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Debate Club: The 5 best time travel movies (that aren’t Back to the Future)
Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.
When you think of movies about time travel, probably the first flick that comes to mind is Back to the Future, which is perfectly understandable. After all, that sci-fi plot device is pretty central to the story — and it gets expanded beautifully in the sequel. But for this week's Debate Club, we decided to skip over the Robert Zemeckis classic to focus on other great time-travel movies. (Otherwise, it would have been too easy to guess what ended up at No. 1.)
While making our rankings, we didn’t worry too much about the films' possible logic problems — honestly, we get so confused in time-travel films that we never worry about the science (or lack thereof) in the storytelling. All we care about is the entertainment value, which with these films is high.
05. 12 Monkeys (1995)
Inspired by the hugely influential 1962 French short La Jetée, this Terry Gilliam thriller takes us to a bleak future in which the human race has been all but wiped out. Bruce Willis' Cole is drafted to go back in time to isolate the moment when a killer virus was first unleashed, eventually befriending a troubled man (Brad Pitt) who may hold the key to this mystery.
12 Monkeys (which was later turned into a SYFY series) is a deeply pessimistic film — Cole can't save the day, all he can hope to do is a modicum of good — that succinctly captures mid-'90s pre-millennium tension and our perpetual anxiety about the future. Its visionary bleakness could drive a viewer as insane as poor Cole fears he's becoming.
04. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
A Tom Cruise vehicle that turns into an Emily Blunt vehicle with a title so sleepy you can't be blamed for skipping it in theaters (it was later changed for home video), Edge of Tomorrow is such a nimble, clever idea that’s it's almost a surprise that Cruise is a part of it.
Doug Liman's thriller feels like a high-concept indie, and might have been treated as such had Cruise not headlined it. He's great in what’s essentially the perfect video game movie: Start a level, play until you die, start over.
An action movie Groundhog Day turns out to be an absolutely splendid premise.
03. Looper (2012)
The brilliance of Rian Johnson's thriller about time-traveling hitmen — or, well, time-traveling criminals, anyway — is that it both takes time travel incredibly seriously but also understands that the whole concept is ridiculous. The great meta-conversation between Bruce Willis and young Bruce Willis (or Old Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, take your pick) in the diner, in which Willis mocks the logic of time travel as "making diagrams with straws," reveals that Looper recognizes what’s great about time-travel movies: the less you have to think about them, the more fun they are.
It also helps when Bruce Willis has a machine gun.
02. Primer (2004)
"I knew that the story was going to be about these two guys who start off as friends and then by the end of it, because of the equation of trust changing, they weren't going to be able to be around each other."
Yes, but the wonder of Shane Carruth's Primer wasn't necessarily its study of a friendship collapsing. Instead, it was the script's fascinatingly clinical look at time travel, which was depicted as initially miraculous but eventually becomes a mind-bending burden to the film's young entrepreneurs.
There's no flights of fancy in this Sundance prizewinner — just the cold, hard logic of time travel and the slow realization that, really, nobody would actually like jumping around in time. It would drive you insane, strip you of your humanity, make life itself utterly unbearable. You know those heist films where the crooks get away with the crime but then turn on one another afterward, leading to their destruction? Primer is like that, but for scientific discovery. The film's anonymous white dudes think they're gonna be rich — but all they bring about is their own misery.
01. The Terminator movies (1984-2019)
It is not for nothing that the Terminator films have become a shorthand for both artificial intelligence enslaving the human race and going to the past to change the future.
James Cameron's first two films — and the lesser, but not always awful sequels — take the madness of extreme science fiction and make them palatable and accessible; his skill has always been understanding just what an audience is able to handle. But it'll be nice to have this all streamlined again in the upcoming Cameron-produced reboot/sequel, with even Edward Furlong rumored to be returning.
It can be tough to figure out why all the Connors look different while Arnold still looks the same.