Time travel is something which has intrigued writers and creative types for years. With almost complete free reign to create their own rules and universes, the concept opens up countless possibilities and dilemmas as hapless fictional characters change their past or dare to alter the future. Many time travel movies adhere to strict paradox rules which explore the follies of changing what has once been, while others use it as an opportunity to do things a bit crazier.
10. Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
Three best friends (and a tagalong nephew) are unhappy with their lives and decide to take a trip down memory lane by visiting a ski resort where they spent their joyful youth. After a night of heavy drinking and dipping in a hot tub, the gang wake up as their younger selves in 1986. Using this as an opportunity to change their destinies for the better, the group embark on a variety of silly adventures knowing they can’t their lives much worse. With a very likeable cast featuring John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson and Clark Duke, Hot Tub Time Machine is an enjoyable, genuinely funny twist on the time travel concept.
9. Timecop (1994)
Timecop is a daft 90s sci-fi action featuring Jean Claude Van Damme as an officer (or timecop) working for the Time Enforcement Commission (TEC), a government agency responsible for combating the misuse of time-travel through any means necessary. Van Damme finds himself investigating a corrupt senator who is using time travel himself in order to secure a wealthier future and so become President. The film isn’t really concerned with plot-holes (the TEC are trying to avert changing history yet scenes show futuristic weapons and wormholes appearing in front of a huge amount of onlookers) but its by far one of the best movies starring “the muscles from Brussels” and it’s probably also one of the easier time-travel films to watch. Just sit back, switch off and watch Van Damme kick people in the face.
8. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
In the year 2688, a true Utopia has been created thanks to the music and wisdom of best buds Bill and Ted, played by Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves. Rufus (George Carlin) is sent from this idyllic world back to 1989 to make sure our titular characters pass their history exam and ensure that this perfect future is preserved. Armed with a time-travelling phone booth, our heroes bounce around through history times and bump into the likes of Napoleon, Billy the Kid, Socrates, Freud and Abraham Lincoln. It’s a big farce and doesn’t concern itself with any time travel paradoxes, but Bill & Ted gives us so many silly moments (like when Ted offers Genghis Khan a Twinkie and he gets an excellent sugar rush) that it’s hard to really care too much.
7. 12 Monkeys (1996)
Terry Gilliam’s paranoid sci-fi classic centres on convicted criminal Cole (played by Bruce Willis) as he is sent back in time to gather a sample of a deadly virus which wiped out 5 billion people, forcing the remaining population underground. The time travel in the movie is presented as erratic and imprecise as Cole travels too far back in time and is placed in a mental asylum for his somewhat insane ramblings about a future where mankind is doomed. A critical hit on release with a truly mind-bending approach to the concept, 12 Monkeys is a shaky sci-fi classic for those who like their time travel bleak and chaotic.
6. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
The latest installment of the X-Men series has a dystopic future in store for our favourite gang of mutants. Having been hunted down by Sentinels to near extinction, mutantkind have one last chance to rewrite history by sending Wolverine back to the 1970s to stop the development of the weapons program. Unlike other time travel devices, Days of Future Past doesn’t rely on a machine but rather a person who is able to send their consciousness back in time to save the future. It’s a neat little twist and allows the filmmakers to deviate from the normal formula (it flits back and forth through time focusing on different groups of characters), but the downside is that you really need to have seen at least a few X-Men movies to get invested in things. However, the movie’s greatest accomplishment is that as a result from the time travel shenanigans the dreadful sequels ‘X-Men: Last Stand’ and ‘Wolverine: Origins’ are no longer canon – something the fans were more than glad to see happen.
5. Looper (2012)
Looper is another time travel movie featuring Bruce Willis. In the future it’s much harder to simply ‘off’ someone like you used to be able to do, so crime syndicates have been forced to send people back in time to be executed by ‘loopers’. These hit men are paid with silver bars strapped to the target who has been sent back. Things get complicated when loopers are expected to ‘close the loop’ by killing their future self who is strapped with gold bars. As one would expect, the plot revolves around what happens if someone has cold feet about closing their own loop. Looper doesn’t get bogged down with paradoxes and in fact features one scene which humorously tells us not to worry about the details. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a spectacular performance as a young Bruce Willis and the movie feels like a successful mash-up of Quentin Tarantino and Philip K. Dick. It’s an action-sci-fi-thriller with a few twists and turns and some spectacular world-building.
4. Primer (2004)
Noted for its surprisingly low budget of $7,000 but seemingly high production levels, Primer deals with what happens when some engineers accidentally invent a time machine in their garage. The movie is very low-key and doesn’t have an extravagant plot dealing with killer robots or correcting wrongs as the protagonists just want to manipulate the stock market and make money. This perhaps grounds it slightly more in reality as, after all, this is what most of us would do if given the chance. Written and directed by Shane Carruth (an engineer himself – which shows), Primer makes no attempts to dumb-down the concept in layman terms, so be prepared to watch the movie over and over before you even begin to understand what happens and why.
3. Groundhog Day (1993)
Perhaps we’re cheating here, but ‘Groundhog Day’ still has a time-travel theme. Weatherman Phil (played by Bill Murray) is sent to the town of of Punxsutawney to report on the annual Groundhog Day festivities. However, he soon discovers he must endlessly relive the same day over-and-over, with no hint on how he can break the loop. Phil progresses from being confused to trying to take advantage of the situation. Knowing there will be no long term consequences, he steals money, seduces women, learns the entire townspeople’s secrets, spends a night in jail and even attempts suicide (but to no avail). There is much debate at how long Phil actually spends in the loop, with many fan theories speculating anywhere from 34 years to over 10,000.
2. Back to the Future (1985)
When Marty McFly accidentally travels back in time to 1955 to when his parents were teenagers, he becomes a love interest to his own mother and, following the ‘grandfather paradox’, is forced to fix the damage he’s created to his own history or face fading out from existence. With a strong supporting cast and iconic turns from leads Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd, Back to the Future keeps its tone very light and gives us a nice mix of slapstick humour and adrenalized action. During the course of the story, Marty accidentally becomes the inventor of rock ‘n’ roll, gives his hometown a better mayor and alters his parents future for the better, helping them become wealthier and happier – something we’d all be tempted to do if given the opportunity. The sharp script is filled with subtle injokes – at one point in the past Marty knocks over a pine tree and upon returning to his timeline the shopping mall is no longer named ‘Twin Pines Mall’ but rather ‘Lone Pine Mall’ – and the ending perfectly sets up a sequel where Marty must accompany Doc Brown to 2015. We’re still waiting for our promised hoverboards, though.
1. The Terminator (1984)
Inspired by an ‘Outer Limits’ episode, the Terminator gives us chilling insight into a future overrun by technology. Computers have become self-aware and enslaved humanity so it’s up to a few freedom fighters to rise up from the camps and begin to fight back. To counter this, the robots send back our titular antagonist to kill the mother of humanity’s saviour. Unbeknownst to them, rebel leader John Connor has sent back his own general, Kyle Reese, to stop the murder of his mother. The time travel antics create a compelling premise which has enough action to keep anyone who doesn’t normally go for sci-fi on the edge of their seat, but really the movie is best known for introducing the world to Arnold Schwarzenegger and his iconic catchphrase ‘I’ll be back’. Spawning a few sequels with enormous increases in budget, The Terminator is still the most polished effort of the lot.