Time travel movies are some of the most interesting within the sci-fi genre, but they’re also the most difficult to do successfully. Not only do time travel stories have to worry about all of the other elements that make a piece of science-fiction successful, but they also have to create a logical narrative framework, one that either avoids paradoxes or can use them to their advantage in order to turn out a sensible story. One false move in constructing a time travel film can cause the entire narrative to unravel. Coupled with that, time travel has been done so often that crafting a story about going back in time to stop Hitler or using the genre trope purely for monetary gain just doesn’t cut it anymore. The best time travel films tend not be the ones that are only about time travel itself, but rather the ones that use time travel as an element in order to tackle larger themes, craft a more interesting narrative, or create complex characters and interactions. For brevity’s sake, I have discounted those films that use space travel as the means for time travel (sorry Planet of the Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Interstellar), so without further ado, here are 10 of the best films that have pushed the narrative scope of what time travel films are capable of:
10. Edge of Tomorrow
When I first saw Doug Liman’s film last year, I felt apathetic about it. I didn’t think it was bad by any means, but I didn’t feel excited about it like many others did. This was likely driven by the fact that so many reviews included superlatives like “Best Sci-Fi Film of the Decade,” and the like, which increased my expectations in a way that the final film couldn’t conceivably match. But now, having re-watched the film, I’m ready to change my initial assessment. While the meat and potatoes action beats of the film are somewhat derivative of James Cameron’s Aliens and Joe Haldeman’s novel The Forever War, it’s still a really solid, action sci-fi film. The time travel element that works in the form of a time loop is handled well, and upon my second viewing I really took greater notice of how the film doesn’t make every scene the first occurrence within this time loop. By selecting which time to show, and how many times to repeat it, the film is quite innovative in terms of its pacing. And as an added bonus, the film is really quite funny. But don’t take its placement at the bottom of this list as negative criticism, as per my initial reaction, in light of the fact that I now feel secure in placing it among the Top 10 time travel movies of all time, which speaks to its worthiness.
9. Star Trek
In the age of reboots, and continuity hounds, J.J. Abrams expertly solved the issue of how to attract new Star Trek fans without alienating the older ones. While Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman get a lot of animosity for their writing, I can’t completely disown them given that they wrote one of the most imaginative and simple continuity solutions ever conceived, one that X-Men: Days of Future Past and Terminator: Genisys took note of in their own franchise resetting efforts. While Star Trek’s plot isn’t overly concerned with time travel like, say, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Spock Prime’s use of the “red matter” and subsequent creation of an alternate timeline is a fantastic element that made the transition into this new timeline easy and respectful to the past.
The time-loop Phil Connors finds himself in is arguably more of a result of fantasy than sci-fi, but that distinction is one of the reasons why the film stands out (apart from its hilarity, of course). Harold Ramis’ film isn’t interested in the why or how of time travel, and an attempt to even search for such an explanation would be a waste of time. Instead, the film focuses on Phil’s misanthropy and his subsequent enchantment, and then depression, with being caught in a time-loop that Ramis has officially stated goes on for 10 years within the timeline of the film’s script. Groundhog Day centers on the change of one individual while the rest of the world ceases to change around him, and no other film has handled the time loop with such honesty and humor.
7. The Time Machine
H.G. Wells’ 1895 novel popularized time travel, and still stands out against the time travel fiction that followed. George Pal’s 1960 adaptation was my first introduction to time travel, and the film still works quite beautifully in its exploration of the nuclear fear that plagued the 1960s. Traveling to a post-apocalyptic future destroyed by bombs is one thing (an element we’ve seen many times), but Wells and the subsequent 1960 film go beyond the basics in order to create an allegory for society. I’ll never forget the feeling I felt when I learned that Eloi were being used as livestock for the Morlocks. It’s a twist that creates commentary on fear’s ability to control and destroy us. The film’s simple execution strips away any distraction of paradoxes or scientific jargon in order to construct a story firmly situated within the hysteria of its time.
6. La Jetee
At 28 minutes, the 1962 French film La Jetee is absolutely perfect in its exploration of time travel and fate. It’s amazingly straightforward, beautiful, and haunting, and its use of photomontage allows the film to stay focused in its scope. I think Chris Marker’s film is a much stronger one than Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, which borrows many of the same elements. There’s absolutely a lot to like about 12 Monkeys, but Gilliam’s 129-minute film is self-indulgent and self-referential in a way that becomes messy and somewhat tiresome. La Jetee is proof that time travel is a concept that doesn’t need a long runtime or dozens of tangents that have to be pulled together, ultimately allowing the film to maintain its focus based solely upon the concept of free will.
5. Donnie Darko
I’ve written previously about Donnie Darko in a Richard Kelly retrospective, and there I conceded to the fact that part of the film’s appeal is based in nostalgia and its influence within the early 2000s. But Kelly’s tale about an emo-teen with a personal wormhole at his disposal is still one of the most original uses of time travel in film. Like La Jetee, Donnie Darko is distinctly personal and driven by the concept of free will. But where Donnie Darko differs is that it rarely feels distinctly like a sci-fi film. It’s a high school movie with some horror elements, and its use of time travel ultimately feels secondary, a means by which the ending can happen and Donnie can find redemption. It succeeds where other high-school based time travel movies, like the recent Project Almanac, miss their mark, because it’s not a story about what you could do if you could travel through time, but what you would do if you knew your world would soon be coming to an end.
Michael and Peter Spierig’s film, based on Robert A. Heinlein’s short story “All You Zombies,” is one of my favorite movies of 2015. The story of a temporal agent traveling through time to stop a terrorist is distinctly pulp in its execution (the time travel machine is a suitcase). While some of the elements are predictable (given that Heinlein’s story was written in 1958 before the mass production of time travel stories made us all familiar with the concept), the way that all the narrative threads are tied together is still impressive. In fact, I was so caught up in the performances of Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook that I wasn’t actively thinking about how the twists would pan out, so when they eventually came I was still surprised. I won’t spoil any of the individual elements of the script, since the film is likely to still be unseen by many, but few time travel movies are as engrossing or so expertly paced.
Rian Johnson’s tale of hit-men and time travel is the best modern time travel film not only because of its creative use of time travel, but also because of its sense for world-building on display in the film’s script. Everything from the telekinetic powers, the fact that only crime syndicates are using time-travel technology, and the design of the world feels completely plausible despite, some aspects being illogical. Coupled with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s fantastic, transformative performance as a young Bruce Willis, and Pierce Gagnon’s emotionally volatile Cid, Looper has everything going for it. In many ways, Looper feels like the product of another era in filmmaking, and some of its anachronistic design and costume elements only further that feeling. While the film’s emotional climax is somewhat expected, it feels genuine. The world Johnson created here is one I’d love to see him return to, because beyond the time travel, there seems to be a lot more to explore.
2. The Terminator/T2: Judgement Day
Because The Terminator and T2: Judgement Day together tell a larger story, I’m counting them as one, though the first film has more of a horror aesthetic and the second is more action and spectacle. I think the first film leans more heavily towards the questions of time travel, whereas the second deals with the ramifications and the themes that time travel introduces. Questions of time paradoxes and all, James Cameron’s Terminator films are perfectly executed in both story and action. There’s very little I can add about these films that hasn’t already been discussed this week, but I mentioned in the intro that many of the best time travel stories are the ones that aren’t directly preoccupied with time travel, which holds true here. Cameron’s films are of course about the age old battle of man and machine, but they are also about free will. While most time travel films discredit free will, taking a page from La Jetee, the Terminator films conclude that “there’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.” The sequels (which overwrote this rule) are the main reason why these first two installments are so superior and necessary, given how non-existent the concept of free will has become in our time travel media.
1. Back to the Future
Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future is the chief example of 1980s goodness. It’s funny, wonderfully acted, and above all, it’s completely heartfelt. There’s something so wonderfully simple about Marty McFly’s journey to make sure his parents end up together in order to ensure his own existence. Granted, I didn’t grow up with Back to the Future. I was already in college the first time I saw it, but once I did, I immediately connected with it. In fact, I connected with it so much that I later went on to use “Earth Angel” as my wedding song. There’s an optimism to the film that so few time travel movies have, and it carries that Steven Spielberg signature of the importance of family. Like the Terminator films, Back to the Future is filled with paradoxes, but in many ways it discusses time travel in a way that’s easier to comprehend than any other film like it. While the second film leaned more heavily on the expositional mechanics of time travel, the first film manages to make it a convincing element while allowing the love story (both familial and romantic) to take precedence. There has yet to be another film as perfect in its delivery of sci-fi thrills and emotion as Back to the Future.