Just to be clear, time travel in movies is extremely difficult to get right. When done incorrectly, time travel can be a one-way trip to a bewildered and disgruntled audience. Paradoxes keep piling up, and no one is entirely sure if anything makes sense. However, it’s also one of the most fascinating topics covered in science fiction movies. When done properly, time travel is a source of awe, a reservoir of creative and mind-bending possibilities. Some movies dealt with Father Time in fresh and mind-blowing ways, honouring the concept. Here are eight films that successfully depict time travel, so let’s speak about them.
12 Monkeys (1995)
The sci-fi epic 12 Monkeys was directed by Terry Gilliam, best known for his work on Monty Python. The movie is set in a dystopian future where most of humanity has been wiped out by a fatal virus and the survivors live underground. It was inspired by Chris Marker’s La Jetée (see below). The story revolves around James Cole (Bruce Willis), a prisoner who is taken back in time to learn more about the virus’s beginnings in order to stop it from spreading. Despite having a complicated plot, 12 Monkeys avoids adopting the confusing timeline tricks that so many other movies of a similar nature do. It’s humorous as well, which is to be expected from a Terry Gilliam project.
Back to the Future (1985)
Back to the Future set the bar for all other time travel films, so include it on my list feels a little bit like cheating. It has a lighter tone than the aforementioned movies, but it doesn’t make its time travel strategy any less effective. The norms of its world are clearly established, and they are upheld continuously throughout the narrative, which is fantastic. Additionally, the concept of a time machine incorporated into a vehicle (the iconic DeLorean) was novel in the best sense.
Donnie Darko (2001)
Donnie Darko has some extremely odd methods of handling time. In all honesty, it might not even seem like a time travel movie. And while it’s not really one, it does demonstrate what happens when people interact with older iterations of themselves and other people. It also gets strange since tangent worlds, a rogue jet engine, and portals are involved. CinemeBlend claims that the director’s cut of Donnie Darko has more information on how time travel works than the theatrical cut does. Whichever path you take, “The Philosophy of Time Travel,” a fictional book that lays out the basic principles governing time travel, is essential reading for understanding how time is handled in the movie.
Everyone felt as though they required a degree in theoretical physics to comprehend the plot of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Confusing? Perhaps, but a closer look reveals that the movie has a rather solid scientific foundation. Interstellar presents a novel interpretation of time travel that doesn’t rely on fantasy time machines or magic, once you get your head around some of its more challenging ideas. We witness what happens when you spend time on a planet where one hour is equivalent to seven years on Earth in a very excellent sequence.
La Jetée (1962)
Chris Marker’s famous French New Wave film La Jetée is a prime illustration of his unique style. This low-budget masterpiece, which runs for about 28 minutes and is completely composed of still images, served as the main inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. La Jetée has long been regarded as one of the best time-travel films ever made because of its dystopian portrayal of a world after World War III and its dazzlingly imaginative editing. It just blows my mind how Chris Marker managed to do all of this with still photos.
Primer was directed by the enigmatic Shane Carruth, who is known for his perplexing concept movies. Primer, hailed as one of the most realistic time travel films, sought for scientific realism, and Carruth used his experience in engineering and mathematics to create the time travel technology in the movie. Even while it isn’t fully realistic, it is still much more plausible than the majority of science fiction films. This low-budget brainteaser of a movie is well worth your time if you can keep from getting lost in its drawn-out technical conversations.
Tenet is notorious for its confusing depiction of the temporal inversion process. A fast online search yields dozens of articles explaining things to viewers who are perplexed (see GQ for a particularly lucid example). However, the idea of inversion does make a kind of odd sense because you can reverse time by reversing entropy. Tenet is one of the rare films to conceive an entirely new type of time travel, one in which people and objects may actually journey backwards through time, once you understand what Christopher Nolan is aiming for.
The Terminator (1984)
The extremely high stakes of The Terminator’s premise are what give its take on time travel such power. On paper, it seems strange: an AI-driven organisation called Skynet sends a cyber-assassin back in time to target and murder one unassuming young waitress named Sarah Connor, while the human-led resistance sends a member of their own team to prevent this from happening. Well, it turns out that Sarah Connor’s (again, modest) shoulders carry the weight of the entire future of the human race. James Cameron, a master filmmaker, makes this arrangement work while creating a new type of time travel narrative.
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