10 Best Time Travel Movies Ever Made
10 Best Time Travel Movies Ever Made:
“The distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
– Albert Einstein, On His Theory About Space-time
The concept of time has always been a capricious one, baffling generations of theoretical physicists and filmmakers alike. In his groundbreaking memoir, Sculpting in Time (1984), Andrei Tarkovsky navigates the composition of shots via a personal sense of temporality, creating rich, dream-like inner worlds that dabble in the poetics of cinematic time. The act of moving between variant points in time, also known as time travel, has been heavily imprinted in our collective consciousness, through films like Donnie Darko (2001), Back to the Future (1985), and the relatively recent German existential-sci-fi thriller, Dark (2017). Here are 10 seminal movies that unravel the fabric of time travel, in no particular order.
10. La Jetée (1962)
A time-travel saga narrated in still-images, Chris Marker’s science fiction featurette La Jetée follows the meandering tale of a boy, Jean Négroni, who witnesses the death of a strange man on an airport observation deck. Against the sordid backdrop of a post-apocalyptic prison camp, he is selected by his captors for involuntary time travel, which only serves to untie complex time loops and paradoxes that serve to haunt the protagonist’s anxiety-riddled reality. La Jetée masterfully connects time, memory, and the toils of human existence, in which time is a cage, a prison, that relents no escape.
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Moreover, La Jetée features rare emotional complexity and an overwhelming sense of nostalgia – a nostalgia for an ordinary life, for ordinary loves, and a love for the linear present. With the plot’s historical context being a post-World War II wasteland, Jean’s anguish becomes all the more palpable. To be surrounded by a tyrannical band of survivors, enmeshed in the emptiness that succeeds war, and hounded to no-end by the clawed hand of time, is a fate that is inherently Kafkaesque, much like Joseph K.’s in The Trial. Much like the knowledge of our deaths, the stories of our lives are inscribed in all that we once took for granted.
9. Idiocracy (2006)
Originally intended as a comedy, Mike Judge’s Idiocracy has gradually transformed into an all-too-real ‘documentary’ over the years. The film follows an everyman named Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson), defined by his overarching ‘averageness’ in almost every front, who, in comical fashion, agrees to a year-long cryogenic hibernation as a part of an experiment. He is accompanied in this endeavor by a sex worker named Rita (Maya Rudolph), who is hilariously clueless and nonplussed regarding the whole ordeal.
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In a twist of events, the program gets dropped, and the sands of time keep flowing until Joe and Rita wake up to a society in which the collective I.Q is staggeringly low, overpopulation is rampant, and the concept of common sense is non-existent. Moreover, the United States is headed by President Camacho (the wonderful Terry Crews), a former professional wrestler and porn star, a role so prophetic in the context of Trump’s America, it is actually terrifying. Additionally, Gatorade has replaced drinking water, the environment has gone for a toss, and people have forgotten the essential art of agriculture – the horrors of capitalism, in a nutshell. While the element of time-travel only serves to further the plot, Idiocracy is a poignant social commentary on the absurdness of human nature, and what the future holds for a 26th century America.
8. Timecrimes (2007)
Featuring convoluted synchronicities, adultery, and the act of voyeurism, Nacho Vigalondo’s Spanish time travel thriller, Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes), unfolds with Hitchcockian brilliance. It follows the tale of Héctor (Karra Elejalde), a middle-aged married man, voyeuristically watching an unknown woman undressing in the woods, which leads to him being terrorized by a mysterious man, whose face is wrapped in bloodied bandages. Narrowly escaping being murdered, Héctor breaks and enters an abandoned building to seek help. The pretzel-like plot begins to reveal itself when he discovers a two-way radio, and a voice on the other end, masking warped intentions of their own.
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Then, bizarre threads of causality start to unfold, wherein Héctor is haunted by multiple selves from different points in time, all of whom seek to destroy the other, in a meaningless effort to erase evidence of infidelity. Los Cronocrímenes tinkers with a tale of the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy, wherein it can be argued that Héctor’s peripeteia is almost as tragic as Oedipus himself. The ending is harsh, almost cruel, which nonetheless, makes Timecrimes an enthralling watch.
7. 12 Monkeys (1995)
Can we, as mere humans, find meaning at the edge of crisis? Hinging on this engrossing premise, Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys is more relevant now than ever, keeping our current global catastrophes in mind. Set against the post-apocalyptic backdrop of 2035, James Cole (Bruce Willis), a convict, is sent back in time to the year 1990, by a panel of psychiatrists who claim to wish to prevent a viral pandemic which threatens to wipe out the human race in its entirety. This, in turn, triggers a disorienting journey for Cole, the end goal of which is not to prevent the apocalypse, but to rather discover a sample of the embryonic strains of the virus, which can help synthesize a cure.
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With stellar performances by Willis, Madeleine Stowe (who plays a pre-virus era psychiatrist with commendable nuance) and Brad Pitt (who plays a delightfully unpredictable Jeffrey Goines), 12 Monkeys is a time travel extravaganza that explores the themes of temporal madness, greed, corporate agenda, predestination, and the inevitability of mankind’s doom. However, amidst it all, there lies a sliver of hope, albeit a bleak, murky one, much like what life really has to offer.
6. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)
A dazzling animated science-fiction romance, Mamoru Hosada’s Toki o kakeru shôjo or The Girl Who Leapt Through Time follows the tale of Makoto Konno, a teenage girl who miraculously finds the ability to time travel after a near-death experience. Makoto uses her ‘powers’ with the surprising realism of a teenager – to sing better during karaoke nights and alter little moments spent together with her best friends, Chiaki and Kosuke. However, actions have consequences – something which Makoto learns the hard way halfway through the film, leading to grave repercussions that drive the stakes higher. The takeaway from this lovely coming-of-age, slice-of-life anime, is this – time waits for none, and the irreversible nature of this dimension is more complex for us to understand than we would like to admit.
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5. Predestination (2014)
Starring Ethan Hawke and the amazing Sarah Snook, The Spierig Brothers’ mind-boggling time-thriller saga, Predestination, leaves audiences breathless from start to finish (or is there an origin point at all?) Hawke plays a time travel agent, whose sole, life-long mission is to go back in time to intercept an arsonist named the ‘Fizzle Bomber’. While impersonating a bartender in 1970, Hawke encounters a mysterious person (Snook), who has an extraordinary story to tell. This leads to a labyrinth of connected histories and destinies, an ouroboros of pain, loss, and incredulity, which cannot be severed or shed off easily. As Predestination delves into the concepts of identity, solipsism, and of course, predestination, with stellar performances from both leads, it keeps you guessing throughout, and is, all in all, a riveting watch.
4. Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968)
Deemed as a somber meditation in profundity, Resnais’ film, Je t’aime, je t’aime, as per critic James Monaco, is “the quintessential distillation of Resnais’ obsession with time, memory, and the imagination.” Spearheading an unusual sci-fi romance, the film follows Claude Ridder (Claude Rich), who attempts suicide post the severing of a seven-year-old relationship with his girlfriend, Catrine (Olga Georges-Picot). To cope with this trauma, he goes on to volunteer as a human subject for a time-travel experiment at a research center. However, all does not end well, as Claude finds himself trapped in a loop of his own personal hell, underlining the horrors of eternal life, the curse of memory, and the tragic underpinnings of ill-fated love.
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3. Looper (2012)
A confusing sense of urgency permeates throughout Looper, Rian Johnson’s gripping sci-fi thriller, which has been inspired by a fair share of complementary works. Set in 2044 wherein time travel is invented, and then banned by a frantic government, the plot gives way to a crime-addled clusterfuck in which paid assassins, or loopers, must go back in time to finish off their targets – but here’s the catch – they must close the loop they have inadvertently created in the first place.
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One such looper is Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who, like all men in his profession, will eventually be dispatched for terminating his older self (in this case, Bruce Willis), who needs to be hunted down amid logical implausibilities, absurd strangeness, and the violent corruption of space-time. If a looper fails to do so, they’re subjected to punishment for transgression. The overarching themes that dominate this film are that of vanity, sacrifice, choice [or lack thereof], and the ever-elusive stances of good and evil. Apart from the time-travel shenanigans, Looper has a solid plot, intricate characters, and convincing performances – making it a fun watch.
2. Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea (1977)
A convoluted Czechoslovak sci-fi comedy, Zítra vstanu a opařím se čajem or Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea follows the story of identical twins Karel and Jan Bureš, who work in the time travel tourism industry. After Karel’s untimely death, Jan impersonates him to a woman he loves – however, things take a murkier (and comical) turn as he has to transport former Nazis back in time, who wish to present Hitler with a hydrogen bomb to alter history (!). However, the craft accidentally lands in 1941 (instead of 1944) wherein the Germans stand at the gates of Moscow, and Hitler has the travelers executed instead. The narrative then shifts to Jan’s efforts to make amends for his error, which ends more-or-less happily, except for, well, the Nazis.
The political subtext of the film can potentially be unsavory for some, as several events are altered here – no breaking of the Berlin Wall, Czechoslovakia has never been divided, and the final moments of the film feel icky. On the bright side, Polák pushes the idea of multiple realities and temporal paradoxes further than ever before and manages to keep the entire screenplay from crumbling on top of itself, despite being of one the most baffling time travel movies ever made.
1. Primer (2004)
Shane Carruth’s Primer is a mind-bending odyssey that does not throw in complex time-travel jargon without good reason. Engineers Aaron (Carruth himself) and Abe (David Sullivan) accidentally discover an A to B time loop effect in a garage, which leads them to debate and discover physically exhausting processes of time travel, which are sprinkled with theories that are so notoriously complex, that a feeling of intentional disorientation permeates throughout.
With an experimentative plot and a shoe-string budget, Primer is a necessary watch, even though the film doesn’t simplify itself for the sake of easy audience understanding (in fact, it is because of this reason, that the film is so compelling). Primer is a deep dive into the nature of discovery in a world devoid of short cuts, and the ludicrous end-motives of the protagonists who could potentially transform this discovery into something truly monumental. Due to this very reason, Primer is realistic, portraying man’s inability to put the power granted to him to good use.
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This list of time travel movies surely isn’t the endgame, however, they illustrate human tendencies when faced with the complex unpredictability of space-time dynamics. They delve deep into our fears, our hopes, our hamartia, and our hopeless bid to control events and tweak the nature of existence. The human will is a paradoxical web of illusions, making it difficult for us to navigate the trappings of time. With the ever-mounting anxieties caused by the pandemic, it is indeed worrying to speculate – can time heal? Or is time merely a prison, a persistent illness? Whether we can ever unravel these mysteries and understand ourselves better – only time will tell.