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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Director: J.J. Abrams
With Leonard Nimoy dearly departed—he the epitome of living long and prospering—there seems no better time to celebrate the brazen way in which J.J. Abrams both blew up the Star Trek universe and paid homage to all the ground it broke before. Old Spock (Nimoy) serves as the lynchpin upon which this re-boot hinges, wherein New and Old literally communicate with one another to birth an alternate timeline, providing a new generation of potential fans with an Enterprise crew all its own. Although time travel isn’t new to the Trekkie mythos (see: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home or First Contact), Abrams treats such space-time hopping as one of many technologically speculative ideas to hone within his lens-flaring future, celebrating the frontier-bursting spirit of Roddenberry’s original vision. Check the upcoming Terminator Genisys to see what kind of precedent Abrams set—time travel is pretty much every franchise’s key to a sexy mulligan.
Director: Nacho Vigalondo
Nacho Vigalondo’s low-budget thriller is probably the final proof anyone would need to accept that time travel may be the easiest sci-fi technology to film on a shoestring budget. Like many such films, Timecrimes plays fast and loose with the paradoxes inherent in time travel. Audiences at festivals such as Fantastic Fest, where it won Best Picture, didn’t seem to mind too much.
Director: Richard Kelly
Apparently, at some point in its burgeoning cult ascendency, director Richard Kelly admitted that even he didn’t totally get what’s going on in Donnie Darko—going so far as to release a “Director’s Cut” in 2005 that supposedly cleared up some of the film’s more unwieldy stuff. Yet another example of a small budget wringed of its every dime, Kelly’s debut crams love, weird science, jet engines, superhero mythology, wormholes, armchair philosophy, giant bunny rabbits and Patrick Swayze (as a child molester, no less) into a film that should be celebrated for its audacity more than its coherency. It also helps that Jake Gyllenhaal leads a stellar cast, all totally game. In Donnie Darko, the only thing that’s clear is Kelly’s attitude: that at its core cinema is the art of manifesting the unbelievable, of doing what one wants to do when one wants to do it.
Director: Nicholas Meyer
No list of time travel films would be complete without at least one featuring the father of time travel fiction himself, H.G. Wells. In Time After Time, Wells (Malcolm McDowell) himself is the inventor of the machine he will later write about, a contraption that is hijacked by—get this—none other than Jack the Ripper (David Warner), who is also Wells’s friend, because of course he is. Hopped up on adventure sauce, Wells follows Mr. The Ripper to 1979, where he’s dismayed that society isn’t the socialist haven he imagined. While director Nicholas Meyer is in a little over his head here, his sense of invention and glee with the subject matter is infectious. Plus, we can thank this film for preparing him to later direct the only Star Trek masterpiece, The Wrath of Khan. That he also went on to write the screenplay for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, another little time travel ditty, means today there’s still hope for him to kick that habit of writing Philip Roth adaptations and get back to his sci-fi bread and butter.
Directors: The Spierig Brothers
Whole galaxies away from their vampire flick Daybreakers, the Spierig Brothers’ Predestination seems like the work of an entirely different group of people. If you haven’t read the Robert Heinlein story upon which this is based, then describing the intricacies of this exquisite headfuck runs the risk of giving too much away. Needless to say, were we to compile this list in a few years, this film might jump easily into the Top 10, but for now, it’s best to admire Sarah Snook’s performance as the beleaguered Jane, time traveling cop protégé to Ethan Hawke’s elder officer. For nearly half of the film, Jane’s journey is a science-fiction-less account of a transgendered person coming to grips with the secrets her/his body has held for so long. It’s something truly special: the Spierig Brothers were able to take such an archetypal idea as time travel and ground it in the heartrending story of someone who’s born feeling forever out of place.
Director: Bryan Singer
Has time travel ever been put toward a nobler purpose? We’re not talking about the prevention of a future dystopia—that’s standard time traveling fare. No, Bryan Singer’s merging of X-Men old and new served a much greater role: eliminating the events of X-Men: The Last Stand from the collective timeline. It just never happened. Thank you, time travel. Thank you.
Director: Stephen Herek
Not Neo, not Johnny Utah, not John Wick—there will never be a more perfect role for Keanu Reeves than kind-hearted time traveling slacker “Ted” Theodore Logan. Joined by his intrepid best friend Bill (Alex Winter—wearing a surprisingly acceptable muscle shirt sans mid-riff), the two peruse the whole of Western Civilization in their time-skipping phone booth to kidnap historical figures, use them to keep from flunking History and ensure—yaddah yaddah yaddah—the safety of the human race. For many of us, this was a formative film: a conflation of pop culture and History for Dummies; a reason to pay attention in class; the first time we ever tried to figure out what “69” meant. Technical rules don’t much apply here; instead, the message is clear: a good friend will stick with you until the end of time.
Director: Woody Allen
Woody Allen isn’t the type to lean into sci-fi, let alone time travel—that is, until one really begins to dissect his work. In Zelig (1983), Allen plays an Everyman who, through his ability to transform himself—physically and mentally—into anyone around him, ends up paying witness, without responsibility, to a number of key historic moments. Further back, in Sleeper (1973), Allen’s Miles is cryogenically frozen, only to awake 200 years in the future when the world is under the control of a police state and human sexuality is an anachronism. Together, and in light of Allen’s enormous filmography, it’s no surprise the director spars with the deep-seated urge to escape: to run away from commitment, failure, rejection or practically anything that tests his neurotically balanced norm. So, when it comes to Midnight In Paris, in which Gil (Owen Wilson), a struggling writer visiting Paris with his fiancée (Rachel Mcadams), enters a mysterious car at midnight and is taken back in time to the 1920s to hang with such literary idols F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), the films reads as yet another vehicle for Woody Allen to find escape. Time travel just so happens to be an excellent way to do so.
Director: Terry Gilliam
The first in Terry Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Imagination,” Time Bandits breathes with the unfettered glee of cinematic magic. Told through the eyes of Kevin, a neglected 11 year-old (Craig Warnock), the film details a literal battle between Good and Evil, between God (Ralph Richardson) and the Devil (David Warner)—though they’re never explicitly referred to as such. What Gilliam accomplishes, as Kevin meets such luminaries as Robin Hood (John Cleese), Napoleon (Ian Holm) and an irrepressibly charming King Agamemnon (Sean Connery, of course), is the perfect ode to imagination, wherein a kid’s bedroom musings gain the seriousness and weight of world-shaking war. Like a much weirder step-cousin to Bill & Ted, Time Bandits employs nostalgia and pseudo-history in equal measure to capture, with boundless invention, what it feels like be 11 again.
Director: Doug Liman
A time machine is never used, but the concept is alive and well in Tom Cruise’s latest sci-fi action film. Lt. Col. Bill Cage (Cruise) is a soldier who inadvertently finds himself fighting on the front lines during an alien invasion that threatens to take over Earth. After being exposed to the alien’s blood, he is then caught in a time loop, stuck repeating the same day over and over, growing into a ruthless killing machine with each passing “day.” This idea is used to both comedic and thrilling effects, as Cruise must interact with the other solders, a take-no-prisoners warrior (Emily Blunt) and a swarm of ever-growing alien life forms that he has to cut through each and every day in his efforts to defeat them. All of the Groundhog Day comparisons don’t do enough justice to director Doug Liman’s handling of such a high-concept fiasco. It is, in other words, just plain fucking awesome.
Director: Duncan Jones
Much like Edge of Tomorrow, our hero in Source Code has to relive the same day over and over again, but on a much smaller scale. Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the perfect candidate to test a new program that allows people to live through the eyes (and memories) of someone else lost to time—but only for a few minutes. Through these reconfigured memories, Stevens is sent back to a Chicago commuter train right before a bombing takes the lives of everyone aboard, and it’s his mission to figure out what happened. Stevens never actually “travels” through time, but it hardly matters: Source Code explores the reality of consciousness and the power of perspective, claiming that time may just be all in our heads.
Director: Rian Johnson
Joseph-Gordon Levitt channels his inner badass to act as the younger version of Bruce Willis, nailing (with the help of some CGI and prosthetics) Willis’s ubiquitous action presence. The best case made on film for “If time travel is outlawed, only outlaws will have time travel!”, writer/director Rian Johnson wisely treats the tech as a given, focusing instead on the dramatic scenarios humans’ use of it would create. The result is one of the more thrilling time-travel-infused flicks of the last few decades, and clear evidence as to why Johnson will soon take a Star Wars film under his wing.
Director: Shane Carruth
Ditching the fantasy, Primer tackles the science of time travel more directly than most of the films on this list—or at least it appears to. Like Timecrimes with its teensy budget, Shane Carruth’s tightly woven narrative is all about appearance. It follows the work of two engineers who stumble upon an interesting side-effect in their efforts to reduce the weight of objects: they find they can travel through time. At first they do what anyone would do, and use their invention to make some fast cash, but greed and confusion soon take over, and the film unravels into a mess of double-crossings and alternate timelines—so much so that, of all the films on this list, Primer probably most rewards multiple viewings (and closed captioning wouldn’t be a bad idea, either, given the mumbly nature of much of the dialogue). A moral lesson wrapped in a sci-fi tragedy, Primer saps all the fun out of time travel.
Director: Harold Ramis
In the rich vein Edge of Tomorrow and Source Code, Groundhog Day stars Bill Murray as Phil Connors, a rude, unhappy man who, after spending the day covering the news of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania’s groundhog celebration, wakes up to relive the day once more. There’s little explanation as to why this happens, but Groundhog Day strips back all the mysteriousness and pretention of time travel as a concept to celebrate the hilariously mundane. It also helps that this film is a single-serve capsule of Bill Murray, America’s Greatest-of-All-Time Comic Sweetheart, at his very best.
Director: Terry Gilliam
The brilliant mind of Terry Gilliam once again emerges on this list, taking Chris Marker’s La Jetée (see below) and making it grimier. Beginning in post-apocalyptic Philadelphia in 2035, Twelve Monkeys glimpses Earth’s surface as contaminated by a virus that forces survivors to hide underground. Cole (Bruce Willis) must travel back to the ’90s to collect information on this deadly virus, but, of course, nothing goes as planned. While Cole questions his sanity, he must not only find a way to escape the mental institution in which he’s been placed, but he must also race against fate to un-do his ultimate undoing. A cauldron of plot twists, excellent performances and environmentalism, Twelve Monkeys makes an inarguable case for inevitable human doom.
Director: Chris Marker
At only 28 minutes, La Jetée is somewhere between a film and art piece. Its concept—black and white photos pieced together while an omniscient narrator explains what’s happening—quickly announces its symbolic purpose: a man (Davos Hanich), whose story we’re told as plainly as possible we are now a part of, can travel relatively painlessly through time because of a few stark images he’s carried with him since childhood. World War III has decimated Paris, reducing most citizens to desperate “guinea pig” status, used by Scientists to concoct time travel experiments “to call past and future to the rescue of the present.” Most of the helpless jerks launched through time end up going mad, unable to mentally “hold” themselves to a time their minds aren’t conditioned to endure. But the man is stronger than them: he is “glued to an image of his past.”
So how better can a filmmaker believably reproduce memory than obsess over the stillness of it? Rarely do we fixate on a whole detailed sequence, instead dwelling on one detail, one image branded into our brain tissue. The man’s is that of a pier (“la jetée”), a man dying, and a woman’s face. It’s that image that allows him to travel (without machine) through time, to visit our “present” in order to prevent his “future.” Like in Twelve Monkeys, redirecting fate is easier said than done, and as the man confronts his destiny, no other film since this has made the concept of time travel so personal, and the concept of time so sad.
Years: 1984; 1991
Director: James Cameron
It may be a cop-out to count these two films in one slot, but, as with our No. 1 pick, together The Terminator and its sequel introduce us to perhaps pop culture’s longest-lasting, most archetypal time travel plot. James Cameron didn’t always have the budget to make things like Titanic or Avatar, but even at the start of his career his ideas were always larger than life. Whether Terminator 2 is one of those rare cases where the sequel is better than its predecessor is up for debate, though Cameron takes what made his first film a hit and enhances everything: from the sophistication of its effects and action, to the depth of the characters, to the complexity of its narrative. There are doctoral theses to be written about how The Terminator has shaped our modern imagination, and there are long debates to be had about how Terminator 2 is the most perfect action movie ever created. Regardless: one cannot stress how influential Cameron’s films are, so much so that they seem to defy space-time itself, reaching both deep into the past and far into even our future to define every facet of modern science-fiction filmmaking.
Years: 1985; 1989; 1990
Director: Robert Zemeckis
This was a given. The three-part epic journey of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and his legitimately insane mentor Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) not only provides the crucible through which practically every comedy adventure made since must pass, it proves that even one insignificant kid’s actions make a universe of difference. There is little to add to a popular discussion of these films besides pointing out their diminishing returns with each successive entry, but that hardly takes away from the brilliance of Zemeckis’s storytelling. No plot point is wasted, no shot infused with anything less than humor and emotional breadth—if this sounds a bit schmaltzy, or a bit overboard with praise, then stop to consider how cherished these films are in the course of American cinema. As they mess with history, so too do they make history, and from that standpoint, it’s hard to imagine anyone feeling the need to go back to make this trilogy any better.