Top 10 Time-Travel Movies
La Jetée, 1962
Cinema itself is a trick of time — still pictures passed through a focused beam of light at 24 frames per second. We are reminded of that in La Jetée, Chris Marker’s 28-min.-long meditation on time travel, apocalypse and fate. Composed almost entirely of black-and-white still frames, voice-over and an elegiac score, La Jetée propels its main character through time — from a ruined postwar Paris back to his own days as a young boy in the City of Lights, where he falls deeply in love. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Terry Gilliam essentially remade it as the full-length 12 Monkeys. Only one scene in the film steps away from still photographs to show a brief flicker of movement. The shot is so beautiful, the moment so unexpected, that it’s literally breathtaking.
They don’t travel very far along the timeline in Primer, but it’s the philosophical implications of their methodical hops through space-time that linger most. The ultra-low-budget Sundance winner, directed by engineer Shane Carruth and filmed in his parents’ garage, has gone on to become an unlikely cult hit on DVD. Two grown friends who spend their nights experimenting into the wee hours in hope of developing and selling the next hot patent accidentally build a metal chamber that is able to transport them a day into the past, where they can make surefire stock purchases to pad their portfolio. But as the friends grow cocky and sloppy — and suddenly realize there are already duplicates of them running around all over town — Primer uses its simple silver device to pry open Pandora’s box.
Back to the Future, 1985
Marty McFly. Doc Brown. Biff. The Libyans and their plutonium. That crazy-doored DeLorean. And of course, the flux capacitor. Stuck in the 1950s, Marty, the epitome of the skateboarding American ’80s teen, must desperately try to get his square teenage parents to fall in love — and thus ensure his own being. Remember that photograph of the disappearing family members? It was a particularly clever example of the “grandfather paradox”: If Marty changed anything in the past, he and his siblings would be erased. Travel back to the prehistoric era, step on a bug, and humankind ceases to exist, that sort of thing.
Marty dodges his (future) mother’s advances and brings an electric “Johnny B. Goode” to the doo-wop crowd. When his guitar antics take on a little too much rock, he knows it: “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet. But your kids are gonna love it.” With the mad but lovable Doc (Christopher Lloyd) and the help of a lightning-struck clock tower, Marty eventually returns to 1985. Naturally, sequels followed the Robert Zemeckis–directed, Steven Spielberg–produced classic.
Terminator 2, 1991
It’s hard being the future leader of mankind’s resistance against robots, especially when those very robots travel back through time and try to kill a young version of you. That’s the basic premise of Terminator 2, James Cameron’s awesome 1991 sequel to the blockbuster 1984 original.
A grownup version of John Connor sends a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back in time to save a 10-year-old version of himself (Edward Furlong) from being … terminated by a liquid-metal Terminator that can morph itself into any object or mimic any person. With intense chase scenes, catchphrases (“Hasta la vista, baby!”) and a standout fight scene involving a vat of molten metal, Terminator 2 has become an action-flick icon and may be Schwarzenegger’s greatest achievement. Well, besides that whole governor thing.
Planet of the Apes, 1968
“Somewhere in the universe there must be something better than man.”
Imagine a world where apes run the show and humans are uncivilized creatures stuffed in museums. That’s what greets a group of astronauts led by Taylor (Charlton Heston), who travel 2,006 years ahead, to the year 3978 A.D. They find themselves on a new planet where everything is flipped on its furry head. The sci-fi flick Planet of the Apes, heralded for its cutting-edge makeup and prosthetics, went on to spawn a movie franchise and even a short-lived television series. The film was inducted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2001 for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” It will now be preserved until 3978 — unless the apes have something to say about it.
12 Monkeys, 1995
Released a year after his performance as a sentimental brawler in Pulp Fiction, this Terry Gilliam flick reminded viewers that despite that wisecracking action-star persona, there was some sort of actor lurking inside Bruce Willis. Ensconced in tunnels underneath Philadelphia and following the devastation of a worldwide plague, James Cole (Willis) is chosen to go back in time to try to stop insane animal-rights activist Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt, in one of his wonderfully manic sideman performances) from releasing a virus. Along the way, he is arrested and assigned to a mental hospital. Despite knowing that he is not made for that time, Cole falls in love with his shrink (Madeleine Stowe). Containing one of the all-time mind-f___ endings, 12 Monkeys is Terry Gilliam at his most accessible and most moving.
Time Bandits, 1981
You know when you have a really bizarre dream and you wake up thinking to yourself, “Why was I trying to flush a pineapple down a toilet?” That’s sort of how it feels to watch 1981’s Time Bandits, part of a short-lived creepy-fantasy-film genre that flared up in the 1980s (see: Labyrinth). Co-written, directed and produced by Terry Gilliam (the trippy, fantastical genius who would go on to make Brazil and 12 Monkeys), the movie follows Kevin, an 11-year-old ancient-Greek-history buff who travels through space and time with the aid of several dwarves and their, well, space-and-time-traveling map.
Kevin meets Robin Hood, Napoléon Bonaparte and Agamemnon, the ancient Greek who fought in the Trojan War. There is a bad guy, of course (aptly named Evil), who tries to take the map away. Adventures ensue, and — well, it gets pretty weird.
Peggy Sue Got Married, 1986
Who wouldn’t like the chance to go back to high school and do it all over again? To tell off those mean girls who made your life hell. To inform the math teacher that you know, without a doubt, that you will never use algebra again. In Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married, the title character (Kathleen Turner) gets the chance when she is transported from her 25-year high school reunion to her senior year of high school. Unhappy with how things turned out in her present-day life — in which she is separated from her cheating husband (Nicolas Cage) — she makes different choices in the hope of rewriting her present reality. But like all good time-travel movies, Peggy Sue learns a valuable lesson: you can’t fight fate. She resigns herself to making the same decisions and sleeps with her now husband, knowing she will become pregnant and marry him all over again. But when she is transported back to the present, she discovers that she may have helped rewrite her future after all.
The Time Machine, 1960
These days, we take time travel for granted. In movies, TV shows, books and comics, it has become an almost boringly predictable plot device. But the idea had to start with someone, and that someone might as well be H.G. Wells, whose absurdly fertile imagination produced the books War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr. Moreau and 1895’s The Time Machine. The 1960 version, starring Rod Taylor (let’s not speak of the 2002 Guy Pearce remake, O.K.?), hewed closely to Wells’ original story. A Victorian-era inventor creates the titular device, travels way too far into the future and discovers a world populated by two races: the underground-dwelling Morlocks and the above-ground, docile Eloi.
The film’s time machine looks absurd — a steampunk-ish lounge chair with lots of colorful lights — and the dialogue …let’s just call it less than original (“If that machine can do what you say it can, destroy it, George, before it destroys you!). But The Time Machine does have one thing to offer: the always hilarious sight of blond men in tunics, rocking bowl cuts. It’s like the kids from Village of the Damned, but all grown up.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, 1989
You might not find this movie excellent. Perhaps you wouldn’t deem it bodacious. But once you’ve accepted the inanity of it all (just party on, dudes!) you might find yourself laughing at the tale of two dim-witted California teenagers who travel through time — in a phone booth — collecting historical figures for a school report. This is the Keanu Reeves (and that other guy) flick in which Napoléon goes bowling and enjoys a water park, Joan of Arc discovers aerobics, Ghengis Khan skateboards, Beethoven lets it rip at the music store and Socrates and Billy the Kid flirt with mall girls (“We’re from history”) before Freud, naturally, ruins the whole thing. A sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, came out in 1991.