Travel Through Time Via Cinema

Quote of the Day: "Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads." -- Dr. Brown, Back to the Future

Another time-hopping movie opens this weekend, what looks to be the chick flick of the summer, The Time Traveler's Wife, based on the bestselling novel by Audrey Niffenegger. My wife and one of my three sisters absolutely adore the book and are eagerly counting the hours until they can see the film version.

There have been other movies earlier this summer that have dealt with time travel, and back in April I posted a list of time travel flicks courtesy of But, since the time travel movies just keep on coming, I am now forced to present you with my own personal list of favorite films that deal with that mindblowing concept of traversing time and space for plot contrivances meant to entertain you.

Some rules first: 1. I chose no movies in which time travel is only a trivial plot point. To make my list, it must be a key feature of the story. 2. Here's a biggie: I picked no movies in which time travel is treated as just "something that happens" without at least a little attempt at trying to explain exactly how this time leaping crap is taking place. So, sadly, I am not including any movies like Peggy Sue Got Married, Frequency, or Somewhere in Time in which the characters just will themselves to go back in time and somehow miraculously it happens with no further thought or explanation. 3. I've lumped some movies that are part of a series together so I wouldn't have to list all the sequels as separate entries.

Okay, here's my list of favorite time travel movies.

Back to the Future - These three movies by director Robert Zemeckis, starring Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, are the standard bearers of the time travel genre. The first one, in which young Marty McFly uses Doc Brown's spruced up Delorean to go back to the 1950s and meet his parents, is a comedy and science fiction classic. The sequel in which we see Marty's future is a brilliant mindtrip, and the third film of the trilogy in which Marty and Doc travel back to the wild West is a fun (if somewhat anticlimactic) conclusion to the tale.

Terminator -- James Cameron's Terminator saga, whose mantle is now being carried and continued by other filmmakers, is a modern update of the sci-fi staple of trying to go back in time to change history, as killer androids do their best to kill mankind's last hope, John Connor (played by different folks in the various movies in the series). Terminator 2: Judgment Day is still the best of the bunch, but the others have their moments.

Planet of the Apes -- If you've never seen any of the movies in this series, I'm probably spoiling one of the greatest endings ever by listing it as a time travel movie, but since there were five original films, a television series, and a Tim Burton remake, I think the ape is out of the bag regarding the time travel plot in which Earth is taken over by intelligent primates and human beings have to battle for survival. The first movie, starring Charlton Heston and written by The Twilight Zone's Rod Serling, is one of the best speculative fiction movies ever made.

Star Trek -- Gene Roddenberry's classic television show and spin-offs about the adventures of a future United Federation of Planets often told stories of time travel -- some might say it was an often used (and sometimes misused) plot device. The movie version also dabbled into the time travel pot. The best was probably Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in which Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest use a stolen Klingon spaceship to travel back to the 1980s in order to steal a couple of mating humpback whales so that they could repopulate the species and save the future Earth from destruction, (yeah, it sounds ridiculous, but it works.) Star Trek: First Contact featured the deadly Borg and the Next Generation crew traveling back in time on another world saving mission -- it was another fun romp. Star Trek: Generations was a mess, in which something called a Nexus brought the great Captain James T. Kirk into the timeline of Jean Luc Picard and the Next Generation crew only to kill him in the most unsatisfying and pointless death scenes ever captured on celluloid. Finally, the 2009 Star Trek reboot by J.J. Abrams used time travel to reshape the Trek universe in a very cool way -- when the villain Nero tinkers with the past, he actually manages to change history, or rather, create an alternate timeline, in effect keeping the continuity of the Trek universe intact while allowing the franchise to have carte blanc to boldly go and explore strange new worlds and new civilizations without being completely handcuffed to everything that has come before.

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure -- Oh, be quiet, you know this was a fun movie, so admit it! Slacker rocker wannabes Ted Logan (played to surfer-dude perfection by Keanu Reeves) and Bill S. Preston, Esq. (played by the equally hilarious Alex Winter) turn out to be the saviors of mankind in this time tripping epic in which they bump into Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, Socrates, and other noteworthy figures of history. The sequel, Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, was also fun, but the original was still the best.

Time Bandits -- I loved this movie as a kid. The premise, about a group of little people on a quest for treasure through time, might sound like a campy mess, but the result was a thoroughly entertaining romp that earned its current cult classic status by telling a fun tale with an unpredictable plot and engaging characters. I always wished they could have continued the adventures in further movies, but at least we have the original to watch over and over again.

12 Monkeys -- Director Terry Gilliam, who brought us Time Bandits, re-explores the theme of time travel in what is arguably his best film. The first part of the movie leaves the audience wondering if the character played by Bruce Willis is just crazy or an actual time traveler. As the plot progresses, it just gets better and better. Brad Pitt's nutjob supporting role is brilliant and one of the highlights of the film.

The Butterfly Effect -- Lord help me for listing an Ashton Kutcher movie as one of the best, but this little film really captures nicely the mind-fragging effects of what time travel might wreak if in fact it were a scientific reality. Apparently there's a sequel that I haven't seen, which probably means it isn't very good. But this original is worth watching.

The Time Machine -- No time travel movie list would be complete without this classic adaptation of the H.G. Wells story. Wells didn't invent the time travel plot device, but he perfected it, and the 1960 movie brought it to life in a good way. I haven't seen the 2001 remake but my friends have told me it wasn't as bad as its disastrous box office results and critical trashings would indicate.

Time Cop -- In the end, this is just another Jean Claude Van Damme action movie, but the set-up is actually quite good. If you're looking for a fun popcorn flick, this will tide you over for a couple of hours.

Minority Report -- The stories of Philip K. Dick are awesome and most of the movie adaptations of his tales have been pretty good. This Tom Cruise headliner has its small flaws but overall it's an entertaining movie in which people are punished for crimes they haven't committed yet but will commit in the future.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban -- Some call this the weakest of the Harry Potter films, but I still view it as possibly the best. Time travel is a key plot point in this adventure, and the director handles it very well.

Superman: The Movie -- The Man of Steel turns back time to save the woman he loves. Yes, the way he does it has been debated by fanboys for years, but it's still a cool climax to a very cool film.

It's a Wonderful Life -- An angel takes a suicidal man (played by the always awesome Jimmy Stewart) back in time to relive his life to see what would have been had he never been born. This Frank Capra motion picture is a classic that continues to stand the test of time.

There are other movies that can be mentioned, but those are my favorites. Time travel has sparked the imaginations of many writers throughout the generations, as early as Mark Twain (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court) and Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol) to the more modern Ray Bradbury (A Sound of Thunder) and Michael Crichton (Timeline). It's a cliche that will surely continue to be told in countless stories still to come. Some will work, many will not, but I look forward to the ones that will earn their spot on the list of classics.


Peter said…
Time travel, temporal incursions and time paradoxes have always been a fascination for a Trekker like me. The ability to alter the course of history and the constant moral struggle to justify what was and what is to become always makes a good story. Bring em' on!