Great Time Travel Movies
Time travel has always been well represented in film. It has also been one of my favorite subgenres since I was a youngster. The list that follows is in no particular order, and is constantly expanding.
1. The Time Machine (1960)
In the world of time travel movies, it doesn't get more classic than the 1960 version of H.G. Wells' ''The Time Machine". Directed masterfully by George Pal, the director of "War of the Worlds" and "Destination: Moon", the film starred Rod Taylor as a man from Victorian England who builds a time machine and travels to the distant future.
The special effects are dated but still mesmerizing because of the immense amount of artistry that went into creating them. This, of course, is back in the days before CGI muscled practical effects out of mainstream movies. Everything about this film is iconic, including the Oscar winning time lapse photography.
In the future, the time traveler meets the peaceful Eloi, who live simply on the surface during the day, but are prey to the dreaded nocturnal Morlocks, underground dwelling mutants. Together with an Eloi named Weena, the traveler tries to discover what happened to the world and how to keep the Morlocks at bay.
The Morlocks seem silly by today's standards, but the film is still thrilling. It really shows its Cold War colors during a visit to 1966, which the film envisions as a nuclear doomsday.
2. Back to the Future trilogy
"The Time Machine" may be the most classic of all the films on this list, but these three from director Robert Zemeckis are the closest to my heart. I was a mere child when the first "Back to the Future" film came out, and never got the opportunity to see it on the big screen. My cousins saw it on HBO and told me all about it, but I didn't see a second of it until the sequels were on their way to theaters. I saw it on VHS, and I was hooked.
When the sequels came out, I saw them both on the big screen. The second one was a little over my head at the time, but the third one was incredible to me since I spent many a weekend watching westerns. Over the years, I finally got a good grasp on the back and forth antics from part II, and I've seen the entire trilogy countless times. Of course, over time, I've seen several flaws in the logic department (which may be a future hub in and of itself), but the films are still great.
Michael J. Fox is perfectly cast as Marty McFly, a teenager from the eighties who has to ensure his parents still get together back in 1955. Crispin Glover is terrific in the first (his only) film as Marty's father, and Lea Thompson was spot on as the younger version of Marty's mom, especially when putting him into very awkward situations. The real stand out star of the films for me, though, is Christopher Lloyd, who will always be Doc Brown to me. I was interested in science as a kid, and Doc Brown represented the great things that could be accomplished with applied scientific knowledge. Sure, he was considered crazy by most people and was a little outside of society, but he had the power to jump across decades in a Delorean.
Awww, the Delorean. Looking back, the car seems like a kitchen sink with wings and wheels, but when I was young, it was the coolest car I had ever seen. Later it would be knocked down the list by the '89 Batmobile and James Bond's Aston Martin DB5, but in that time and place, I could think of no finer craft to drive around town in than that stainless steel wonder... with a Mr. Fusion and a Flux Capacitor attached, of course.
3. Peggy Sue Got Married
Francis Ford Coppola is perhaps best known as the director of such classics as "The Godfather" and "Apocalypse Now", but years before I saw either of those films I saw a lighter side of the famed auteur in "Peggy Sue Got Married".
The film stars Kathleen Turner as a woman who passes out at a class reunion and wakes up back in time as a high school student. Seeing as how her life was in tatters in the future following a divorce from her high school sweetheart (Nicolas Cage), she is determined to do things differently this time around.
The beauty of this film, however, is that she really learns exactly why she did things the way she did in the first place. Not that she does them again in the exact same way.
The film is well made, and really captures the period well. The music is well chosen, and the jokes are good. I particularly like the scene where she starts laughing uncontrollably over the fact that her father bought an Edsel.
Cage is brilliant as her doo wop singing boyfriend, and Jim Carrey has a small part that predates his later fame. Coppola's better known films may be masterpieces, but "Peggy Sue Got Married" is a treasure all on its own.
4. Time After Time
This is one of those films that I was sold on well before seeing it. Just hearing that it involved H.G. Wells chasing Jack the Ripper into the future was enough to make me want to see it for years before I finally got the chance. Add to that wonderful concept the fact that Wells and Jack are played by Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) and David Warner (Tron) and I was stoked when I finally got a copy on DVD a few years back.
The movie is funny and exciting, with lots of jokes centering on a proper Victorian British man like Wells finding himself in the crazy American eighties. At one point, he refers to McDonald's as "some Scottish establishment". Mary Steenburgen is the romantic interest, making two films on this list that have her being courted by a time traveler.
There have been several rumors on the internet for years that a remake of this film was in the works, but I doubt it could ever be as charming as this.
5. Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann
This one is a hoot. Fred Ward stars as Lyle Swann a dirt bike racer who gets sent to the old west when he stumbles through an experiment in the desert. Naturally, everyone back then thinks he is the devil - what with his fancy riding machine and red bodysuit. Soon, Swann finds himself in the middle of a baffling blend of genre action and adventure.
Michael Nesmith co-wrote and produced the film, as well as provided a killer score. Peter Coyote is a quirky baddie, and the ending's "twist" defies all logic and makes you kind of gag inside your soul. All in all, "Timerider" is an enjoyable voyage into the realms of the bizarre, and has to be seen to be believed.
6. Somewhere in Time
Based on a story by Richard Matheson (who also wrote the screenplay), "Somewhere in Time" is the story of a playwright (Christopher Reeve) who goes back in time to be with the woman he loves (Jane Seymour). The film is notable for being set around the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island and for featuring excellent music from composer John Barry.
The time travel in the film is interesting in that it's cyclical. Reeve's character knows that he can travel back in time because he has evidence that he had done it before. There is no changing of events. Love is the only reason he needs to go to the past.
While definitely less action packed than most of the movies on this list, "Somewhere in Time" is still a classic of the genre. It's a story so well told that you often forget that it revolves around a science fiction concept.
Reeve and Seymour have excellent chemistry throughout, and Christopher Plummer brilliantly serves as antagonist. Plus, the brilliant soundtrack is the reason I like Rachmaninoff. This film is a true classic.
The less said about this film, the better. Not because it isn't worth mentioning, but rather because it is so expertly crafted that it is almost a crime to give anything away. I have posted a trailer at the end of this entry, but would suggest that you even avoid that. This is definitely a movie that is good to go into knowing very little.
It's a Spanish film. It uses time travel in extremely interesting ways.
...and that is pretty much all my conscience will allow me to say on the subject. See it now!
8. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
This is my favorite of the original series Trek films. Yes, it even beats Khan in my book. I don't know what it is that rates it so highly in my mind, but I suppose it could have something to do with the fact that it features the crew of the Enterprise going back in time to the eighties to visit San Francisco and retrieve a pair of Humpback Whales to appease a destructive space probe in the future. It's kind of like "Time After Time" in reverse, with whales instead of Jack the Ripper as the target.
While many would argue with me placing the film at the top of the Trek pile, no one can argue against the assertion that it is definitely the lightest of the series. Humor permeates the film, usually revolving around the fact that, to the intrepid space faring crew, humanity in the 1980s is primitive and technologically lacking. A scene in which Scotty tries to communicate with a Desktop PC is particularly hilarious... and who could forget "Nuclear Wessels"?
There's no altering of the timeline in this film. It's mostly a recon mission to the past to pick up those pesky whales before our heroes return to the exact future they left... chaos theory be damned!
9. Meet The Robinsons
"Disney's Meet The Robinsons" is an excellent time travel tale that is great for adults and children alike. It tells the tale of an orphan named Lewis who is constantly making inventions, but hasn't been adopted. One day, however, he meets a boy from the future, and his world view is completely changed.
Of course, it's all a bit more complicated than that, but I would hate to ruin all the little twists and turns the movie has. Suffice it to say that the film is satisfying throughout, and has one of the truly great Disney villains. One of my favorite things about this film is how well it evokes Tomorrowland at the Disney parks.
10. Escape From The Planet Of The Apes
Definitely the weirdest of the Apes movies, "Escape" tells the story of Cornelius and Zira (the lovable chimpanzee scientist couple from the first two films) going back in time somehow in Taylor's ship, along with their friend Dr. Milo. They land in the 1970s and become media sensations when it is discovered they can talk.
What's weird is that this film is probably the closest to the novel on which the franchise is based, written by Pierre Boulle. The only real difference is that the species are reversed, with Cornelius and Zira taking the place of the human protagonist of the original tale. What starts as an almost fluffy venture for the franchise turns drastically dark in the second half, creating a surprisingly balanced feel to what could have been a completely laughable film.
Definitely not as good as the original, but definitely better than the fifth film, "Battle for the Planet of the Apes", "Escape" is an enjoyable visit with everyone's favorite chimpanzee scientists.
11. Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure
Bill and Ted are two slackers from the city of San Dimas. They have this totally bogus presentation to do on history, but they are too focused on their band to know what's what with history. What are two brain dead morons to do?
Well, fortunately, they are destined to create a utopian society in the future through their totally awesome tunes, so the future people send George Carlin back in time with a time travelling phone booth so that Bill and Ted can journey through the past and meet the famous people there, then kidnapping them and bringing them to the future for water parks and high school history projects.
Radical! (they said that, right? or was that the ninja turtles?)
Some would say that this movie doesn't belong on a list of great time travel films because nobody actually travels through time in it. I'm including it, though, because it is still an excellent film dealing with the ability to change events in the past - this time through a ham radio.
James Caviezel plays a modern day cop trying to solve a series of murders attributed to "The Nightingale Killer" stretching back to the late sixties. He's also a man living in the same house he grew up in. After discovering his father's old ham radio, he makes a shocking discovery: due to rare aurora borealis activity, he can talk to his father (Dennis Quaid) thirty years in the past- around the same time his father died fighting a fire.
After warning his father about the fire, Caviezel creates a new timeline, resulting in several new murders, including the murder of his mother. Working together, father and son race against time and use the miracle of the ham radio to track down the killer.
The film is quite good with its theories on the nature of altering the past. I especially liked how it addressed new memories forming in Caviezel's mind. Another place where the movie excels is in how exciting it can be. There are several tense scenes throughout, all wonderfully executed. It is as good a manhunt film as it is a time travel flick. Definitely worth looking into.
13. The Time Traveler's Wife
Based on the superior novel by Audrey Niffenegger, "The Time Traveler's Wife" tells the story of a man who has a genetic disorder that randomly sends him skipping through time. It also tells the story of a woman who met this time traveling man when she was a youngster, later meeting a younger version of him in the present and marrying him.
If it sounds confusing, don't worry. It's nowhere near the level of mental gymnastics required for loftier titles like "Primer". The whole movie is pretty sweet and cuddly, in a "Notebook" sort of way. The time travel is interestingly handled and manages to go to a few new places. Still, I would highly recommend anyone interested in the genre to give the superbly written novel a read first.
14. Time Bandits
Since his long ago days with Monty Python, Terry Gilliam has directed several amazing films, among them "Brazil", "The Fisher King", and "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen". My personal introduction to Gilliam's unmistakable style was this absolute gem of a flick about a British boy who gets swept up in a time spanning crime spree with a group of eccentric little people.
The film features several well known personalities including John Cleese as a very cheeky Robin Hood, Ian Holm as Napoleon, and the always amazing Sean Connery as King Agamemnon. Everyone handles their roles extremely well, and the film is funnily breezy as it moves along.
The plot centers around the band of thieves crime spree with a map of time stolen from the Supreme Being, and the thwarting ways of Evil (David Warner). Children love it. Adults love it. It's a pretty crowd pleasing film. Just watch the trailer below, and tell me it doesn't look hilarious.
15. The Terminator Franchise (mostly the fist two)
Yeah, I said "mostly the first two".
I know there are four of these films now, but the fourth just took place in the future and the third was just... uh... weird.
The first film is definitely a more low budget affair with Arnold Schwarzenegger as a time travelling killbot sent from the future to kill Sarah Connor, the mother of the future war's human resistance movement, John Connor.
The second film is the true treat in this series, though, with Schwarzenegger playing a reprogrammed good guy killbot protecting a teenage John Connor from a liquid metal killbot sent to kill him. This was the best film ever made in the mind of many adolescent boys for years to come.
16. Donnie Darko
I heard about "Donnie Darko" for a good year or so before I finally watched it. I have to admit, I was pretty blown away. Everything from the great performances from the entire cast - including Patrick Swayze and Drew Barrymore- to the time period just drew me into this odd world of psychiatric problems and quantum mechanics.
Part of the fun of "Donnie Darko" is the slowly unraveling mystery of a plot, so I don't want to get too spoilery. Suffice it to say that Richard Kelly directed one of the new century's best films with this excellently haunting tale. I wish I could say that he continued to make masterpieces in his career since Darko, but "Southland Tales" and "The Box" just never reached this level of near perfection.
Also - Fair warning to anyone who is intrested in "S. Darko", the direct to DVD sequel:
"S. Darko" sucks beyond sucking and has next to nothing to do with "Donnie Darko". Richard Kelly was uninvolved, and the whole thing feels beyond stupid. Avoid "S. Darko" at all costs! Watch "Donnie Darko" again, instead.
Jean Claude Van Damme is a cop, but he's no ordinary cop. He's a Timecop - an elite officer in the future who polices time travel, preventing various timecrimes in the process. He's also a widower, and he's forbidden from using his access to a time machine to do anything about that.
The rules of time travel are kind of made up as they go along in "Timecop", but it does what it sets out to do - provide Van Damme based entertainment with a time travel twist.
18. Twelve Monkeys
Here's another entry from the amazing Terry Gilliam. This one features Bruce Willis as a time traveler sent into the past on a mission to prevent a future outbreak that decimates the human population. It also features Brad Pitt as an animal liberator and possible terrorist that Willis is trying to stop.
The movie is very unique, and profoundly bleak at times. Gilliam's distinct style is very much on display throughout. The first time I saw it, I had to go back and watch it again to see if there was anything important I may have missed in the first pass through.
Like all of Gilliam's films, "12 Monkeys" is a surreal work of art that must be seen to be appreciated.
19. Star Trek (2009)
In J.J. Abrams' reboot of Shatner-era Trek, time travel is used to link the new film to the original universe while changing things that Trek fans have long taken for granted. The result is a universe that feels familiar and fresh at the same time.
Chris Pine steps ably into role of James T. Kirk and Zachary Quinto is an effective Spock, but, for me, the really amazing piece of casting is Karl Urban as Leonard McCoy. He's spot on throughout. Of course, it's only fair to admit that McCoy was always my favorite character in the original trek.
If the film has a weak spot, it is the film's primary villain - a Romulan from the future played by Eric Bana. Some deleted scenes on the DVD and Blu Ray flesh him out a bit better, but the film on the whole manages to overcome this shortfall.
The movie does surprising things with the universe, truly setting up a unique new timeline with different rules, and different backgrounds to characters a lot of us have loved our whole lives.
20. Hot Tub Time Machine
This movie is a bit different from most on the list, since it's a pretty straight up comedy. John Cusack, Craig Robinson, Rob Cordry, and that guy from "Sex Drive" star as four schlubs who travel back to an awesome weekend they had back in the 80's by way of a hot tub time machine (as if you didn't already know).
The movie has a few gross out moments, but a lot of the humor is derived form other sources. i especially like Crispin Glover as a doomed bellboy. Chevy Chase also pops up as a vague repairman who may know more about the time travel enabling hot tub than he lets on.
21. Fetching Cody
Most people have never heard of this one. It's a Canadian indie film, starring Jay Baruchel as a Vancouver junkie who uses a time travelling armchair (you can't make this stuff up) back in time to try to stop his girlfriend from overdosing. The street reality it takes place in is brutal and absurd at the same time.
Baruchel's character isn't an entirely likable guy. He's a drug addict street person, and he does desperate things that may be off putting to some . However, I found myself caught up in his quest to save the woman he loves.
Rian Johnson's Looper is a time travel movie with a twist. It takes place in a world where time travel was invented, but only high level criminals in the future have access to it. They use it to dispose of people they want to kill by sending them into the past, where they are killed by hitmen called loopers. The job pays well, but loopers know that one day they'll have to kill their older self. It's all part of the deal, and it comes with a huge payday.
Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Joe, a looper, who accidentally lets his older self (Bruce Willis) get away. This doesn't sit well with the looper bossman (Jeff Daniels), and a chase to catch Joe's older self begins. Old Joe has a mission of his own however, and what follows is a thrilling, original film that stays with you long afterwards.
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