Time travel. Time warp. Time shift. Whether we are dealing with flying DeLoreans, naked cyborgs, or simply a cranky weatherman waking up on the same day over and over again, I love stories that play with time. Time travel — or whatever you may call it — has many rules but clearly what makes this genre click for me is that every action results in consequences whether in a separate plane of existence or your very own. It’s the paradox of time travel that makes it so special. It’s not necessarily the time “traveling” that makes my brain explode with delight, but the manipulation of time. This field is wide open, but that’s only because I don’t limit the genre to science-fiction. I have a lot of favorites and many of them almost made the top 5.
First off, Audrey Niffenegger wrote a remarkable novel called The Time Traveler’s Wife in 2004. It’s the story of a librarian with a gene that causes him to involuntarily travel through time. It’s one of my favorite novels of the last decade, but the 2010 film version unfortunately doesn’t quite do it justice. I still loved it, though – the scene where Eric Bana sees his kid for the first time always gives me chills. It’s a beautiful, brain busting story, well worth experiencing on the page and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the screen.
Groundhog Day is a cult classic, the story of a jaded, cynical man who relives the same day over and over again. No one plays jaded and cynical better than Bill Murray. Some may argue that Groundhog Day doesn’t fit in this time travel genre, but I say it does. Though the film is not very explicit about how it’s done, wouldn’t you say he is traveling through some kind of time portal during his sleep? I thought so!
Another romantic comedy that is similarly more of a fantasy than actual sci-fi is Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married, in which Kathleen Turner faints at her high school reunion and wakes up twenty five years earlier during her senior year. She sees this as a chance to rewrite her past and make better choices that will affect her future. But can she avoid making the same mistakes? Can the future really be rewritten? The ultimate time travel questions! What an infectiously sweet film.
Veering into sci-fi territory, I rather loved Peter Hyams cheeky thriller Timecop, in which Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a cop who travels back in time to prevent a corrupt politician from becoming President. Great early 90′s action with Van Damme in his prime.
Speaking of European musclemen, you cannot go wrong with Arnold Schwarzenegger as a cyborg sent from the future to kill Kyle Reese in The Terminator. He’s an unstoppable force of destruction in James Cameron’s innovative action blockbuster. The fantastic, groundbreaking sequel goes even further, reversing the role for Schwarzenegger, who stops at nothing to protect Reese’s son, John Connor. Terminator 2: Judgment Day is arguably one of the best films mentioned in this post, but it’s more of an action thriller than a “time travel” movie. Even though there are elements of time manipulation in this series, I just don’t think of the Terminator films as leaders in this genre, despite being so damned good. Well, except for Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. That one doesn’t belong on any “5 Best” list.
Frequency, one of my favorite films of 2000, almost made the cut. It probably would have made number 6 if I broke a few rules. A father and son connect via radio 30 years apart and the son uses the opportunity to warn dad of his impending death. The crisis is averted but sets forth another series of tragic events. This is what I love about time travel films – cause and effect. Change the past and screw up the future. It’s beautifully done.
Though on a lesser scale, I still can’t forget to mention these solid efforts: Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (Bogus Journey was, well, bogus), the riotously funny Hot Tub Time Machine, the quirky Time Bandits, the surprisingly good The Lake House, Denzel Washington’s action-packed Deja Vu and the corny 80′s cult classic, My Science Project. Those are all good films, especially if you’re a fan of the genre.
But for time travel enthusiasts such as myself, below are the five best.
Donnie Darko (2001)
I knew very little about Donnie Darko when I first saw it and I’m glad. Everything about this intoxicating drama was fresh and brand new. What kind of movie is this? It’s the story of a disaffected teen (a magnificent star making turn by Jake Gyllenhaal) who miraculously escapes death only to embark on an odd friendship with a 6 foot tall man in a bunny suit named Frank. Frank tells Donnie that the world will end in 28 days and for most of the film Donnie struggles to piece together the puzzle surrounding his near-death experience and impending doom. Donnie Darko plays with time so beautifully and with great complexity that the viewer is forced to see the film multiple times in order to comprehend its bigger picture. In addition to this sci-fi bent, the film is also a wonderful study about isolation and adolescent angst.
Happy Accidents (2000)
The antithesis of Donnie Darko, Happy Accidents is a genuine New York love story about an unlikely couple who fall in love. It just so happens that he’s a time traveler from the year 2470. It’s Annie Hall with a twist! Marisa Tomei is just utterly delightful as a neurotic woman who tries to fix the men she dates and she always fails. When Vincent D’Onofrio shows up and spills the beans about where he’s from, she hangs on to him. Is he real or crazy? Brad Anderson directs this warm, sweetly funny and deeply satisfying dramedy that works on almost every level. That it features some nifty ideas on time travel is whipped cream atop of this decadent morsel of delight.
Source Code (2011)
Seems like Jake Gyllenhaal cannot get enough of time travel. Sorry, I mean time remembrance, as Source Code likes to refer to it. This is the most recent entry in the time jumping canon of greats, and it’s not only one of the best films of 2011, but also one of the trippiest, most engaging action films I’ve seen in a long, long time. Gyllenhaal is a soldier who embarks on a top secret government-funded project where he is catapulted to a precise moment in time before a major crime occurs. Within this extremely brief window, he must uncover information about the killer and learn if he has other targets. Of course, he fails repeatedly but inches closer to discovering the truth in every jump. Can he prevent the crime from happening if he stops the killer? Writer/director Duncan Jones raises that question and provides a cadre of satisfying, mind-blowing ideas. Source Code moves at a frenetic, breathless pace without sacrificing humor and a surprising amount of depth and humility.
12 Monkeys (1995)
Terry Gilliam has made some oddball films in his day, and 12 Monkeys is actually one of his more accessible ones. That doesn’t mean it’s a simple, easygoing affair. Far from it! Bruce Willis (an actor I can never tire of) plays a convict from 2035 who volunteers to head back in time to 1996 to uncover information about a virus that inevitably wipes out 99% of the population. But alas, he ends up in 1990 instead (didn’t McFly have the same problem? Damn those faulty flux capacitors!) and ends up being committed. Will he get out in time to save the future? It’s not a simple film by any means, but it is Gilliam’s most engaging film. It’s all here — the paradoxes of time travel, future consequences of past actions, and a tricky timeline in which millions of lives can be changed by a single action of course correction.