By Anthony Popiel
Time travel has been a staple of action, sci-fi and comedy movies for decades. After all, there are many different stories to be told when directors and screenwriters have the ability to take characters to the past and the future. This year alone has seen a few new entries in the time travel genre, most notably Edge of Tomorrow and X-Men: Days of Future Past, so I figured it’s a good time to hop in my cinematic time machine to take a look at my favorite time travel movies.
10. 12 Monkeys
12 Monkeys has one of the most unusual depictions of a post-apocalyptic future ever put on film, but that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise since it was directed by Terry Gilliam. In short, Bruce Willis plays a convict from the future sent back in time to prevent the outbreak of a deadly virus. The genius of 12 Monkeys is that it does a brilliant job of keeping the audience guessing. At some points, the sanity of Bruce Willis’s character is even brought into question as characters try to figure out if this convict is a deranged lunatic or a true time traveler.
9. Déjà Vu
Déjà Vu tells the story of an ATF agent, played by Denzel Washington, who uses time travel to prevent a terrorist attack in New Orleans. The time travel mechanics of this movie are quite unique – a government team discovers a wormhole that allows them to send objects exactly four days from the present moment into the past, which is a considerable limitation on conventional time travel. Rather than having an infinite number of chances to go back in time, the team only has four days before their window into the past ticks past the moment of the attack. This gives the plot a heightened sense of urgency and raises the dramatic stakes since the team has to move fast to stop the terrorist attack.
The time travel in Frequency explores what someone would do if they have the chance to talk to a long-lost parent. Such is the case when Jim Caviezel’s character stumbles upon a radio frequency that allows him to talk to his father, played by Dennis Quaid, in the past. The son uses this chance to help his father stop a serial killer. Similar to Déjà Vu, the characters only have access to a limited form of time travel that heightens the dramatic tension, with Jim Caviezel’s character having to figure out the best way to help his father without actually being there in person.
7. Groundhog Day
This mixture of comedy and drama finds Bill Murray stuck reliving the same day over and over. This representation of time travel is so iconic that people refer to Groundhog Day whenever the premise of a day resetting itself is used in other fictional work. As a case in point, the recently released Edge of Tomorrow is described as a sci-fi action version of Groundhog Day. What makes Groundhog Day so much fun is seeing Bill Murray’s creativity with time travel, such as his ability to memorize and manipulate the daily routines of a small town.
6. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
One of the trickiest aspects of time travel stories is the fact that so many paradoxes can arise when characters start changing the events of the past. Whereas serious films try to use logic to explain away these paradoxes, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure avoids this problem by brushing it aside as a joke. As the titular characters use a time-traveling phone booth to bring historical figures to the present for a history project, none of the characters, ranging from Socrates to Genghis Khan, ever seem to question the fact that time travel is possible and instead decide to just go with the flow. This leads to several humorous encounters, with highlights such as Genghis Khan raiding a sports store and Sigmund Freud turning the tables on a police interrogator.
5. X-Men: Days of Future Past
The most recent release on this list, X-Men: Days of Future Past had the difficult task of mending the jumbled timeline of the long-running X-Men film franchise. While it doesn’t solve every problem, the film stands out with its brilliant portrayal of a post-apocalyptic future juxtaposed to the 1970s. The futuristic setting is captured with crystal-clear, high-definition imagery and dark color schemes that reflect the doomed outlook of the characters. On the other hand, the 1970s setting looks like it was actually filmed during that decade. The images are softer, with warmer colors and a slightly grainy look that reflects classic cinematography from the time. Most time travel films will settle for nailing the costumes or dialogue in establishing a setting the past, but this one goes all out in capturing the look and feel of the 1970s.
4. Source Code
Whereas Bill Murray got to relive an entire day in Groundhog Day, Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in Source Code has much less time to work with. In fact, he only has eight minutes to figure out who bombed a train so his team can prevent another bomb from going off in six hours. Through this tight setup, the film raises explores some interesting questions, such what people will do when they learn that they only have moments to live. In the case of Gyllenhaal’s character, he has to decide whether or not to keep trying to save the lives onboard the doomed train, despite assurances from other characters that he can’t change the past.
Looper is one of the best cinematic explorations of what happens when a character meets his older or younger self. This situation becomes even more thought-provoking when the main character is at odds with his future self, which is brilliantly portrayed in this case by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who with the assistance of some prosthetics gives a spot-on interpretation of Bruce Willis as a young man. The film combines great action beats with a smart story and a unique vision of the future.
2. Back to the Future
The two ideas that arguably come to most people’s minds when they discuss time travel are visiting themselves or their family members in a different time. In the case of Back to the Future, Marty McFly, played by Michael J. Fox, uses time travel to meet his parents when they were teenagers. This leads to several memorable set-pieces where Marty has to act to ensure his own existence. In short, Back to the Future is a perfect combination of action, comedy, drama, sci-fi and good old-fashioned entertainment.
1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
One of the best sequels ever made, Terminator 2: Judgment Day continues the story of time-traveling machines trying to kill the future leader of humanity. This is one of the finest action movies ever made, but it doesn’t stop there. It combines spectacle with an intelligent story that explores one of the core questions of time travel: can someone really change the events of the past and the future? The film never concretely reveals if the characters’ actions and sacrifices make any difference, instead focusing on the fact that the will to act is what matters.
Time travel is a unique sci-fi concept because it has been used in so many films both dramatic and comedic. The chance for time machines to become a reality is slim in today’s world, but in the meantime, audiences can enjoy classic films like these to revisit the past and discover the future.
Anthony Popiel loves hearing and seeing stories in any artistic medium. Rather than simply saying that something is good or bad, he prefers to investigate the ideas and messages that stories communicate both subtly and overtly. He hopes to retire to The Shire one day and find somewhere quiet where he can finish his book. Follow him on Twitter @aapopiel.