Make no mistake about it: we here at Topless Robot know the treacherous path we’re marching down in even attempting to make a list like this. Considering how important these movies are to the geeksphere, one wrong choice could create a rift in the space-time continuum large enough to fit two displaced Tyrannosauruses through and doom us to an endless eternity spent watching Keanu Reeves seduce Sandra Bullock by time traveling mail in The Lake House. But let’s be honest here–we know we can’t please everyone. So, since this is a list of 10, we think it’s important to lay down one major ground rule: because most trilogies or film series are typically extensions of a singular idea, we’re only allowing one entry per series to keep things fair. Of course, we hope this list breeds discussion and discovery of more time travel goodness (Je T’aime, Je T’aime anyone?) Which time trekking adventures made the cut? To find out, simply click Read More to initiate time warp — and beware, there are potential spoilers ahead.
10) Flight of the Navigator
While at first glance the story of Disney’s Flight of the Navigator seems to be about a boy and his super awesome robot/ship hybrid, there’s thankfully a lot more to the movie than the trailer might lead the uninitiated viewer to believe. The film’s story centers around a 12 year old boy named David Freeman who despite receiving what might be some of the worst/most irresponsible parental advice on girls ever ( David’s Dad: “You know, if you’re gonna learn to swim you just gotta jump in the water.” Yeah, just jump right in there David, 12’s a great time to start a family!) lives happily with his Mother, Father, and younger bro in Florida. After falling into a ditch while looking for his brother on the evening of July 4th, 1978, David awakens to find that 8 years have passed, and he hasn’t aged a day. Indeed, it’s how time travel is presented in FotN that makes it so memorable–imagine waking from a dream only to find yourself to be the centerpiece of a seemingly impossible puzzle and surrounded by people you once knew who all thought you were dead…pretty remarkable stuff, especially for a kids movie. While the movie clearly takes a healthy sum of its aesthetic and storytelling cues from E.T., the world polo-clad David enters into is both frightening and charming and the movie does manage to stand (hover?) on its own two feet at the end of the day.
9) Star Trek: First Contact
Star Trek: First Contact begins by throwing audiences, along with the unfortunate crew of the Starship Enterprise-E, into a tense Romeroesque Borg-induced claustrophobic nightmare, and culminates with an action packed finale between Captain Picard and the Borg Queen, only stopping the action to inspire would be fan fiction wordsmiths with a little cyborg on cyborg titillation along the way. While other Star Trek features like The Voyage Home and J.J. Abrams’ 09 relaunch have made good use of time travel, ST:FC is the most complete full length Trek adventure that uses time travel as its plot centerpiece. While it’s fun to watch Kirk and crew’s goofy whale-searching hijinks in modern day San Francisco in STIV:TVH, the many watercooler moments ST:FC offers make it a lock here, be it Captain Picard blowing away a team of Borg with a Tommy gun on the holodeck, Counselor Troi getting drunk while visiting the past or Worf’s utterance of the phrase “Assimilate this!” before doling out some extreme Klingon justice, Star Trek: First Contact is sure to satisfy both people who like their film chronology jumbled and Trek junkies alike by mixing in just the right combination of engaging action, lucid pacing and time travel goodness.
8) The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
While staring down the business end of a horrible train accident waiting to happen, high school student Makoto Konno inadvertently discovers that she can return to the past or “time-leap” at will and is able to avoid her near-certain death. Having escaped the train debacle, Makoto immediately begins using her abilities for pithy personal gains-such as extending Karaoke time- eventually learning that the rabbit hole behind her powers is deep–very deep. Far separated from the more traditional time travel methodology that most may associate with, the time travel in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time doesn’t seem to involve any technology at all; to the contrary, it appears to be a more mystical superpower than a feat of technology, or perhaps a fusion of psyche and man made achievement, as Makoto does see red countdown numbers whenever she time leaps and has a numbered tattoo on her arm that decreases by one each time she uses her new ability. Of course, at the heart of all of this time-sliding around is a rewarding coming of age tale coupled with memorable visuals and characters, making it one time adventure worth checking out.
7) 12 Monkeys
This haunting, heartbreaking and unforgettable film by notoriously hard-luck director Terry Gilliam, (director of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, popular time travel flick Time Bandits, and the upcoming The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) always seems to leave an impression with audiences, and makes for good time travel discussion fodder. Inspired by the French short film La Jet?e, 12 Monkeys, like a few of the other movies on this list, examines the relentless omnipresence and cruel persistence of time. Bruce Willis plays James Cole, a survivor and convicted criminal in a nightmarish future where 5 billion people have been wiped out by a plague and humans have been forced underground, leaving the surface to be taken back by animals. He is chosen by the powers that be to travel back in time to attempt to learn enough about the plague in order to find a cure. Along the way he encounters Brad Pitt’s deranged Jeffrey Goines and Dr. Kathryn Railly who eventually becomes convinced that he is telling the truth about the plague. To sum it all up, the movie’s performances, imagery and score make it a trip that any time jockey should consider taking.
If you haven’t seen Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes, we implore you: take in the least pub on this movie as possible and watch it for yourselves. Skip the trailer above, avoid the reviews and see it first–trust us, it’s the kind of movie that warrants that degree of spoiler avoidance. Keeping with the theme of nondisclosure, we’re not going to go into much detail here — suffice to say, it’s a solid piece of chrono-craziness that’s low on budget but high on quality.
5) Donnie Darko
While there’s a lot more going on in Donnie Darko besides some simple emo time adventure, the concept of time travel is expertly woven into the movie’s plot and opens up yet another, ahem, portal to the film’s ever-raging fanbase dialogue. Since it’s probably futile to attempt to sum up the adventures of one Donnie Darko in just a few lines, we’ll just say that it’s a movie about a troubled high school student growing up in 1980’s suburbia whose life experiences, which involve a large talking bunny, time tunnels, and a missing jet engine, differ from any that we ever expect to have and leave it at that. The movie’s eerie atmosphere, fueled largely by its unique, eclectic soundtrack and puzzlecentric storytelling that begs for multiple viewings make this a time travel fairy tale that belongs in everyone’s viewing library.
4) Groundhog Day
There’s little doubt that Groundhog Day is a non-traditional choice for a time traveling picture, but we contend that the Harold Ramis directed Bill Murray classic qualifies, since it still revolves around a man stuck in a time loop, even if he didn’t intend to time travel in the first place. Of course, the movie is about a lot more than just a man with one day of his life stuck on repeat, as it is essentially a parable for what we all may go through in different parts of our lives: finding ourselves stuck somewhere until we learn to change ourselves, evolve and see things differently. In his 2005 Great Movies revisitation of Groundhog Day, Roger Ebert may have put it best when he remarked, “But there are a few films, and this is one of them, that burrow into our memories and become reference points. When you find yourself needing the phrase This is like “Groundhog Day” to explain how you feel, a movie has accomplished something.”
3) Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Standing today as a testament to fine time travel craftsmanship just as it did in 1991 when theater audiences first heard Arnold Schwarzenegger immortalize the term “Liquid Metal” while cruising on his new motorcycle with young Edward Furlong in tow, the perfect meld of brain and brawn, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is still arguably the greatest time travel actioner of them all. Try as we may, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact root of Terminator 2”s distinct brand of awesomeness; It could be the huge step up in visual effects it took from its 1984 predecessor, which still look great today. It could be the story’s high tension pacing that keeps us enthralled at every turn. Or, how about the ridiculous action sequences? Or the epic ending? The timeless score? It’s pretty safe to say that we’d travel to the future just to get to see another movie this amazingly good sooner.
2) Back to the Future: Part II
Sure, we know that without the first film in Robert Zemeckis’ epic trilogy, Back to the Future: Part II would fade faster than Marty in his family photo at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance, but we’re trying to be honest with ourselves here. While Back to the Future: Part II by nature doesn’t possess the originality of the first film, nor the quaint Western charm of the third, so many of the series’ most iconic elements made their first appearance or were really put to use in this venerable 1989 sequel, such as the Hoverboards, Flying DeLorean, Marty’s power lace Nikes, Griff Tannen, a virtual Michael Jackson as your retro diner’s waiter and Jaws 19 at the Holomax that we would have a hard time looking at ourselves in the mirror if we didn’t give them their just due. Did we mention that we finally got to see the future in this one? The future we say! Plus, you have to love BttF: Part II for how effectively it voltrons together with the story of the original to create a powerful space robot of time travely goodness, making both movies better and fighting off evil robeast memories of painful time travel movies past.
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at 2004’s Sundance Film Festival and shot on a tiny-by-movie-standards $7,000 budget, Primer is easily the most “indie” of the entries on this list–but reduced budget does not a bad time travel movie make. To the contrary, what the complex and technically robust Primer excels in most is allowing its audience to share in the excitement of discovery by following the story of a team of young engineers from their humble beginnings as garage experimenters to the height of their manufactured power. Another film that benefits greatly from multiple viewings, Primer is definitely exhibit A for why movies should value the journey over the grand finale or twist endings — despite the fact that Primer‘s somewhat open ending, while keeping with its real world approach, may have accounted in part for its light box office haul. Life is rarely fair for time travelers.
Robert Bricken is one of the original co-founders of the site formerly known as Topless Robot, and its first editor-in-chief, serving from 2008-12. He brought the site to prominence with “nerd news, humor and self-loathing” as its motto, raising it from total internet obscurity to a readership in the millions, with help from his savage “FAQ” movie reviews and Fan Fiction Fridays. Under his tenure Topless Robot was covered by Gawker, Wired, Defamer, New York magazine, ABC News, and others, and his articles have been praised by Roger Ebert, Avengers actor Clark Gregg, comedian and The Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman, the stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax, and others. He is currently the managing editor of io9.com. Despite decades as both an amateur and professional nerd, he continues to be completely unprepared for either the zombie apocalypse or the robot uprising.