All the way back to the birth of science fiction, time travel has fascinated fans of the genre. This is undoubtedly due to the “what-if” scenarios posited by many of these stories which touch on our own inherent thoughts about how we’d do things differently if we were able to manipulate the timeline.
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Like so many other topics, time travel can fall into the serious, or the absurd. So many movies have taken so many different approaches to the subject while implementing many different rules. Some treat time travel as a simple plot device, while others use it as the entire plot itself.
10) Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a time travel movie that defined a generation. So often with the ramifications and implications involving ethics and geopolitics, storytellers take a serious approach to time travel, but not this one.
The story follows two slackers who use a time machine to pass a history test, which is important because their band will become the basis of a utopia. Just by the premise alone, it’s obvious this film revels in absurdist comedy, which made it an instant classic.
9) 12 Monkeys
When broken down, time travel is such a quirky idea that it somehow fits right in with quirky storytelling. 12 Monkeys is about as quirky as it could get, and it’s gone on to inspire a TV series years after the original film was released.
The story is about a man sent back in time too try and stop a plague from being unleashed and wrecking havoc on the future. This premise could have been approached very seriously and filmed like a regular high budget action movie, but it’s the weird and bizarre way that 12 Monkeys unfolds that allows it to stand out from what could have been a generic film.
The more time goes on, the more people realize that time travel and space travel go hand in hand. It’s hard to separate one from the other, and Interstellar excels at merging those together in fantastical fashion. There’s a lot of real science in Interstellar, but it doesn’t allow the actual physics of it all to hold itself back from telling a fun story.
Where science fails to tell the whole picture, Interstellar allows imagination to fill in the rest. The story follows an astronaut in search of a new planet for humanity, and when his journey takes him through a wormhole, it brings him back into the past to interact with his daughter. Not the least bit realistic, but sci-fi at its finest.
7) X:Men: Days of Future Past
X-Men fans were wondering how the two different versions of the timelines would meet, and Days of Future Past did not disappoint. It managed to include a wide assortment of characters, while telling a poignant story with complications for both time periods.
The best part of the film is that Wolverine was used to tie both timelines together as he was transported back to his younger self to stop a tragedy in the future. Like most superhero stories, it stretches the imagination, but the movie handled its crazy subject matter with just enough action and drama to make it exciting.
6) Hot Tub Time Machine
It’s hard to imagine a time travel story that tops the absurdity of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but Hot Tub Time Machine did just that. After all, how could it not when it uses a hot tub spiked with an illegal energy drink as its time machine?
Hot Tub Time Machine might not be artistic cinema, but it was never meant to be. It did a great job showcasing the difference in time periods and how a bustling ski resort can become run down and shady. It also leans heavily into its rated R comedy, something Bill and Ted managed to skirt around.
5) Time Traveler’s Wife
Time travel stories sometimes merge with different genres. It’s easy to do action and horror; not so easy to do romance, but The Time Traveler’s Wife pulls it off quite well. There’s no fancy time machine or experiment that allows the man to time travel. He just can. It’s his curse.
But, he can’t control it, which makes it hard to have a romantic relationship. The film has a lot of fun seeing the time traveler move back and forth through his wife’s life, and that alone makes it fun to stomach the romance of it all.
4) The Butterfly Effect
There are so many movies that are classified as time travel even though they don’t technically have time traveling in them. The Butterfly Effect borders the edge of that concept, but it’s good enough to be included here.
The concept revolves around a boy who suffered blackouts during his youth, only to learn he has the ability to revisit these time periods as an adult, and alter the past. The lessons learned here are roughly the same as most time travel movies, which is that the past can’t be changed. It’s fun watching the main character come to this realization as he changes the present time and time again.
There’s something about low tech, grounded science fiction that makes the genre truly special. Anybody with a big special effects budget can partake in a grand time travel spectacle, but it takes true storytelling chops to tell a time travel story with indie resources.
Primer‘s premise is very simple as two engineers use tools at their disposal to create a time machine. What follows is the standard time travel lessons as they realize the device does more harm than good. It’s the indie, low budget approach to the subject matter that makes this such a compelling story and worthy to stand with Hollywood.
2) Avengers: Endgame
The choice to make Endgame a time travel movie was as much a practical one as it was about telling a good story. Since Marvel Studios was coming up on its 10 year anniversary, it was a nice look to go back and revisit some of its classic moments. The story allowed old characters to return, and for our heroes to attempt a mission with unbelievable odds stacked against them.
Even more than that, the time travel aspect of the story opened up the Marvel Cinematic Universe for more opportunities in the future. It was so successful at playing to nostalgia that some might even overlook it as a time travel movie at all, which means it deserves to be high on this list.
1) Back to the Future
When it comes to time travel movies, one film immediately comes to mind for most. It’s hard to analyze exactly what makes Back to the Future such a fun film that so many adore. It might be Michael J. Fox’s charisma, or Christopher Lloyd’s crazy antics.
Perhaps it’s just traveling back to a simpler time that wasn’t so simple after all. Also, it deals with a very awkward concept of having a teenager interact with his parents when they were teens. It’s a movie almost everyone could relate to, and propelled the film into pop culture stardom.