Time travel is a favourite cinematic conundrum. Time travel movies are so damned satisfying because they scratch the impossible itch of course correcting mistakes. Or conversely it terrifies because dark forces wield the power to travel through time to capitalise on the moments that influence their enemy’s existence. Great time travel movies have awareness of the fragility of continuity and the swagger to go alter things no matter the consequences. Great time travel movies also speak to our inner logic nerds, who need there to be mathematical synergy in order to suspend their disbelief. Great time travel movies also elevate mundane activities like speeding 88 miles an hour, enjoying a lovely hot tub, wanting to cram in more study and or finishing high school assignments to monumental, universe shaking activities. With collaboration from Dark Horizons' Garth Franklin, author and BAMF Maria Lewis and the ever reliable movie encyclopaedia Dave Grenfell; and bearded White-Belt Blake Howard; we present the 30 Definitive Time Travel films.
The Terminator 1984: Launching the careers of Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron, the original "The Terminator" has left a permanent impact on cinema. It works so well because it's designed from the ground up as a serious, dark, efficient, often disturbing, hard-boiled contemporary action movie. Despite the fatalism of its immutable post-apocalyptic future, it's also a film about one woman and her growth from wallflower waitress into wilful warrior in a time in action films where women weren't leads and certainly didn't have character arcs like this. Combined with a soulless machine antagonist whose brutalism is chilling and compelling, and Cameron's knack for memorable set pieces, its structure and foundation will outlast us all when the machines do finally take us over. GF
Terminator 2: Judgment Day 1991: In the nominees for the greatest sequel of all time; in the conversation for the greatest action film of all time and undeniably the best film to feature a woman doing chin-ups. James Cameron's sequel to the his visionary cyber punk sci fi The Terminator takes us to another nexus in the life of Sarah and John Connor. Self-aware projection of technological singularity, no not Google or Pokemon Go, but Skynet has dispatched another Terminator to take out the leader of the human resistance; but this time, JC has reprogrammed a T-800 terminator to go back and protect his future self. Cameron terrifies with a vivd impression of a nuclear blast hitting Los Angeles; the hubris and denial creating something that's ultimately the source for humanities destruction and let's not forget a stream of unforgettable action set pieces and scenes with endlessly quotable dialogue. BH
Timecop 1994: JCVD in a time travel movie, yes and it works too. Set in the "future" where time travel exists, an agency is entrusted to patrol its use, or misuse for gain. The 'muscles from Brussels' has to jump between time, combat the bad guys and the kingpin behind them while trying to not interfere with the present/future but affecting the past; and yes you will find a scene with him doing the splits subtly worked in…. D.G
Looper 2012: Rian Johnson's incredible third film, creates a future where time travel is outlawed and it's impossible to get away with murder. So wily representatives of organised crime sends their 'marks' back in time to hitmen or 'Loopers' to kill them and dispose of the bodies. When Joseph Gordon Levitt (and his prosthetic nose) encounters his future self, played by Bruce Willis, on a mission to take out a future crime Kingpin he must decide if his existence is more important than a boy's future. A film that gives you the 'Terminator goosebumps' in a big bad way. BH
Back to the Future 1985: The quintessential and most beloved time travel film in many respects, the story of Marty McFly's travelling back in time thirty years to help his (then teenage) parents find love works just as well today as it did three decades ago. The plot is tight, the dialogue is witty, the emotional stakes are high, and the pacing flawless. Time travel is one of those elements that people can get confused about very quickly, but the clever scripting makes sure everyone can keep up as the film has fun playing out variations of the grandfather and bootstrap paradoxes. Career-defining performances and direction by Bob Zemeckis help deftly balance the jumps between sci-fi, action, romance and comedy. GF
Back to the Future Part II 1989: Just when you thought it was safe to get back in a DeLorean, Doc Brown and Marty McFly attempt to correct the path of Marty and Jennifer's children. When things appear to be going smoothly, Marty inadvertently creates an alternate future where Biff Tannen grows up to be Donald Drumpf; and has to navigate the maze of potential futures to correct his mistakes and make it back to his timeline. Probably the only film that successfully goes Empire Strikes Back darker in the sequel and succeeds, because it actually serves the story's purpose. Zemeckis and co. get to explore the consequences of small manipulations of the past to branch into different possibilities. This is the time travel sequel that needs a whiteboard in the room for your nerd friends to map out Marty should have known that there was another DeLorean laying around. BH
Interstellar 2014: One of the films on this list that tackles time in the "science will hurt your brain" specifics. Christopher Nolan is probably one of the only filmmakers in the world that would be entrusted a huge budget to tackle such an original high concept, existential science fiction concept. Set in a future where the Earth's capacity to growth edible plant life for humans or animals has diminished, a crew of scientists are jettisoned into space to inspect the closest planets that we could possibly habitate. Gargantuan in scale; sublime renderings of space phenomena and Nolan reaching for Kubrick level mind-fuckery. BH
Donnie Darko 2001: Ah, Donnie Darko - the film responsible for suburban sci-fi and also that guy wearing head-to-toe Hot Topic at a house party who corners you with his theories on time travel. It’s a film so good Richard Kelly hasn’t been able to match it since: and that’s a compliment (depending on how you view The Box and Southland Tales). Weaving multiple depressing story threads together, it brought an emotion and vulnerability to the genre not felt since E.T. Beautiful and bleak, there’s a reason it became a cult classic and launched the careers of the Gyllenhaals. ML
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure 1989: At a time when the 1980s surge in both teen and time travel films was coming to an end, along came a comedy which was thoroughly embraced by a whole generation despite being critically slammed on release. Its story followed two not so bright slackers whose music changed the course of the future and who travel back in time to collect various historical figures to help them ace a school essay. Full of many charms from the trio of leading performances by Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter and comedian George Carlin, to its fun mashup ideas of how historical figures like Napoleon or Socrates would handle modern America - it's goofy but so much fun. GF
Primer 2004: And now some words from "The Great One," Roger Ebert.
"Primer" is a film for nerds, geeks, brainiacs, Academic Decathlon winners, programmers, philosophers and the kinds of people who have made it this far into the review. It will surely be hated by those who "go to the movies to be entertained," and embraced and debated by others, who will find it entertains the parts the others do not reach. It is maddening, fascinating and completely successful.
Twelve Monkeys 1995: Terry Gilliam's feature length remake of the 1962 short "La Jetee" remains one of his most complete, approachable and consistent works to date. There are some very big ideas in play in this story of a future prisoner sent back to our present to track down the source of a plague, and Gilliam smartly keeps his tonal-changing flights of fancy under tight rein - pushing his quirkiness more into the film's very lived-in, off-putting yet fascinating aesthetic. Strong performances all around, most notably Brad Pitt's stellar supporting turn as a mentally unstable rich boy, bolster a smart script. GF
About Time 2013: Richard Curtis' beautiful tale of family and fulfilment draws out the most awesome sand-box for its characters to play in. On Tim's (Domhnall Gleeson) 21st Birthday, he gets an unexpected gift from his Dad (Bill Nighy); the news that he can travel through time and tweak the happenings of his life. You get to live out the fantasies of being able to deliver the perfect line to the beautiful girl, or to nail that job interview. Warning contains unstoppable "Daddy issues". BH
Predestination 2014: The Spierig Brothers' quietly created one of the most fascinating time travel films in the last decade. Ethan Hawke plays a secret agent hot on the heels of a lone terrorist that has eluded him through time. On his travels he encounters a writer, played by Sarah Snook, who claims that she has the strangest tale he'll ever hear. Beautifully reconstructing bygone eras, with flashes of technology and infused with great awareness of gender politics; it's a film with mystery, thrills and brains. Each new illuminating turn will leave you exponentially outwitted. A necessary repeat viewing, and a continually confounding one. BH.
Time After Time 1979: Before "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," director Nicholas Meyer's first film offered a surprisingly sweet, small-scale, high-concept romantic drama that sounds like it was hatched whilst high on mescaline. The setup? "The Time Machine" author H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) actually constructed a time machine and that Jack the Ripper (David Warner) uses it to travel into a new century - 1979 to be precise. Wells follows and soon falls for a dowdy but open minded banker named Amy (Mary Steenburgen). Despite the concept there's little action, 'Time' is more about warming your heart with its blossoming romance or expanding your mind with musings on how mankind has evolved - or rather how we haven't. GFSource Code 2011: The first of two films that you may have heard referred to as a "Groundhog Day" action sci-fi premise. Jake Gyllenhal is soldier on his death bed. He's been projected into the last moments of a man's to stop a terrorist bombing. Directed by Duncan Jones (Moon, World of Warcraft), who was handed the baton after the departure of Alex Proyas, there's a thrilling "do over" quality to Source Code that makes it feel like the level of a really difficult video game, that you're edging closer to complete. BH
Safety Not Guaranteed 2012: Colin Trevorrow, director of Jurassic World and the upcoming (and so far untitled Star Wars Episode IX), began his career with this absolutely endearing sci-fi story that's not (or is it). The inspiration, a real classified ad that read: "Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed." Writer Derek Connolly and Trevorrow, do an incredible job with this slice of Americana. Aubrey Plaza stars as the newspaper journalist tasked with embedding herself with the eccentric time traveller Mark Duplass for the story. Team leader Jake M. Johnson comes along for some snark and to drink in his home town by rekindling an old flame. While the premise begs you to be cynical, there's something about Saftey that understands why we yearn for second chances, are haunted by regrets and the humanity of pursuing things that seem impossible. Trevorrow has this gem to thank for his currently stacked work roster. BH
Midnight in Paris 2011: Woody Allen's Parisian 'nostalgia parable' stars Owen Wilson as Gil (one of the best Allen proxies) a screen writer visiting Paris to write his first novel. In a momentary midnight escape from his wife Inez, played by Rachel McAdams, he discovers that he can travel back in time, to the golden age of 1920s Paris and be alongside Hemmingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, T.S Elliot, Cole Porter and Salvador Dali. The premise of Midnight in Paris travelled through time with Allen since his 1970s stand-up. Perfectly performed, a script that's intellectually genius and laugh-out-loud hilarious, you'll fall in love with Paris, then and now. BH
Planet of the Apes 1968: Taking a novel by "Bridge on the River Kwai" author Pierre Boulle and turning it into a masterful sci-fi drama and satire, the original 1968 "Planet of the Apes" is still a highly captivating work even if it’s more famous these days for its widely known end twist and Charlton Heston's hammier moments. Those are the weak links in an otherwise superb film that varies between courtroom drama, suspenseful thriller and biting social satire that targets everything including class systems, religion vs. science, animal testing and the dehumanisation of prisoners. The make-up and score remain stunning work fifty years on, but it's the multi-dimensional characters and its fearlessness that cement its classic reputation. GF
La Jetée 1962: via Criterion: Chris Marker, filmmaker, poet, novelist, photographer, editor, and now videographer and digital multimedia artist, has been challenging moviegoers, philosophers, and himself for years with his complex queries about time, memory, and the rapid advancement of life on this planet. Marker’s La Jetée is one of the most influential, radical science-fiction films ever made, a tale of time travel told in still images.
Frequency 2000: When detective John Sullivan (Jim Caviezel) ventures into his basement and finds his departed Dad's (Dennis Quaid) CB radio and turns it on. A solar flare is rippling across the sky means that suddenly he's able to communicate thirty years into the past, to his father. After getting over the "this is impossible" communication, Sullivan begins to give his father advice/guidance that has dire consequences. An infamous serial murderer who mysteriously went quiet suddenly reappears and in order to halt the momentum of deaths beyond those that he committed before this time travelling chit chat began, he enlists his father's help to hunt him down. BH
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban 2004: Alfonso Cuaron's entry into the Harry Potter series set the template for how to bring J.K Rowling's endlessly rewarding series to the big screen. Apart from the focus on Harry, the darker aesthetic (the source material lent itself to that treatment) and the rolling takes showcasing the gorgeous set design; The Prisoner of Azkaban showcases a magical time travel rollercoaster mash-up that makes for a the story's defining and series altering climax. BH
Edge of Tomorrow 2014: Edge Of Tomorrow is the kind of sci-fi movie that blindsides you: you don't expect to like it and after all, what else could a sci-fi blockbuster with Tom Cruise possibly have to add to the pantheon of other sci-fi blockbusters with Tom Cruise? And then you watch it. Simultaneously familiar yet bold and original, it's a twist on the hero Vs alien invasion tale as we know it, adding humour and pathos to a high concept film that is anything but predictable. And yes, you will put it on (live die) repeat, again and again. ML
Groundhog Day 1993: No one can say it better than "The Great One" Roger Ebert:
"Groundhog Day" is a film that finds its note and purpose so precisely that its genius may not be immediately noticeable. It unfolds so inevitably, is so entertaining, so apparently effortless, that you have to stand back and slap yourself before you see how good it really is.
The Philadelphia Experiment 1984: During a naval trial of anti-radar cloaking in 1943 sends two sailors who jump ship over 40 years into the future. The paradox is cleverly dealt with, as the sailors adapt to "1984" and search for answers and a way back to their time and prevent the "future" from being drawn back to 1943. D.G
Hot Tub Time Machine 2010: A group of friends and one of their nephews are transported back to a significant night where they must survive the time without affecting the future especially of the yet "unborn" nephew. Corddry steals the show as Lou and his meddling with past has hilarious implications for their return to present. A film that truly 'diddles' time. D.G
Time Bandits 1981: Terry Gilliam creates a world of fantasy as a young boy "falls" through a time hole in his wardrobe into a band of time jumping half pint pirates. As they leap between the ages searching for treasure, avoiding their aggrieved former master and on a crash course with "evil". Gilliam delivers his customary gritty, quirky and multi layered tale, with plenty of his trademark dirt. D.G
Peggy Sue Got Married 1986: a time travel film but just a little different, a 43yr old Peggy Sue, now facing divorce attends her high school reunion as a way to escape her troubled life but when she passes out she wakes she finds herself propelled back into her own past. now back in high school will she make the same "choices" that lead to her present unhappiness. Turner & Cage work great together D.G
Army of Darkness 1992: While neck deep in blood with his ongoing battle with the Evil Dead a time portal is opened and Ash is sent back to medieval times where a quest to survive is combined with the task of retrieving the Necronomicon with the hope of returning home to present time. Ash and his trusty 'boomstick' will use all his tricks and some new ones to finally defeat "evil" while keeping it groovy. The final of the Raimi helmed trilogy; there are three cuts of the film, all work, all rock, time travel was never so cool 'til Ash made it so! D.G
Timeline 2003: When a history jumping professor disappears into the "past" a group of archaeology students along with some combat specialists travel back via a "3-D fax machine" to 14th century France to search for their missing mentor. They must deal with marauding hordes, the invading English, an ever rising body count and a rapidly reducing countdown to return home to the present. A lesser known film with a strong cast. D.G
X-Men: Days of Future Past 2014: After Matthew Vaughn successfully revived the dying "X-Men" franchise with the still underrated "X-Men: First Class," original franchise initiator Bryan Singer returned to direct the follow-up which saw the adaptation of one of the most famous storylines of the comics in which a dark future is changed by actions in the past - in this case the 1970s. The result was thoroughly embraced by fans, a rousing adventure which turned Hugh Jackman's Wolverine into the grumpiest time traveler there ever was. We also got one of the great FX sequences of the past few years with the Quicksilver scene, and a story that smartly merged the two X-Men casts whilst simultaneously giving the older ones a proper send-off that 'The Last Stand' robbed them of. As a side bonus 'Days' also effectively erased a multitude of sins made by the franchise - at least until "X-Men: Apocalypse" came along.GF We’d love to hear what you think and see what we’ve missed…we can always go back in time and change our answers…
Blake Howard is a writer, a podcaster, the editor-in-chief & co-founder of Australian film blog Graffiti With Punctuation. Beginning his criticism APPRENTICESHIP as co-host of That Movie Show 2UE, Blake is now a member of the prestigious Online Film Critic Society, sways the Tomato Meter with Rotten Tomatoes approved reviews. See his articulated words and shrieks (mostly) here at Graffitiwithpunctuation.com and with DarkHorizons.com & 2SER Sydney weekly on Gaggle of Geeks.