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The 16 Best Movies About Time Travel

by The Playlist Staff
September 28, 2012 1:58 PM
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Who hasn't wanted to go back and fix past mistakes? Or travel forward and see what's in store for you and for the world? It's for these reasons that time travel has remained such a popular plot device, from H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine" to the long-running TV show "Doctor Who" to this week's "Looper," the wildly acclaimed sci-fi action-thriller from "Brick" director Rian Johnson, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis and Emily Blunt.

Now, "Looper" perhaps isn't the purest of time-travel movies -- it takes the technique as a jumping off point for a taut, noirish thriller. But it also has more than its fair share of paradoxes and mind-bending twists, so we'd say it fits right at home in the genre. And to celebrate the film's release today, we've given our feature on time travel movies from last year a fresh lick of paint, so below you can find 16 other time-travel movies that are worth discussing, in one way or another. Any we forgot? Let us know below.

“Back to the Future" (1985)
Once a film becomes a completely integral part of pop culture, it can be difficult to even look at it critically anymore. Whether the film is actually any good or just something you remember growing up with, can blur the line between quality and nostalgia. But there’s a reason that a quarter century later “Back to the Future” is still a part of our lives. However, like most classics, its success seems to have happened almost by accident. It may look like a sure thing now, but director Robert Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale’s initial script was darker, less humorous and a true risk. (After all, the premise does revolve around a kid getting hit on by his mom.) The film was rejected by every major studio before finding a home at Universal, and even once production got underway, weeks of shooting were famously scrapped when the original Marty McFly, Eric Stoltz, was recast with original choice Michael J. Fox. But the duo, along with producer Steven Spielberg, managed to get the film back on track, and all the elements settled into place: Alan Silverstri’s iconic score, Fox’s impeccable comedic timing, Christopher Lloyd’s gonzo Doc Brown, and a DeLorean that can travel through time. Great Scott, it’s perfect. [A+]

“Donnie Darko" (2001)
After two (to put it kindly) disappointing follow-ups, you might be afraid that rewatching Richard Kelly’s debut might reveal a film less visionary than you remember. But a decade later, “Donnie Darko” is just as weird and wonderful as the first time around. Part David Lynch, part John Hughes, ‘Darko’ is a coming-of-age/sci-fi/dark comedy/time travel film like no other. The film gives you just enough information to make the idea of time travel seem not only plausible, but fated. The miraculous thing is that if Kelly had gotten his way, the film would have been a mess. (See: the Director's Cut which nearly ruins everything that is simple and perfect about the theatrical cut, including replacing the songs with their earlier versions. No “The Killing Moon”?) Like many debuts, Kelly tries to cram every idea into one film because it might be the only one he ever gets to make, but somehow it all works. Despite the synthesis of influences, it still feels startlingly original. The '80s setting is subtle but not overplayed, the dialogue is sharp, the soundtrack selections are perfect and the cast deliver uniformly great performances, including a breakout role for Jake Gyllenhaal. In 2001, many critics called the film “a promising debut,” but few knew it was probably the best film Richard Kelly would ever make. [A-]

“12 Monkeys" (1996)
Basically the last great Terry Gilliam film, to date at least ("Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" might have its defenders, but it's a severely flawed picture), "12 Monkeys" is also the director's most successful attempt at blending his own interests with the Hollywood mainstream. The film's bleak future, with its sunglass-wearing elders and bizarro time machine, is none more Gilliam, but there were enough A-listers to make the film a sizable commercial hit. And the A-listers bring their A-game: Bruce Willis gives a career-best performance as the convict sent back to the '90s to prevent the release of a virus that forced humanity underground, who comes to doubt his own story, while Brad Pitt picked up his first Oscar nomination as a wild-eyed animal rights activist. The script, from "Blade Runner" writer David Peoples and his wife Janet, is terrific, and while the film is concerned more with the changing nature of memory (perfect subject matter for cinema, really) than with the paradoxes of time travel, it all comes full circle with the devastating ending. Also required viewing: Chris Marker's "La jetée," which the film is based on, and "The Hamster Factor," the must-see making-of documentary on the film's DVD. All being well, one day Gilliam will make a film as good as this again. [A-]

“Army of Darkness" (1992)
Observe the progression of the Evil Dead Trilogy. The inaugural film is almost a straight horror movie, while its follow-up is a giggle- and gore-filled take on the genre. But when Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell get to number three, “Army of Darkness,” they keep the comedic tone, then switch the target to schlocky medieval films, add some slapstick, and gleefully send Ashley “Ash” J. Williams back to 1300 A.D. He’s surrounded by primitive screwheads and a Harryhausen-esque army of Deadites, and Campbell’s sarcastic delivery gets to shine in the sublimely silly, endlessly quotable fish-out-of-water film. There’s a plot in here somewhere about Ash needing to retrieve the Necronomicon to return home to S-Mart, but we’re too busy laughing at Mini-Ashes and boomsticks to really care. Our verdict: Groovy. [B+]

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  • ChrisCool | February 23, 2013 6:33 PMReply

    Sorry to comment an old post, but how can the article's autor or the commenter didn't talk about The Butterfly Effect, which is a real time travel movie masterpiece for me. I think this movie should have been listed as well among the 16 others.
    Sorry for my bad english, not my native langage.

  • Jhonny | November 16, 2012 12:38 AMReply

    "Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel" is a simple fun nerd time travel movie, probably the one time travel movie i have watched over and over the most. Also "12:01", "Retroactive", "Run Lola Run", and "Triangle"all are more like time loops and events keep repeating.

  • KalKat | October 2, 2012 7:04 PMReply

    "Superman" The time travel plot that reversed the Earth's spin, which is ridiculous, and "Superman II" in which the director's cut uses the same gimmick.

    "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" used time travel.

    "Hot Tub Time Machine" although silly, tells of modern slackers visiting the 1980s via an obvious and weird McGuffin.

    "Primer" Did you mention that?

    "Groundhog Day" Bill Murray's lousy day repeats itself.

    "Millennium" cheesy 90s flick about a plane crash prevented by time travel, or maybe not.

    Some other time travel, reincarnation flick similar to but before Peggy Sue and it starred Glenn Close or something.

    "13 Going On 30" A modern 21st century version of Peggty Sue but in reverse, although not a great, is watchable on video.

  • kalkat | October 2, 2012 6:54 PMReply

    "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" was also a time travel musical, so there was at least one more. The couple enter 'another world long ago' in Transvestite Transylvania. It's in the so bad it's good category.

  • Gnat | October 2, 2012 5:13 PMReply

    Ahem...Doctor Who anyone?

  • Andhika | October 1, 2012 10:47 PMReply


  • Ed Griffiths | October 1, 2012 9:23 AMReply

    'THE TIME MACHINE' (1960); ahem! The clue is in the title...

  • DMC | September 30, 2012 12:11 PMReply

    Futurama: Benders Big Score was a pretty awesome time travel movie.

  • Lindhagen | September 29, 2012 10:24 PMReply

    While not a huge fan of the movie on a whole, The Time Traveler's Wife handles the concept well I think.

  • hellointernet | September 29, 2012 4:16 PMReply

    you've ruined planet of the apes for anyone who hasnt seen it
    primer is the best time travel film

  • Burnsy | September 29, 2012 8:46 AMReply

    Safety Not Guaranteed which of course isn't your normal time travel movie definitely should be noted. You honestly don't know what's up with this guy but by the end your amazed by his world and you start rooting for him.

  • happy happy joy joy | September 29, 2012 7:25 AMReply

    what about the classic time machine. George Orwell

  • ndg | September 28, 2012 8:05 PMReply

    More obscure but more entertaining than most on your list: Summer Time Machine Blues, Tomorrow I'll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea.

  • ted | September 28, 2012 5:45 PMReply

    Of course, "La Jetée" is probably the greatest time travel movie and it should have been given it's own entry, rather than just a mention under 12 Monkeys. I think Resnais' "Je t'aime, Je'taime" is superior to the other films you have listed. The only film I'd add is Hosoda's "The Girl Who Leapt Through Time," it's a wonderful anime. I wouldn't call myself a big fan, but I did enjoy Source Code and Safety Not Guaranteed.

  • callumq | September 28, 2012 3:42 PMReply

    La Jetee! Only 30 minutes long, later to be remade into 12 monkeys.

  • padre | September 28, 2012 2:59 PMReply

    "Somewhere In Time". I know some woman on your staff had to put forward that one, because guys always forget its existence. But EVERY woman ever loves that movie. Men just do not appreciate the power of that movie. It's bigger than Avatar and Titanic together to women. It is the Mt. Everest of Romantic movies. I'm kind of shocked it never got remade, since 3 generation of women would mob movie theaters, fighting to get in.

  • Archer Slyce | September 28, 2012 2:45 PMReply

    Again I'll try to avoid lengthy debates. So kudos to whoever picked Army of darkness (gutsy move indeed) but most of all thanks a lot for pointing out Time After Time ... what an great movie. It really should have been a classic.

  • rotch | September 28, 2012 2:11 PMReply

    worth noting that Primer's Shane Carruth worked as a "time-travel consultant" of sorts in Looper.

  • owdl114 | September 28, 2012 2:04 PMReply

    No Source Code? Shame about that. A terrific film that (I feel) too few people have seen.

  • DNM | September 29, 2012 4:46 AM

    Source Code was indeed an awesome movie for about 95% of its running time. But an awfully corny and irrational ending (an obvious last-minute marketing decision) makes it a barely above-average action movie, as a whole.

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