create a branch in reality and even then, this branch would occur then and there, not arbitrarily in the past (indeed, according to the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, that’s exactly what IS happening all the time). If you’re going to make up rules that aren’t logical, OK, do that, but you need to spell them out, if not in the show then somewhere (famously, Donnie Darko did this on its website). 

I don’t think I’m just being a time travel obsessive here. It isn’t just the fun nerdy logic puzzle aspect that this affects, it’s the narrative as well (unless you miss the fact or choose to overlook it). Although it feels like the stakes and tension are being raised by the changes becoming more frequent and disruptive, they aren’t really – it’s unearned and artificial-feeling, like overly dramatic loud music playing over an otherwise ordinary scene (looking at you, modern Doctor Who). If anything can happen at any moment to three of the main characters, nothing really matters. It’s also needlessly confusing for the viewer, since it’s hard enough for people to follow cause-and-effect changes – hence the contrived photos and fax in Back to the Future – never mind completely random ones taking place in parallel yet not, apparently, conflicting with or modifying the logical changes. Two totally separate mechanisms for change happening at the same time. It’s a bizarre narrative choice, especially since it isn’t taken from the book, and detracts from the otherwise excellent acting, staging, dialogue etc. However, having read many reviews, not many seem to agree with me. They seem to fall into several camps on the time travel aspects. First, people like this SyFy reviewer who seem to think that this multiverse travel, which I’ve explained isn’t the case. Second, some people misunderstand what’s shown and think that the changes ARE due to Harper changing the past, like this Slate reviewer who, by the way, I otherwise agree with. Even Beukes seems to rue the changes to an extent, although she seems mostly happy with the adaptation, perhaps because she’s less attached to her own coherent time travel than I or simply because adaptations are inevitably a compromise between producers, showrunner, writers and studio. Then there are the people who just don’t care or even (looking at you, Redditors) protest that anyone trying to analyse the time travel is ‘missing the point’ and should stop fussing over it. Finally, and not too far removed from the last group, are people who accept that Harper, Kirby or Jin-Sook’s emotions are somehow enough to change the timeline, which as noted is what the showrunner and writers actually intended. As is often the case with fan explanations, none is very satisfactory.

It seems to me that the creators understood that unexpected timeline changes are interesting and fun from movies like Primer or The Butterfly Effect (or perhaps series like 12 Monkeys) and would fit their intent for the adaptation, but weren’t able (or didn’t care) put in the work to make the changes work in terms of cause and effect. Instead they came up with this handwavy version in which things might feel like they might ultimately make sense but logic is in fact out of the window. It’s very much the J.J. Abrams empty ‘mystery box’ approach – set up the intriguing mystery, then reveal that stuff just happens because the writers say so rather than because (say) Harper killing the coroner/medical examiner in the past prevents Kirby getting access to the body she needs to investigate and suddenly a key piece of evidence is lost to her (other than her memory of it) in the present. I chose this example because they do a similar reality shift with the medical examiner in the show (changing from a woman to a man and back again), but it happens (twice) for no reason other than to throw off the audience.

The idea here was that Kirby’s ever-shifting present would be a metaphor for her trauma and “born of a desire to keep the series subjective to Kirby’s experience”, but there’s no reason why subjectively unexplained shifts (i.e. we the viewer sees the cause, Kirby doesn’t) wouldn’t do just as well – better, in fact, since Harper would be actively changing her past to affect her present and future, rather than being clueless as to how or why he was having these effects. Happily, like the other stories I referenced, The Shining Girls novel follows a self-consistent narrative – Harper was always going to lose, he (and Kirby) just didn’t know it yet. No-one is saved by changing the past. Even the hard date limit on Harper’s time travel, hand-waved in the show, is originally due to the fact that the timeline is (as the author’s time-travel consultant Sam Wilson confirmed) self-consistent – he can’t go past 1993 because that’s when the house is, essentially, fated to burn. He is living a loop – he dies in the burning house and then, it’s strongly implied, becomes the house, reaching back to lure a series of owners, including himself, to try to makes things right. But it’s a closed loop – he is merely setting the story in motion from its end. He has no free will, something that people tend to dislike about predestination stories, but I find them satisfying. The creators of the show claimed that they didn’t want the house to be the driving force for Harper’s murders because it took away from his agency – they wanted him bad in the first place. Seemingly, Luisa and co have misunderstood the ending – the house is not just some supernatural entity driving Harper to kill, it’s his ghost. Harper himself is the supernatural cause of the time travel in this story. There was no need to change the story to make Harper solely responsible for his evil – he already was. Like all serial killers he thinks that he has some higher reason for killing but in reality it’s pointless and circular. This also destroys the origin of the time travel house – in the show it’s just…there, and remains unexplained. Kirby inherits it as a “totem of power” according to Luisa, which seems anathema to the original ending (to be fair to her she does acknowledge that this isn’t necessarily a good thing).

Author Lauren Beukes had fellow writer Sam Wilson ‘doctor’ the timeline for her to make it work, and he did a great job. Beukes also gives her vision for her novel:

“I wanted to use time travel as a way of exploring how much has changed (or, depressingly stayed the same) over the course of the 20th Century, especially for women, and subvert the serial killer genre by keeping the focus much more on the victims and examining what real violence is and what it does to us. The killer has a type, but it’s not a physical thing – he goes for women with fire in their guts, who kick back against the conventions of their time.”

This aspect, unlike the closed time loop, somewhat carries over to the TV series, albeit lacking the same variety in terms of the titular girls. However, she also stated that she;

“…wanted to play with loops and paradoxes and obsessions which meant the model I settled on was a fatalistic one. Think of it is as Greek tragedy time travel – the more you resist your destiny, the more you put in to play all the events that will bring it about, like Oedipus or MacBeth or King Herrod but also, in the way it loops back on itself, echoing the legends of Sisyphus and the punishment of Prometheus.”

This is thrown out along with the time travel logic and, for me, somewhat undermines its own narrative. As Beukes correctly tried to show, trauma cannot be magically undone and the dead certainly cannot be brought back. You can only try to address it and, hopefully, stop others from suffering in future. As I said, I did enjoy the show as a supernatural mystery series with time travel elements. The time periods were all nicely depicted and the excitement of travelling through time was there. But it didn’t scratch that timey-wimey itch for me, unfortunately. The recent adaptation of The Time Traveller’s Wife was much better in that regard. In conclusion, if you’re a time travel nut like me, check out the show if you like, but the main thing is to read or listen to the book. Not only is the time travel much better but the way the interior of the house works, its origins and connection to the killer, and even the title all make much more sense.


Time Travel in Avengers: Endgame

A still from Oren Bell’s brilliant interactive timeline for Endgame as a multiverse movie. He disagrees with both writers and directors on the ending – check it out on his site here

With the new time travel-centric Marvel TV series Loki about to debut, I thought it was time (ha) for another dabble in the genre with a look at 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. (SPOILERS for those who somehow have yet to see it). To no-one’s surprise, the writers of Endgame opted to wrap up both a 20+ film long story arc and a cliffhanger involving the death of half the universe by recourse to that old chestnut of time travel (an old chestnut I love though!). It did so in a superficially clever way, comparing itself to and distancing itself from (quote) “bullshit” stories like ‘Back to the Future’ and ‘The Terminator’. The more I’ve thought and read about it though, the more I realise that it’s no more scientific in its approach than those movies. “No shit” I hear you say, but there are plenty of people out there who are convinced that this is superior time travel storytelling, and possibly even ‘makes perfect sense’. In reality, although it ends up mostly making sense, this is perhaps more by luck than judgement. I still loved the film, by the way, I’m just interested in how we all ended up convinced that it was ‘good’ (by which I mean consistent and logical) time travel, because it isn’t!

tl;dr – Endgame wasn’t written as a multiverse time travel story – although it can be made to work as one.

Many, myself included, understood Endgame to differ from most time travel stories by working on the basis of ‘multiverse’ theory, in which making some change in the past (possibly even the act of time travel itself) causes the universe to branch. This is a fictional reflection of the ‘Many Worlds’ interpretation of quantum mechanics in which the universe is constantly branching into parallel realities. As no branching per se was shown on camera, I assumed that it was the act of time travel itself that branched reality, landing the characters in a fresh, indeterminate future in which anything is possible. My belief was reinforced by an interview with physicist Sean Carroll, a champion of this interpretation and a scientific advisor on the movie. I was actually really pleased; multiverse time travel is incredibly rare (the only filmed attempt I’m aware of was Corridor Digital’s short-lived ‘Lifeline’ series on YouTube Premium). I’m not really sure why this is but regardless, the idea certainly works for Endgame as time travel is really just a means to an end i.e. getting hold of the Infinity Stones. I wasn’t the only one to assume something along these lines, which is why many were confused as to how the hell Captain America ended up on that bench at the end of the movie. If, as it seemed to, the film worked on branching realities, how could he have been there the whole time? If he wasn’t there the whole time and did in fact come from a branch reality that he’s been living in, how did he get back? Bewildered journalists asked both the writers and the directors (there are two of each) about this and got two different answers. The writers insisted that this was our Cap having lived in our timeline all along, although they later admitted that the directors’ view might also (i.e. instead) be valid, i.e. that he must have lived in a branch reality caused by changes made in the past. W, T, and indeed, F?

There is a good reason for this. The directors’ view is actually a retcon of the movie as written and filmed. Endgame is actually a self-consistent universe that you can’t alter and in which, therefore, time-duplicate Cap was always there. There is a multiverse element, but as we’ll see, this is bolted onto that core mechanic, and not very well, either. Let’s look at the evidence. The writers explain their take in this interview:

“It’s crucial to your film that in your formulation of time travel, changes to the past don’t alter our present. How did you decide this?

MARKUS We looked at a lot of time-travel stories and went, it doesn’t work that way.

McFEELY It was by necessity. If you have six MacGuffins and every time you go back it changes something, you’ve got Biff’s casino, exponentially. So we just couldn’t do that. We had physicists come in — more than one — who said, basically, “Back to the Future” is .

MARKUS Basically said what the Hulk says in that scene, which is, if you go to the past, then the present becomes your past and the past becomes your future. So there’s absolutely no reason it would change.”

What these physicists were trying to tell them is that IF time travel to the past were possible, either a) whatever you do, you have already done, so nothing can change or b) your time travel and/or your actions create a branch reality, so you’re changing this, and not your past. Unfortunately the writers misunderstood what they meant by this and came up with a really weird hybrid approach, which is made clear in a couple of key scenes involving Hulk where the two parallel sets of time-travel rules are explained. As originally written and filmed these formed a single scene, with all the key dialogue delivered by the Ancient One. First, the original version of those famous Hulk lines that they allude to above (for the sake of time/space I won’t bother to repeat those here): 


Of course, there will be consequences.


yes…If we take the stones we alter time, and we’ll totally screw up our present-day even worse than it already is.


If you travel to the past from your present, then that past becomes your future, and your former present becomes your past. Therefore it cannot be altered by your new future. 

This is deliberately, comedically obfuscatory, but is really simple if you break it down. All they’re saying is that you may be travelling into the past, but it’s your subjective future. If you could change the past, you’d disallow for your own presence there, because you’d have no reason to travel. In other words, you just can’t change the past, and paradoxes (or Bill & Ted-style games of one-upmanship) are impossible. On the face of it this dictates an immutable timeline; you were always there in the past, doing whatever you did, as in the films ‘Timecrimes’, ‘Twelve Monkeys’, or ‘Predestination’. In keeping with this, the writers also claim that Captain America’s travel to the past to be with Peggy is also part of this. How? We’re coming to that. Most definitely not in keeping however is, well, most of the movie. We see the Avengers making overt changes to the past that we’ve already seen in prior movies, notably Captain America attacking his past self. How is this possible given the above rule? If it is possible despite this, how does 2012 Cap magically forget that this happened? The answers to both questions are contained in the next bit of dialogue: 


Then all of this is for nothing.


No – no no, not exactly. If someone dies, they will always die. Death is.. Irreversible, but Thanos is not. Those you’ve lost have not died, they’ve been willed out of existence. Which means they can be willed back. But it doesn’t come cheap. 


The Infinity Stones bind the universe together, creating what you experience as the flow of time. Remove one of these stones, this flow splits. Your timeline might benefit, but my new one would definitely not. For every stone that you remove, you create new very vulnerable timelines; millions will suffer. 

In other words, because the Stones are critical to the flow of time and because later on a Stone is taken, the changes to the past of Steve’s own reality are effectively ‘fixed’, creating a new branch reality where he does remember fighting himself and the future pans out differently without changing his own past. We can try to speculate on what would have happened if the time travellers had made changes to the past and then a Stone hadn’t been taken, but this is unknowable since every change to what we know happened does get branched. Either the writers are lying to us, they don’t understand their own script, or – somehow – the taking of the Stones is effectively predestined, forming another aspect of the self-consistent universe of the movie. Logically of course, this is, to use the technical quantum mechanical term, bollocks. Events happening out of chronological order in time travel is fine; cause and effect are preserved, just not in the order to which we’re accustomed. However, you don’t get to change the past, then branch reality, then imply that the earlier change is not only retrospectively included in that branch, but is also predestined! This is a case of the cart before the horse; the whole point of branched realities is to allow for change to the past – it should not be possible to make any change prior to this point. The very concept is self-contradictory. If you can’t change the past, you can’t get to the point of taking a Stone to allow for a change to the past. The only way this works is if we accept that you can make changes, but as per the nonsense Ancient One/Hulk line, your present… “…cannot be altered by your new future.” Unfortunately, the writers have established rules and then immediately broken them in an attempt to avoid falling into the time travel cliche of pulling a Deadpool and stopping the villain in the past and yet retain the past-changing japes of those exact same conventional time travel movies. Recognising that the new branched realities would be left without important artefacts, they then explain how these ‘dark timelines’ are avoided:


Then we can’t take the stones.


Yet your world depends on it.


OK, what if… what if once we’re done we come back and return the stones?


[Then] the branch will be clipped, and the timeline restored.

Note that this is further evidence of the writer’s vision; if reality branches all the time, there’s no way to actually ‘save’ these timelines – only to create additional better ones. If reality only branches when a Stone is removed, putting it back ‘clips’ that branch as they explain. Still, on balance this interpretation is seriously flawed and convoluted. Luckily the version of this same scene from the final draft of the script (i.e., what we saw play out) helps us make sense of this mess (albeit not the dark timelines; they are still boned, I’m afraid!):


At what cost?

The Infinity Stones create the experience you know as the flow of time. Remove one of the stones, and the flow splits.

Now, your timeline might benefit.

My new one…would definitely not.

In this new branch reality, without our chief weapon against the forces of darkness, our world would be overrun…

For each stone you remove, you’ll create a new, vulnerable timeline. Millions will suffer.


Now tell me, Doctor. Can your science prevent all that?


No. But it can erase it.

Astral Banner reaches in and grabs THE VIRTUAL TIME STONE.


Because once we’re done with the stones, we can return each one to its own timeline. At the moment it was taken. So chronologically, in that reality, the stone never left.

These changes have two significant effects (other than removing the potentially confusing attempt to differentiate being willed out of existence from ‘death’):

1) To move the time travel exposition earlier in the movie to avoid viewers wondering why they can’t just go back and change things. 

To achieve this they added the obvious Hitler comparison (it may not be a comparison that this was a minor plot point in Deadpool 2!), along with pop culture touchstones to help the audience understand that this isn’t your grandfather’s (ha) time travel and you can’t simply go back and change your own past to fix your present. This works fine and doesn’t affect our interpretation of the movie’s time travel.

2) To de-emphasise the arbitrary nature of the Stones somehow being central to preventing a ‘dark’ timeline by pointing out that they’re essentially a means of defence against evil. 

This is more critical. We go from ‘the Infinity Stones create the experience you know as the flow of time’ to ‘creating what you experience as the flow of time’, which I read as moving from them creating time itself, to simply the timeline that we know (i.e. where the universe has the Stones to defend itself). This provides more room for the interpretation that removing a Stone is simply a major change to the timeline, like any other, that would otherwise disallow for the future we know, and so results in reality branching to a new and parallel alternate future. Still, I really don’t think that improving time travel logic was the main aim here, or even necessarily an aim at all. The wording about how the Stones ‘bind the universe together’ may have been dropped as simply redundant, or possibly to soften the plothole that not only the ‘flow of time’ but also the ‘universe’ are just fine when the Stones all get destroyed in the present-day (2023) of the prime reality. If the filmmakers truly cared about their inconsistent rules, they had the perfect opportunity here to switch to a simple multiverse approach and record a single line of dialogue that would explain it without the need to change anything else. Here’s the equivalent line from Lifeline:

“Look, your fate is certain. Okay? It can’t be undone. Your every action taken is already part of a predetermined timeline and that is why I built the jump box. It doesn’t just jump an agent forward in time, it jumps them to a brand new timeline. Where new outcomes are possible.”

Anyway, back to that head-scratcher of an ending and the writer’s claim that Cap was always there as a time duplicate in his own past. They say this is the case because it’s not associated with the taking of a Stone. I have checked this, and they’re right; it’s the only change to the past that can’t be blamed on a Stone. There’s also no mention in the script (nor the alternate scene below) of alternate universes being created prior to the taking of a Stone. So, per the writers’ rules, Cap (and not some duplicate from another reality) is indeed living in his own past and not that of a branch reality. This was the intent “from the very first outline” of the movie, notwithstanding the later difference of opinion between writing and directing teams. To be clear, everyone involved does agree that he didn’t just go back (or back and sideways if you believe the directors) for his dance raincheck – he stayed there, got married and had Peggy’s two children. Which inevitably means that Steve somehow had to live a secret life with a secret marriage (maybe he did a ‘Vision’ and used his timesuit as a disguise?) and kissed his own great niece in Civil War (much like Marty McFly and his mum). 

You can still choose to interpret Steve’s ‘retirement’ to his own past as a rewriting of the original timeline that alters Peggy’s future (i.e. who she married, who fathered her kids etc). Alternatively, you can believe the directors that Cap lived his life with the Peggy of a branch reality and returned (off camera!) to the prime reality to hand over the shield. But neither of these fits with the original vision for the movie that you can’t change your own past and it doesn’t branch unless a Stone is removed. There’s another problem with the writer’s logic here. Cap only gets to the past by having created and then ‘clipped’ all the branching realities. This means that the creation and destruction of these branches also always happened and is also part of an overarching self-consistent universe. Except that they can’t possibly be for the reason I’ve already given above; we’ve seen the original timelines before they become branch realities, so we know something has in fact changed, and there can’t be an original timeline for Cap to have ended up in his own past!


So, Endgame as written and even as filmed (according to the writers) is really not the multiverse time travel movie that most of us thought. It’s a weird hybrid approach that you can sort of mash together into a convoluted fixed timeline involving multiple realities but not really. It actually makes less sense than the films that it (jokingly) criticises and handwaves all consequences for time travel. Luckily, it can be salvaged if we overlook the resulting plothole of Captain America’s mysterious off-camera return and follow the interpretation of the directors. That is, that there’s no predestination, the Avengers are making changes, but every significant change, (i.e. one that would otherwise change the future, like living a new life in the past with your sweetheart) creates a branch reality. Not just messing with Stones. This isn’t perfect; how could it be? It’s effectively a retcon. But it’s easily the better choice overall in my view. Why wouldn’t this be the case? It’s only logical. The only serious discrepancy is the remaining emphasis placed upon the significance of the Stones, which I think can be explained by the Ancient One’s overly mystical view of reality. She focuses on the earth-shattering consequences for messing with the Stones simply because she knows the gravity of those consequences. She doesn’t explicitly rule out other causes of branches. It likely doesn’t matter that they’re destroyed in the subjective present of the prime universe, because the ultimate threat she identifies is Thanos, and he’s been defeated, along with the previous threats that the Stones had a hand in, including of course ‘Variant’ Thanos from the 2014 branch (meaning that branch doesn’t have to contend with him and gets its Soul and Power Stones back). Of course, this interpretation has some dark implications: If significant changes create branches, then when Cap travels back to each existing branch to return each stone, reality must be branched again. The Avengers have still created multiple new universes of potential suffering and death without one or more Stones, they’ve just karmically balanced things somewhat by creating a new set of positive branches that have all their Stones. Except for, again, the new Loki branch. 

For me, the directors’ approach, whilst imperfect, is the best compromise between logic and narrative. It’s not clear whether they somehow thought this was the case all along, or whether they only recognised the inconsistencies in post-production or even following the movie’s release. The fact that the writing and directing teams weren’t already on the same page when they were interviewed tells me that, simply, not enough thought went into this aspect of the film. Why should we believe them? Well, the director’s role in the filmmaking process traditionally supersedes that of the writer, shaping both the final product and the audience’s view of it. Perhaps the most famous example is Ridley Scott’s influence on Deckard’s status as a replicant. You can still choose to believe that he is human based on the theatrical cut and ignoring Scott’s own intent, but this is contradicted by his later comments and director’s cuts. There’s also the fact that subsequent MCU entries suggest that the Russos’ multiverse model is indeed the right one. Unless Loki is going to be stealing multiple more iterations of Infinity Stones, the universe is going to get branched simply by him time travelling. If so, this will establish (albeit retroactively) that the Ancient One really was just being specific about the Stones because of the particularly Earth-shattering consequences of messing with their past (and the need to keep things simple for a general audience). It would also pretty much establish the Russos’ scenario for Captain America; that he really did live out his life in a branch reality before somehow returning to the prime reality to hand over his mysterious newly made shield (another plothole!) to Sam. Where he went after that, we may never know, but I hear he’s on the moon

Time Travel: the ending of ‘Twelve Monkeys’

‘I’m in insurance. Just to be clear, that means I’m a scientist here from the future to obtain a sample of the original form of your doomsday virus so that survivors in the future can reclaim the surface of the Earth. Clear?’

Something a bit left-field, but still about BS and history (sort of) and another in a series of time travel-related posts. One of the greatest time travel stories ever is the original Twelve Monkeys (1995); I love it. It’s an absolutely flawless, self-consistent time loop with a wonderfully bleak ending where (spoiler alert………….) the hero dies and fails to prevent the end of the world. However, it isn’t actually as bleak as it seems. The whole point of the movie, which some people have missed, is that the outbreak cannot be prevented. To do so would prevent the very future that sends James Cole back in time in the first place. What the future scientists *can* achieve is to obtain a sample of the virus to engineer a cure for the survivors in the future. They dub this an insurance policy of sorts, hence the future scientist – the ‘Astrophysicist’ in the credits and the script – introduces themselves as ‘…in insurance…’. Some take this literally, perhaps a deliberate jibe at the incompetent future rulers; she wasn’t even a trained scientist – just some business type (this argument has taken place, amongst other places, on the Wikipedia article ‘talk’ page)! This is not the case. The woman on the plane is definitively the scientist we see in the future, and she is a key part of the plan to save what’s left of humanity in the future, not in the past.

If the apparent age of the actress herself (who does not wear age makeup or even sport grey hair in the future scenes) doesn’t make this clear, the available drafts of the film’s script, dated June 27 1994 and February 6 1995, do. The future scientist is meant to appear the same age as he (given the late dates of the scripts, they must simply have not bothered to change the scientist’s gender after Carol Florence was cast in the role) is in the future scenes; ‘…a silver-haired gentleman…’. 


  1. PETERS closes the door to the overhead luggage rack containing his Chicago Bulls bag and takes his seat.  Next to him, a FELLOW TRAVELER, unseen, says…


It’s obscene, all the violence, all the lunacy.  Shootings even at airports now. You might say…we’re the next endangered species…human beings!

CLOSE ON DR. PETERS, smiling affably, turning to his neighbor.


I think you’re right. sir.  I think you’ve hit the nail on the head.

  1. PETERS’ POV:  the FELLOW TRAVELER, a silver haired gentleman in a business suit, offering his hand congenially.  DR. PETERS doesn’t know who this man is, but we do.  It’s the ASTROPHYSICIST!

ASTROPHYSICIST Jones is my name.  I’m in insurance.


As YOUNG COLE’S PARENTS (seen only as sleeves and torsos) usher YOUNG COLE into their station wagon, the boy hesitates, looks back, watches a 747 climb into the sky.




The Astrophysicist we see in the final cut likewise looks no older in the future than she does in the past. Although the date of the future scenes is never given, we are looking at a minimum of 30 years from 1996; Jose specifically mentions ‘30 years’ in the closing scenes, and Bruce Willis is very clearly at least 30 years older than his child actor self. This is a Hollywood movie with a 30+ million dollar budget; they could have afforded a little more latex if they had wanted to change the intent of the script.

The real clincher though is the wonderful documentary ‘The Hamster Factor’, which you can find (illegally of course) on YouTube. I’d encourage watching the whole thing, but from 45 minutes in we hear, despite director Terry Gilliam’s misgivings, the filmmakers’ clear intent that this scene is indeed a ‘happy ending’:


‘…a shot which has caused considerable conflict between Terry and Chuck. Chuck wants to follow the original script which ends with young Cole in the airport parking lot. As far as Terry is concerned though he has his final shot; the shot of young Cole in the airport witnessing his own death. …from early on reading the script and in discussions I’ve always felt that the ending of the film would take place in the airport between Railly and the boy, their eye contact, I mean, that’s why I started the film with, on his eyes, and end on his eyes, and the boy is touched, scarred, damaged by what he’s just seen, something that’s going to stay with him for the rest of his life. The scene that then came after that, was a scene in the airplane where Dr Peters and his viruses meet the astrophysicist and we know that somehow, the astrophysicist will get the virus and will be able to save the human race. [there is then a short clip of Jones the astrophysicist on the plane with Peters]. There was an argument that we needed that scene because otherwise Cole’s death would have been in vain, that he wouldn’t have achieved anything; this way we the audience can see that he has achieved something, that his death has led them to the virus and he saves the future, and um I was convinced that was all nonsense anyway, it was unnecessary and emotionally it would weaken the emotional ending.’


Note that although Gilliam talks about ‘reading the script’, the aeroplane ‘happy ending’ scene was definitely in there from at least a year before filming began; Gilliam as director was proposing that they should leave it out as it might be ‘giving too much away’, but producer Chuck Roven (and no doubt others, given the difficulties experienced with test audiences) were insistent that it remain. Later in the documentary, Mick Audsley (sound editor) explains the tricky balance being struck between giving the audience enough information or too little. We see Gilliam and others in the edit, watching first the scene of young Cole seeing older Cole die, and then the scene on the plane. Audsley even laughingly asks if this scene might actually be a setup for a sequel (!), something which Gilliam denies immediately before explaining that they are preparing two different edits for test audiences, one that ends on young Cole’s face, the other with the plane scene. As he puts it; ‘There are definitely two camps here on this one about whether that detracts from the ending or enriches it a little bit by tidying up certain plot.’ Then Gilliam states outright that ‘…she’s actually come back from the future, and Cole effectively has led them to this point…’ to which Audsley (at least, I think it’s him, it’s said off-camera) admits that this ‘didn’t come through’ for him. According to Gilliam, ‘quite a few people’ didn’t get it either. So if you were one of those people, don’t worry; you are in good company!  

On the ‘somehow’ of the means by which the future scientists will retrieve the sample from Peters (which definitely is unclear), I actually suspect that the handshake is also meant to represent the scientist willingly contracting the virus herself to obtain the virus sample by physical contact. This would be consistent with the Terminator-style naked time travel that we see; she couldn’t bring back a phial of virus, but she could contract the virus and bring herself back. Alternatively, perhaps there is a means of bringing back a sample without killing herself (assuming no actual virus has yet been released, she could even achieve this, er, drug mule style… I’ll say no more than that). The important point is that whether or not the scientists thought they might be able to stop the outbreak, they had a contingency plan to use the pinpointed location, time, date and ID of the perpetrator to obtain a sample and at least have a chance of engineering a cure. Although it isn’t clear how the unmutated virus would help them combat the mutated future strains, but still, the filmmakers are clear that this is the ending. It’s ambiguous enough, and the plan desperate enough, that you can still read it as the beginning of the end of humanity if you wish. For me it’s the right balance of bleakness, but I can see why many, including Gilliam himself, wanted the movie to end on young Cole watching himself die as a futile loop is completed.