At 4:29 p.m. local time on this day—Oct. 21, 2015—scientific history was to have will been made, as Marty McFly and Emmett Brown, Ph.D., punch through the space-time continuum, arriving on that date in Hill Valley, California, in a time machine.
Today is Back to the Future Day, the very date to which (at which? when which?) Marty and Doc travel to the future from 1985 to save Marty’s kids. For Marty’s personal timeline it’s 30 years in the future. To us, it’s today.*
Let’s get this clear right away: Back to the Future is the single best time travel movie ever made. You can argue with me, but you’d be wrong. Sure, some movies come close, but none has the fun, the sheer joy of BTTF. It came out of nowhere back in 1985, with little fanfare that I recall. I actually heard nothing about it beforehand and happened to see it in the listings in the local paper when a friend said he wanted to go see a movie.
Talk about the distant past. I used to look up movie showing times in the newspaper.
I love the idea of time travel, even though personally I think it’s a mess when it comes to physics, causality, and keeping your wibbly-wobbly plot devices straight. But it’s fun to think about! And, of course, it’s fun to watch movies about it.
You’ll probably see lots of lists today about the most important time travel movies, or the best ones, or whatever. Being contrary in some ways, I decided to put together a brief list of time travel movies I happen to like. The advantage of that is that you can’t argue with me about this list at all, because it’s ones I like. If I missed one it doesn’t matter, because if I haven’t seen it, I can’t already like it. I can’t travel into the future, watch the movie, then come back and write this article.
Or can I?
No, I cant.
Before we get started, a note: There are lots of ways to functionally travel in time in science fiction, but they boil down to two basic premises. First, you can go back in time and change the past, and when you come back the present (or future) has changed. This is the multiple timeline (MT) premise. This is like a river that branches at every point where time travel occurs. Or, you can go back in time, do stuff, come back to the present, and then find out that all that stuff you did was already in your past before you traveled back; this is the fixed timeline (FT) premise. It acts like time isn’t something that flows but happens all at once (if you’re a Kurt Vonnegut fan you’re experienced this quite a bit; he used it a lot). In this situation you can’t actually change anything, since anything you do will already has been done. You might not like that idea, but if it’s true you don’t have free will anyway, so who cares?
In the list below, I label the movies appropriately. Some are a mix of the two, weirdly, but it’s not too bad. You’ll see.
So here we go: My Favorite Time Travel Movies, in no particular order.
Back to the Future (MT)
OK, duh. I’ve already gone over this. I’ll note that I quite enjoyed the sequels, too, even if they were very different movies. The way the second one danced around the plot and events in the first was fun. Sure, we don’t have double ties or rehydrated pizzas in the present future, but we do have video on demand, and that’s pretty cool.
The Terminator (FT, kinda)
This was another movie that completely blew me away when I saw it (in a theater, in college, when it first came out). The events in the movie have to unfold the way they do—Sarah Connor has to be saved by Reese so that John Conner can be born to send Reese back in time, and Reese already loves her due to the stories he’s heard and the picture he has of her, and, and, and. I also love how the time travel tech is glossed over; the rules are established and then they run with them (“One possible future. From your point of view. I don't know tech stuff.”)
This is a great sequel to the first movie, but people tend to gloss over a fundamental change in the continuity: In it, the timestream can change. Kinda. The characters are able to change some of the details of the events that happened in the first movie, but in the end the overall events unfold anyway (Skynet, the nuclear war, and so on). There are a ton of great articles about this, speculating on how this unfolds, and they’re fun to read. Try the ones at Geek.com, the Terminator wiki, or just search “terminator timeline” to find a billion more.
Also: The Sarah Connor Chronicles was a two-season TV show, and it was excellent. I know some streaming services carry it, so do yourself a favor and watch it. It’s a crime it didn’t get another season.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (unclear)
Oh, it’s Trek. Just go watch it.
Actually, this movie was interesting: It was the warmest and most human of all the movies in the series, and also the most popular at the theater. If there’s a lesson there, Hollywood remake machine, I’m sure you’ll fail to see it.
Trek dealt with time travel quite a bit. In the old series, “City on the Edge of Forever” showed definitively that the timeline wasn’t fixed. Other episodes hinted at it, too. In Voyage Home it’s not clear, and in fact they make fun of the idea with Scotty helping to invent transparent aluminum. That was a great gag.
Groundhog Day (MT)
This isn’t a standard time travel movie, in that it has Bill Murray in it.
Also, it’s a looping story, so we see the same outside timeframe over and over again, with Murray’s character (“Phil? Phil Connors?”) reliving it, trying desperately to change events, then understanding and coping with his predicament.
I think the most fun part of the movie is trying to figure out just how long he was in that loop.
Planet of the Apes (FT)
I’m talking the original movies, not the terrible thing that happened with Marky Mark. In the first movie, time travel happens into the future via a time warp. In the second sequel, Escape From the Planet of the Apes, three chimps from the future travel back to contemporary Earth (well, 1971), where incredulous humans have to deal with talking apes. I saw this flick again a few years ago, and if you ignore the groovy ’70s stuff, it holds up as a very biting commentary on racism. It’s incredibly grim, but really good.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (unclear)
This movie is still really funny. My whole family watched it a couple of years ago and we were surprised it held up. George Carlin is a wonder.
The time travel happens via phone booth, which sounds vaguely familiar. Basically, slackers Bill and Ted go back in time to grab historical figures and bring them into present day San Dimas. We know where, when, and how most of those people die (like, say, Lincoln). So, if the movie is MT we’re OK, but if it’s FT then Bill and Ted must have dropped them back off in the past (with, presumably, a very strict promise not to tell anyone). The movie doesn’t make it clear, which, in context, is a perfectly righteous decision.
Doctor Who (mix of FT and MT)
Yes, it’s a TV show (well, a couple of movies were made a while back), but I love it, and it’s my list so I’m including it.
Time travel is usually a plot device in the show (about a human-appearing alien calling himself the Doctor who meddles with history in sometimes vain attempts to do good). However, in one twisted episode called “Blink” the travel itself becomes the plot, and it’s delightful and fun and really, really clever. That episode has hooked a lot of viewers to the show, and also made them really scared of angel statues.
A time travel show that’s run for 50 years (50!) is bound to start contradicting itself. They stepped around that in the reboot recently by saying that yes, time can be altered, but some events must happen, like Vesuvius erupting. These are called fixed points. It’s a remarkably clever way to do an end-run around paradoxes and contradictions, and even better, the Doctor can remember alternate, erased timelines, making his character even more tragic.
Yes, I’m a hardheaded scientist with no patience for pseudoscience and denial of reality, but I’ll be damned if I don’t get choked up whenever I see Rose and the Doctor on opposite sides of the Torchwood wall once the tear in the parallel universes closes up after the Daleks and Cyberman are sucked back in.
I’m only human.
OR AM I?
Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (MT? Maybe)
Yes, the Austin Powers movies are ridiculous and immature and I think they’re hilarious. Either way, in Spy, Powers has to go back in time to prevent Dr. Evil from stealing his mojo. A lot of things happen that I would think would be remembered in future history, so I’m rating this an MT plot.
Anyway, my favorite scene is where Basil Exposition (a fantastic character name) is talking about time travel to Powers, and says, “I suggest you don't worry about those things and just enjoy yourself.” Then he turns to the camera, breaks the fourth wall, and says, “That goes for you all, too.”
Best. Time travel. Explanation. Ever.
The Time Machine (FT)
The original movie, from 1960, is a stylish and lovely film, and I loved it as a kid. The machine itself is so wonderful and perfect it became an icon of Wellsian Victorian design.
The remake in 2002 was pretty limp, though. Come to think of it, I’ve never read the book by H.G. Wells. OK, maybe I’ll do that today instead of watching a movie.
Superman: The Movie (MT)
I love this movie. Love, love, love. Even if the flying scene with Lois Lane is the single most painful scene ever filmed, the movie is still funny and sweet and doesn’t take itself very seriously, and the soundtrack is epic.
Having said that, the time travel in the movie is terrible. Flying around the Earth to make it spin backward somehow reverses the clock? And why didn’t he go back, oh, say, another hour to give him time to stop both missiles? Oh, Clark. And he could’ve thought this through; if he can turn back time then there’s no hurry.
12 Monkeys (FT)
Terry Gilliam and time travel? Yes. It’s very confusingly done, as it should be, and only makes sense in the last few minutes, so I love that aspect of it. Also, Brad Pitt is amazing.
And the rest
There are a zillion other movies using time travel, some I liked, some not so much. Here are a few:
OK, I thought (and still think) this movie was awful, but the time travel in it, as silly as it was, was rock solid. They made sure the holes were filled, and that all the tampering in the timeline was part of the bigger picture. But it was still painful to sit through. The best I can say for it is that it’s the second best science-fiction movie starring Jessica Chastain with Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on another planet.
The Final Countdown (FT)
An older “what if” movie, where an aircraft carrier is transported back to World War II for Mysterious Unknown Reasons. Silly, but watchable for how it shows people who have knowledge of future events dealing with being at a crucial point in history.
In this completely forgotten movie starring Cheryl Ladd, it turns out that Earth is dying and humans are sterile, and the only way for humanity to survive is to kidnap people in the past to repopulate the planet. But if you change the past you cause damaging “time quakes” (hence the MT), so they only nab people who are about to die in plane crashes, replacing them with replicas. That’s actually rather clever. It’s not a great movie, don’t get me wrong, but that part is kinda neat.
All my nerd friends loved this movie and raved about it. I didn’t like it, but maybe it’s because I watched it on a plane when I had a pretty wicked head cold. I should give it another try.
Just being honest.
I haven’t seen this movie in decades, but I remember really liking it (the book is a classic). Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time, and we follow his life as he does, bouncing backward and forward in time. It’s decidedly odd—it’s Vonnegut, after all—but the explanation by the Tralfamadorians (godlike aliens who live outside of time) of how time works is great.
The Time Travelers (FT)
I had insomnia the other night, so I fired up Amazon Video and found this weird movie from 1964. It’s pretty bad (the first 15 minutes are just the three scientists staring at consoles and yelling technobabble at each other), but it has its moments, with some stuff that’s actually truly imaginative (if unsurprisingly, occasionally displaying the galling sexism of its time). I’m not saying drop everything and watch it, but if you wake up at 2 a.m. with something you ate that day trying to kill you and you’re looking for a distraction that you can watch with your finger hovering over the fast forward button, well, here you go.
So that’s my list. I’ve probably forgotten a few; I’ve spent a distressingly large fraction of my life watching bad science-fiction movies. So I won’t brook arguments over whether the movies on my list are good or not, but if you have suggestions, then maybe this one time I’ll read the comments.
What’ve you got? If you can convince me, I’ll give your suggestion a shot … sometime in the future.
*Actually, if you’re reading this after then, it’s the past. To me, writing this the day before that date, it’s the future. Time travel is fun!