From Time Loops to Hanging Out With Hemingway: Time Travel Movies
Why do time travel movies capture our imagination so much? I think of it like this: on our journey through life, it’s like we’re strapped into a car with no brakes, careening down a winding mountain road towards a thousand-foot cliff. We can think back to how the brakes got cut, but we are powerless to change that. We can think ahead to that cliff face at the end, but there’s not much we can do about that either. What we’re probably not doing is living in the present beyond negotiating those tricky bends at full speed, trying to avert premature disaster.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that many of us struggle to live in the present moment, often caught wallowing in nostalgia or dwelling over past mistakes; or thinking ahead to what we need to do and what might happen in the future. In that sense time travel movies, even the grim ones, are wish-fulfilment fantasies.
What if you could go back in time and actually ask out your high school crush, or save a person’s life, or assassinate teenage Hitler? Or what if you could go forward in time and return with great knowledge that could advance the human race, or simply a book of football scores so you could make a killing at the bookies?
The scenarios are almost endless, and the only real surprise is that cinema took so long to catch up. It began with H.G. Wells, the grandfather of the time travel story, in the late 19th century. He popularised the content with two works, The Chronic Argonauts and The Time Machine. He gets all the credit, but he was preceded by Edward Page Mitchell’s earlier story, The Clock that Went Backward. In between Wells’ stories came a familiar tale from Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
The latter provided the source material for the first notable time travel movies, with a silent version in 1921, a talkie ten years later, and a musical adaptation with Bing Crosby in 1949. It still took another three decades for the time travel movie to really catch on, but when it did, it covered just about every conceivable genre. The boom was sparked by the success of The Terminator in 1984 and Back to the Future the following year, and we’ve had literally hundreds of time travel films since. Here are a few of my picks…
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
In 1997, an edition of Backwoods Home magazine ran a classified ad that read:
Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 322 Oakview, CA 93022. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.
It was just a little joke written as filler by the senior editor, but nevertheless it received thousands of responses from readers who wanted to get in on a little time travel action, becoming an urban legend in its own right.
The advert later became the inspiration for Safety Not Guaranteed, a charming sci-fi romantic comedy with a surprisingly potent emotional core that belies its modest ambitions. The under-rated Aubrey Plaza plays Darius, a bored magazine intern who is sent to investigate the peculiar advert and find out something about the person who wrote it.
Darius and her team trace the ad to Kenneth (Mark Duplass, also excellent here), a grocery store clerk who is extremely secretive and paranoid, believing secret agents are watching his every move. Darius manages to befriend him, and finds out that he wants to travel back in time to save his old girlfriend who died in a tragic accident.
Darius only humours him at first as they undergo time travel training in the woods, but soon starts developing feelings for him as she starts to wonder if he might not just be a crank after all…
La Jetée (1962)
One haunting still image at a time, Chris Marker’s incredible photo montage tells the tale of a man sent back from post-World War III Paris in the hope of rescuing the future, and falls in love with a woman from a distant pre-war memory. His anchor to the past is a disturbing childhood recollection of seeing a man shot dead at an airport, which turns out to be his adult self.
While La Jetée comprises almost entirely of stark black and white photographs, it is far more than a slide show. The editing is rhythmic and the sound design is mesmerising, fully drawing you into this strange subterranean world of the future, contrasted sharply with the hazy, wistful tone of the present day sections. Then comes Marker’s coup de grace, a fleeting moment of true motion as a peculiar look plays across a waking woman’s face. It is hard to interpret that look, and the effect is truly startling.
La Jetée provided the inspiration for 12 Monkeys, which took the central concept and a few key images and ran with it. As strong as Gilliam’s film is, it can’t quite capture the enigmatic power of Marker’s stunning meditation on time, memory, love, and loss.
Midnight in Paris (2011)
In Woody Allen’s short story A Twenties Memory, our narrator hops around Paris, Chicago, and Spain hanging out with the great artistic and literary figures of the time. He makes friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald, has coffee with Picasso, falls in love with Gertrude Stein, and gets his nose broken while unwisely boxing with Ernest Hemingway.
Allen doesn’t mention time travel or the present day but I always read it as a time travel story, even before seeing Midnight in Paris. Owen Wilson plays Gil, a hack Hollywood screenwriter who dreams of breaking away from working for money to become a novelist in Paris. During a visit to the city with his materialistic, ill-tempered wife, Gil encounters a strange phenomenon when the clocks chime at midnight. Suddenly he is transported back to Paris of the roaring twenties, where he gets to meet his literary idols.
Allen has remained as prolific as ever over the past twenty years, although his output has been far more patchy this century. Midnight in Paris is one of his better recent movies, coasting along amiably on the sunny personality of Wilson, who makes a welcome change of protagonist. I like the neurotic Allen persona, either from himself onscreen or one of his cinematic alter-egos, but it gets a bit old sometimes.
Midnight in Paris is very picturesque and low-stakes, but still has some interesting things to say about creativity and nostalgia, making for a very pleasant trip to a glowing French capital. The city also looks beautiful, so warm and welcoming under Allen’s adoring gaze.
The Time Machine (1960)
H.G. Wells’ famous novella has been adapted to film a few times now, and provided inspiration for dozens of other movies. This version remains the best, with George Pal returning to the author after his earlier success with War of the Worlds.
Rod Taylor plays H. George Wells, an inventor who uses his new machine, looking somewhat like a comfy chair with a parasol strapped to a lawn mower engine, to venture forward through time. After pit stops in the first two World Wars, he arrives in 1966 just as the third begins. Luckily, he makes it back to his machine in time, but is catapulted forward many thousands of years to a strange future world where mankind is divided into two races; the beautiful, placid Eloi, and the cruel, subterranean Morlocks.
I’ve always had a real soft spot for this classy adaptation which holds up surprisingly well for its age. There is plenty to enjoy here with some imaginative time-lapse effects, a dashing performance from Taylor, and a cracking ending. The film is so iconic that the titular device made a cheeky cameo in Gremlins. In the scene where Billy’s dad calls home from the science fair, you can see it behind him in one shot. In the next, it has mysteriously vanished…
The Endless (2017)
Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have carved out a niche for themselves over the past ten years with their low-budget, intelligent, horror-inflected time travel movies. They write, produce, and direct, and they also starred together in their best film to date, The Endless.
They play Justin and Aaron Smith, two brothers who escaped a UFO cult and are now eking out a meagre living back in the real world, just about ends meet with crappy jobs and a diet of instant ramen noodles. When they receive a video tape from the camp, they fear that the remainder of the group are about to commit mass suicide, and visit again for the day.
Things are strange from the get-go, as nobody has aged in ten years and the camp seems in thrall to an unseen entity that watches everyone from above. As they explore further, the brothers discover that the creature enjoys locking people in time loops, ranging from a few seconds to decades.
The Endless expands on ideas and lore that Benson and Moorhead originally introduced in Resolution, their ultra low budget calling card. Still working well under the usual cost of the average Hollywood time-twister, they still manage a film that feels much larger in scope, with a slow build-up of cosmic dread.
Palm Springs (2020)
We all know that Groundhog Day is the greatest time loop film ever made, but Palm Springs is one of the few movies that manages to put a genuinely fresh spin on the concept.
Cristin Milioti plays Sarah, an estranged young woman who travels to the desert resort for her sister’s wedding. During the celebrations, she notices a guy in a Hawaiian shirt acting bizarrely. Nyles (Andy Samberg) is also a guest, but his behaviour suggests something is wrong with him. He’s pretty drunk and weird, but he intrigues her and they head out to the desert to hook up. Nyles is attacked by a mysterious man, and crawls away into a cave, warning her not to follow. She does so anyway out of concern and finds herself sucked into his time loop.
Nyles has been stuck in the same day for countless cycles. He’s given up trying to escape it and spends his days getting wasted and hanging out by the pool. Now she’s also caught in the same loop, Cristin first wants to escape, and tries to rouse him from his apathy.
If you’re familiar with Samberg’s style of humour from Saturday Night Live or The Lonely Island, you will have a pretty good idea of what kind of comedy to expect here. It’s quirky, foul-mouthed and raunchy, but it is also infectiously fuzzy and warm-hearted. Sarah and Nyles are instantly relatable, and it’s a pleasure hanging out in their time loop with them.
The Terminator (1984) and T2: Judgement Day (1991)
James Cameron’s lean and mean sophomore film (after Piranha II: The Spawning) had one of the best killer plot hooks of the ‘80s. What if your future son grows up into such an influential leader that the bad guys send an assassin back in time to bump you off, before the kid is even conceived?
Cameron’s screenplay tapped into cold war fears of nuclear annihilation, which gave the story in-built stakes as Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is hunted across Los Angeles by a hulking monosyllabic android hitman, played perfectly by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Luckily, the good guys also send back resistance soldier Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) to rescue her and explain the plot to the audience.
The low budget thriller was a huge success and made Arnie one of Hollywood’s biggest action stars. The material was ripe for a sequel and T2: Judgement Day didn’t disappoint. As with Aliens, Cameron really expanded the lore and scope of the original film while switching Arnie to the protector role in the face of a new threat. Making full use of cutting-edge CGI technology at the time, the film gave us the incredible liquid metal T-1000, played with lithe menace by Robert Patrick.
Army of Darkness (1992)
Following directly from events at the end of Evil Dead II, the third instalment of Sam Raimi’s cult horror trilogy dumps our hero Ash (Bruce Campbell) in the Middle Ages. To return to his own time, Ash must help Lord Arthur’s people recover the Necronomicon from a haunted forest. The problem is, he forgets the incantation he needs to retrieve it safely, and accidentally raises an army of “Deadites.”
Army of Darkness feels a lot like an excuse to have Ash doing his thing in mediaeval times, and that’s totally fine by me. Raimi took his inspiration from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and much of the fun comes from Ash’s reactions to his new surroundings. It’s neither as funny or scary as the previous movie, with Raimi leaning a little too heavily into the slapstick. But who cares when you’ve got Bruce Campbell waving his “boomstick” around?
The film’s ending remains a subject for debate among Evil Dead fans. In the original, Ash screws up on the amount of potion required to send him home, overshoots, and wakes up in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Presumably the idea was to set up another sequel with Ash vs futuristic Deadites.
The studios objected to that ending because they thought it was too bleak for audiences. Raimi shot another more upbeat conclusion, returning Ash to his old life and giving him one of his most famous catchphrases, “Hail to the king, baby!”
There are some real head-scratchers on this list, but none are quite as mind-boggling as Primer. Made for a paltry $7000, Shane Carruth applied his degree in maths and former career in engineering to take a realistic, if not to say downright dour, approach to time travel.
Carruth plays one of two engineers who design a time travel device known simply as “the box” and use it to venture six hours into the past, where they can clean up trading day stocks with knowledge of the outcome. At first, they are very careful to avoid any paradoxes, isolating to prevent contact with their doubles, as for a period of time there will be two versions of themselves. Things inevitably go awry, resulting in multiple timelines, double-crosses, and dangerous side effects of time travel.
Carruth, who wrote, produced, directed, edited, composed, and starred in his two mind-bending features to date, delights in taking a cerebral yet elliptical approach to his narratives. Both Primer and his second film, Upstream Color, require the utmost patience from the viewer for them to have any hope of keeping track. Personally, I’m not keen on movies that require me to draw a diagram to try figuring out what the hell just happened, but you have to admire the guy’s serious approach to a subgenre of science fiction that is often fumbled in the execution. Just keep the aspirin handy.
Donnie Darko (2001)
More time loop weirdness in Richard Kelly’s striking feature debut, which also gave breakthrough roles to Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal. The lore and physics behind the film are too complicated to delve into fully here, but the basic story is this. In 1988, a delusional (possibly schizophrenic) teenager, Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) receives a visit one night from a very creepy human-size rabbit called Frank, who tells him the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds. The next day, he awakes on a golf course and returns home to find out a jet engine landed on the house and destroyed his bedroom. Can Donnie keep his head straight long enough to avert catastrophe?
While Donnie Darko isn’t as profound as some of its devotees think it is, it is still an absorbing mind-bender that is all the more watchable because it makes sense on an emotional level, even if the actual details of the time travel stuff elude you. It also works as a darkly funny high school drama, with an excellent central performance from Gyllenhaal as a young guy whose delusions make it difficult to toe the line at school like everyone else.
The ‘80s setting is spot-on, aided by supporting roles from two icons of the decade; Drew Barrymore as a kindly English teacher, and Patrick Swayze as an arrogant motivational speaker with a horrible secret. Then of course there is the disturbing figure of Frank, one of a long line of scary rabbits in cinema.
Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic is an unwieldy beast, juggling heady concepts of quantum physics and their time-bending implications while coming down on a rather soppy conclusion that love conquers all, even in space. Nolan takes his time unfolding the narrative, and we spend a good hour on a doomed earth with former hotshot astronaut, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his family before he jets off through a wormhole in space to find a suitable planet for mankind to relocate to.
Nolan’s films can be a bit cold and emotionless but the heart-rending premise of Interstellar almost had me in tears a few times. In order to save our species, Cooper also must leave his daughter, Murph, behind. He promises to return, but there is a problem; the planets he will be exploring are orbiting a supermassive black hole, which means time will behave differently. On a water planet, one hour equals seven years of earth time, and a delay in their visit means that 23 years back home have passed in just a few hours for Cooper and his landing party. This means by the time Cooper finally keeps his promise, Murph is an old lady on her deathbed.
The quantum stuff gets a bit headache-inducing when Cooper, venturing into the black hole and encountering a construct created by future humans, is able to travel across time and space to give his daughter clues that will save the human race.
Praised for its scientific accuracy, Interstellar is otherwise an old-fashioned science fiction adventure that made the most of McConaughey at the peak of the McConnaissance, an earnest leading man you could really root for.
Back to the Future (1985)
I had to finish the list with Back to the Future, because leaving it out would be just plain ridiculous. Not only is it one of the very best time travel movies, it is also one of the most purely entertaining movies ever made.
Back to the Future is pure alchemy. Every single thing about it works. The cast are all superb, headed by a fresh-faced Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly, who replaced Eric Stoltz during shooting. He’s matched by Christopher Lloyd as his mad scientist friend, Doc Brown; Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson as Marty’s parents, and Thomas F. Wilson as bully Biff Tannen, Marty’s nemesis throughout the trilogy of films.
The screenplay, taking Marty back to the ‘50s where he inadvertently risks his own existence by interrupting the courtship of his parents, is a thing of wonder. There is barely a single detail in the film that doesn’t pay off by the end of the movie, from Doc’s Safety Last clock in the opening credits that foreshadows his own perilous climb at the thrilling conclusion, to small details like how the Twin Pines Mall becomes the Lone Pine Mall. I’m sure time travel pedants could find things to pick holes in, but why would you when a movie is this much fun?
Back to the Future is the complete package, also featuring a terrific Alan Silvestri score, some great effects work (even if those flaming tyre marks are a little off) and superb use of Huey Lewis and the News. To top it all off, the finale is simply the most exciting sequence of cliff-hanger moments outside thriller and action movies. It’s unbeatable entertainment and endlessly rewatchable.
So there you have it. There are so many time travel movies that it is hard to narrow it down to a shortlist of just a dozen or so. Which ones did we miss?