Time-travel stories are a time-honored stable of the sci-fi genre. In hard science fiction literature the golden age of time-travel stories is past, because it came to be understood that there isn’t much of a believable scientific basis for time-travel (at least not travelling into the past). This means that, both in books and movies, time-travel stories have had to be a bit more clever and rule-bound over the last decade or so than they have been before. Even so, most producers of time-travel movies have trouble depicting a consistent way for time and time-travel to work; they almost always end up contradicting themselves in some way. Examples of inconsistent and unsuccessful time-travel tales are Timecop (1994) and Timeline (2003), and even the Back to the Future movies are not without inconsistencies, although they are less noticeable there.
Another trap many movies fall into is the time-loop, where the plot hinges on an event or object without a proper origin. The Terminator movies seem to take pride in this paradox, revolving around a computer chip that is never originally invented by anyone because its invention is always based on a chip from another time. Then there is the alternate timeline paradox, such as we see in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), where a certain future only comes to be because it goes back in time and ensures its own origin. But since that future could not have been caused by any natural progression of time, how was it created in the first place? And if it’s an alternate timeline, then why does it need to change this timeline? If I try to explain further, we are all going to get a head-ache.
Many time-travel plots don’t make sense (and if they are comedies, they don’t really have to), but there is also a category of time-travel stories that do make sense, namely the ones that bypass paradoxes. If you simply travel to the future, for instance, as in The Time Machine (1960, based on the H.G. Wells novel), you don’t have to get into any time-twisting difficulties. Or, if there is only one timeline and it accommodates changes, you can simply go back in time and change the future without paradoxes, like in Retroactive (1997). That is how it often happens in individual Star Trek stories such as the entries on this list, although in the show overall – including the newest movie – things are much less neat, involving alternate timelines galore, most of which are not consistent with each other. You can also have stories in which your traveling into the past has no significant impact on the timeline, but where you pick up knowledge that can make a difference to the future, such as in the brilliant The Spirit of ’76 (1990).
The final and, to me, most logical and clever major type of time-travel story is the single, frozen timeline scenario (based on a real theoretical principle: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novikov_self-consistency_principle), where nothing can actually be changed, even though time-travel is possible. This is championed in such movies as Twelve Monkeys (1995), Summer Time Machine Blues (2005) and Timecrimes (2007), in which people start out assuming that things can be changed, but as they travel around confusedly they find that nothing is being changed; it is merely the time-travelling itself that makes it seem as if things can be changed. Even though this is conceptually neat and tidy, it can still cause head-aches because the people involved (including the audience) understandably have a hard time discovering what is going on.
Of course, in addition to the science fiction frame of the time-travel tale, there are also time-travel stories based in a fantasy frame, such as Les Visiteurs (1993) and, arguably, The Butterfly Effect (2004). The protagonist of the latter uses accidental mental powers to travel in time, which is certainly not scientific, but the movie is an art movie working with symbolism, so it’s not fair to hold it accountable to science. The movies on this list span the spectrum of story types from comedies to fantasies; none are discounted for not being scientific enough. What matters is the entertainment value and the artistic accomplishment. So let’s get this show on the road:
Number 10: The Time Machine (1960)
First up (or last, depending on how you look at it) is the movie adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic 1895 novel, which arguably launched the whole genre of time-travelling. This classic color movie is surprisingly faithful to the novel, except that the time-traveller and inventor is H.G. Wells himself (not such a bad idea, as the book’s protagonist is unnamed, and therefore suggests that it might be the author himself who is telling a personal story). It chronicles how Wells travels some 800,000 years into the future to find a strange world order of beautiful but vapid surface people, who serve as a kind of cattle for the hideous, subterraneran and man-eating morlocks. Some aspects of the story don’t work very well anymore (hence the changes wrought to the 2002 movie adaptation, which was not terrible but not great, either), but in 1960 they still worked very well and overall it makes for an absolutely classic time-travel movie.
Number 9: Time After Time (1979)
At #9 we find the little-known Time After Time, which stars a Malcolm McDowell, still in the prime of his career, also as H.G. Wells the time machine inventor! His time machine is stolen by Jack the Ripper, who flees to 1979 with the unlikely hero-writer in pursuit. It is a fantastically well-made production, with Mary Steenburgen in her greatest sci-fi role other than Back to the Future Part III. Wells is transported into a truly modern world, with attitudes more progressive and relaxed than we what we see in many current movies. Highly recommended, naturally.
Number 8: The Spirit of ’76 (1990)
Again with the ‘70s. #8 on the list is a comedy about clueless future people who’ve had their entire history erased, travelling back to what they think is 1776 to gather cultural information, but they end up in 1976 instead – and much disco fun ensues! Read my full review by clicking on the title.
Number 7: The Butterfly Effect – Director’s Cut (2004)
At #7 it’s the surprisingly good Butterfly Effect –but note that, in my opinion, it has to be the Director’s Cut. In this movie we have a guy who finds himself travelling back in time and changing his own life in various ways. It keeps going wrong until he does something quite radical. The Director’s Cut has the original tragic ending, while the theatrical release had a nonsensical happy ending plastered on. Accept no substitutes, for the happy ending completely ruins the point and the artistic turn of the movie, which is (yes, I’ll spoil it – the movie is seven years old) that the main character symbolizes EVIL and the only solution to the problem of himself is for him to kill himself in his mother’s womb. Not in fact an unhappy ending, but one that the production company did not feel would be palatable to the masses.
Number 6: Timecrimes (2007)
Deservedly, #6 on the list is becoming more and more well-known as a fabulous gem of tightly directed time-twisting. A man lives near an experimental facility and strange events send him a few hours back in time – where he is instrumental in creating those events. He doesn’t understand what’s going on, and his misunderstandings fuel his actions, resulting in a truly bizarre set of events. The beauty of the movie is the way these events are directed, seen from different points of view, and adding up to a single sure-handed whole. Read my full review by clicking on the title.
Number 5: Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
#5 is by any reckoning one of the best Star Trek movies, and it’s a movie that gains with every new viewing. The Earth of the 24th century is attacked by the nearly invincible Borg, but when Captain Picard and the Federation fleet manage to destroy the attacking Borg Cube, a smaller Borg Sphere travels three hundred years back in time to prevent the Federation from ever being founded. The Enterprise manages to follow it to the 21st century and battle it out with the evil Borg Queen (splendidly fleshed out by Alice Krige). They even plan for the contingency of being stuck in the past: “Find a quiet corner and stay out of history’s way”. Of course, it doesn’t have to come to that. The movie is brilliant for many reasons, a main one being that it uses the Trek Universe’s own history to spin a great tale involving the inventor of warp drive, Zephram Cochrane, whose maiden flight the Enterprise crew have to ensure takes place at the right time in order for the Vulcans to discover that Earth has entered a new technological era. Lots of science, lots of action, lots of charaterization. A superb time-travel gem.
Number 4: Les Visiteurs (1993)
At #4 we have another comedy (and not the last one on the list), because time-travel is a concept that lends itself particularly well to comedy, being that it generally doesn’t make any sense. But Les Visiteurs has things to say about class and history which justify a movie in which a medieval knight as his man-servant are magically (and accidentally) transported to 1993 where they have an endless string of comical yet poignant adventures with their own descendants. Read my full review of this movie and its sequel and American remake by clicking on the title.
Number 3: 12 Monkeys (1995)
If ever a movie qualified as a “time twister”, it’s Terry Gilliam’s brilliant and highly complex cross-time thriller about a confused man (Bruce Willis) sent back in time to discover that the future has got its history wrong. And while he panicks over this, the scientists of the future are oddly reassured, because it means that time – even though travel is possible – can’t be changed. To maintain the vertigo, Gilliam focuses on the surreal experience of Willis’ character, who ends up reliving a pivotal event in his childhood, and never truly understands what is going on.
Number 2: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
#2 on the list is the fourth Star Trek movie starring the original crew, headed by Captain Kirk. In this off-beat but topical-for-the-time eco-adventure, the crew must travel back to the present day to save the whales upon which the future depends. The understated humor explodes the scale in this most marvellous of the Trek movies, where our crew from a utopian future have a pretty hard time making sense of Earth anno 1986, incl. what the hell such phrases as “exact change” mean. I had the good fortune to meet Walter König (Pavel Chekov) once, and I just kept almost bursting out “Vhere are the nuklear wessels?!”, but I managed to hold my peace. Whenever I watch Star Trek IV, which I remember as a great comedy, I am always surprised at how straight they’re playing it; how much they take the story seriously, and yet manage to achieve a spectacularly comical effect anyway – and one that is fully intentional. Absolutely brilliant movie.
Number 1: Back to the Future Trilogy (1985-1989)
It should come as no surprise that this trilogy is awarded the honor as the greatest time-travel movies of all time. The travels and travails of Marty McFly and Doc Brown are unique in motion picture history. They have characters that ring true, and absolutely all parts of the plot (except a few details about the sequels – but these problems are not terribly noticeable unless you take the time to analyze them in some depth) are connected, well-rounded and deeply satisfying. Is there anybody who was not impressed by these movies and their uproarious screenplays? They will probably stand the test of time for many decades to come, comprising the pre-eminent time-travel caper for teens and like-minded souls, and they will be very, very hard to dethrone from this position.