Over the years, time travel has become one of the most common plot devices in sci-fi cinema. It has been used, abused, revered, and spoofed in more films than can be counted. But whether time travel is approached as a serious scientific concept, or as a flimsy deus ex machina, its appeal is undeniable. Listed below are ten of the greatest and most influential films to feature time travel, in chronological order from when they were first released.
10. La jetée (1962)
Widely considered to be one of the greatest short films ever made, Chris Marker’s La jetée is a hallucinatory exploration of memory, love, and inescapable fate. After the advent of World War Three, humanity has been all but wiped out. A handful of survivors manage to eke out an existence underneath the ruins of Paris. Haunted by a childhood memory of seeing a man get shot at the end of a jetty, the film’s unnamed protagonist is a prisoner, used in a radical experiment to attempt to travel through time. Venturing both into the past and future, the protagonist seeks a way to save mankind … and maybe, just maybe, figure out why that memory of the man at the end of the jetty haunts him.
Unlike a traditional film, La jetée consists almost entirely of still photographs, with sound effects and narration accompanying them. Both stylistically and aesthetically daring, La jetée is impossible to forget.
9. Time Bandits (1981)
Four years before releasing his magnum opus, Brazil, director Terry Gilliam would give the world one of his most delightfully mad-cap and entertaining creations: Time Bandits. Eleven-year-old Kevin was just your average young boy, with his head in the clouds and his nose in a pile of books. But then, one fateful day, six time-traveling dwarfs spill out of his closet and commandeer him on a journey of high adventure through time and space. Seeking treasure and riches, they venture through several time periods, meeting legendary historical figures (like Napoleon, Robin Hood, and Agamemnon), and eventually coming face-to-face with both the Supreme Being and the physical incarnation of Evil itself!
Gilliam is most famous for his incredibly subversive (and adult) films like The Fisher King (1991) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). However, Time Bandits is a film that both parents and children of all ages can enjoy. It is, quite simply, a timeless classic. No pun intended.
8. Back to the Future (1985)
If it wasn’t for the fact that this list is in chronological order, then this film probably would have been number one. Let’s be honest: for millions of people, this film is the first thing that comes to mind whenever the phrase “time travel” is mentioned. In fact, it probably isn’t even too much of a stretch to speculate that most of the films further down on this list wouldn’t have been made if Back To The Future hadn’t become a pop-culture phenomenon.
The story beats have become the stuff of legend: after teenager Marty McFly is accidentally sent back in time by eccentric scientist Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown, he must try and repair the time machine (a modified 1981 DeLorean DMC-12,) and make sure that his presence in the past doesn’t prevent his parents from getting married and having him. The film led to two sequels, and one of the biggest merchandising franchises this side of LucasArts.
7. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
One of the biggest challenges in writing this list wasn’t trying to figure out “if” a Star Trek film should be included, but “which” one should be included. Yes, the Star Trek franchise is no stranger to time travel. But perhaps the best Star Trek time travel film was the fourth in the series: The Voyage Home. Directed by none other than Leonard Nimoy himself, The Voyage Home follows the former crew of the USS Enterprise, as they travel to Earth’s past in order to bring back a pair of humpback whales. Why? Well, in their time period, a mysterious alien probe appears and tries to make contact with the planet’s humpback whale population. Unfortunately, in the future, the humpback whale has gone extinct. When the probe begins to threaten all life on Earth, Captain Kirk and crew realize that they must retrieve the whales from the past … or else.
Many audiences were thrown off at the time by this seemingly absurd premise. But through the years, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home quickly became one of the most beloved films in the Star Trek franchise.
6. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves as metalhead slackers? Check. George Carlin as an (almost) all-knowing futuristic guitar God? Check. Time travel shenanigans with some of mankind’s greatest historical figures? Check. What do you get when you throw that all together? The most bodacious Stephen Herek film of all time: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. When Ted “Theodore” Logan and Bill S. Preston, Esquire are told that, if they don’t get an A+ on their final paper, they will flunk out of school and get sent to a military academy, the two wanna-be rock stars are given a time machine by Rufus, an emissary from the future where the Earth has become a peaceful utopia, thanks to their music. So what do they do? Kidnap famous dead people to tell them how history really happened!
The film has become a bonafide cult classic, in no small part because of its hilarious writing, break-neck pace, and kick-ass musical score. It is, to quote the Two Great Ones, most excellent!
5. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
As one of the most widely quoted, and shamelessly imitated, action films in history, James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day managed to achieve the near impossible: a sequel that is actually better than the original. The original Terminator (1984) is by no means a bad film. But this sequel, with Arnold Schwarzenegger returning as the nearly unstoppable T-800 Terminator, blew its predecessor away in almost every department: the special effects, the action scenes, and, most famously, its villain. When Sarah Conner and her son John are threatened by the more advanced T-1000 Terminator, from a future where robots destroyed humanity, an obsolete, reprogrammed T-800 is sent by John’s future counterpart to protect them. Making hundreds of millions of dollars, and winning four Academy Awards, Terminator 2: Judgement Day is one for the history books.
4. 12 Monkeys (1995)
As a full-length American remake of Chris Marker’s La jetée, Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys could have very easily been a catastrophic failure, and a soulless cash-in. Miraculously, the film was neither, and turned out to be one of the most critically and financially successful films of Gilliam’s turbulent career. Staring Bruce Willis as the beleaguered time traveler, the film sees him journey to the past to try and stop a terrorist organization, known as the Army of the 12 Monkeys, from releasing a virus that wiped out almost all of the Earth’s population, forcing the survivors to live underground.
The film follows many of the same story beats as Marker’s film, but the increased run-time, and budget, allowed Gilliam to flesh out the universe of the film, and to really dig into its philosophical and scientific themes. Make no mistake, 12 Monkeys and Marker’s original are the thinking-man’s time travel films.
3. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)
There have been quite a few adaptations of Yasutaka Tsutsui’s 1967 novel The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. However, I decided to discuss the 2006 anime adaption, directed by Mamoru Hosoda. This film actually follows Makoto Konno, the niece of the original story’s protagonist. Like her aunt before her, Makoto discovers one day that she has the ability to travel through time. But Makoto quickly learns that using her new talent could have severe consequences, both for her and for the people around her, especially when a mysterious tattoo that indicates how many more times she can “leap” appears on her arm. The film would go on to win a number of awards, and earn international acclaim as one of the best anime movies of the decade.
2. Midnight in Paris (2011)
When I began this list, I knew that eventually Woody Allen would have to make an appearance. The winner? His recent time-travel opus, Midnight in Paris. The film follows Gil Pender, a burnt-out Hollywood screenwriter vacationing in Paris with his fiancée. While out walking the streets one night, he comes across an old-fashioned car that somehow transports him into the 1920’s. While in the past, he rubs elbows with many of the most famous artists and intellectuals of the era, including Cole Porter, Pablo Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. When he falls in love with a seductive woman named Adriana, he considers whether or not returning to his own time is even worth it. Both deeply personal and emotionally moving, Midnight in Paris was Allen’s biggest hit, and best film, in almost a decade.
1. Looper (2012)
Who would have thought that Bruce Willis would appear not once, but twice, on a list of the greatest time travel films? In Rian Johnson’s Looper, Willis plays the future version of mafia assassin Joseph Simmons, a “looper” who kills targets sent back in time, so their bodies will be impossible to track. However, when Willis is sent back in time to be executed by his past self, both versions of Joseph Simmons must team up to fight back against the forces that want them dead.
The film wisely side-steps the scientific jargon and technical explanations for time travel, in order to more closely focus on Simmons’ plight. But that doesn’t mean that Looper isn’t a smart, well-made piece of sci-fi film making. The film is a delight, and seems destined to be one of the more fondly remembered films of 2012.