We’re now at the end of my blog series about time travel media (TV, film, and literature). For the past two years, I’ve been working steadily on a time travel novel, The Curiosity Killers, as my thesis project for Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. As I inch closer and closer to graduation this June, I want to celebrate some things that inspired the writing of that book.
For today, I offer my favorite time travel movies. What are yours? What have I missed?
1. The Back to the Future trilogy: Back to the Future (1985), Back to the Future Part II (1989), and Back to the Future Part III (1990)
The first Back to the Future film is basically flawless, especially for mid-‘80s cinema. You have comedy, you have Michael J. Fox, and you have 1950s nostalgia. Teenager Marty McFly is accidentally sent back in time to 1955 by his mad scientist mentor, Doc Brown (I kind of want to know the deeper backstory of how Marty and Doc met. Somebody get on that prequel!). In the ‘50s, he meets his parents when they were his age and inadvertently prevents their courtship. In order to ensure his own existence, Marty has to make them fall in love. This is a near-classic example of the grandfather paradox.
The second two films were less perfect but still fun. In Part II, Marty and his girlfriend travel forward to the year 2015 to see how their children’s lives have turned out. In the process, Doc’s time machine is stolen and an alternate—and terrifying—future is created.
In Part III, Marty goes back to rescue Doc in 1885. This final chapter is underrated. Viewed today in the post-steampunk explosion (at least in literature), so many tropes we now see in this genre were established, cemented by the fabulous closing image of a time travel locomotive.
2. Somewhere in Time (1980)
Schmaltzy, soft-focus weepie. Christopher Reeve is a playwright who gets approached by an elderly woman at one of his shows. She gives him a pocket watch and tells him to “Come back” to her. Reeve’s character later discovers she was an actress whose heyday was sixty years earlier. He finds a professor who teaches him how to time travel via self-hypnosis and sends himself back to meet the actress in her youth.
3. Looper (2012)
Joseph Gordon Levitt and Bruce Willis play the same character at different ages, with the younger version contracted to kill the older one. There are tons of illogical paradox issues here, but so many sequences are just plain cool or downright gruesome—a famous scene involves a man being destroyed, bit by bit, when he’s being tortured in the past. For this one, just go along for the ride and try not to reason it out too much.
4. Groundhog Day (1993)
A weatherman, played by Bill Murray, begins reliving the same day over and over again. Cute and fun, but there’s also a slightly better, more logical film with the same concept from the same year (12:01, starring Jonathan Silverman and Helen Slater) that gets overlooked during the deluge of repeating-day time travel media that began coming out around the same time. Both are worth a look for different takes on the phenomenon. I like 12:01’s attempt at a scientific explanation, but Groundhog Day’s mystical gotta-live-the-day-over-until-you-get-it-right concept works better as an allegory for living a better, more present life.
5. Happy Accidents (2000)
Marisa Tomei is unlucky in love until she meets Vincent D’Onofrio. The only problem is he tells her he’s from the future. The fun thing about this film is that it plays with genre: is it a quirky indie romantic comedy, a science fiction film, or a film about unreliable narrators and mental illness? We’re left wondering about reality and fantasy and whether, in the context of love, if the dichotomy between truth and delusion is essential to trusting and believing in one’s partner.
6. Primer (2004)
This film was shot for only $7,000, and yet it’s one of the most complex studies of a highly technical and speculative subject I have ever seen. A pair of engineers working on inventions in their garage inadvertently devise a means of time travel. They begin using it to their financial gain through the stock market, but the effects of travel begin to wear on them emotionally and physically. The intersecting timelines have generated a lot of online fan work to attempt to graph or document the travels logically, though these resulting diagrams and charts are themselves highly complex.
7. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
And herein we swing wildly from one pendulum of thoughtchewy intellectualism to its exact opposite. Bill and Ted are high school students who pay little attention in history class. When they find a phone booth time machine, they bring historical figures to the present to help them with their presentation assignment. This movie does not age well, but it’s still amusing and of course features a very young Keanu Reeves as Ted. The sequel—Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, 1991—is less time travel and more nonsensical farce.
8. 13 Going on 30 (2004)
13-year-old Jenna makes a birthday wish in 1987 and is transported into her 30-year-old self in 2004. This is mostly pretty standard body swap/suddenly-an-adult comedy, but the fact that Jenna still perceives it as 1987 is where the time travel element comes in. Jennifer Garner, as the grown-up Jenna, is adorably innocent and lends the material a great deal of charm.
9. Donnie Darko (2001)
The time travel in Donnie Darko is only hinted at, explained almost solely through expanded media in its Director’s Cut DVD material. Viewers could interpret the film as a meditation on schizophrenia, with its onset typically occurring in one’s late teens and early twenties. The titular character begins experiencing odd shifts of time and perception, leading up to several neighborhood and familial catastrophes. Interpreted more literally, Donnie’s sudden abilities of perception and strength speak to the possibility of multiverses and time loops.
10. Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
I’ll let you stumble upon the trailer for this gem yourself, as most are red band. Hot Tub Time Machine is an incredibly crass (yet, honestly, pretty darn funny) tale of a group of social outcasts who go back to the year 1986 via a, um, yes. Hot tub time machine.
Look, I’m not saying this is a great film (John Cusack is notably absent from the sequel, as if finally admitting his embarrassment at this project), but it sort of comes full circle from Back to the Future insofar as the heroes’ main goal in the past is the ensure that their present day will be better…since it can’t get much worse.
You can find my celebration of time travel television and literature earlier this month. For more time travel fun, check out the Facebook fan page Time Travel Book, TV, and Movie Club!