Movies love to time travel. “Time is a flat circle,” said Rust Cohle, talking about the 4th dimension—or something. But in the case of popular media, the weird koan holds true: no matter how society progresses, or to what extent our technology matures, human beings are destined to repeat the same mistakes. Over and over and over again.
Is it possible to travel back through time and fix the wrongs we’ve wrought before—or will we just create more wrongs by messing with something we’re not meant to? With the release of not one, but three time-travel movies within only two months (Predestination, Project Almanac and Hot Tub Time Machine 2), there is no better time (natch) to consider the genre’s formative films. Whether characters spend the whole film traveling to multiple times, or just talking about it, these films give insight into the fascinating facets of being human that drive us to believe in the impossible.
Also, it’s worth noting: so many spoilers ahead. This is just the nature of time travel.
25. Safety Not Guaranteed
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Granted, (spoiler alert) time travel really only shows up in the film’s closing minutes. Yet, in chronicling the strange courtship of a magazine intern (Aubrey Plaza) and the potentially delusional teddy bear (Mark Duplass) who claims he’s built a machine that will take the two back in time, director Colin Trevorrow slyly crafts an ode to the impulses that make time travel such an important part of pop culture. As Plaza’s intern grows ever closer to Duplass’s sad-sack misfit, joined later by an editor (Jake Johnson) and another fellow intern (Karan Soni), each character confesses his or her deep-seated failures—failures accompanied by the stark pain of knowing there is no way to return to the past and try again. The film’s ending probably makes too literal a rather worthy symbolic theme throughout, yet Trevorrow’s balancing of heartfelt sweetness and existential anxiety makes him seem a much better fit as the director of the upcoming Jurassic World than many would give him credit for.
24. Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
Director: Jay Roach
The second entry in the Austin Powers franchise follows the titular Powers (Mike Myers)—a man similar to most of pop culture’s international spies in that he has a lot of sex—as he coattails Dr. Evil (also Myers) back in time to prevent his arch nemesis from stealing his “mojo.” What’s probably most impressive about this sequel, other than its box office returns, is that it was able to successfully button up all questions about how Austin Powers, a goofy-looking man with almost no respect for women, would ever be able to pork every single bipedal organism he sets his sights upon. Turns out it was just a purple syrup-y goop! When, in this film’s predecessor, Austin Powers’s sexual conquesting is chocked up to him being of “another time”—as in: You wouldn’t understand, Modern Woman; it was another time and ladies just liked different kinds of dudes back then—here we see that certain je ne sais quoi in action. In other words, consider this flick a meta-pick on this list: here’s a movie of “another time” that directly references yet “another time”—it’s like you are time traveling when you watch this movie! Shagadelic!
23. Hot Tub Time Machine
Director: Steve Pink
Three friends tired with their lives—joined by one nerdy nephew—go on a weekend trip to their old vacation getaway to remember what life was like before everything went sour. Sounds like a normal premise, until you add a hot tub that is also a time machine—if you get drunk enough. After a night of wild partying full of illegal Russian energy drinks, men in bear suits and Chevy Chase, the tub takes them back to 1986, a pivotal year for the crew. In trying to keep things the way they should be—and not disastrously alter their “present”—the guys go off to recreate their fondest memories, making new ones along the way, and stealing at least one Black Eyed Peas song (humanity is fine with this). The humor may be on the raunchier side for most viewers, but then again, those are the funniest parts. It’s kind of like Grosse Point Blank if Martin got the do-over he wanted: It’s high time the hot tub was given its time-travelin’ dues.
22. Somewhere in Time
Director: Jeannot Szwarc
Forget the complex mumbo-jumbo, the faux-hard science—in this romance, all time travel really takes is the right props and the power of self-suggestion! Pretty much overlooked and dismissed when it was released, this film starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour stays focused squarely on the supernatural force of love. It’s lightweight stuff, sure—its lingering cult status alone gets it on the list—but for some, this is an essential entry into the pantheon of time travel films.
21. Escape from the Planet of the Apes
Director: Don Taylor
One could be understandably mistaken for confusing the confusing passage of time in the first Planet of the Apes with actual time travel, but it wasn’t until the third installment in the original Apes series that the actual fabric of space-time was thoroughly ripped in twain. Following Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) and Zira’s (Kim Hunter) titular flight from the nuclear devastation of Future Earth in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape is mostly a chance for anthropomorphic apes to dress in the “highest” fashion of the early ’70s. Tee hee, a monkey with an effeminate kerchief! Yet, the inevitable treatment of Cornelius and Zira at the hands of a terrified human race mirrors all too well the treatment of Charlton Heston’s astronaut by Dr. Zaius’s council in the first film, which in turn (spoiler!) leads to the events of the first film. As in practically all time travel films, history is doomed to repeat itself.
20. Déjà Vu
Director: Tony Scott
Déjà Vu is one of umpteen collaborations between Denzel Washington and Tony Scott, though it might be their best. In it, Washington plays Doug Carlin, a gruff ATF agent who’s spent his entire career trying to catch people after they’ve committed crimes and, like any good cop, would love to one day catch these same people before. Save some federal dollars, right?! In order to stop a bomber, Carlin gets mixed up with a program called “Snow White,” which allows “present” folks to see 4 days, 6 hours, 3 minutes, 45 seconds, and 14.5 nanoseconds into the past, a technology that of course is so much more than it seems. A clusterfuck of alternate timelines, a mean-mugging Jim Caviezel and a bonkers car chase straight out of H.G. Wells’s wet dreams, Déjà Vu does what any time travel movie of its stripe should do: abandon all logic and sense to play with time in a gritty, cosmos-sized sandbox.
19. Peggy Sue Got Married
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Released less than a year after Back to the Future, Coppola’s take on the high school time travel yarn taps into a lot more hormonal ambiguity than Zemeckis’s hit. After suffering through a bitter separation with ex-high-school-sweetheart Charlie (Nicolas Cage), Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner) faints at her high school reunion and wakes up in 1960, seemingly transported back to the most transformative year of her life. Through a series of clever events that fall somewhere between fantasy fulfillment and science-fiction, Peggy Sue eventually comes to accept that she has, in fact, gone back in time. She considers this anomaly the perfect chance to re-do her life, but soon finds that her future—er, present—is not necessarily negotiable. Where Coppola tops the near-unflappable Zemeckis joint is in nailing that bittersweet something that makes nostalgia so appealing. It doesn’t matter whether Peggy Sue could have drastically changed her future or not—what matters is that she chooses not to.
And yes, that is Jim Carrey.