(There may be spoilers below)

Time travel, so far as anyone knows, is fiction by definition. Physicists in the main believe that we would first need to crack near-light-speed space travel, and even then we’d likely only be able to travel forward in time, if at all. But no matter. Since H.G. Wells first published The Time Machine (or possibly even earlier—Irving’s “Rip van Winkle” is a time-travel story) great storytellers have often chosen time travel (which I’ll refer to as TT for short going forward) as a device for exploring its limitless philosophical, narrative and emotional implications.

I love good TT movies. I even love some of the bad ones. (Timecop is terrible, but the finale includes two JCVD’s kicking ass simultaneously, so…) But the question I intend to tackle now is “Which movies get TT right?” By this I mean two things:

  1. The explanation of how time travel works has integrity, i.e. it is self-contained, consistent, and not subject to arbitrary “rules.”
  2. The use of the device satisfies a particular narrative demand, i.e. it makes the story better or more interesting.

Guess what, folks? This means that your favorite TT movie may not make this very shortlist. For this reason, I’m penning a sequel to this post, “Great Time-Travel Movies That Get Time Travel All Wrong,” so you can look forward to that. Meanwhile, I’m sure many of you will disagree on much of what I’ve written here. I invite you to comment and tell me why I’m so very, very wrong. (Also, please note: I’m told Interstellar does some nice TT stuff, but I haven’t seen it yet so it didn’t make my list. The wife and I want to watch it together, and she’s been busy lately.)

Oh, did I mention there will be SPOILERS?

Twelve Monkeys

Probably my all-time favorite in the genre, Terry Gilliam’s movie blends themes of prophecy, madness and apocalypse into a time-loop mindfuck that never lets you know until the very end (maybe) if you’re actually watching a TT movie. The fact that we don’t know exactly how the device actually works when it sends Cole (Bruce Willis) and his fellow prisoners-of-a-post-apoca-plague-future-society-living-underground into the past is part of the point. We’re mostly enjoying Cole’s bent perspective, so when we reach the point where he decides he no longer believes that he’s from the future—that it would be better to be insane, because then maybe Kathryn (Madeleine Stowe) could help him get better and he could be with her—we in the audience are left wondering what to believe ourselves. I mean, look at the way he keeps beating people up and shouting about world-ending plagues…He sure seems insane.

Hey, that looks familiar…or anyway it will look familiar…

Hey, that looks familiar…or anyway it will look familiar…

TT in Twelve Monkeys is very consistent, however unlikely it is to comport with the realities of real-world physics. I especially love how inexact it is: when the future people send Cole back, they get the year wrong more often than they get it right. And in order to retrieve him, they first have to send back another scout to locate him. (Sometimes we see the scout, sometimes we just hear a voice…wait, maybe he is just crazy…) It’s also beautiful to watch the way Gilliam keeps us guessing. For instance, we never actually see the TT device until after Cole has seen the CAT scan room in the mental institution he’s fleeing, and then, wouldn’t you know it, in the future TT devices look suspiciously like CAT scan machines. Shoot…maybe he really is just delusional?

Spoiler: he’s not.


It’s unclear which is more amazing: how well Primer deals with the implications of TT into the past, or the fact that this excellent film was made for little more than $7,000. Shane Carruth managed to make what is in many ways the time-travel movie. The flick certainly wins for devising a TT method with superior integrity: get in the Box, and you go back in time the same length of time you stayed there. Double-points for the proposed non-quantum explanation from Abe (David Sullivan), “This is basic mechanics and heat 101,” and a style points for Aaron (Carruth) disagreeing, “This is not mechanics and heat.”

Simplifying TT in Primer, only it doesn’t stay this simple. Add like five more loops

Simplifying TT in Primer, only it doesn’t stay this simple. Add like five more loops

Our heroes do all the things we know we shouldn’t do with TT, of course, and that’s part of why Primer is great. They try to get rich, to become heroes, to double-cross each other. And meanwhile, there is the great cost: the Box is hazardous to the time-traveler’s health and mental well-being, and in the end, close friendships have been destroyed, trust irrevocably damaged. Oh yeah, and there are at least two Aarons running around now because time loops don’t always close neatly.

A good TT movie gets better with multiple viewings. For Primer, multiple viewings are absolutely essential, because the time-loop thickets are dense, and there’s a lot to absorb. This movie makes you believe that TT is possible, but also nothing to fuck around with.

 Timecrimes (Cronocrimenes)

Timecrimes is entertaining as hell. Most of the movie’s strength is in the taut screenplay and in Karra Elejalde’s performance as Hector, a regular married guy who’s worst peccadillo is enjoying the occasional glance at his neighbors through his binoculars. Led by what he sees to investigate some strange goings-on (and an apparently naked girl), Hector finds himself injured and chased by a man wearing a strange pink mask. A voice coaxes him into a strange house where he hides from pursuit in, yes, a time machine. What ensues are some of the most inventive time-loop and causality paradox plot points of any TT movie ever. And none of it is wasted: director/writer Nacho Vigalondo mines the genre for suspense and some shockingly dark humor.


Do my bandages look okay?”

There are problems with the movie, most notably a plot device that centers on the creation of the man in the pink mask—SPOILER, it’s Hector, from one hour in the future—which occurs when Hector’s head is injured in a car wreck. Hector removes a small bandage from his wounded arm and starts wrapping it around his head. Suddenly there seems to be way more bandage than we thought, oh and also it all turns a perfect uniform pink color. You know, like bandages do. Weird, unnecessary continuity issues like this only bothered me a little, though. There has rarely been a TT story that so skillfully and entertainingly weaves together the threads of interacting timelines. Timecrimes doesn’t require multiple viewings, but you’ll want to watch it again anyway.

Donnie Darko

I watched two films I hadn’t yet seen in the TT genre before writing this post. The first was last year’s Predestination, which might’ve made this list for a number of the same reasons as Timecrimes (brilliantly interwoven time loops, loads of enjoyable mind-bending causality paradox) if it hadn’t introduced a completely arbitrary TT rule: the traveler can’t jump beyond 53 years before or after the invention of time travel. Huh? Wha? I’m not even sure why this was mentioned, since it wasn’t crucial to the plot. All I know is it seemed arbitrary. Points not awarded.

donnie darko

Foreshadowing is kinda like time travel…

The second was Donnie Darko, which is arguably not a TT flick at all, but more like a dramatization of a teenager’s science-fiction-themed suicide note. But the film gets many, many points for the alternately hilarious and disturbing images, for casting Patrick Swayze as a child porn distributor, and for depicting TT as a blend of the spiritual with the scientific. Ultimately the best TT stories are about knowledge, consciousness and memory, about what we do with knowledge of the future when we’ve traveled to the past and vice-versa. What Donnie (Jake Gyllenhall) does runs the gamut from disturbing to heroic. Donnie Darko gives us mystery, and wonder, and both Gyllenhalls.  

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

I happen to think this movie is a little too long, and there are some sci-fi tropes that get short shrift mainly because of the Governator’s acting. (“I know now why you cry” probably shouldn’t have been written, let alone given to Schwarzenegger to speak.) But the ending to T2 was very satisfying, in part because it left an open question: had they avoided the apocalyptic future?

terminator 2

Should Sarah Connor have killed Dyson? Or was her failed attempt enough to alter the future?

The plot of the film is structured around unfolding an apparent time loop. Cyberdyne Systems has a piece of the original Terminator, which has apparently inspired the development of technology that will lead to Skynet and the future machine vs. man wars. But by the end, we don’t know if we’re predestined to meet that fate. Terminator the First’s relic hand has been destroyed, and the latest Terminator (he who understands the reasons for crying) has destroyed the T-1000 and, Christ-like, himself. “The unknown future rolls toward us,” narrates Sarah, just before credits roll. “I face it, for the first time, with a sense of hope.” Time loop movies don’t often end with hope, so props to T2 for that much at least.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

I know what you’re thinking: Integrity? Yes, after a fashion. Remember, TT is fiction so time travel in the flick has to have rules for travel that are self-contained and consistent. The movie actually does this. Bill and Ted’s phone booth can travel to any point in time listed in the ‘phone book.’ If the antenna on top breaks, they get stuck. Simple, easy-peasy.

bill and ted

The Future, where everyone is excellent to everyone

But Bill & Ted’s makes my list also because of the way the absurdly silly story uses TT. Obviously, a future society governed by the principles espoused in Wyld Stallyns music would build a time machine that looks like a phone booth. And obviously, this device would be used to send Rufus (George Carlin) back in time to rescue our heroes—and the future—by giving them the means to travel even further back in time to kidnap notable historical figures and make them part of some weird high-school-history-project-slash-talent-show. And obviously, those historical figures would totally dig it.


This article was originally posted in 6/24/15.

How Your Favorite Time-Travel Movies Gets Time Travel All Wrong


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