No matter how far technology progresses, or what impossibilities science makes possible, one fact remains: a human being can’t change the past. But that doesn’t mean movies can’t show what might happen if they could.
Over the years, the ‘time travel’ genre has swelled to include hundreds of films, ranging from adventure (Back to the Future) to psychological horror (The Jacket), with this week’s About Time using the notion of time travel to put a spin on romantic comedy.
What better time to look back at the genre as a whole, highlighting not simply the most acclaimed films that happened to include the concept, but stories that added a new dimension to leaping backwards in time.
Here are Our 10 Favorite Time Travel Movies.
Admittedly, it might be more accurate to describe the endless loop endured by weatherman ‘Phil Connors’ (Bill Murray) as the result of a curse, not time travel. But we’d make the case that Groundhog Day is absolutely a time travel story: albeit one in which time travel is unintentional, and repeated to the point of torture.
Strangely enough, given that description, it also happens to be one of the few comedies on our list. Unlike most other time travel tales, the movie poses the question of what a person would do if forced to live the same day over and over again, without any clear idea of what he was meant to change (if anything).
Dieting would no longer matter, all consequences would be thrown out the window, and the ability to predict events would border on clairvoyance. Oh, and the day is February 2nd in a tourist trap, so some suicide attempts are also going to result. We’ll never listen to Sonny & Cher the same way.
As the years continue to pass, the legend of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home continues to grow; the fact that it was not just a legitimate Trek film, but one of the better ones, becomes more astounding. When a mysterious probe shuts down Earth’s defenses and power grids, emitting a strange signal, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and his crew must find a humpback whale to answer the call.
That means traveling back in time to 1986 (before humpback whales went extinct). The chance to see Kirk and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) embrace the ’80s culture is worth a viewing alone, but the crew’s complete disregard for preserving the timestream makes the fact that they traveled back in time the least far-fetched aspect of the story.
It wasn’t the last time the Trek series would have a brush with time travel, but it is by far the most memorable. Let’s hope J.J. Abrams has plans for a remake.
As a general rule, most time travel tales are ones that we would count ourselves lucky not to get wrapped up in. Paradoxes, unforeseen consequences, and general risk of injury are things to be avoided at all costs – but passing up the chance to solve a mystery is one few can resist.
While Duncan Jones’ Source Code may not be as revered as the director’s other work, we can’t help but appreciate the attempts made by the story. Mainly, to bring sci-fi time travel together with a suspenseful detective story. The role of detective falls to ‘Colter Stevens’ (Jake Gyllenhaal), able to re-live the last minutes of one terrorist attack’s victim. His task is simple: repeat the process until he’s gained enough information to discover who was behind the attack.
The film may stray from the basic premise, but it’s strong enough to deliver not only an entertaining – and easy to follow – thriller, but bring something new to the notion of a ‘time loop.’
Since the film rested in the hands of director Tony Scott, movie fans knew they were going to get something stylish with Déjà Vu. As yet another collaboration between Scott and leading man Denzel Washington, the film also followed an ATF agent’s attempts to uncover the man behind a shocking terrorist attack.
But instead of using traditional time travel, Washington’s character ‘Doug Carlin’ is only able to look into the days leading up to the bombing; but deciding where to look is the real challenge. The mental seeds of time paradoxes are planted early, but the fact that the movie actually managed to include a chase scene between two cars traveling days apart is a testament to its originality.
Like many of Scott’s films, Déjà Vu may not have attained ‘classic’ status, but proves that the late director never failed to thrill, no matter how outlandish the plot.
Bring up the topic of time travel among serious cinephiles, and it won’t be long before 12 Monkeys enters the conversation. Although the premise is fairly generic – a crumbling future society sends someone back to acquire information on what brought the collapse – director Terry Gilliam ensured that the movie would be one for the ages.
With starring performances by Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt (for which the latter was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), the pair’s eccentric characters mesh perfectly with Gilliam’s larger-than-life style.
No time travel movie has ever, or likely will ever be more surreal than 12 Monkeys, blurring the lines between dreams and reality, sanity and insanity, or past and future with ease. Gilliam’s trademark visuals may not be for everyone, but it’s hard to argue that they’re a perfect match for the nonlinear plot of the film.
The premise of Frequency seems to have the makings of a Disney-approved, heartwarming take on sci-fi: a strange phenomenon allows John Sullivan (Jim Caviezel) to speak – via ham radio – with his father Frank (Dennis Quaid) thirty years in the past.
The chance to make up for lost time takes a turn when John – a police officer – realizes that his father could offer insight into the cold case he’s currently working (with the murders still yet to take place in Frank’s timeline). But with every bit of information that passes from father to son, the future is changed.
The story isn’t a conventional time travel tale, since only the pair’s words are actually crossing from one timeline to the other. But the idea of two men solving a crime thirty years apart is an inspired twist on ‘changing the past.’ The family ties add an emotional element as well, making Frequency one underrated movie.
Few film franchises have proved as reliable for drawing in audiences – or hard to kill – as the Terminator series. Many claim the the original following Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is the best of the bunch, and while that’s a fair argument, the first chapter functioned as a monster movie with a clever time travel twist; time travel took center stage in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
There’s a laundry list of reasons why T2 will forever be cherished by a generation: recasting a mindless villain as a hero is nearly impossible to pull off, Linda Hamilton embodied the transformed Sarah Connor like few modern actresses would, and the film’s special effects are a blend of groundbreaking and ingenious.
Action aside – and there was plenty of it – it was T2‘s final moments that sealed it as one for the ages. To this day, we’re not sure if the claim that “there is no fate but what we make” means Sarah Connor was a hero, or just plain wrong.
It’s a statement often made by those in the midst of time travel: “I know I can do it, because I already did.” At this point, it’s even been used in the Harry Potter series. But what happens when the things that must be done – because they already have been – are morally wrong, or downright criminal? Can they be changed, or is there no choice?
That’s the question raised by the Spanish film Timecrimes (originally titled Los Cronocrimenes), the most likely entry on our list to have slipped by even devout time travel junkies. Written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo, the ‘less is more’ theme runs through all elements of the film, with a total cast of just four players.
The less said about the plot the better, but believe us when we tell you that the many twists and turns will leave any moviegoer hoping that they never find themselves sent backwards in time.
It’s been hailed as one of the best independent films of all time (and made for just $7,000, one of the cheapest), and there’s no question Primer is among one of our favorites. The brainchild of writer, director, producer, editor, composer and star Shane Carruth is so unique mainly due to its core objective: to tell a believable story of two friends who accidentally create a time machine.
With a razor thin-budget, mathematical and physical jargon pouring out of every scene, and a plot twist that we’re happy to wager nobody will understand on their first viewing, Primer is simply a different breed of sci-fi. It’s also one of the only films that tries to give a scientific explanation for how time travel works.
Stumbling onto time travel seems most likely in the real world, so Primer could be seen as the most accurate film in our entire list. Which is terrifying.
There are only a select number of ’80s films which can claim to be timeless, with Back to the Future chief among them. While the debate over which was better, the original or Back to the Future 2 will rage on for all time, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is beyond immortal to more than one generation.
It’s hard to say how much his time machine of choice is to credit for that, since Doc Brown’s DeLorean puts the rest of our list to shame. But most of the credit sits squarely on McFly’s shoulders for deciding that forever altering the course of the future was too good to pass up.
By inventing rock and roll, giving a busboy the drive to become mayor, and giving his father an idea that would make him a wealthy novelist, Marty proved time travelers who worry only about ‘saving the world’ are missing the point entirely.
That’s just 10 entries in a genre that seems to grow by the year, but there are plenty more to choose from.
What films on our list are some of your favorites? Are there any you think should be added that haven’t been mentioned? Feel free to make your case in the comments.
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