There are plenty of time-travel movies in existence, but most are either obtrusive “hard sci-fi” yawn-fests or patronising popcorn entertainment. Here are ten time-travel flicks that manage to successfully straddle the divide — with trailers!
Earlier in the week, I caught a preview screening of the Australian time-travel movie Predestination, which was the immediate inspiration for this article. Starring Ethan Hawke and Aussie newcomer Sarah Snook, it tells the story of time-travelling agents who fight to preserve order in 1970s New York. If you can imagine a gender-bending mix of Minority Report and Looper you’ll have a fair idea of what to expect.
The film is loosely based on the short story All You Zombies by Robert A. Heinlein and it remains entrancing from start to finish. While the actual time-travel mechanics are a bit silly (a violin case is involved), the film has some fascinating things to say about how personal trauma and the passage of time affects personal identity. Predestination officially screens in Australia next month. Watch the trailer below:
The Time Machine
It would be remiss of us not to include the great granddaddy of time-travel fiction, so here it is! George Pal’s 1960 adaptation of H.G. Well’s acclaimed novel takes time-travel to extremes that few films dare. Instead of pottering around a handful of centuries, the Victorian protagonist travels all the way to the year 802,701AD. In this distant future, nuclear war and subsequent natural selection has turned humans into two distinct species: the fair yet docile Eloi and the monstrous, warlike Morlocks.
If you’re keen to check out The Time Machine, make sure it’s the 1960 original and not the risible 2002 remake. Watch the trailer below.
As one of the biggest sleeper hits of 2012, Looper helped to bring time-travel movies back into vogue. It imagines a slightly batty future where criminal organisations use time-travel to “erase” targets by sending them back into the past. These unfortunate individuals are then immediately dispatched by present-day assassins called “loopers” who are paid with silver bars strapped to their targets’ chests. The fun begins when Joe, a looper, is sent a new target to kill — who just so happens to be himself, from the future. There’s also a weird telekinesis subplot and a mysterious figure who is wiping out loopers in the future.
By the director’s own admission, the film is more concerned with character development than explaining the intricacies of time-travel but there is still some great, heady stuff to wrap your brain around here. We especially like how altering one’s fate in the past affects the same person in the future — leading to sudden and horrific disintegrations. Watch the trailer below:
The Terminator is widely regarded to be one of the best action flicks of the 1980s, but it’s also one of the best science fiction stories ever. This is all too often overlooked due to a rash of inferior sequels and the indomitable presence of the Austrian Oak. (i.e. — Arnie movies aren’t supposed to be cerebral.) Nevertheless, you’d be hard pressed to find a more cohesive and thought-provoking time-travel movie than this.
For the two or three of you who haven’t seen it, The Terminator tells the relentlessly bleak story of a genocidal cyborg who is sent back in time to eliminate humanity’s only chance at salvation. In the movie’s dystopian future, machines rule the planet until a freedom fighter inspires the human slaves to fight back. By killing the freedom fighter’s mother before he has a chance to be born, the machines hope to erase humanity’s fightback in the future.
“Inspired” by an old episode of The Outer Limits penned by sci-fi god Harlan Ellison, The Terminator is a much better film than you probably remember. The time-travel mechanics are deliciously paradoxical — especially when it comes to matters of progeny. If it’s been a while since you last saw it, I recommend paying The Terminator another visit. Watch the trailer below:
Primer is proof positive that you don’t need a Hollywood mega-budget to pull off time-travel movie effectively. Made for an absurdly low $7000, the film relies on thought-provoking sci-fi concepts and an experimental plot structure in place of the usual whizz-bang effects. It tells the story of two engineers who stumble upon the key to time-travel while tinkering with an unrelated invention in a garage. As is invariably the case with time-travel, complications ensue as the pair begin fiddling with the past in an ill-advised bid to make money in the present.
Of all the movies on this list, Primer probably offers the most realistic take on the concept of time-travel – there’s no far-fetched plot to save the universe, the development of the prototype is plausibly mundane and the science is fascinatingly complex. The film was written and directed by a real-life engineer with a degree in mathematics which helps to give the technical jargon an assured authenticity that’s usually lacking in sci-fi. It also helps that the lead actors look and sound like science geeks instead of GQ models in lab coats.
If you want to watch a challenging time-travel movie that demands multiple viewings to properly ruminate on, you could do a lot worse than Primer. Watch the trailer below.
X-Men: Days Of Future Past
X-Men: Days Of Future Past is unashamedly a comic book movie — but beneath the silly outfits and superhero fisticuffs is a surprisingly solid time-travel story. Based on the 1981 X-Men comic storyline of the same name, it sees a future Wolverine attempting to alter the course of history by projecting his consciousness into his younger self from 1973. What follows is a rollicking suspense story as the claw-fisted anti-hero races against the clock to prevent a political assassination that will lead to the extinction of mutantkind.
It’s basically The Terminator in reverse (i.e. — the time traveler is trying to prevent an assassination instead of committing one.) X-Men: Days Of Future Past could have waved away its time-travel conceit via comic book logic or a magic MacGuffin. Instead, the movie goes to admirable lengths to keep the core rules plausible and consistent. We particularly like the idea of time-travel via mental transference, which makes slightly more sense than sending physical people back in time. On the downside, this doesn’t really work as a standalone movie – for full appreciation, the previous X-Men flicks are required viewing. Watch the trailer below:
Timecrimes, or Los Cronocrímenes to give it its native title, is a mind-contorting thriller that entwines the concepts of time-travel and temporal loops to dizzying effect. The film begins with a middle-aged man being terrorised by a masked stranger in the Spanish countryside. It soon transpires that a mysterious research facility has been experimenting with time-travel in the nearby area — and all is not as it seems. What follows is an exhilarating roller-coaster ride that attempts to derail the viewer’s understanding at every twist and turn. Those who manage to stay on board will be rewarded with one of the most fiendish time-travel puzzles in existence.
As with any film of this nature, it’s best to go in knowing as little about the plot as possible. While this does makes it harder to keep up, the assorted payoffs are worth the mental effort required to make sense of them. Ignore the trailer below!
Between this and Looper, Bruce Willis is clearly the king of the time-travelling genre. The plot involves a convicted criminal in a plague-ravaged future who is sent back in time by scientists in a bid to defeat the virus before it wipes out humanity. Rather than trying to prevent the future from happening (which doesn’t really make sense, when you think about it), his mission is to obtain a sample of the original virus so that a cure can be developed back in the future.
The film also scores extra points for Terry Gilliam’s trademark directing style and making Brad Pitt look ugly back when he was in his prime. Watch the trailer below.
Cult favourite Donnie Darko is perhaps most notable for introducing the world to actor Jake Gyllenhaal (who also stars in Source Code, another solid time-travel movie.) It follows the misadventures of the titular Donnie; an emotionally disturbed teenager who comes to believe that the world will end in 28 days after a jet engine mysteriously crashes into his bedroom. The film explores the concepts of tangent universes, wormholes and temporal loops with the darkly foreboding tone offset by ’80s pop music.
Like most cult movies, Donnie Darko tends to divide audiences — you either love it, or hate it. Nevertheless, few movies in recent memory have tackled time-travel as deeply as this. There’s also a talking rabbit. Watch the trailer below.
Back To The Future
By now, you’ve doubtlessly noticed that comedies have been getting short thrift on this list. Where’s Time Bandits? Or Groundhog Day? Or Hot Tub Time Machine? Or Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure? While these are all perfectly fine movies, none of them provide a particularly compelling take on time-travel. Instead, they’re more concerned with making the audience laugh; as it should be.
Back To The Future is different. In addition to being a frequently hilarious adventure film, the concept of time-travel is handled brilliantly throughout. You all know the story by now: a boy travels back in time, inadvertently comes between his teenage parents and then struggles to bring them back together to ensure his own existence. From the intricacies of the “grandfather paradox” to the iconic DeLorean DMC-12 time machine, it’s one of the best attempts at the genre the world has ever seen. Watch the trailer below:
This story has been updated since its original publication.