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The 16 Best Movies About Time Travel

The 16 Best Movies About Time Travel

Who hasn’t wanted to go back and fix past mistakes? Or travel forward and see what’s in store for you and for the world? It’s for these reasons that time travel has remained such a popular plot device, from H.G. Wells‘ “The Time Machine” to the long-running TV show “Doctor Who” to this week’s “Looper,” the wildly acclaimed sci-fi action-thriller from “Brick” director Rian Johnson, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis and Emily Blunt.

Now, “Looper” perhaps isn’t the purest of time-travel movies — it takes the technique as a jumping off point for a taut, noirish thriller. But it also has more than its fair share of paradoxes and mind-bending twists, so we’d say it fits right at home in the genre. And to celebrate the film’s release today, we’ve given our feature on time travel movies from last year a fresh lick of paint, so below you can find 16 other time-travel movies that are worth discussing, in one way or another. Any we forgot? Let us know below.

“Back to the Future” (1985)
Once a film becomes a completely integral part of pop culture, it can be difficult to even look at it critically anymore. Whether the film is actually any good or just something you remember growing up with, can blur the line between quality and nostalgia. But there’s a reason that a quarter century later “Back to the Future” is still a part of our lives. However, like most classics, its success seems to have happened almost by accident. It may look like a sure thing now, but director Robert Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale’s initial script was darker, less humorous and a true risk. (After all, the premise does revolve around a kid getting hit on by his mom.) The film was rejected by every major studio before finding a home at Universal, and even once production got underway, weeks of shooting were famously scrapped when the original Marty McFly, Eric Stoltz, was recast with original choice Michael J. Fox. But the duo, along with producer Steven Spielberg, managed to get the film back on track, and all the elements settled into place: Alan Silverstri’s iconic score, Fox’s impeccable comedic timing, Christopher Lloyd’s gonzo Doc Brown, and a DeLorean that can travel through time. Great Scott, it’s perfect. [A+]

“Donnie Darko” (2001)
After two (to put it kindly) disappointing follow-ups, you might be afraid that rewatching Richard Kelly’s debut might reveal a film less visionary than you remember. But a decade later, “Donnie Darko” is just as weird and wonderful as the first time around. Part David Lynch, part John Hughes, ‘Darko’ is a coming-of-age/sci-fi/dark comedy/time travel film like no other. The film gives you just enough information to make the idea of time travel seem not only plausible, but fated. The miraculous thing is that if Kelly had gotten his way, the film would have been a mess. (See: the Director’s Cut which nearly ruins everything that is simple and perfect about the theatrical cut, including replacing the songs with their earlier versions. No “The Killing Moon”?) Like many debuts, Kelly tries to cram every idea into one film because it might be the only one he ever gets to make, but somehow it all works. Despite the synthesis of influences, it still feels startlingly original. The ’80s setting is subtle but not overplayed, the dialogue is sharp, the soundtrack selections are perfect and the cast deliver uniformly great performances, including a breakout role for Jake Gyllenhaal. In 2001, many critics called the film “a promising debut,” but few knew it was probably the best film Richard Kelly would ever make. [A-]

“12 Monkeys” (1996)
Basically the last great Terry Gilliam film, to date at least (“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” might have its defenders, but it’s a severely flawed picture), “12 Monkeys” is also the director’s most successful attempt at blending his own interests with the Hollywood mainstream. The film’s bleak future, with its sunglass-wearing elders and bizarro time machine, is none more Gilliam, but there were enough A-listers to make the film a sizable commercial hit. And the A-listers bring their A-game: Bruce Willis gives a career-best performance as the convict sent back to the ’90s to prevent the release of a virus that forced humanity underground, who comes to doubt his own story, while Brad Pitt picked up his first Oscar nomination as a wild-eyed animal rights activist. The script, from “Blade Runner” writer David Peoples and his wife Janet, is terrific, and while the film is concerned more with the changing nature of memory (perfect subject matter for cinema, really) than with the paradoxes of time travel, it all comes full circle with the devastating ending. Also required viewing: Chris Marker’s “La jetée,” which the film is based on, and “The Hamster Factor,” the must-see making-of documentary on the film’s DVD. All being well, one day Gilliam will make a film as good as this again. [A-]

“Army of Darkness” (1992)
Observe the progression of the Evil Dead Trilogy. The inaugural film is almost a straight horror movie, while its follow-up is a giggle- and gore-filled take on the genre. But when Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell get to number three, “Army of Darkness,” they keep the comedic tone, then switch the target to schlocky medieval films, add some slapstick, and gleefully send Ashley “Ash” J. Williams back to 1300 A.D. He’s surrounded by primitive screwheads and a Harryhausen-esque army of Deadites, and Campbell’s sarcastic delivery gets to shine in the sublimely silly, endlessly quotable fish-out-of-water film. There’s a plot in here somewhere about Ash needing to retrieve the Necronomicon to return home to S-Mart, but we’re too busy laughing at Mini-Ashes and boomsticks to really care. Our verdict: Groovy. [B+]

“Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (1989)
Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan are Wyld Stallyns in Stephen Herek’s minor classic, a sprightly, irreverent time-travel comedy about two slackers who couldn’t do anything right until hooking up with the otherworldly Rufus. The time-hopping chuckster gifts them with a phone booth that allows them to complete their class project on time, as they leap from one period to another, procuring history’s greatest figures, from Socrates to Joan of Arc. The history lessons are straight out of Mad-Libs, but the film skates by on the noted charm and chemistry of Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter as the title’s somewhat brain-dead rockers, two best friends who are united by both their love of rock, but also their unspoken support system keeping either of them from falling into an abyss of bad grades, unsupportive parents, and dead-end futures. [B+]

“Timecrimes” (2007)
Sort of a dizygotic twin to Shane Carruth’s no-budget “Primer,” Nacho Vigalondo’s “Timecrimes” retains some of the smarts but keeps things from getting too talky/dry in a way that only someone named Nacho can do. Starring “Biutiful’s” schlubby Karra Elejalde as Hector (who’s more Joe the Plumber than the actual Joe the Plumber), this Spanish micro-indie kicks things off sleazily, having the protagonist pursue a naked vixen he glances in the woods surrounding his property. Suddenly attacked by a bandaged man on his way in, Hector escapes into a mysterious lab and is swindled by its resident scientist into a time-traveling gizmo. Emerging an hour earlier in the timeline, things get a bit complicated: this Hector must force Hector #2 to follow the same path he did, thus making a full-circle. Of course, nothing’s that easy, and eventually another Hector appears to disorder things further. With three now vying to be the one-and-only, you’ve got yourself a fairly immersing thriller and one of the more fun examples in the genre. Vigalondo could’ve used the multiple Hectors as some sort of insight into a single human being’s various facets, but he’d rather play than philosophize. Thankfully, the typically convoluted plot elements are easy enough to keep track of but hard enough to invoke that good ol’ problem solving self-satisfaction as you figure it out. Polished with breezy pacing and an occasionally goofy sense of humor, the filmmaker is no Duncan Jones or Neill Blomkamp, but will probably be helming smart genre pictures just the same in due time. [B]

“Happy Accidents” (2000)
The third film from director Brad Anderson proved to be his first excursion into the kind of flawed, fascinating genre oddities that have dominated his career ever since. Sold as the kind of quirky rom-com that was ten-a-penny in the indie world even a decade ago, it comes as something of a surprise when the major flaw of Sam (Vincent D’Onofrio), the charming new lover of Ruby (Marisa Tomei), turns out to be that he claims to be a ‘back-traveler,’ from the year 2439. The film fully embraces its science-fiction elements, sketching out a future world that owes a little to Woody Allen’s “Sleeper,” but it’s blended with a genuinely sweet romance. Both leads are charming — D’Onofrio in particular makes you lament that he’s spent so long in the “Law & Order” wasteland — and there’s a psychological realism that lifts it above other rom-coms. It might be a minor work, but it’s also one of Anderson’s most satisfying. [B]

“The Jacket” (2005)
Surviving the Gulf War despite major head trauma, veteran Jack Starks (Adrien Brody) tries to go to a home that may not exist. Instead, he finds himself involved in a hoary shooting incident that gets him sentenced to a mental institution, where he is locked in an experimental straightjacket at night that allows him to jump forward in time to romance the daughter of one of the victims of his violence. Long in-development as some sort of big studio film, the small, intimate, often willfully incomprehensible “The Jacket” spotlights a jagged series of connections between violent acts that features no direct answer as to what Starks is experiencing. Brody is suitably haunted in the lead, and Keira Knightley is affecting as the lonely woman he romances, but look out for a very pre-Bond Daniel Craig as one of the paranoid, disturbed institution members eager to get a look into Starks’ head. [B+]

“Peggy Sue Got Married” (1986)
It’s easy to forget that Francis Ford Coppola helmed “Peggy Sue Got Married,” the bizarre middle-aged response to “Back to the Future.” Where the latter seems to celebrate the strength you surprisingly find when life deems it necessary, ‘Peggy Sue’ revisits the past with judgment and misery. Kathleen Turner is compelling as the star who travels ‘back in time’ after a seizure at her 25th high school reunion, as long as you are able to suspend the disbelief that she is anything south of 35 years old. The bright star of the film is Nicolas Cage, who seems to shine whenever tasked with being a pained and heartbroken teen. ‘Peggy Sue’ attempts to show us that hasty decisions of youth can have lasting effects, such as lackluster marriages, bad jobs and disgruntled kids, but as an adult it’s impossible to view your past as anything but nostalgic. Turner embraces the youthfulness of her character and the many choices not taken, but what’s most interesting about Peggy’s return to the past is the difference between the treatment of women in the ’50s vs. the ’80s. We wonder how the feminist angle would have been represented if Penny Marshall had directed, as originally planned, instead of Coppola. Either way, it was nice to take a trip down Peggy’s memory lane. [B+]

“Planet of the Apes” (1968)
“Damn you dirty apes, damn you all to hell!” barks Charlton Heston as Col. George Taylor in one of cinema’s greatest endings. Prior to that, we had seen the ruins of a future earth, now ruled under a hairy paw, with primates enslaving humankind and reorganizing the food chain. “Planet of the Apes” at times feels like a relic of an era reflecting great social change, but it’s this sober-headed sensibility that makes the absurdity of the premise palatable, and the gravity (and, yes, hamminess) of Heston’s portrayal that gives the picture a genre movie gravitas. An unquestionable highlight of an exciting era in genre filmmaking, even if the actual time-travel science performed countless somersaults in a series of sequels. [A-]

“Primer” (2004)
When cubicle co-workers take advantage of their free time and programming understanding, they create a device that allows them to travel through time, essentially multiplying themselves. Shane Carruth’s chilly debut, however, takes things in more cerebral, sinister directions, creating genuine horror out of the belief that, yes, anything is possible. You may need multiple viewings to fully parse what’s going on in “Primer,” which never slows down to allow the audience to decipher the possibilities present. We’re sadly still waiting for the follow-up from Carruth, who has struggled to find financing, though the no-budget “Primer” has more inventiveness and ideas than any of the science fiction films in the last decade. [A]

“Somewhere in Time” (1980)
Also known as your mom’s favorite time-travel movie, “Somewhere in Time” is a swoony, sci-fi-inflected romance written by “Twilight Zone” regular Richard Matheson. But rather than employing other ‘80s time machines like a DeLorean or a phone booth, our hero Richard Collier (Christopher Reeve) simply uses his mind and hypnotizes himself into traveling to 1912, where he meets the object of his affection, then-famed actress Elise McKenna (Jane Seymour). They fall in love despite objections from her manager (a stern Christopher Plummer), but the ever-looming present is more of a threat to their romance. You’ll either laugh at the over-the-top silliness or well up with tears every time John Barry’s Rachmaninoff-inspired score swells, but “Somewhere in Time” is a cult favorite for the romantic set. We’ll give it a mediocre grade, but that doesn’t mean we’re not swayed. [C+]

“The Terminator” (1984)
James Cameron’s iconic sci-fi action thriller is not strictly a time-travel oriented film but the adage does factor significantly into the entire saga. For those who have not seen the film, this writer is about to spoil the franchise. Scrappy and resourceful Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) is sent back in time to save one Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), mother of John Connor, the leader of a human resistance in a desolate future where artificial intelligence has blossomed and corrupted into a death factory bent on the eradication of humanity. What follows is a series of brilliantly escalating set pieces as Kyle and Sarah are pursued by The Terminator (future governor Arnold Schwarzenegger), a full-on killing machine. Time travel is rarely mentioned in the film, but the echoes of Kyle’s trip reverberate throughout the films that followed and permanently impact the fate of Sarah and her unborn child. Also, the glimpses of the future that Cameron does show are nifty, though eclipsed by the sequel’s massive visual overhaul. [A-]

“Time After Time” (1979)
Having already teamed Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud with his script for “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” writer Nicholas Meyer paired another duo of Victorian figures for his directorial debut, sending H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) to San Francisco in 1979 in pursuit of Jack the Ripper (David Warner) for “Time After Time.” It’s a thoroughly odd picture, the kind that would be unlikely to be greenlit today — a strange blend of fish-out-of-water comedy, romance and serial-killer thriller. Meyer can’t always make the tones work together, but for the most part it’s a rather charming concoction, aided in no small part by its cast. McDowell, now best remembered for his villainous roles, is a noble, gentlemanly hero, Mary Steenburgen, as his liberated love interest, is quite lovely, and David Warner turns in the first of his two great time-hopping villains as Ripper, who is much more home in the 1970s, where he declares “90 years ago, I was a freak. Now… I’m an amateur.” Few films make better use of San Francisco as a location as well. Not a classic. by any means, but a firmly enjoyable way to spend a rainy afternoon. [B]

“Time Bandits” (1981)
Of all the remakes on the horizon, the recent announcement that Terry Gilliam’s “Time Bandits” was to be re-envisioned as an ‘action franchise’ is perhaps the most depressing, simply because the original is such a distinct, never-to-be-repeated piece of work, one that would be noted to death if put through today’s development process. Following 11-year-old Kevin as he’s thrust onto a quest with six thieving, time-traveling dwarfs, who’ve stolen a map of time from their former employer, the Supreme Being — a map also desired by the simply-named Evil (David Warner). The time travel aspect is principally an excuse for a series of wonderful A-list cameos from the likes of John Cleese and Sean Connery, but the film’s really a fairy tale, and one with as much wonder (the giant’s appearance remains a thrill to this day) and darkness (the ending, which sees Kevin’s parents exploding, leaving him alone) as you’d hope for. The performances across the board are gems, particularly Warner’s hilarious villain, as is the who’s who of diminutive actors that play our heroes (particularly the much-missed David Rappaport as their leader, Randall). It’s a little rough around the edges, to be sure, but in this case it’s firmly part of the charm. [A]

“Timecop” (1994)
Based on the obscure, Dark Horse comic line, this Sam Raimi-produced actioner takes place in a near future, where a time-travel agent must regulate the usage of the deadly technology, only to see it fall into the wrong hands of a slimy politician. As far as Jean Claude Van Damme action pictures go, this is one of the better ones, with an inventive premise and a solid director in Peter Hyams, who knew how to best spotlight Van Damme’s prehensile athleticism and reptilian sexuality. The highlight of the fairly campy actioner — which inspired a failed TV show and DVD franchise — is the late Ron Silver as the twisted Senator McComb, a standout in a crowded field of icky ’90s-era bad guys, his sinister coif of hair and designer suits showcasing a character actor reveling in his shot at action movie immortality. [B]

Honorable Mentions: The birth of the genre can be traced back to two pieces of fiction: H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” and Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court.” Both have seen a number of screen translations — George Pal’s 1960s version of the former holds up well, certainly far better than the 2002 Guy Pearce-starring take (directed by a descendant of Wells himself), while a 1949 take on the Twain tale is also worth a watch. The Martin Lawrence vehicle “Black Knight,” which cribs from the story? Not so much.

“Berkeley Square” was perhaps the first true time-travel film, but remains virtually unseen today, while “Brigadoon” has the honor of being perhaps the only time-hopping musical. Alain Resnais’ “Je t’aime, Je t’aime” is pretty terrific as well, while Peter Fonda’s “Idaho Transfer” is something of an oddity, let down by the performances, but still worth a watch.

The French rom-com “Peut-etre” looks beautiful, but doesn’t quite work, while both 1951’s Tyrone Power vehicle “I’ll Never Forget You”/”The House on the Square” and “Il Mare” make valid contributions to the romantic time-travel sub-genre. The “Star Trek” movies frequently play with the concept, most notably in “The Voyage Home,” “First Contact” and J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot. What have we missed? Send us an email last week, we’ll add it before we publish it.

— Cory Everett, Oliver Lyttelton, Kimber Myers, Gabe Toro, Christopher Bell, Danielle Johnsen, Mark Zhuravsky

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