Favorite Time-travel Movies

This weekend the X-Men franchise returns to theaters with Days of Future Past, which finds Wolverine being sent back in time in an attempt to save humanity from destruction. The concept of time travel is certainly a fascinating one and is used in the movies listed below:

Primer (2004) by Mark Buckingham

Primer takes an interesting angle on the mystery of time travel by presenting it in a really practical, approachable way. At the same time, it’s not dumbed down for the masses. Four tech-minded entrepreneurs working toward the next big idea literally in their garage accidentally find a way to traverse the time stream using basic materials they can scrounge up from local labs and hardware stores. This speaks volumes to how a great deal of scientific discoveries have come about — complete accident while seeking something else entirely. The dialogue is smart and nerdy, moves fast, and you don’t realize what’s happening until it’s already happened.

Two of the guys run with the technology, hiding it from their less confident partners. They grapple with the usual ethical questions about how to use the device responsibly without screwing up the space-time continuum with paradoxes, yet still keeping the it and their behavior a secret from everyone they know. As you might expect, one of the two gets a little carried away and drunk with power and looks like he’s out of control. But what if he’s not? What if he’s actually crafted an ingenious way to move forward with this technology in a way that no one can stop him, not even its co-inventor?

Really enjoyed the practicality of this flick. It was made for $7000 and only runs 77 minutes, but is wall to wall with moments to keep you guessing what’s going to happen next. It also begs a rewatch once you get to the end and find out what’s actually been happening all along, but it’s not some ridiculously implausible deus ex machina — it actually makes sense. It’s a largely overlooked gem and if you’re in the mood for a time-twisting mind-bender that’s not bloated with glitzy CGI but takes a more down to Earth approach, give Primer a try.

Time After Time (1979) by Adam Blair

Charming, often overlooked little film that supposes what would happen if visionary sci-fi author H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) was the inventor of an actual working time machine in fact as well as fiction – and if one of Wells’ closest friends was, unbeknownst to him, the notorious mass murderer Jack the Ripper (David Warner). Jack uses Wells’ invention to escape the London police who are finally about to catch up with him. He hurtles ahead 80 years in time to 1979 San Francisco, where Wells’ time machine is on display (as a curio, not the working model it actually is). One of the things I enjoy about this film is that, once you suspend disbelief enough to accept that time travel is possible, it plays by its own logical rules.

Wells gives chase and eventually catches up with Jack, leading to the film’s saddest scene, where Jack flips around the TV dial to demonstrate that he, not Wells, is the one who is very much at home in the violent, paranoid, hate-filled 20th century. Wells’ disappointment and horror not only work in story terms, since the real author was an optimist who believed humans could and would become more civilized, but in giving an otherwise lightweight movie some social relevance. We’re reminded that the Hitlers, Stalins, Pol Pots, and Idi Amins of our recent history make Jack the Ripper look like a real amateur.

McDowell, best known at that time as the cheerfully sociopathic thug Alex from A Clockwork Orange, is here a gentle, befuddled Englishman abroad. Warner has the market cornered on homicidal sociopathy in any case. Best of all is Mary Steenburgen as a contemporary woman charmed by the sexually timid (by 1979 standards) Wells. Steenburgen and McDowell fell in love while making this movie and their rapport makes the cross-cultural and cross-era comedy work really well. Credit also to director and co-screenwriter Nicholas Meyer, author of the novel The Seven Per Cent Solution, which paired fictional Sherlock Holmes with historical Sigmund Freud, and later the savior of the Star Trek movie franchise with his direction of the 1982 Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) by Elizabeth Periale

Author J. K. Rowling has used a few time-travel devices in her Harry Potter series – the pensieve, which allows people to visit other people’s thoughts and memories, and the notebook that features large in The Chamber of Secrets that gives Harry a glimpse into events in Hogwarts’ past. But my favorite use of time traveling or bending has got to be in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and the time-turner.

This best of the Harry Potter films was directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who blends the fantasy elements effortlessly with the teen characters’ emotional turmoils – at some times better than Rowling herself pulled off in her books.

Towards the end of the film, viewers are treated to a giddy mind- and time-bending sequence where Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Hermione (Emma Watson) race to save their friends from Dementors and other nefarious forces.

The entire Harry Potter series is haunted by the past – Harry surviving his parents’ murders at the hands of Voldemort, and how his parents’ time at Hogwarts overshadows his own. The Prisoner of Azkaban is the film that best addresses how Harry must reconcile his parents’ past with his present, and Cuaron managed to make that journey emotionally and visually compelling. Just like a time-turner, Cuaron makes me want to watch that last sequence over and over again, to see how it all fits together.

Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1992) by Matt Paprocki

The second of Kazuki Ohmori’s Godzilla scripts finds Japan’s early ’90s present besieged by ‘Futurians’ from the 23rd century, a time-traveling group who fiendishly plot to rip Godzilla from historical existence, replacing him with their own nuclear being, the controllable King Ghidorah. Japan’s economic prosperity is belittled as landmarks are scattered and politicians fumble with how best handle this lacking strategy.

Out of 30 Godzilla films, 1992’s King Ghidorah is the sole user of time-bending for its plot purposes, and such reasoning is obvious. Despite creating a fearsome Godzilla who is inevitable as long as mega powers sling their bomb-producing prowess, Ohmori’s script is often careless – even senseless. It’s an excuse to pit Godzilla against a marketable foe, not seal a plot hole loaded narrative wherein a shot of atomic breath could fit. But, so clumsy is the timeline-contorting script and so freewheeling is the miniature cloaked monster action, the film is ultimately too energized to dismiss.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) by Chris Morgan

Time travel is one of my least favorite tropes in popular culture. It’s just a bridge too far for me in terms of suspension of disbelief, and so any time-travel drama is basically a no-go for me, but a comedy I will allow a little more leeway, especially if its a silly comedy. And what time-travel comedy is goofier than Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure?

Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves are able to channel their dunderheaded high school students quite well, and the characters are amusing in and of themselves. Now, take them and send them traveling through time to collect famous folks from the past for a history report, and have them do it in a phone booth. Also, they need to do this because Bill and Ted’s band Wyld Stallyns will someday save the world through rock and roll. Oh, and George Carlin is there.

By no means is Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure a great movie, but it is good one. It’s funny and it’s on the right side of silly, and also it makes good use of the time travel element. They don’t bother bogging us down with all sorts of rules, but it isn’t completely within internal logic, either. Plus, Abe Lincoln tells everybody to party on. I don’t know any better use of time travel than that.

Sleeper (1973) by Gordon S. Miller

Woody Allen’s sci-fi spoof finds health food store co-owner/clarinet player Miles Monroe (Woody Allen) traveling through time in a conventional manner. Difficulties during a hospital visit for a minor peptic ulcer led to Miles being frozen in 1973. As the film begins, he is being thawed out in the 22nd Century by The Underground, a group of rebels who hope to use him in order to thwart the dictator’s Aires Project. While on the run from the authorities, Miles is joined by Luna (Diane Keaton), first through kidnapping and then becoming co-conspirators once she joins the cause.

One of Allen’s “early, funny ones,” Sleeper was co-written with Marshall Brickman and is filled with many laughs, from great physical gags to numerous jokes commenting on the early ’70s and what the then-future might hold. I wish Allen and Keaton would appear in another movie together because they have great chemistry.

Back to the Future (1985) by Gordon S. Miller

Back to the Future, the film that spawned a time-traveling franchise, stars Micahel J. Fox as Marty McFly, who travels back in time 30 years to 1955 with the aide of Doc Brown’s (Christopher Lloyd) time machine. While in the past, Marty unintentionally disrupts the event that brought his parents (Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson) together, which has obvious consequences for Marty. He strives to find a new way to get them to fall in love while working with 1955’s Doc Brown on a way to return him to 1985.

Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future is a delightful sci-fi comedy that could have careened into the outrageous with its premise, but is made believable by Fox’s performance, which anchors the situations and makes viewers care that Marty completes his task. The film was such an international success it led to two sequels filmed back to back, the futuristic Back to the Future Part II and Back to the Future Part III set in the Old West.

Now’s it’s your turn to tell us in the comments what’s your favorite time-traveling movie.

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