Shortly after the release of Bill and Ted Face the Music, Ed Solomon (who co-wrote the film with Chris Matheson) responded to a dismissal of the movie’s science by tagging quantum physicist Spiros Michalakis for confirmation that his portrayal of time travel checked out.
While Solomon found the exchange funny, in a Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall sort of way, it does raise a question: Does good time travel science make for a good time travel movie? While there are certainly hard science fans out there, and scientific discovery has always opened up storytelling possibilities, we don’t always place that demand on other types of stories. We don’t generally criticize superhero movies for failing to explain how the heroes’ powers work, for example. Explaining the Force in terms of microscopic living beings didn’t make Star Wars better.
Still, the question persists for time travel movies. So I’m going to solve it, once and for all.
I’m proposing this rubric for some of the all-time best time travel movies. Instead of judging the films on basic aesthetic or technical grounds, I’ll grade them according to the quality of their time travel. Specifically, I’ll look at these four qualities:
- The Device – What do the characters use to travel through time?
- The Rules – Do we understand how the time travel works? Do we understand what the characters can or cannot do?
- The Stakes – Does it matter if the characters break those rules? Does it matter if they fail in their time travel mission?
- Entertainment Value – Does the time travel result in a story or resolution that’s entertaining, moving, or thought-provoking?
To prevent havoc in the comments section, I want to make my definition clear. By “time travel movies,” I mean movies primarily about a character (or group of characters) who move forward and/or backward in time. Their stories proceed in a more or less linear fashion, even if the settings around them take place in different time frames.
I want to distinguish these movies from time-loop movies (Groundhog Day, Happy Death Day), “Rip Van Winkle” stories (Planet of the Apes, Encino Man), or those in which people perceive time differently (Slaughter-house Five, Arrival). I’m also leaving out movies where time travel occurs, but it isn’t the focus of the film (so no Superman: The Movie or Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). Finally, I’m not going to talk about Midnight in Paris because I already mentioned a Woody Allen movie once and I feel dirty enough as it is.
With that out of the way, let’s see who passes and who fails, according to these criteria!
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986, dir. Leonard Nimoy)
When a destructive space probe comes to Earth looking to commune with whales, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) travels with his crew to 1986 on a mission to find the now-extinct sea creatures.
By this point in their adventures, the USS Enterprise has been through time and space. But that ship was destroyed in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, so Kirk and his crew are still in a rickety Klingon Bird-of-Prey. Still, the vessel allows them to slingshot around the sun and go back in time.
When Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelly) tries to stop Scotty (James Doohan) from giving a 20th-century scientist the formula for transparent aluminum, the engineer asks, “How do you know he didn’t invent the thing?” Star Trek logic is the best logic.
The probe totally disables Starfleet and wreaks havoc on the earth, so Kirk definitely needs to find those whales.
Nearly every time travel movie has scenes in which the protagonists bumble around their new setting. But the Enterprise crew has built up a lot of good will over 79 episodes and the three previous movies, which means that we take even greater pleasure in watching them acclimate to the 1980s. It’s all great fun, from Kirk finding his inner potty mouth to Chekov (Walter Koenig) looking for nuclear “wessels” to Spock (Nimoy) nerve-pinching a belligerent punk.
OVERALL GRADE: A
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989, dir. Stephen Herek)
Facing failure in their history class and the end of their band Wyld Stallyns, soon-to-be legendary rockers Bill S. Preston Esq. (Alex Winter) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves) get an assist from the future when Rufus (George Carlin) arrives with a time machine, sending them on a quest to collect historical figures such as Billy the Kid (Dan Shor) and Socrates (Tony Steedman).
Apparently, writers Solomon and Matheson originally had Bill and Ted riding around in a time van. When Back to the Future beat them to theaters, they changed it to a phone booth—unaware of its similarities to the TARDIS from Doctor Who. Accidental plagiarism aside, the phone booth is the perfect vehicle for two good-hearted party guys from San Dimas.
Bill and Ted can go anywhere they want in time, but the watch keeps ticking in their own time. How does that work? I don’t know, especially since they can always go back in time and revisit moments that apparently passed. Does it matter? No. Not at all.
If Bill and Ted don’t pass their test, then they fail history class. If they fail history class, then Ted gets sent to military school in Alaska. If Ted gets sent to military school in Alaska, then the band Wyld Stallyns will break up. If Wyld Stallyns breaks up, they’ll never record their hit single. If they never record their hit single, then all of humanity will not come together across time and space to live in perfect harmony. So, yeah, pretty high stakes.
OVERALL GRADE: A
G.I. Samurai (1979, dir. Kōsei Saitō)
A platoon of soldiers led by Second Lieutenant Yoshiaki Iba (Sonny Chiba) finds itself transported back to 16th-century Japan, where it joins up with legendary warrior Uesugi Kenshin (Isao Natsuyagi). And all of their modern weapons came with them.
There’s no device at all. The soldiers go to a beach and then we’re bombarded by images of, uh, horses? It’s all pretty psychedelic, and then they’re in the past, which is the best way to show time travel.
Iba and his men live by one rule: if it moves, blow it up. Maybe not the most enlightened approach, but it works for a ‘70s exploitation flick.
Inadvertently, the movie manages to make war seem small and insignificant. As important as the battles may seem when the warriors are in the thick of them, they are only historical footnotes in Iba’s time.
Saitō drenches a syrupy love score over a scene in which Iba shows Kenshin how to use the mounted gun on his tank. It’s as romantic as the first kiss in an epic love story.
OVERALL GRADE: A
The Terminator (1984, dir. James Cameron)
Caught in a standstill in their battle against the human resistance, the self-aware robots of Skynet send a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back to murder Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) before the birth of her son John, who will grow up to lead the resistance.
In this movie, the time platform is just a dark set. But it’s a pretty great effect when the Terminator and his human pursuer Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) arrive in the past in a bolt of lightning. Plus, there’s inherent comedy to watching the time travelers try to acclimate to the past while running around in their birthday suits.
It’s pretty simple: keep Sarah alive and the resistance continues. Kill Sarah and the resistance fails. Later movies will add more rules. A lot more rules.
High! If the Terminator succeeds, then humanity dies.
It’s hard to divorce this movie from all the retconning mumbo-jumbo added by its many sequels (including the highly underrated Terminator: Dark Fate). But for this first movie, the time travel adds a little bit of flavor to what is ultimately a lean and efficient slasher film/action movie.
OVERALL GRADE: A-
Looper (2012, dir. Rian Johnson)
As a retired time-traveling assassin, Joe (Bruce Willis) gets to live in luxury until his younger self (Joseph Gordon Levitt) arrives to kill him, thus closing the loop. But when he decides he wants to live, Old Joe must go on the run from his Young Joe.
It’s just a big iron bowl, which is a refreshingly industrial take on future technology.
Old Joe tells Young Joe: “I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.” This is the best possible way of discussing time travel.
The movie is better when it keeps the stakes focused on Old Joe’s desire to spend more time with the woman he loves. As soon as it becomes about Joe’s plot to kill the boy who will become a supervillain called The Rainmaker, then the movie gets a little messy.
Levitt’s distracting prosthetics notwithstanding, Looper uses its story about two versions of the same man to make a powerful statement about the circular nature of violence. It’s a compelling blend of genre and metaphor.
OVERALL GRADE: A-
About Time (2013, dir. Richard Curtis)
Upon reaching adulthood, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) learns that he, and all male members of his family, can go back to any point in their past. He uses that power to fall in love with Mary (Rachel McAdams) and spend quality time with his dad (Bill Nighy).
To time travel, all Tim needs to do is find a dark place, close his eyes, and ball his fists. Not the most visually exciting thing in the world, but it is fun to watch him try to excuse himself when he’s in a tough spot.
As Tim learns the hard way, if he goes back past the point that one of his kids is born, then he’ll return to a different child. The movie too easily wipes away his first mistake, but this hard line does provide dramatic tension in the third act.
Tim can screw things up for people by messing with their lives, but he eventually learns that it’s better to support his loved ones in the present. It’s kind of sweet, really.
Remember the Doctor Who episode “Vincent and the Doctor”? That episode was written by Curtis, so you have an idea of the blubbering mess this movie made out of me when I re-watched it last night.
OVERALL GRADE: B+
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006, dir. Mamoru Hosoda)
After falling on a walnut, 17-year-old Makoto (voiced by Riisa Naka) gains the ability to move through time by leaping in the air, which she promptly uses to excel at baseball and eat her favorite foods.
It’s a walnut. Okay, that’s what gives Makoto the ability, but she travels by jumping, which makes for some pretty great moments when she tumbles into a new scene.
Makoto initially travels to any point in her life with impunity, but later she learns that her jumps are limited. The rule comes on as a late and clunky addition, but it does pave the way for a solid dramatic conclusion.
Look, you might not think it’s a big deal to impress people with baseball skills and to avoid embarrassing situations. But to a teenager, that’s everything.
Not only is time travel beautifully visualized here, but Hosoda generates a laugh whenever Makoto restarts time to keep her best friend Chiaki (Takuya Ishida) from confessing his love for her.
OVERALL GRADE: B+
Avengers: Endgame (2019, dir. Joe and Anthony Russo)
Upon learning that the villainous Thanos (Josh Brolin) has destroyed the Infinity Gems he used to disintegrate half of all life in the universe, the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe revisit their previous adventures to retrieve the gems from the past and set things right.
The time platform itself isn’t that cool, nor are the Avengers’ time travel suits (just variations of Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man costume). But the way the machine combines the genius of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) with the quantum realm technology discovered by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) makes the platform a treat for MCU fans.
The Avengers talk about not changing the past, and then they totally change the past. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. We’re going to get a Loki TV show out of this, which should make up for all of the online arguments about the ultimate fate of Steve Rogers/Captain America.
This one’s kind of a toss-up. The first hour of the movie makes it clear that many survivors have begun to move on from the destruction Thanos wrought, and that it might even be better for the environment… Then again, Spider-Man (Tom Holland) seemed really, really sad when he disappeared, so I guess it’s good that he gets to come back.
Not only is the time heist a fun look back at MCU movies past, but it provides a genuinely moving moment when the depressed Thor (Chris Hemsworth) receives reassurance from his mother Frigga (Rene Russo).
OVERALL GRADE: B+
Back to the Future (1985, dir. Robert Zemeckis)
Teenager Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) accidentally goes back to 1955, where he accidentally meets his father (Crispin Glover), and accidentally earns the romantic adoration of his mother (Leah Thompson). To keep himself from being wiped from existence, Marty must team with the younger version of the time machine’s inventor, Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), to bring his parents together and to return to 1985.
Look, I was 8 years old when this movie came out. The DeLorean was and still is the coolest time machine that will ever exist.
It’s pretty simple: if you go back in time and break up your parents, you won’t exist. Marty carries a picture of himself with his siblings, who gradually disappear the longer his parents stay apart. That’s a pretty cool visual, even if the logic of the slow fade isn’t completely clear.
Perhaps the lowest stakes of any of these movies. If Marty’s parents don’t get together, then he and his siblings won’t exist. But maybe they’ll go on to parent other kids, kids who don’t hang out with mad scientists and don’t care if you call them a chicken.
Back to the Future is mostly delightful. That said, it does have real thematic problems, which John Mulaney describes better than I can.
OVERALL GRADE: B
12 Monkeys (1995, dir. Terry Gilliam)
Desperate to change the past, leaders send criminal James Cole (Bruce Willis) through time to stop terrorist Jeffery Goines (Brad Pitt) before he brings about the apocalypse with his Army of the Twelve Monkeys.
Gilliam loves to portray technology as ostentatious and dysfunctional, an aesthetic that he brings to the garish mess that sends Cole to the past.
The movie initially feels like a mess, completely devoid of time-travel rules. By the end of the film, Cole realizes that he cannot change anything and that time is immovable, resulting in a powerful mix of anarchy and determinism.
Cole’s mission might be to save humanity, but the film’s vision of time as an immovable set of circumstances means that his decision does not matter at all.
Gilliam always takes a big swing, but he can’t always fit all his ideas into a single movie. The time travel conceit and the slow reveal of Cole’s powerlessness make 12 Monkeys both terrifying and beautiful, especially in its final moments.
OVERALL GRADE: B
Time After Time (1979, dir. Nicholas Meyer)
H.G. Wells vs. Jack the Ripper! In 1979! Star Trek II director Meyer offers an irresistible premise, with Wells (Malcolm McDowell) following Jack the Ripper (David Warner) to the future after the killer steals his time machine.
Why, it’s H.G. Wells’s time machine, of course! Not only does it have a pleasing Victorian design, but the time machine works differently than other devices: Instead of moving forward, the time machine remains still while the world around it changes.
Only one: if the time machine is used without its key, the user will become unmoored from the machine and stranded. This rule drives the tension between Wells and Jack, up to the movie’s clunky finale.
On the one hand, the stakes are no more than an infamous serial killer loose in 1979 San Francisco. But the real conflict is between warring worldviews. A progressive humanist, Wells thought that the future would be a socialist utopia. But Jack happily finds a future so filled with violence that it makes him look, as he puts it, “like an amateur.”
The setting lets Warner and McDowell debate progress in front of a color TV set, but way too much of the movie is devoted to the characters going to banks and exchanging their money.
OVERALL GRADE: B
Timecrimes (2007, dir. Nacho Vigalondo)
On the run from a masked slasher, Héctor (Karra Elejalde) finds shelter in a nearby laboratory, where the scientist on duty (Vigalondo) urges him to hide in a canister. Héctor finds himself transported 90 minutes into the past, where he learns more about the slasher and himself.
The time machine here looks believably banal, like a piece of modern medical equipment filled with yellow goo.
No rules! Future Héctor could go home and potentially live with Past Héctor and his wife. If he could get over the jealousy.
The scientist doesn’t want Héctor from the future to go back home, but only because he doesn’t want attention brought to his research facility. But Héctor doesn’t like the idea of his older self living his life for him.
Timecrimes isn’t the most profound movie in the world, but the time travel aspect gives a looping quality to what is otherwise a satisfying thriller.
OVERALL GRADE: B-
Time Bandits (1981, dir. Terry Gilliam)
Young Kevin (Craig Warnock) falls in with a band of time-traveling thieves, on the run from both the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson) and the Evil Genius (David Warner).
The bandits travel through cracks in creation, using the map they stole from the Supreme Being. By itself, the map isn’t impressive, but the idea of cracks in creation is compelling.
The bandits seem to do whatever they want, but they can only stay so long before the Supreme Being or the Evil Genius shows up to take the map.
Time Bandits is all over the place when it comes to stakes. The bandits’ actions are pretty benign; they just want treasure. But if the Evil Genius gets the map, then he can use it to recreate the world in the image of game shows and early ‘80s computers. But, then again, the Supreme Being is still the Supreme Being and seems to have everything under control. So, it’s a wash.
In the end, the movie just seems like an excuse for Monty Python alum Gilliam to do sketches based on history and myth. The idea of Robin Hood (John Cleese) as a brainless politician is pretty funny and Sean Connery makes a great Agamemnon, but Gilliam doesn’t quite land his bigger ideas about morality and divinity.
OVERALL GRADE: C+
Interstellar (2014, dir. Christopher Nolan)
On a mission to find a new planet habitable for humans, astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) experiences time differently than those on Earth, forcing him to find unique ways of communicating with his son (Casey Affleck) and daughter (Jessica Chastain).
Cooper flies a spaceship and floats in a spacesuit, but it’s actually the theory of relativity that accounts for his time travel. That scientific theory drives a lot of time travel movies, but it’s used particularly well here.
Look, it’s a Christopher Nolan movie. People explain things in barely-audible dialogue. For some reason, Cooper can move books and watch hands, but he can’t just write out his messages with a sharpie.
Corn is dying. I mean, everything on Earth is dying, but the movie’s very worried about that corn.
The movie wants the climax to be moving, and the cool visuals do help. But Nolan’s never been good at capturing naked emotion, and Interstellar is no exception. It feels like crying over a math equation, which, I suppose, some people do.
OVERALL GRADE: C+
Primer (2004, dir. Shane Carruth)
After accidentally creating a time machine, engineers Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) go to great lengths to avoid destroying the time stream. Then, they destroy the time stream.
My favorite part of the movie is the design of the ugly time machine (aka “the box”). It’s exactly what a couple of down-on-their-luck tech bros would slap together as a prototype.
So, so many rules. Primer pays painstaking attention to the rules of time travel. Diagrams, exposition, metaphors—this movie takes time to explain time.
The guys try not to let their alternate selves from other times ruin their lives. But the guys are kind of jerks, so we kind of want their lives ruined.
If you’ve ever complained that a time travel movie didn’t explain its rules well enough, then Primer is the movie for you. Some people like these explanations. Me, I just want an old man to hit his head on a toilet and invent the flux capacitor.
OVERALL GRADE: C
I know I missed some favorites here. What grades would Donnie Darko, Hot Tub Time Machine, or Aditya 369 earn? Do we really want more explanation in these movies with low grades? Or is sheer entertainment more important? Let me know what you think in the comments…
Originally published September 2020.