For a lot of moviegoers, the idea of time travel can be confusing and overwhelming, and some are turned off simply by associating time travel with movies in the science fiction genre. But not me. I love time travel and all the possibilites that spawn from it: the possibility of changing the future, confronting yourself from another period of time, and inescapable time loops. A substantial amount of movies have featured the concept of traveling through time, and the results often vary quite a bit. Here are, in my opinion and in no particular order, the ten best movies that involve time travel as a central plot device:
1. The Terminator (1984)
I’ve made my thoughts on The Terminator pretty clear in the past – I think it’s one of, if not the, greatest science fiction stories ever told. Time travel is everything in The Terminator, as Kyle Reese is sent back in time to protect Sarah Connor from a killer robot (that was also sent back in time) so that Sarah can give birth to John, the leader of humanity in the future. The allusions to Christ are apparent, what with John being a savior (with the initials J.C., no less) and being born as the result of a quasi-immaculate conception. The Terminator presents time travel on a scale that’s about as epic as you can get.
2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
T2 is one of those rare examples of a sequel that’s as good as (if not better) than the original. Another terminator – this time an advanced model – is sent back through time, but to kill a 10-year-old John Connor. With the help of his own Terminator that John himself sent back, he frees Sarah from a mental institution and does his best to stop Skynet from becoming a reality. We know now, though, that Judgment Day can’t be stopped; it can only be delayed. T2 is all about using time travel to change the future, peppering the viewer with themes of free will and determinism. And don’t sweat it, T3 is NOT on this list.
3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
In Prisoner of Azkaban, Hermione comes in possession of a time turner, a magical device that allows the user to travel through time. She and Harry travel back in time three hours and, in an effort to save Buckbeak, cause disruptions to change the course of action taken by their “past” selves. Harry also sees that it was he that defeated the Dementors, enabling him to do it again…infinity times. Prisoner of Azkaban, along with its breathtaking cinematography, executes the concept of a time loop just about flawlessly. The third Harry Potter movie marked the transition of the films as tailored for children to tailored for adults. It’s also the movie where you found Hermione kind of attractive, but kept it to yourself so the authorities wouldn’t come a knockin’. Come on – I know I’m not the only one.
4. Donnie Darko (2001)
You either love Rickard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, or you hate it. Since it’s on my list, I’m obviously a big fan. Sure, it’s weird, and even Kelly himself has confessed that he doesn’t “get” everything, but enough of the pieces are in place that I can call Donnie Darko a very good film. So what’s weird about it? Well, a tangent universe branches off from the primary universe around the time a jet engine (the Artifact) falls through the roof of Donnie’s home. It lands on his bed, but since Donnie was sleepwalking, he survives. There’s a, uh, giant rabbit named Frank, and Donnie has to close the tangent universe in order to save his own. Trust me, it works pretty well on screen.
5. 12 Monkeys (1995)
If you haven’t seen 12 Monkeys, then I really don’t want to ruin it for you. It’s got Bruce Willis, a cracked-out Brad Pitt, a giant red herring, and one of the coolest time loops in any movie. What young James Cole witnesses at the airport brings the whole movie together, and also sodomizes the viewer’s mind with a good ol’ fashioned mind f*ck.
6. Back to the Future (1985)
For a mainstream movie aimed at the masses and not the smaller demographic of sci fi fans, Back to the Future handles time travel pretty well. Say what you want about the images on Marty’s photograph disappearing as he changes events in the past, Marty’s own mother and father not realizing that he LOOKS EXACTLY LIKE Calvin Klein from high school, and the fact that Chuck Berry would have never made it big without Marty traveling back in time, but…you know, maybe the movie doesn’t handle time travel so well. Eh, it’s still a fun movie and belongs on this list. Great Scott!
7. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
This movie is worth watching just for Keanu Reeves as total slacker Ted, a role from which Keanu has never been able to escape. I mean, don’t you feel that Ted is the REAL Keanu Reeves, and that Neo, Constantine, Kevin Lomax, Shane Falco, and John Utah are all really just Keanu doing his best to escape his true stoner identity? No? Oh. Anyway, there’s no fancy time loops or trippy conversations in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It’s a simple story about two friends traveling through time, collecting historical figures for a school history project, and then forming the Wyld Stallyns to make the music that will serve as a foundation for the future Utopian society. Very basic stuff.
8. Flight of the Navigator (1986)
It’s interesting that a Disney movie is the one that demonstrates Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in action: David is abducted by an alien craft and removed from Earth for only a few hours, but when he returns, eight years have passed. This movie – especially considering it’s a kids’ movie – is surprisingly cerebral, the sleek, liquid-metal ship is pretty impressive, and Paul Reubens voicing the robot “Max” sends little kids into a frenzy. With the help of Max, David is ultimately returned to his own time, and in true Disney form, everyone lives happily ever after.
9. Futurama: Bender’s Big Score (2007)
Futurama is incredibly underrated. It’s funnier than Family Guy (“that reminds me of the time when blah blah blah”), and it’s created for nerds, by nerds. So it should come as no surprise that the straight-to-DVD movie, Bender’s Big Score, handles time travel in a clever and hilarious manner. Bender, everyone’s favorite alcoholic, asshole robot, destroys New York in the year 2038, and, acting under the influence of scammers, steals various valuable items from Earth’s history. The story ties into the show itself, with Fry becoming cryogenically frozen on January 1, 2000, with a tattoo of Bender on his ass that contains a code for time travel. If you’re a fan of the show, the movie is presented in the same tone, and its humorous presentation of time travel paradoxes is a nerd’s wet dream.
10. The Time Machine (1960)
Based on the novella by H.G. Wells, the 1960s version of this film is far superior to the more recent version starring Guy Pearce. The movie is a bit campy now, but it’s got to be included in the conversation, simply for its competent exploration of time travel. In a sense, it’s the movie that laid the groundwork for countless time travel stories. Plus, Morlocks!