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Time Trips - The Top Ten Time Travel Flicks

CINESCAPE presents a Top Ten List of some of the best time travel adventures ever committed to celluloid that are available to rent or buy

By Arnold T. Blumberg     May 26, 2002


Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as the lead in TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY
© Carolco Pictures
On this holiday weekend, where everyone is traveling here or jetting off there, one lesser known vacation alternative also happens to be one of the coolest: that ever-enticing sci-fi trope, time travel. With it come the eternal questions that speak to the very nature of the universe itself: Is it theoretically possible? Yes, definitely, just ask physicists like Kip Thorne. Will we time travel in our lifetimes? Highly unlikely, McFly. You'll have better luck buying a used DeLorean on eBAY and outfitting it with a Mr. Fusion. And of course, the ever popular: If I go back in time and kill my grandfather, will I erase myself from existence? Yeah probably, but if you're asking the question, do you think anyone will notice?

But enough abuse. Herewith we present a round-up of ten other superb explorations of time travel in genre film. We've even rated the films according to their degree of Temporal Complexity (how scientific or involved the method of time travel depicted in the film is) and Paradox Quotient (does the film introduce any mind-twisting time-related conundrums?). So turn your VCR or your DVD player into your own personal time machine, and journey to wondrous pasts and far-flung futures with the following ten fantasy films - which, by the way, are listed in no particular order. This is a time travel retrospective after all - why should it adhere to some conservative notion of chronology?

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1) THE TIME MACHINE (1960)

How could go without acknowledging the original TIME MACHINE? With Rod Taylor as a stiff upper-lip Victorian adventurer, Yvette Mimieux as cardboard romantic interest, eerie Morlocks and that damned book riddle at the end, this remains solid popcorn entertainment. So, to echo Alan Young... which three books would you take?

Temporal Complexity (out of 5): 2
Paradox Quotient: 1

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2) TIME AFTER TIME (1979)

One of the best time travel movies, and certainly one of the most enjoyable sci-fi films ever. H.G. Wells himself hunts down a time traveling Jack the Ripper in modern-day San Francisco. Stars Malcolm McDowell and David Warner act up a storm and writer/director Nicholas Meyer tries out some of the themes (and, in some cases, scenes and actual dialogue) that he would employ later in a little movie known as STAR TREK IV (see the very next entry). Besides the delightful fish-out-of-water elements and Warner as a Ripper in '70s lapels, the movie also serves as a handy origin story for the future Ripper, or Redjac, seen in the classic TREK episode, "Wolf in the Fold." If you're into that kind of thing.

Temporal Complexity: 3
Paradox Quotient: 3

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3) STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986)

Sure, STAR TREK had made time travel a cottage industry, and there were a number of other choices, such as STAR TREK: GENERATIONS (TC: 5; PQ: 5) and STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT (TC: 3; PQ: 5), but for a whimsical adventure that uses time travel only as an excuse to have fun rather than getting bogged down in talk of nexus points or historical paradoxes, you can't do any better than this quintessential Kirkian romp. Just remember to look both ways before crossing the street, Starfleet!

Temporal Complexity: 4
Paradox Quotient: 3

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4) BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985)

We really need to acknowledge this one as the stunning, convoluted trilogy of fun that it is. The two sequels, shot back-to-back and released in 1989 and 1990, introduced some of the most mind-bending temporal conundrums in sci-fi film. Young Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and the crazed Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) make mincemeat out of time and travel to Hill Valley past, present and future in a whirlwind tour of alternate time lines, parallel event streams and almost as many product placements as paradoxes. And that DeLorean counts as the coolest time machine ever seen. Great Scott, when are we going to get that DVD box set already? This is heavy!

Temporal Complexity: 5
Paradox Quotient: 4

The original PLANET OF THE APES



5) THE TERMINATOR (1984) and T2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991)

It seems many of these classic time travel epics just can't be evaluated as a single film. This one-two punch by James Cameron is a tribute to pulp sci-fi storytelling, weaving a saga of malevolent machines from the future reaching back to the past to preserve their own existence. It's a classic time paradox tale with some hefty action and special effects sequences, and it established Arnold Schwarzenegger as one of the most unforgettable icons in cinematic history. There may be "no fate but what we make for ourselves," but these films are destined to be remembered by fans forever.

Temporal Complexity: 3
Paradox Quotient: 5

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6) TIME BANDITS (1981)

Now be careful with that, that's pure concentrated evil! It's time travel, British style, with this lunatic romp through the cosmos courtesy of a strange map and some even stranger, diminutive time traveling thieves. Conceived by Monty Python's American alum, Terry Gilliam, and co-written by fellow Python Michael Palin, the film brings David Warner back to our list and visits a number of different time zones from the Napoleonic era to the land of fairy tales before settling in a frightening nether region where a final showdown between the forces of good and evil takes place. It's hysterically funny in places (witness John Cleese's cameo as a decidedly different Robin Hood), eerie in others, and suffused with a Roald Dahl-esque cruelty. Lovely stuff.

Temporal Complexity: 4
Paradox Quotient: 4

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7) THE TIME TRAVELERS (1964)

This one is on the list for one reason and one reason only: I've never been able to shake an image from this admittedly cheesy film from my mind. It's one of those unforgettable childhood memories, this one of a team jumping through a wall-sized window and returning to their own lab in another time to discover themselves frozen in place. Creepy. The rest of the film is concerned with the far future and androids, but it's the nifty time travel twist that makes it a gem. It's a low-budget escapade that has the spirit of an old adventure serial, complete with mutants, underground settings and a rear projection screen standing in for a temporal portal. But hey, it impressed me when I was a wee tyke.

Temporal Complexity: 2
Paradox Quotient: 3

Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as the lead in TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY



8) PLANET OF THE APES (1968)

The entire APES series, one of sci-fi film's shining moments, is a veritable twisted time loop of paradoxes and potential, possibly altered futures. Credit the would-be hero of this film's second sequel, ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, Otto Hasslein, who establishes the series' theory of time travel in a riveting television interview sequence (no, I'm serious). In this first and greatest installment, Charlton Heston takes that theoretical freeway into the future and finds a world ruled by those damn dirty apes. It's eerie, shocking (at least on first viewing), and it only gets better as the later films fold back to the beginning and introduce a number of intriguing embellishments to the APES mythology. Watch it with your pet monkey.

Temporal Complexity: 1
Paradox Quotient: 5

9) THE TIME TRAVELERS (1976)

What's this? Didn't we just list this earlier? Nope. This one is an Irwin Allen production, and that tells you a lot. But again, it's a fondly remembered adventure that sends Sam Groom and Tom Hallick back to Chicago just before the historic fire and into one low-budget scrape after another. There's even a bit of romance to keep the female viewers mildly interested. One of a million '70s genre TV movies that was clearly intended as a pilot for a series, this one ripping off Allen's own THE TIME TUNNEL. It didn't make it, but who can forget that last desperate race to the staircase?

Temporal Complexity: 2
Paradox Quotient: 2

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10) FINAL COUNTDOWN (1980)

Kirk Douglas and James Farentino inadvertently take the aircraft carrier Nimitz back to just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, then spend an hour bitching about whether or not to interfere. The unseen Powers That Be (who must be responsible for the incredibly freaky time vortex) take matters into their own hands when our fearless protectors don't get off their asses in time to prevent the historical tragedy. Martin Sheen turns up as an annoying reporter, presaging the career downturn that would hit decades later, forcing him to take over for brother Joe (SOULTAKER) Estevez in genre fare like BABYLON 5: THE RIVER OF SOULS and SPAWN (notice how both brothers have now played soul stealers?). But it's still fun, even if it does feel like a Navy recruitment film at times.

Temporal Complexity: 2
Paradox Quotient: 4

So there you go, a guide to the temporal landscape of sci-fi film. Gas up the DeLorean, hop in the phone booth (from the Bill & Ted movie we didn't mention - oops), or just get naked and wait for time displacement. See you in the future - or the past, there's a good fellow!

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