Every week, Criticwire asks film critics a question and brings you their responses in The Criticwire Survey. We also ask each member of the poll to pick the best film currently playing in theaters. The most popular choices can be found at the bottom of this post. But first, this week's question:
Q: "In honor of 'Looper,' what is the best time travel movie ever made?"
The critics' answers:
"Though I really should answer according to the spirit of the survey and select one of a cluster of American films that I greatly admire ('Back to the Future,' 'Groundhog Day,' 'Déjà Vu') or better still the greatest short of them all, Chris Marker's 'La Jetée,' my heretical mind keeps leading me back to Wong Kar-wai's perversely under-appreciated '2046,' in which Wong's adopted science fiction offers an organic, heavily self-reflexive means for the filmmaker to obliquely explore his feelings toward his 'In the Mood for Love' heroine Maggie Cheung. '2046' may not be much of a time travel film in the traditional fanboy sense, but as an example of how the subject can be re-articulated as personal expression, few films can match one of the director's unrecognized career peaks."
"'Back to the Future' is the right answer, and hopefully someone says 'Peggy Sue Got Married,' but I'll go with 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.' Alfonso Cuarón brought some much needed edge to the boy wizard series and the film's time-tripping final half hour is the saga at its best. As Harry, Ron, and Hermione race the clock and assist their past selves, Cuarón produces real magic, the likes of which his series successors could only dream of. Each Potter film has its merits, but 'Azkaban' is the only one with a distinct auteur's touch. In revisiting the series, it's the film I most look forward to and the time travel element is a big reason why it's such a lasting success."
"I have a couple of favorites. Alain Resnais' 'Je t'aime, Je t'aime' came during a period rife with spectacular Gallic science-fiction films, coming at around the same time as Jean-Luc Godard's 'Alphaville' and Chris Marker's equally time-travel-orientated 'La Jetée,' while fellow Frenchman Rene Laloux produced a pair of fantastic animated films based around concepts of time travel some twenty years later in the shape of 'Gandahar 'and his masterpiece 'Les Maitres du temps,' which was something of a collaboration with the late, great Moebius. And yet, in spite of the magnificent visions on display in the films noted above, I always, always, always find myself harking back to the future vision of Zemeckis' 'Back To The Future Part II.' I blame the hoverboard."
"Chris Marker’s 'La Jetée' is universally (ahem… universally) accepted as the best time travel movie of all time, but it’s also a short film, which means I get to pick a feature length movie as well (These are my rules, I make ‘em up). So let’s give a round of applause to Nicholas Meyer’s clever, witty and crackling 'Time After Time,' a film that’s just as fun as 'Back to the Future' but doesn’t have that head-scratcher ending. H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) builds a real-life time machine, but right after he introduces it to his aristocrat friends, one of them turns out to be Jack the Ripper (played by David Warner, so he should have seen that coming), who escapes into the 1970s. Wells goes after him, leading to a merry chase, a wonderful love story with Mary Steenburgen, and a very interesting look at the (then) present day from the perspective of a 19th Century idealist who thought it would be a utopia, and a sociopathic monster who thought we’d end up exactly like this."
"'Time Bandits.' It's even topical: John Cleese's Robin Hood is an even better Mitt Romney than that Mother Jones tape."
"'Back to the Future.' Because it is the only beloved summer blockbuster about a kid who will die if he fucks his hot mom."
"It's 'Back to the Future.' Close the thread."
"I have been to the future and can claim Doug Liman’s adaptation of 'Time and Again' will have the honor. But since the survey probably dictates present and past films only, I pick George Roy Hill’s adaptation of 'Slaughterhouse-Five,' because it’s a very faithful version of the best time travel novel ever written."
"So tough! In terms of pure pleasure and rewatchability, I'd go with 'Back to the Future.' I grew up on the movie, and I can't count how many times I've seen it, but it never gets old. In terms of actually digging into the philosophical and logistical issues of time travel, though, I'd have to vote for 'Primer.' It's dizzying and amazing, and it's one of the few movies about time travel where the filmmakers actually thought the issue through."
"Malcolm McDowell has long been hailed for the wrong film. Forget Alex from Kubrick's film. McDowell's dapper, slightly gullible, take on H.G. Wells will indelibly and forever stay in my mind. Jack the Ripper hijacks Wells' time machine they leap into 1979 San Francisco in 'Time After Time;' inevitably, he falls for bank teller Mary Steenburgen. It works as a time travel fantasy, a kooky romantic melodrama, a fish out of water comedy, a suspense thriller, and as a blood-dripping horror."
"My favorite time travel movie is 'Primer.' I think it's the film that does that most interesting things with the scientific and theoretical details of time travel; it never feels like a cheat or an obvious device. As separate time lines keep piling up and make your head spin, you never doubt that the film has it all figured out, even if you don't. Bonus points for being around 80 minutes and made creatively on a small budget."
"Hands down, 'Back to the Future' is the greatest time travel movie ever made then, now, or in the future. This is easily Robert Zemeckis at his finest, and let's not forget he scrapped all the Eric Stoltz stuff already shot because it just wasn't working. 'BTTF' could have easily been a much different movie had that risk not been taken to make the switch to Michael J. Fox. Between the humor, the excitement, the attention to detail (Twin Pines/Lone Pine Mall, anyone?), the meticulous way that multiple time lines are built not to conflict with each other, the creativity, performances that defined the cast's careers, the score and all that Huey Lewis, 'Back to the Future' is as close to perfection as you can find in a film period, but easily amongst time travel flicks, putting it number one in my book."
"I absolutely love time travel movies but the ones that can be deemed 'best' in my mind — I hate that subjective term, by the way — are the ones that force me to think long after I see them about what I watched. While I definitely have a fondness in my heart for Duncan Jones' sort-of-time-travel movie 'Source Code,' I can never forget how badly my brain hurt after I watched Shane Carruth's 'Primer,' probably the most real-life time travel movie ever created. I saw it once and had no idea what was going on, so the second time I watched it, I started taking notes and doing diagrams to keep track of what was going on. It completely blew my mind. And honestly, I don't think I could explain to anyone how the time travel in that movie works without a pencil and piece of paper and I still expect to get a glazed over look. But in my mind, that makes it the best!"
"I'm sure you'll be getting plenty of 'Back to the Future' and 'La Jetée,' and I'm positive that the two or three minutes that I dozed off during 'Primer' were the magical moments that would render the plot understandable, so I'll go with Nicholas Meyer's charming 'Time After Time,' in which Malcolm McDowell plays an adorably befuddled H.G. Wells set adrift in late-70s San Francisco, trying to hunt down Jack the Ripper (David Warner). McDowell and his co-star Mary Steenburgen kindled a real-life romance during the shoot, and their chemistry is lovely. Wells' bewilderment at the modern era is amusing but never overdone, and the actual time travel stuff feels intelligent without knotting itself up into too many paradoxes."
"'La Jetée.' 'La Jetée.' 'La Jetée' forever. Although Marclay's 'The Clock' seems increasingly like the obvious pick."
"'La Jetée.' It took me into the future, into the past, told me a love story, brought me thrills and chills and images that won't leave me anytime soon. It's only 28 minutes long and it consists of nothing but black and white still images, music, and a narrative voice so you wouldn't expect it to hold up against a modern big budget production. But it does. Apart from fantastic aesthetics, with beautiful images, a mesmerizing score and a poetic script, it's got the one quality that I think is most important for a time travel movie. It messes with your mind until the walls of reality start to crumble and for a sweet moment of joy and horror you're hit by the wave of sense of wonder."
"There has been a plethora of contemporary ‘time travel’ films which have all impressed me, from Duncan Jones’ 80’s television inspired 'Source Code,' Joseph Kahn’s hyperactive postmodern high school genre mash-up 'Detention' to Nacho Vigalondo’s smart Spanish thriller 'Timecrimes.' However, I would have to say the greatest time travel film of all time is Terry Gilliam’s 'Time Bandits.' Whilst Robert Zemeckis’ 'Back to the Future' may top most conventional lists for its intelligent, yet entertaining take on the subgenre, Gilliam’s film is far more epic in scope, incorporating an eclectic mix of historical backdrops for the film’s mythical adventure to take place. 'Time Bandits' is truly Gilliam at his most flamboyant and self-indulgent and is all the more enjoyable because of it."
"I don't know about 'best' (where I'd give serious consideration to 'Primer' and 'Timecrimes'), but one of my favorites in any genre is 'Somewhere in Time.' I've seen people decry it as schmaltzy and overly sentimental, but it's a time travel story that doesn't get sidetracked by the logic of its own narrative. The idea that you can journey to decades past purely through unequivocal belief would seem hokey in lesser hands, but here, that's a mark of sincerity. It's a simple, elegant love story, anchored by enough chemistry between Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour to fill about three movies. Also, John Barry's score makes me bawl like an infant every time."
"I'm going with 'Primer' because it achieves the same feat as some of my favorite science fiction movies: It makes the fantastical feel incredibly mundane, even tedious. As a kid, sci-fi offered the promise of so many exciting possibilities — jet packs, life on the moon, warp speed — but the reality is that once we obtained these miracles, we'd realize they aren't nearly as wonderful as they first seemed. (It's basically a metaphor for growing up and becoming an adult.) In 'Primer,' time travel is amazing for about five minutes, and then the film becomes an endless, maddening quest for the central characters to properly understand what they've unleashed, and they never quite crack it. (They don't conquer time travel — time travel conquers them.) Even the way Shane Carruth shot the film emphasizes his world's drab ordinariness. Consequently, 'Primer' is a deadpan variation on the typical cautionary sci-fi tale: We'll keep discovering mind-blowing technologies, but our lives will continue to suck."
"The point where time travel movies tend to fall apart is the point where they pause and let a character attempt to explain the science of time travel. This usually causes more narrative problems than solutions and, at best, ends in a headache for the audience member. That's why the best time travel movies spend less time on science and explanations and more on the visceral experience of time travel. Probably the best example of this is '12 Monkeys.' In true Gilliam style, it's more about the experience than the facts behind it. That, to me, is what makes it stand above other time travel films."
"'Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.' If time and space are part of the same fabric and susceptible to gravimetric manipulation, then why WOULDN'T a slingshot around the sun beyond lightspeed send you 'somewhen' else in time? I mean, come on. Also, whales."
"My generational answer would be the 'Back to the Future' Trilogy (yes, even the 3rd one) but I've also always loved 'The Time Machine' starring Rod 'The Birds' Taylor. It's fun and fast-paced with great special effects and a time machine that would reduce the most stern steampunk to tears. But the best time travel movie is called 'The Time Machine: The Journey Back' It's a special feature on 'The Time Machine' DVD. It's the most insane thing I have ever seen. Describing it would be a crime. Tim and Eric would be jealous of the level of bizarreness this thing reaches, just in terms of 'Why is This Happening and Who Wanted it to Happen?' It's worth the price of the DVD."
"'Back to the Future.' In 5th grade we had a school lip-sync contest (hey, it was the '80s…) and I did my best Marty McFly impression for a stirring rendition of 'Johnny B. Goode.' And if I had a DeLorean pimped out with a flux capacitor, I'd go back and do it all again."
"'La Jetée.' 'Looper' is tied with '12 Monkeys,' a 'La Jetée' remake, for second."
"For me, the film that treats time travel with the perfect balance of fun and seriousness is Shane Carruth's lo-fi 'Primer,' in which some white collar guys accidentally build a time machine in their garage. The film immerses you into the characters' paranoia of embarking into the unknown, Carruth's camera jumping across perspectives and time frames without cluing the audience in until the characters themselves eventually figure out (at least some of) the whole picture. Among the whole subgenre of time travel classics, this one looks at causality, mechanics, and consequences with perhaps the most careful consideration. While a lot of the techno-speak is meaningless jargon, the film stays engrossing otherwise by keeping the viewer pleasurably off-balance. It's also notable in that I saw it in the theater on a Saturday, then slept in a box for the night and went to see it again for the first time with myself the next day."
"It's 'La Jetée,' right? I mean it's one of the few films that not only is an amazing work of art, but gets the philosophy of time travel down perfectly."
"While most time travel movies fall in the science fiction category, too, the one I hold the dearest is barely science-y at all. It's 'Big:' a 'how did I wind up here, in this big boy body' charmer that wins me over every time I see it. Tom Hanks is delicious as the suddenly adult toy designer, facing not just mature relationships but responsibilities, too. And will anyone ever again walk into FAO Schwarz and not want to jump on that floor keyboard, jumping out a tune or two? 'Big' was by far the best of the body transfer epidemic that filled theaters in the 'high concept' 1980s and '90s, but as a sly time traveler, it's a big winner, too."
"'Back to the Future' gains resonance and nuance the older you get. It’s eye-opening for both kids — who will realize their parents were once young, with their own teen lives — and mom and dad (who will be reminded of their own glory days). It blows apart the time-space continuum in a very personal way."
"Well it's 'Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure,' of course. Other movies matter more culturally, I suppose. And I was tempted to pick the first 'Back to the Future,' just because it was such a phenomenon (and because I had a huge crush on Michael J. Fox back then). But 'Bill & Ted's' is so unabashedly goofy and so endlessly quotable, and it's an early, prime example of the Keanu Reeves lovable-idiot persona. Plus, you know, you may have inadvertently learned something about history by watching it. San Dimas High School football rules!"
"'Happy Accidents.' It took the idea of time travel to a quirky height when boy meets girl (Vincent D'Onofrio, Maris Tomei) and he may be from the future. Or he may not! But I like the idea that it explores about whether we can change the past, or if it's just crazy talk."
"It really is a toss-up between 'The Terminator' and 'Back to the Future.' Both use the concept of time travel as a springboard for their narratives, rather than an ongoing thread (as seen in 'Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure' or 'Time Bandits') but the concept and execution of each feature is so skillfully accomplished, that they tower above any other films with a time travel theme."
"I'm sure if I gave this enough thought I'd actually end up going with 'Primer,' but I just can't pass up an opportunity to praise 'Back to the Future.' It was a hallmark of my childhood, to the point where I can quote it about as easily as 'Blazing Saddles' or 'Young Frankenstein.' I even love the two inferior sequels, that's how big a fan I am. When I think time travel, I think 'Back to the Future,' plain and simple. There may be more serious and more believably constructed films about the premise, but none are this much fun."
"I suspect the most common answer this week will be 'Back to the Future.' I totally think it's the best conventional time travel movie ever made, but in the interest of mixing things up a bit, I'll go for a more unconventional choice and pick 'Groundhog Day.' Bill Murray travels 24 hours backwards in time, again and again and again. This process of repetition forces him to learn how to be a good man. Only after he's mastered this skill is he able to return to his own time and proceed with life. Aside from being hilariously funny, 'Groundhog Day' has a weird, unexpected philosophy to it. The story is all about the need to learn from your mistakes and how you can become stuck in your own personal hell if you don't. There's even a sense of horror to the movie, as you realize Murray must have spent years reliving the same day in order to become proficient in so many different areas. While it may not involve time machines or flux capacitors, 'Groundhog Day' is still as magnificent and meaningful a time travel movie as has ever been made."
"The answer, of course, is 'Back to the Future,' which also happens to be one of the best movies of all time. But since that's too easy, a few honorable mentions: 1. 'Primer,' which is the most realistic time travel narrative in film history, despite a budget of next to nothing. 2. 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day,' which is still the blueprint for how to do a sci-fi/action film right. 3. 'Midnight in Paris,' which is the best movie in the surprisingly extensive time travel/romance subgenre, and the only time travel movie to be nominated for Best Picture. 4. 'Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure,' which is finally getting the second sequel it so richly deserves. 5. 'Timecop,' for reasons that should be clear enough from its title."
"Can there be any other answer than 1985's 'Back to the Future' and the entire trilogy? The movies helped keep the name of John DeLorean's ill-fated sports car alive, gave us a mad scientist who was more absent-minded than evil, had several romantic connections going (Marty's mother and father, Doc and Clara, Marty and Jennifer), predicted the rise of steampunk (that comes in "Back to the Future Part III"), had a good sense of humor and cool music — Huey Lewis and the News' 'The Power of Love' and Marvin Berry and the Starlighters' 'Johnny B. Goode.' Writers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale didn't give up. Even when they started filming with Zemeckis as director, they weren't afraid to make decisions that would prove vital — they decided that Eric Stoltz was miscast after four weeks — with even Stoltz agreeing, and were able to get Fox. From the black and white era of movies, I'd also like to give a fond mention to the 1949 Bing Crosby vehicle, 'A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.' Like 'Back to the Future,' 'Yankee' also gives Bing Crosby an opportunity to influence musical traditions. There's romance and a lot of humor. The script was based on a novel by one of my favorite writers and one of America's best authors, Mark Twain. He wrote the story in 1889 and the movie doesn't have a particularly convincing means of time travel, but still it's a fun movie. Both movies look at the past with affection and are hopeful about the future. This time travel conundrum isn't taken too seriously and the central character is perfectly cast."
"The question is not which is the best time travel movie, but rather which is better, 'Back to the Future' or 'Back to the Future Part II?' This is a nearly impossible question, but for me, 'Back to the Future Part II' has always held a special spot in my movie-loving heart. The future created in the film, '80s cafe and all, remains my favorite future in film (w/ 'Demolition Man' a close second). The first film has some of the best moments in the series, but overall, I've always found the implication-driven storyline of the second film to be a bit superior. If someone were to go back in time and make it so the 'Back to the Future' films never existed my answer would be the amazing 'Timecrimes.' But if 'Back to the Future' were erased from history would 'Timecrimes' have even been conceived? In the words of another time traveling pioneer; 'I believe our adventure through time has taken a most serious turn.'"
"Clearly, the right answer is 'Back To The Future.' It's the quintessential time travel movie that is full of excitement, high stakes, and thrilling adventure. It's loads of fun for the whole family! The trilogy ain't bad either!"
"It's still 'Back to the Future: Part II.' Crafty Robert Zemeckis bobs and weaves through his original 'BTTF' narrative and puts his technological tools to great use to have a tireless Michael J. Fox interact with his past, present, and future selves. The original 'BTTF' might be a better movie, in general. But with the sequel, Zemeckis took the training wheels off his franchise, tested the limits of time travel as a storytelling device, and delivered a hell of a fun adventure."
"Much as I want to chime in with some love for the super-heady 'Primer,' or the surprisingly enjoyable 'Timecrimes,' or the enduring brilliance of 'The Terminator' — come on, there's only one answer here. It's 'Back to the Future.' (Worth noting: the IMDb tag for time travel is terribly inconsistent. '13 Going On 30?' 'Jumanji?' Puh-lease.)"
"If people answer anything other than 'Primer,' I have no idea what they're talking about. (Unless it's 'Donnie Darko,' but I'm not sure that counts)."
"'Timeline' with Paul Walker. Okay, not really. Though probably not the best time travel movie ever made — I know, I’m disregarding the prompt here — 'Primer' is easily my favorite of the bunch. I say 'favorite' and not 'best' because the film is flawed in terms of audio and acting. It’s my favorite, though, because of Shane Carruth’s undeniable talent. The star, producer, director, editor and composer behind 'Primer,' Carruth creates a smart, fresh and alluringly complex take on the time travel premise, and he does it on a $7,000 budget."
"All due respect to aficionados of Bill and Ted and Marty McFly, the best time travel movie ever made is 'Primer' — it keeps its own rules, surprises its characters and us and goes out to the logical illogical extensions of its own ideas with clarity, conviction and an ominous kind of humor…"
"Part of me wants to pick 'Primer' because, boy, it gets it right. But, let's be honest here, if we're talking about the total package — which includes 'fun to watch' — I just can't pick 'Primer.' Not that 'Primer' is a slog, but I'm never going to be out with a group of friends and say, 'Oh, man, we should watch 'Primer,' right now. Right now! Then, after, I will read to you the instruction manual to my automatic turtle feeder. Both may seem technical at first, but, after, you will know how to accurately time travel and be able to feed my pet turtle.' So, instead, I'm going to pick 'Back to the Future Part II' because I still have hopes that in three years we will have flying cars and that they will curiously resemble the 1988 Ford Mustang GT."
"'Somewhere in Time,' with Christopher Reeve. Because time travel is inherently corny, and this movie embraces it. Also, it is pretty much the only time travel movie aimed at women, instead of geeks."
"'La Jetée'/'12 Monkeys.' Both Chris Marker and Terry Gilliam explore the implications of time travel in a way that is wholly convincing and utterly fascinating, and both do so in their own unique way. Time travel here is puzzling, intoxicating, disturbing, profound and ultimately melancholic."
"Like probably 90% of the people here, I've got to go with 'Back to the Future.' I want to be more creative. I wish I could come up with some mind-blowing, out-of-left-field surprise, but my hands are tied. Zemeckis' film is among my favorites of all-time, overall. Sorry to disappoint."
"'Back to the Future.' I’ve loved or liked a lot of time travel movies; certainly, other films in the genre get more wonky when discussing paradoxes, past events, and so on (such as the second 'Back to the Future'). But 'Back to the Future' is one of the sharpest, wittiest, most exciting films ever made; Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale were clearly giddy at the possibility of not only skewering (somewhat fondly) the cookie cutter 1950s, but getting to raise the stakes for Marty McFly, building setpiece upon setpiece, and topping themselves with each one. I’m sure — at least, I hope — I’m not the only one who names this movie in the survey, and it might be an obvious choice, but sometimes the obvious choice is the right one."
"Although I'm very fond of 'Primer,' George Pal's 'The Time Machine,' 'Je t'aime, je t'aime,' and even 'Star Trek IV,' I have to go with 'La Jetée.' In part, it's because I'm impressed by how deftly Chris Marker constructed a short film out of photos, voiceover, and a few seconds of moving image. But beyond that, it's because of how he uses time travel: not as a narrative device plucked out of the sci-fi toolbox, but as a poignant reaction to war, love, and memory. In Marker's hands, time travel facilitates radical experimentation and culminates in tragedy."
"A hard one to answer, because I've got a special place in my heart for time travel movies. Maybe it's the fact that time machines make great metaphors for memory and movies, or maybe it's because it's because the first movie I remember seeing in a theater was a time travel movie — 'Millenium,' a Kris Kristofferson vehicle that it is, paradoxically, both bizarre and bland. I can't narrow it down to a single favorite, so instead I'll offer two (both of which, oddly enough, have French titles): Alain Resnais' ingenious 'Je t'aime, je t'aime' and 'Déjà Vu,' Tony Scott's best film. The former is about a person who gets sent back in time, but the time machine malfunctions, so he has to experience past events from his life out of sequence; the latter is about is about a man who falls in love with a dead woman while watching her through a 'time window' — a sort of combination time machine / video surveillance system that bears a striking resemblance to an editing suite. They're both masterpieces that milk the time machine metaphor for all it's worth, and I find them both profoundly moving — albeit in completely different ways."
"The obvious choice would be the only perfect movie in the history of film, 'Back to the Future,' but my choice goes to Shane Carruth's 'Primer.' This incredibly low budget film uses intelligent dialogue to keep the audience curious as to what's going to happen. After 'Primer,' I'd pick 'Timecop.' Van Damme rules."
"Well, I haven't seen 'La Jetée,' which I would expect to dominate the survey, and I think its remake '12 Monkeys' is merely good, not great. So I will instead go with 'The Terminator,' which I think is a nearly perfect film. The time travel story puts a unique spin between Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton: from each person's perspective, the other has all the strength in the relationship. Honorable mention to 'Primer.'"
"Before I begin answering this question, I want to talk about one glaring issue with the idea of time travel that no movie ever addresses. The Earth is constantly rotating around the sun, so if I were to time travel six months into the future, the planet would be on the other side of the solar system, putting me SOL. I know it's not a big deal, but just once I'd like to hear a scientist character explain away that problem. Anyway, the best time travel movie ever made is 'Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.' It was one of my favorites growing up, and upon revisiting it, the script is a lot smarter than I initially remember. The jokes still hold up, and it has more fun with its premise than 'Back to the Future.' It deserves to be mentioned here simply because it's the only movie to feature George Carlin and a member of The Go Gos."