Time—ravager of youth; spoiler of milk; humanity’s oldest and deadliest foe. Yet in films we can conquer time easily: running it forwards and backward, skipping into the future or past with a simple edit. Filmmakers constantly time travel, so it’s no coincidence that there are so many films where this trick becomes a plot conceit.
But unfortunately for their protagonists, the best time travel films often show us that time’s prison is inescapable. Even when these protagonists look like they’ve found a way out, from natural wormholes to heretical machines, their fates are usually shown to be predetermined: Often they end up stuck in time loops, or just dead. Time and death are close companions.
Of course, this chaos translates into mind-bending entertainment for the viewer, so without further ado, let us introduce our picks for the best time travel movies.
Terminator 1 and 2
Terminator 1 and 2 are really quite different movies. In the first, Arnie—the terminator—is the bad guy. He’s sent back in time by our machine overlords to kill a woman who will give birth to a child that will lead the human resistance to victory. A human from said resistance is sent back to stop Arnie. It’s a dark and weird story: a classic action film made on a stringent budget. The second, in contrast, is a big-budget extravaganza, featuring perhaps the greatest special effects in movie history relative to their time. Here, Arnie, now a blockbuster star, demanded to play the good guy: He’s still a robot, but he’s defending the key kid from the icy, and more advanced, T-1000 robot.
The most famous art house film about time travel, La Jetée follows a man sent back from a post-World War III dystopia to save the future, and to find the truth behind a traumatic memory for his past. Only 28 minutes long, the film is a simple series of black and white photographs put to a hazy narrative, yet it’s captivating. Terry Gilliam turned it into 12 Monkeys, a zany, colorful caper starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, a similarly weird but tonally different film.
This modern sci-fi classic follows the alien “arrival” of giant, peaceful, ink-inscribing squids. Before geopolitical squabbles can escalate the situation into a nuclear exchange, Amy Adams must translate the squid’s inky pleas into American English. (Spoiler: It relates to time travel.) This visually stunning film is based on Story of Your Life, a short by Ted Chiang, one of the best living sci-fi writers. The movie is a great introduction to his writing.
A classic featuring Bill Murray at his laid-back best. Murray plays a jerkish newsman who wakes up one morning to find that he is stuck in a time loop on Groundhog Day (and, yes, that is where the term comes from). Fear gives way to joy as he realizes he is now an omniscient god. This then gives way to boredom as he lives out the same day an infinite number of times, and Murray must work out why he has been cursed. Still a moving and thoughtful comedy.
This is really the time travel movie to beat them all, if you really want to get into the nuts and bolts of time travel itself. Two engineers accidentally discover an “A-to-B” causal loop side effect: They can basically travel back a short distance of time, and begin to use it to make huge amounts of money on the stock market. What follows is a highly technical and philosophical take on the implications of time travel.
Looper is just an air tight, fantastic action film: a compelling world, sketched in just under two hours, with entertaining and interesting characters. Joseph Gordon Levitt plays a contract killer who kills and disposes of his targets in the past, in order to avoid detection in the future. Bruce Willis plays his older self, who Levitt is tasked to kill. The time travel aspect being realistic isn’t really the point of the film: Writer Rian Johnson contrasted it directly to Primer, where the rules of time travel are so important; Looper was intended instead as a character driven thriller.
One of the highest-grossing anime films of all time, Your Name is a slick, ever so slightly hollow affair, but undoubtedly fantastic entertainment. Two school kids swap bodies each night, bicker about wrecking each other’s lives, then eventually fall in love. They must fight through time to save a town from an apocalyptic disaster. The animation is gorgeous, painterly and fluid, the music from Radwimps is brilliant earworm pop, and the story is a real tearjerker.
Where the time travel in Tenet was left largely unexplained, in Interstellar Nolan actually seems interested in teaching his audience, and does an admirable job depicting some of the implications of Einsteins’ theory of general relativity. The movie’s dialog can be a bit saccharine and vapid, but the visit to the mountain-high planet of waves, where years pass as minutes, is just a great piece of cinema, worth the price of entry alone.
A cult classic that rocketed Jake Gyllenhaal to massive fame. It’s one of those high concept films that bombards you with lore, but really isn’t as smart as it thinks it is. It’s better to just sit back and let it wash over you, including, of course, Frank, the iconic black bunny rabbit, who tells Gyllenhaal the world will end in 28 days. It’s also an important artifact 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 odd film—there’s something disconcerting about the apes now: the prosthetic makeup techniques by artist John Chambers were revolutionary at the time. But while the prequels with Andy Serkis are certainly more action packed, the original has got to make the list because it features the most iconic time travel “twist” in cinema. Charlton Heston’s final revelation as he smashes his fists into the beach at the film’s end has been parodied to death, most notably by The Simpsons. (Which also created a fantastic musical adaptation of the film.)
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.
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