Despite the popularity of time travel as a narrative device, it’s amazing just how few truly great films there are in this science fiction sub-genre. The concept of time travel has played a pivotal role in science fiction since the late nineteenth century, when it was most frequently used as a mode for exploring either utopian or dystopian societal alternatives. H. G. Wells’ seems to have been the primary initiator of this technique with The Time Machine (1895), a novel involving a time traveller who encounters a nightmarish dystopian future world positioned as the consequence of Well’s contemporaneous societal circumstances. Edward Bellamy, who wrote Looking Backward (1888), and William Morris, who wrote News from Nowhere (1890), inverted proceedings by sending their respective protagonists into perfect future worlds, thereby making the fallibility of their own worlds more apparent. The sub-genre has developed significantly from these early beginnings (most successfully within literature), but within the cinematic form, it has never really lived up to the standards set by these early works.
On one level, this isn’t surprising. The difficulties in dealing with the complexities of causality and temporal loops make sophisticated film examinations of this theoretical phenomenon very complicated (but rewarding when they work). In terms of dystopian social satire, the task of creating a convincing alternate world that mirrors and interrogates our own within the space of a feature film can be incredibly difficult (especially without a single insightful auteur). And on the comedic front, the possibilities of bringing two temporal worlds together may offer an abundance of opportunities for satire and wit, but more often than not this opportunity is lazily squandered.
However, there are exceptions, and I’ve attempted to pull together ten of my personal favourites below. I’m aware that there are a few notable absences here, and can only point out that this is the list that best reflects my own tastes. Enjoy.
The Terminator (1984)
Why not start with the obvious? James Cameron’s tech-noir masterpiece may not be the flashiest film in the series, but it is the best. An incredible neon-lit grungy aesthetic, lack of sentimentality, and gritty narrative go a long way, but it is the film’s ingenious use of the time travel concept – especially it’s intriguing revelation of a mind-bending temporal loop – that makes this the most conceptually loaded film of the series.
The Time Machine (1960)
George Pal’s gorgeous adaptation of the H. G. Wells novel of the same name stars Australia’s own Rod Taylor. Here the time machine is used primarily as a device to transport the protagonist and viewer to an alternate world where a kind of dystopian social commentary can be played out. When a scientist builds a time machine, an accident results in him becoming stranded 800,000 years into the future. Civilisation has long since gone to dust, and in its place are two species of human ancestry bound together by a violently unbalanced codependence. This one still stands up today.
La Jetee (1962)
Chris Marker’s science fiction masterpiece may come in at under thirty minutes, but any aficionado of the time travel sub-genre will surely stand behind this as one of the all time greats. Comprised entirely of black and white photography (with one exception) accompanied by a bleak French narration, this is the tale of a devastated future world. The central protagonist must travel back in time to find answers that will help sustain humanity in the future. But in one shocking moment, he finds the answer to a mystery that has haunted him his entire life. Stunning cinema.
Time after Time (1979)
Nicholas Meyer helms this under-appreciated time travelling comedy classic. When Jack the Ripper get his hands on H.G. Wells’ time machine (apparently, The Time Machine is a true story) and travels to the twentieth century, Wells is forced to pursue him. As can be expected, an array of comedic culture clashes ensue, along with a light tendency towards social commentary. Perhaps the infamous moment where this is most apparent arises when Jack the Ripper proclaims: “Ninety years ago I was a freak. Today I’m an amateur.”
Planet of the Apes (1968)
Franklin J Schaffner’s film adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s novel, La Planète des singes, is now firmly a part of the science fiction canon. But it is easy to forget that this film and its sequels, much like The Time Machine, function principally as a set of analogical (and/or allegorical) social critiques of contemporary social mores. The story? When a man finds himself cast into a new world, where men are treated as little more than wild beasts, he is forced to adapt to his sudden shift in position on the food-chain. And then of course, there’s that ending…
Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Terry Gilliam’s finest film (in my humble opinion) marks one of the seminal achievements of the time travel genre. It is, depending on one’s perspective, either a remake of La Jetee or heavily inspired by it. The narrative is similar to La Jetee in the broadest sense, but as one might expect it introduces a far larger range of narrative complications, including the Gilliamesque possibility that the protagonist (Bruce Willis) might simply be insane.
Operating on a minuscule $7k budget, Shane Carruth went out and made an almost entirely impenetrable little film whose structural complexities are designed to mirror the almost infinitely intricate nature of the physics behind the concept of time travel. The premise? Two guys build a machine that does something incredible – it interferes with the nature of time. As they start to explore the possibilities that the machine affords, keeping track of things becomes more and more difficult.
Les Visiteurs (1993)
There is no denying that this is pure diversionary entertainment and contributes very little to the time travel genre as a whole (in fact, the task here is accomplished via magic rather than science). But this French comedy classic from Jean-Marie Poiré is a must. The story is simple enough; a medieval knight and his squire find themselves the victims of a magical incident that sends them catapulting into the 20th century. Beware the American remake, starring many of the same people… except they’re slightly older, speaking english and being less funny.
George Roy Hill achieved the impossible dream in 1972 when Kurt Vonnegut proclaimed his satisfaction with the cinema adaptation of his challenging science fiction novel: ”I drool and cackle every time I watch that film, because it is so harmonious with what I felt when I wrote the book.”
Indeed, Vonnegut is entirely right. While this gem has been mistakenly relegated to the dusty storeroom of cinematic history, it truly is a stunning work of art. The film follows Billy Pilgrim, a man who has become disconnected from time, resulting in his experiencing the events of his life in random order. This is a piece of cinema that beautifully questions the reality of the most basic human concepts – including the nature of freedom and the concept of sequential time itself. Definitely worth viewing.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949)
This very light musical adaptation of the Mark Twain novel abandons much of the subtext found within the source material, but is by far the best version that I’ve ever seen (I suspect that Twain’s novel is second only to Dicken’s A Christmas Carol in having been the victim of lazy film and television adaptations). Most will know the story: When an American mechanic bumps his head, he finds himself suddenly transported to King Arthur’s court. Musical numbers, political intrigue and (much like a couple of other selections in this list) cultural clashes ensue.