Filmmakers constantly time-travel, so it is no coincidence that there are so many films where this trick becomes a plot conceit.
However, unfortunately for their protagonists, the best time travel films often show us that time’s prison is inescapable. Even when these protagonists look like they’ve found a way out, from natural wormholes to heretical machines, their fates are usually shown to be predetermined: often, they end up stuck in time loops or just dead. Time and death are close companions.
Of course, this chaos translates into mind-bending entertainment for the viewer, so without further ado, let us introduce our picks for the best time travel movies:.
Terminator 1 & 2
Terminator 1 and 2 are pretty different movies. In the first, the T-800 terminator is the bad guy. He is sent back in time by our machine overlords to kill a woman who will give birth to a child that will lead the human resistance to victory. A human from said resistance (who somehow ends up being the father of the child) is sent back to stop the terminator. It is a dark and weird story: a classic action film made on a shoestring budget. The second, in contrast, is a big-budget extravaganza featuring perhaps the most outstanding special effects in movie history relative to the time. Here, the T-800 (with Arnie reprising his role) is John and Sarah Connor’s protectortasked with defending humanity’s future savior from the icy and more advanced T-1000 robot.
The most famous art-house film about time travel, La Jetée follows a man sent back from a post-World War III dystopia to save the future and to find the truth behind a traumatic memory for his past. The film is only 28 minutes long, the film is a simple series of black and white photographs put to a hazy narrative, yet it is captivating.
This modern sci-fi classic follows the alien “arrival” of giant, peaceful, ink-inscribing squids. Before geopolitical squabbles can escalate the situation into a nuclear exchange, Amy Adams must translate the squid’s inky pleas into American English. This visually stunning film is based on Story of Your Life, a short by Ted Chiang, one of the best living sci-fi writers. The movie is an excellent introduction to his writing.
Groundhog Day is a classic featuring Bill Murray at his laid-back best. Murray plays a jerkish reporter who wakes up one morning to find that he is stuck in a time loop on Groundhog Day. Fear gives way to joy as he realizes he is now an omniscient god. This then gives way to boredom as he lives out the same day an infinite number of times and Murray must work out why he has been cursed. Still a moving and thoughtful comedy.
This is the time travel movie to beat them all if you really want to get into the nuts and bolts of time travel itself. Two engineers accidentally discover an “A-to-B” causal loop side effect: they can travel back a short distance of time and begin to use it to make huge amounts of money on the stock market. What follows is a highly technical and philosophical take on the implications of time travel.
Looper is just an air-tight, fantastic action film: a compelling world, sketched in just under two hours, with entertaining and exciting characters. Joseph Gordon Levitt plays a contract killer who kills and disposes of his targets in the past to avoid detection in the future. Bruce Willis plays his older self, whom Levitt is tasked to kill. The time travel aspect being realistic is not really the point of the film: writer Rian Johnson contrasted it directly to Primer, where the rules of time travel are so important; Looper was intended instead as a character-driven thriller.
Whereas the time travel in Tenet was left largely unexplained, in Interstellar, Nolan actually seems interested in teaching his audience. He does an admirable job depicting some of the implications of Einsteins’ theory of general relativity. The movie’s dialog can be a bit bland but the visit to the mountain-high planet of waves, where years pass like minutes, is just a great piece of cinema, worth the price of entry alone.
Donnie Darko is a cult classic that rocketed Jake Gyllenhaal to massive fame. It is one of those high-concept films that bombards you with lore but really isn’t as smart as it thinks it is. It is better to just sit back and let it wash over you, including, of course, Frank, the iconic black bunny rabbit who tells Gyllenhaal the world will end in 28 days.
Let us know in the comment section below your favorite time travel movie.