I love tales of time travel, whether in a book, movie, or TV show. It’s one of the plot devices that initially drew me to Outlander. Time travel adventures are fun to imagine and explore. To accomplish the feat, authors and filmmakers tackle the science and fantasy of time travel across a range of methods.
- The time machine method involves taxi-like control settings and the disregard of physics.
- The space-time method includes worm holes, black holes, singularities, and/or the folding of space. Also known as the gravity method.
- The faster than the speed of light method only works if you can survive going faster than the speed of light.
- The freezer method really isn’t traveling through time, but you’re suspended so when you wake up it’s like you travelled forward however many years you slept as a popsicle.
- The straight-up magical method skirts around the whole issue of the theory of relativity and, heck, why not?
- The easy method is willing yourself to another time. No science or magic necessary.
With the release of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (a movie I am eager to see but not eager enough to venture into a theater yet) on September 3rd, it got me to thinking about my favorite time travel movies. I’m a huge Christopher Nolan fan so expect Tenet to be added to my list of favorites at some point in the future. Nolan is so good at mixing emotion, story, and characterization with his science fiction you don’t really care what’s possible and what’s not. I have no idea what the method of time travel is in Tenet, although I’m sure it’s naught to do with magic.
Out of curiosity I looked up other people’s lists of best time travel movies and spotted a few I’ve never seen or knew existed. And so my TBW list grows ever longer.
In honor of Tenet, here’s my short list of favorite time travel movies. It’s an odd-even 14 because I kept adding to the list.
14: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, George Carlin
Bill and Ted travel through time and basically kidnap historical figures for their history class report. It doesn’t get any more complex than that although it looks like I forgot The Telephone Booth method of time travel.
I’ll admit it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen this movie, and I was shocked to learn a third one is coming out. However, I do have fond memories of how much fun this movie is/was. Yes, it’s silly and the trailer makes it look awful, but it’ll give you a chuckle at a time we all desperately need one. And check out Keanu’s baby face. On second thought, he doesn’t look any different today – only better. Party on.
13. Time After Time (1979) Malcolm McDowell, Mary Steenburgen, David Warner
McDowell plays H. G. Wells in this dated but still enjoyable film. Warner plays Jack the Ripper who hijacks Wells’ time machine to escape authorities in 1893. (And now we know what really happened to that guy.) Jack finds himself at home in circa 1970s San Francisco where his fetish for wearing a denim vest and killing young prostitutes would not make front page news. Wells chases after him but still has time to hook up with Steenburgen who practically jumps his bones the minute they are alone. She digs his old-fashioned manners. The visual effects are laughable, but McDowell and Steenburgen are charming together. I won’t tell you how it ends, in case you haven’t seen it.
12. About Time (2013) Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy
Of all the time travel movies on this list, About Time is definitely the cutest and second most romantic. Gleeson plays Tim Lake, a young man whose family lives in a fairy tale house by the sea in Cornwall. His father (Nighy) reveals to him the family secret that all the men in their family can travel through time by simply stepping into a dark space, squeezing their hands into fists, and willing themselves to a different time.
Tim uses his newfound power to make minor improvements to his life, including manipulating his relationship with the young woman he meets played by McAdams. Eventually, the changes he makes bring about undesirable consequences in his altered future. Sounds ominous, but it’s actually quite a touching tale which hopefully will make you appreciate the good things in your life.
11. Looper (2012) Joseph Gordon–Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt
In this time travel noir film, Levitt plays Joe – a well-payed assassin known as a looper, called so because someday he will have to take his own life and close the loop. I’m not sure what Joe’s generation should be called in this movie, perhaps something like numskull?
In the future, time travel is invented and outlawed. Of course, the criminals find a way to exploit it using the technology (which is not revealed) to send marked men back 30 years where their bodies can be disposed of in the past. In this future a mobster known as the Rainmaker takes out his rival syndicate leaders and decides to close all the loops ahead of schedule. Ordinarily, the mark arrives in the middle of nowhere on a plastic tarp with a bag over his head and is immediately taken out by the looper. In Joe’s case his older self arrives sans bag, forcing the two Joes to face off. This is where the fun begins as young Joe and older Joe try to outdo each other. But how do you outdo yourself? And where does Emily Blunt’s character fit into all of this? I guess you’ll have to watch the movie to find out. Paul Dano and Jeff Daniels also make notable appearances.
10. Source Code (2011) Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga
Source Code is a kind of time travel—time-loopy story without the groundhog. Gyllenhaal plays Colter Stevens, an army pilot recruited into a simulation program which can project his consciousness into another by way of source code. On his first mission he is sent back through time via an avatar into the body of a man aboard a train targeted for terrorist attack. He is ordered to identify the bomber before a second attack occurs. Each jump allows him only eight minutes before the bomb goes off. And so the cycle repeats until Stevens completes his mission. Monaghan is the man’s coworker whom Stevens wants to save but can’t because the incident has already happened. The story is full of action and suspense with a satisfying twist at the end.
9A. Star Trek: First Contact (1996) Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner
In this big screen adaptation of The Next Generation, the Federation is attacked by the Borg (one of the best alien cultures ever created) while Enterprise E is patrolling the Neutral Zone. Ex-drone Picard is not to be trusted in the presence of the Borg. He might jump ship and go back to the collective. As if! Ignoring a direct order to stay away, Stewart’s Picard arrives at the famous Battle of Wolf 359 in time to save the ungrateful Federation from certain destruction. But alas, the Borg (sounds Swedish) know they are about to lose and open a temporal vortex to sneak back to the past (which is totally cheating) to assimilate the primitive Earthlings. The Enterprise crew follow in their wake.
This movie is a particular franchise favorite of mine because of the dual storylines aboard the Enterprise and down on the surface of Earth. Loads of interesting characters are introduced, among them James Cromwell as Zefram Cochrane (inventor of warp drive), Alfre Woodard as his mechanical sidekick Lily, and Alice Krige as the Borg Queen. I still get choked up during the final first contact scene with the Vulcans. Yes, I’m a trekkie.
9B. Star Trek (2009) Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Eric Bana
Being a trekkie, imagine my thrill when the franchise got rebooted by J. J. Abrams with the talents of Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, and Zoey Saldana. In this kickoff, Leonard Nimoy’s Spock time travels back before Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock are best buds. Before Scotty is running the engine room. Before Nurse Chapel has gotten her hands on Spock. But after Sulu is out of the closet.
Eric Bana is Nero, a Romulan bent on revenge against Spock for not saving his home planet from blowing up. To be fair, Spock did his best but his giant red ball (which has no scientific explanation but is a very powerful substance) is used to create a black hole to swallow the supernova threatening Romulus. Seems like putting out a fire with an even bigger fire to me. Yadda. Yadda. Yadda. A time rift is opened, and they both get pulled in. And thus, J. J. Abrams is able to change whatever he wants in the Star Trek universe because the timeline has been ripped apart.
This version is so much fun. Full of comedy. Easter eggs. Great visual effects with lots of lens flare. Terrific performances by everyone. It’s a refreshing and celebratory reintroduction to all the characters I love.
8. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender
Hands down for me, Days of Future Past is the best of the X-Men series. It mixes the old generation with new mutants, like Quicksilver who’s a delightful scene stealer. Wolverine is in prime form. Charles and Erik are on the same side again. It’s heroism all around.
The movie starts at the end where the X-Men are fighting a war they cannot win against a race of robots called the Sentinels designed by humans to wipe out all mutants. Luckily, one of the mutants is able to warn her fellow fighters of each impending attack, and they are able to avoid repeated massacres. But they can only hold off the inevitable for so long. Wolverine is sent back to stop the triggering event(s) which put their destruction into motion. The story is weaved together so well, it almost makes up for the earlier lackluster sequels.
7: Back to the Future (1985) Michael J. Fox, Lea Thompson, Christopher Lloyd
Back to the Future is the quintessential time travel movie. This is another flick I haven’t watched in quite a while, but it’s so memorable I can recall every scene. Who can forget Marty with his mom in her bedroom when she keeps calling him Calvin? The little tramp.
Doc Brown (Lloyd) builds a time machine out of a DeLorean. Pretty sure that’s the only pitch the producers had to make to the studio. Fox plays Marty McFly, Doc Brown’s best friend. We won’t analyze why a teenage boy seems to spend more time with an aging scientist rather than his girlfriend. On the night Doc Brown tests his time machine, catastrophe ensues leaving Marty trapped in the past. He is forced to enlist young Doc Brown’s help to fix the DeLorean all while trying to avoid his mother coming onto him. The entire movie is a riot.
6. Groundhog Day (1993) Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliot
How could I not include Groundhog Day on this list although it’s a total time loop story? No machines or magic or reasons are provided — other than karma. This movie has you rooting for Phil (Murray) the entire time, even though he starts out an obnoxious bastard. My favorite parts of the film are when he finally comes to accept his life of living the same day over and over and sets out to improve himself, learn new skills, and help other people. Throw in a love story with the adorable MacDowell and the wisecracks of Elliott, and you have a perfect film.
5. Edge of Tomorrow (2014) Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton
Edge of Tomorrow is Groundhog Day on adrenaline. Earth is in the fight of its life against a ferocious alien race. Tom Cruise plays army major Willam Cage, a soldier who will do anything to stay away from the battlefield. One misstep follows a demotion and reassignment to J squad the night before the launch of a major offensive in France. Spoiler here, Cage is killed along with everyone else on the beach, except he wakes up and finds himself where he was twenty-fours before the invasion. And thus we enter his groundhog time loop.
With each loop, he becomes a better and better soldier, and tries to figure out how to change the outcome. He finally enlists the help of Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), the Full-Metal Bitch, a soldier famous for killing a record number of aliens in a previous campaign. She knows immediately what is happening to him because she had a similar experience, and together they go on the offense. This is the best popcorn film of the bunch.
4. Interstellar (2014) Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain
Here we are with Christopher Nolan’s venture into time travel, and he finds a way to do it completely different from everyone else. Science is not hand-waved away, but rather, it’s explained through emotional terms. Fear. Love. Regret. Belief. They all tie this story together and drive the characters to do what they must for the survival of humankind.
We follow McConaughey’s Joseph Cooper on the ultimate star trek in search of a new home for the inhabitants of a dying planet. Twelve brave volunteer scientists have already gone through a mysterious wormhole hovering near Saturn in the hopes of narrowing the search. Cooper’s job is to verify the data sent back by three of the scientists. The story takes turns you don’t expect and keeps you guessing until the very end. It’s a beautiful film that blends science with imagination on a grand scale.
3. Terminator (1984) Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michel Biehn
You can’t go wrong with a classic. This time travel tale has action and a love story. Even if you’ve never seen the movie, you know how it goes. Girl meets boy. Boy tells girl he’s from the future. Girl say “cuckoo” and dumps boy. Terminator shows up and tries to kill girl. Boy saves girl. See boy and girl run. Boy and girl stop to hide and (what the heck) make love. Terminator catches up (because that’s what it does). Boy gives life to save girl for the last time. Girl kills the Terminator. The end. Oh, no. Girl is pregnant. Baby grows up and defeats Skynet. Sends Daddy back to get Mommy pregnant. Rinse. Repeat.
James Cameron repeated this successful loop-d-loop in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but without the love story. He also changed things up a bit by making the bad Terminator good and introducing an even badder Terminator played by Robert Patrick, using groundbreaking fluidic visual effects.
2. Avengers: End Game (2019) Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson
Of every movie, End Game has the coolest time machine. Yes, cooler than a DeLorean. And a phone booth. And an armoire. Avengers: End Game takes the time travel paradox and shoves it down its own throat. This movie is entertaining, sentimental, and delivers exactly what we need from a superhero movie. Like it or not, it’s one of the best of its genre with time travel to boot.
At the end of Infinity War, Thanos done snapped his fingers and wiped out half of all living beings in the galaxy. It always bothered me he wiped out half the animals, too. I mean, wtf did the animals do to deserve that? The Avengers become the Revengers and decide to undo what Thanos done did by snapping their fingers and wiping his dumbass from existence. There. Now you don’t have to watch the movie because I told you how it ends. As if it could end any other way.
- Somewhere in Time (1984) Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour, Christopher Plummer
And finally we come to the perfume commercial of time travel films. Two beautiful actors come together, playing characters from different times, falling in love. Sound familiar? It’s a great formula. The only question never answered is ‘where the heck did the watch come from?’
Somewhere in Time is more fantasy than science fiction. Richard Collier (Reeve) is a playwright in 1984 celebrating his big debut when he is approached by an old woman at a party. Elise McKenna (Seymour) is the woman’s name as he comes to learn later. With four simple words, “Come back to me” Richard’s adventure begins. And so does yours.
I hope you enjoyed my take on these time travel movies. I now have some watching to do, and maybe some rewatching. Rinse. Repeat.