Time – pest of youth; milk spoiler; mankind’s oldest and deadliest enemy. Yet in the movies we can easily conquer time: move it forward and backward, jump into the future or the past with a simple edit. Filmmakers are constantly time traveling, so it’s no coincidence that there are so many films where this trick becomes plot vanity.
But unfortunately for their protagonists, the best time travel films often show us that the prison of time is inescapable. Even when these protagonists seem to have found a way out, from natural wormholes to heretical machines, their fate usually turns out to be predetermined: they often end up stuck in time loops, or simply dead. Time and death are close companions.
Of course, that chaos translates into jaw-dropping entertainment for the viewer, so without further ado, let us introduce you to our picks for the best time travel movies.
Termination 1 and 2
Terminator 1 and 2 are really very different films. In the first, Arnie – the terminator – is the bad guy. He is sent back in time by our machine overlords to kill a woman who will give birth to a child who will lead human resistance to victory. A human from said resistance is sent back to arrest Arnie. It’s a dark and weird story: a classic action movie made on a tight budget. The second, on the other hand, is a big-budget extravaganza, featuring perhaps the greatest special effects in movie history compared to their time. Here, Arnie, now a blockbuster star, demanded to play the right guy: he’s still a robot, but he defends the key child of the icy, more advanced robot T-1000.
The most famous arthouse film about time travel, The Pier follows a man returned from a dystopia after World War III to save the future and find the truth behind a traumatic memory of his past. Only 28 minutes long, the film is a simple series of black and white photographs staged in a narrative blur, but captivating. Terry Gilliam turned it into 12 monkeys, a wacky and colorful caper starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, an equally strange but different film.
This modern sci-fi classic follows the alien “arrival” of giant, peaceful, inking squids. Before the geopolitical bickering escalates into a nuclear exchange, Amy Adams must translate the squid’s ink pleas into American English. (Spoiler: It’s about time travel.) This visually stunning film is based on Story of your life, a short film by Ted Chiang, one of the best living science fiction writers. The film is a great introduction to his writing.
A classic featuring Bill Murray at his best. Murray plays a jerky reporter who wakes up one morning to find he’s stuck in a time loop on Groundhog Day (and, yes, that’s where the term comes from). Fear gives way to joy when he realizes that he is now an all-knowing god. This then gives way to boredom as he lives the same day an infinite number of times, and Murray has to figure out why he was cursed. Another moving and thoughtful comedy.
This really is the time travel movie to beat them all, if you really want to get into the inner workings of time travel itself. Two engineers accidentally discover a side effect of the “A-to-B” causal loop: they can basically travel back a short distance and start using it to make huge sums of money in the stock market. What follows is a highly technical and philosophical take on the implications of time travel.
Curler is just a fantastic, airtight action movie: a fascinating world, sketched out in just under two hours, with entertaining and interesting characters. Joseph Gordon Levitt plays a hitman who kills and eliminates his targets in the past, in order to avoid detection in the future. Bruce Willis plays his elder, whom Levitt is tasked with killing. The realistic aspect of time travel isn’t quite the point of the film: writer Rian Johnson pitted it directly against Primer, where the rules of time travel are so important; Curler rather was conceived as a character-driven thriller.
One of the highest grossing animated films of all time, your name is a slick affair, a bit hollow, but without a doubt fantastic entertainment. Two school kids swap bodies every night, bicker to ruin each other, then end up falling in love. They must fight in time to save a city from an apocalyptic disaster. The animation is beautiful, pictorial and fluid, the music by Radwimps is brilliant earworm pop and the story is truly heartbreaking.
Where time travel Principle has remained largely unexplained, in Interstellar Nolan seems genuinely interested in teaching his audience and does an admirable job describing some of the implications of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. The dialogue in the film can be a little sweet and tasteless, but the visit to the mountainous planet of waves, where years pass like minutes, is just one great piece of cinema, which in itself is worth the price of. Entrance.
A cult classic that propelled Jake Gyllenhaal to immense fame. It’s one of those high-concept movies that bombards you with lore, but really isn’t as smart as it thinks it is. It’s best to just sit back and let him invade you, including, of course, Frank, the iconic black bunny, who tells Gyllenhaal that the world will end in 28 days. It’s also an important artefact of a certain section of millennial culture: any Gen Z cultural critic trying to understand millennial neuroses should definitely add this film to their research.
Planet of the Apes
The original Planet of the Apes is a deeply strange film – there’s something baffling about apes now: artist John Chambers’ prosthetic makeup techniques were revolutionary back then. But while the prequels with Andy Serkis are certainly more action-packed, the original must be on the list because it features the most iconic time travel “twist” in cinema. Charlton Heston’s final reveal as he smashes his fists on the beach at the end of the film has been parodied to the death, most notably by The simpsons. (Which also created a fantastic musical adaptation of the movie.)
This story originally appeared on UK WIRED.
More great WIRED stories