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The 8 Most Creative Depictions of Time-Travel in Film

2004_The_Butterfly_Effect_056Time-travel has been used countless of times as a plot device in films. I set out to discover which films had the most original, unconventional and unique portrayals of travel through time.

This list is not necessarily of the best time-travel movies. I believe we can all agree that the Back To The Future movies are the indisputable champions of the genre. Instead, these films represent the top creative stories involving time-travel.

The Butterfly Effect (2004)

Time-Travel Type: Multiverse

Time-Travel Rules:

  • The time-traveller can only travel back in time.
  • The travel can only take place within the traveller’s own timeline.
  • The traveller becomes a past version of himself – this means that there will never be two versions of the traveller at any point in time.
  • Any alteration of the past – however small – may cause a new divergence in the timeline, resulting in a new version of the future. This type of time-travel allows the creation of alternate realities; where an infinite number of parallel universes are possible.
  • In the new reality, while everyone else is unaware of the changes, the time-traveller retains memories of previous timelines.

See also: X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), Superman: The Movie (1978), Donny Darko (2001)

Evan (played by an Ashton Kutcher desperate to prove he can be a serious actor too) has the ability to relive key moments of his past. As he time-travels into the mind of his younger self, any of Evan’s actions has the potential to completely alter his present reality.

The crazy changes in Evan’s timeline taught me how, even the smallest changes in the past, can have catastrophic consequences in the present. The Butterfly Effect was the film that made me hesitate even before sneezing, just in case that would trigger a chain of events that would lead to me being chased by a vicious pack of wild dogs.

The film takes the risks of travelling in time to the next level. Scratching your nose one too many times while visiting the past may result in humanity having to live underground due to the nuclear holocaust YOU caused through your time-travelling recklessness.  You just had to get rid of that itch, didn’t you?

Midnight In Paris (2011)

Time-Travel Type: Paradox

Time-Travel Rules:

  • Travellers may go both back and forward in time.
  • Any events that are altered in the past have a direct effect on the present, without creating parallel universes.
  • The paradox usually manifests itself as an infinite loop of events with no clear beginning. In Midnight In Paris, Gil gives Luis Buñuel the idea for one of his movies, something Gil wouldn’t have been able to do if he hadn’t already seen the film in the future, which he couldn’t have done if Buñuel hadn’t heard Gil’s suggestion in the first place, which… well, you get the point.

See also: Somewhere In Time (1980), Kate & Leopold (2001)

Gil is a present-day writer who one night literally wanders into 1920s Paris. Here he mingles with and befriends a number of historical figures, including Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

What makes this film so unique is that its time-travel premise seems to blend into the background. Instead of dwelling on the implications and possibilities of time-travel, Midnight In Paris focuses on the relationships between its characters. This offers us a funny and refreshing take on the genre.

Most importantly, the movie points out the way in which people are always discontent with the present; yearning instead for a “golden age” in the past. It teaches us that our romanticized conceptions do not always align with the reality of the time in question.

So next time you find yourself longing for “a simpler time” remember that they probably didn’t have the Internet, or proper medical treatment back then. But feel free to continue with your misguided nostalgia. I am sure you would rather make your business in a hole in the ground than in the comfort of a sanitary modern toilet.

Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Time Travel Type: Fixed Timeline

Time Travel Rules:

  • Time travellers may go back in time to any point in the past
  • The personal time of the traveller continues its progress normally despite his regression in time. This means that multiple versions of an individual may co-exist at any point in time.
  • No matter what the traveller does, he cannot change the events of the future. His actions are part of chain of events that have always, and will always shape reality. Anything the traveller does, has already been done by a past version of him, and will be done again by future versions.

See also: 12 Monkeys (1995), The Terminator (1984)

As if the universe of the Harry Potter films was not already absolutely awesome, this installation in the series introduces time travel into the magical world of the films.

With the soul of Harry’s godfather at risk, the ever-so-wise Dumbledore suggests that Hermione uses her “time-turner” to go back in time in order to ensure that things end well for everyone.  Harry and Hermione then overlap with their past selves, working behind the scenes so everything goes according to plan.

Why would the government issue the power of time-travel to a thirteen year-old, or why would the protagonists never again use the device is beyond me. It’s not like they could have prevented, I don’t know, the war that claimed so many of their friends’ lives.

No, Hermione needed the “time-turner” to attend class, and ONLY to attend class. Talk about being a massive nerd.

And while on the subject of using time-travel for educational purposes…

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)

Time Travel Type: Free Travel

Time Travel Rules:

  • There seem to be no rules to this type of time travel. The traveller seems to be able to roam through all time periods, freely and without consequences.

See also: The Time Machine (1960)

In what is probably the only time Keanu Reeves has not totally resembled a living mannequin, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure tells the tale of two clueless metalheads who travel to various points in history in a phone booth.

It is imperative that Bill and Ted pass their history class, and they hope that visiting different historical figures will help them learn enough to avoid failing the subject. It is one of the most original uses of time-travel ever portrayed in film.

Despite its dim-witted humor, I remember this movie actually teaching me a lot about history – even if it did caused me to grow up mispronouncing the name “Freud”.

Who wouldn’t want to travel through time with their best friend and some of history’s wackiest “personages of historical significance”? In a perfect world, that is how all time-travelling adventures would be like.

Outside the Back To The Future films, this might be the purest time-travel movie ever made. Don’t believe me? Give Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure a watch. And remember to always “be excellent to each other”.

Looper (2012)

Time Travel Type: Paradox/Multiverse

Time Travel Rules:

  • Time travellers may travel outside their own timeline; however, they can only go back in time.
  • More than one version of the traveller may exist at the same time. His personal time progresses independently of any time travel.
  • It is unclear whether changes in the events of the past directly alter the present, or whether they create an entirely new branch of reality.

See also: Back to The Future Franchise (1985, 1989, 1990), Terminator II: Judgment Day (1991)

Okay, time-travel had been used to assassinate people before (I’m looking at you Arnold), but the complex and highly paradoxical premise of Looper sets it apart from other films in the genre.

Bruce Willis is the older version of Joseph Gordon-Levitt who is Joe, an assassin who is paid to dispose of those whom the future mafia sends back in time to be killed. One day, Bruce Willis (who as you will remember is future Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is sent back to be killed by Joe; “closing his loop” in the process. After Bruce Willis escapes, Gordon-Levitt must find him in order to kill… himself? Movie plots don’t really get any simpler than that.

Looper is a mind-bending, brain-melting, trauma-inducing time travelling tale. And even though you spend most of the time reminding yourself that Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are the same person, the film is one of the most creative portrayals of time-travel out there.

Frequency (2000)

Time Travel Type: Non-physical Travel/Multiverse

Time Travel Rules:

  • Individuals are unable to physically travel across time, and instead use objects to communicate with others in the past or future.
  • An individual may give vital information to people in the past in order to prevent or change past events. This may result in the creation of a new version of the present reality.
  • The participants of this cross-time communication remember previous versions of other timelines, despite now existing in a parallel universe.

See also: The Lake House (2006)

In Frequency, a son and father communicate through time using a radio whose signals are transmitted via temporal displacement caused by the aurora borealis – or something sciency like that.

After preventing his father’s death, John’s finds his present timeline completely changed. Now, not only is his dad dead, but his mom is too. Using the radio, John relays information to the past hoping that he and his dad can set things right once and for all.

In doing so, John creates several alternate universes, until he finally lands on one he is happy with.

John’s power to alter reality is highly understated. At one point, he ensures that his best friend will grow up to be insanely rich by telling his younger version to remember the word “Yahoo”.

Hahaha… Yahoo. Oh 2000, you’re funny.

I understand John knows that it is risky to meddle with the past, but couldn’t he have given his old man the numbers for the lottery, at least once? A wasted opportunity, if you ask me.

The Time Traveller’s Wife (2009)

Time Travel Type: Involuntary Travel/Fixed Timeline

Time Travel Rules:

  • The traveller can go either back or forward in time, but he has no control over his displacement through time. He may travel at any time, and to any point in his timeline without warning.
  • There may be multiple versions of the traveller at any point in time.
  • Anything that occurs during the displacement is already part of a fixed series of events in the timeline.

See also: Premonition (2007)

Cheesy as it may be, The Time Traveller’s Wife is unique in its approach to time-travel. In the film, Henry has a “genetic disorder” that makes him jump through time at random. It is highly unusual for a movie to treat time-travel as a condition, rather than an ability.

Henry’s “disease” constantly gets in the way of his relationship with his wife, as he is unable to control the timing and destination of his displacements through time.

The dark side of this kind of time-travel becomes apparent when Henry’s wife points out the fact that they have never seen an old version of him – suggesting that he will have died young. It is logical to assume that, if you keep getting displaced through time at random, it is likely that at some point you are going to land in a situation that endangers your life.

A romantic film itself, The Time Traveller’s Wife, strips time-travel of its usual romanticized portrayal; depicting it as a nuisance more than an exciting prospect. That alone makes this film a worthwhile watch – well that and Eric Bana’s naked butt.

Groundhog Day (1993)

Time Travel Type: Time Loop

Time Travel Rules:

  • The traveller is stuck in a particular point in time where events repeat themselves over and over again.
  • Nobody else seems to be aware of the time loop.
  • It is unclear what causes these time loops, or how travellers may break free from them.

See also: Triangle (2009)

This might be the most creative use of time-travel I have encountered. Bill Murray’s character, Phil, is a weatherman stuck on a permanent loop of Groundhog Day. Every day is an exact copy of the one before. Every day is an exact copy of the one before.

As you can imagine, the situation initially drives Phil mad. After several unsuccessful suicide attempts, Phil decides to use his unusual circumstance to his advantage. He uses the opportunity to master a number of impressing skills, such as playing the piano and speaking French.

This is what makes Groundhog Day so great. It takes a unique use of time-travel to pose interesting questions. What would you set out to accomplish if none of your actions could have negative consequences? What would you dare if you knew you could never die? Essentially, what would you do with all the time in the world?

Personally, I would probably watch television for the most part. But that’s just me.

There it is. Let me know if you agree with the list, or if you feel like I’ve missed a film that also depicts time-travel in a creative way. Thanks for reading!

  • Sara K.

    Rachel McAdams is also in a movie, About Time, where the men of one particular family have the ability to go back in time and change the future. It is an interesting concept and a great chick flick.

  • Rick Marshall

    Check out the TV series Continuum. This one involves travel back in time with the creation of alternate time-lines

    • Mar Borboa

      I’ll make sure to check it out!

  • hint

    I don’t think you can really speak about time-travel movies without mentioning Primer nowadays. That small budget indie has gotten quite a following in last 10 years and should be pretty mainstream by now. I think anyone who has seen it, will have it as the first film they think off, if words movie and time-travel get put in same sentence.

    • Petzl

      Agree. “Primer” is the best time-travel movie made in decades. You cannot even compare BTTF to Primer. Primer is like a documentary of two men building a time machine.

  • Guest

    How could you leave out “Primer”? It’s the best time-travel movie made in decades. You cannot even compare BTTF to Primer. Primer is like a documentary of two men building a time machine.

  • Michael McEnally

    How could you have missed Primer when researching for this article?

  • taylor

    Awesome blog, Mar! I am ignorant of Time Travel movies outside of Back to the Future (even that I just watched for the first time recently) so I’m excited to check some of these out!

  • replaybb718

    How can you not talk about About Time. What a great movie.

  • Phil Golub

    I think people are going a little overboard with saying Primer is the best time travel movie, etc. First of all, I think people are mostly saying this, just because it’s “cool” to like a movie that a lot of people don’t know about, or understand, and because of its technical dialogue. The thing about Primer is, you don’t get it the first time, and it’s really slow, to the point where it’s hard to sit through a second time. While it’s a smart movie, it’s really just not fun to watch. I’d much rather make an entire day out of BTTF marathon, or Frequency, or The Lake House. About Time is another great one. These movies are fun to watch. Primer is just for people to say “oh, I like Primer, so I’m cool because no one understands it” when a lot of these people probably don’t even like it, themselves. Just because a movie is the most technical, etc, doesn’t make it the best.