DVD Tuesday: Top ten time travel movies

by W. Andrew Powell

A scene from Primer

A scene from Primer

In honour of next week’s release of Source Code on DVD and Blu-ray, and because it’s one of my favorite topics, this week for DVD Tuesday I’m counting down the ten best time travel movies. From science fiction, action, adventure, and horror, to comedy, and even a romantic comedy or two, these movies cover almost every genre, and I’m ranking them not just on how great the movie is, but also, how well they approach a time travel story.

TEN – Timecop
Jean-Claude Van Damme stars in this cheesy action movie that has him playing Walker, a Timecop chasing fugitives across the years trying to prevent anyone from taking advantage of the past. Easily one of the silliest films on this list, Timecop is still an awesome time travel movie and a decent excuse to re-experience the glory days of JCVD.

NINE – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
By far my favorite Harry Potter movie of the series, Prisoner of Azkaban has Harry, Ron and Hermione dealing with Dementors, an escaped criminal, and learning how to cast the perfect Patronus charm. As Harry is dealing with his trouble with Dementors, Hermione has a time-travelling secret up her sleeve which will help them solve an unfortunate series of problems.

EIGHT – Time Bandits
Time Bandits is one of the oldest films on my list, and features Terry Gilliam’s wonderfully twisted imagination with the likes of John Cleese, Sean Connery, and Shelley Duvall adventuring through time. The story follows a history-loving young boy who is in the right place at the right time, namely his bedroom at night, to get lost in time with a group of dwarves hunting for a map. The film soars with classic British humour, and a story that’s funny, odd, and just a bit heart-warming.

SEVEN – Twelve Monkeys
By an odd stroke of chance, Terry Gilliam makes it onto this list again with what would likely be called the darkest film on this list about a post-apocalyptic future where a virus has destroyed most of humanity. Bruce Willis stars with Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, and Christopher Plummer in this tale that has Willis’ character hunting in the past for the origin of the viral outbreak as he is haunted by a dream that may still be in his future.

SIX – Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey
Time travel was never as gnarly as it was in the 90s, and that was partly because of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, one of Keanu Reeves’ earliest hits, which featured the would-be star as a teenager with ambitions of becoming a rock superstar. Co-starring Alex Winter and George Carlin, this is the second funniest film on this list, although it may hold a bit more charm for those of us who grew up with the films. Because the second film was moderately funny, it earns a small spot on this list alongside its predecessor.

FIVE – Army of Darkness
If I was ranking these films by favorites, Army of Darkness would hands-down scoop the top spot, but in the context of travelling time, there are a couple of films that outrank this classic Bruce Campbell movie.

Following the two Evil Dead films, this “sequel” has Campbell as our favorite shotgun-toting, chainsaw-wielding Deadite killer as he deals with an army of the dead in the middle ages. By far, this is the funniest film on the list, and one of Campbell’s best films for action and his slapstick performance.

FOUR – Star Trek [Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Star Trek Generations, Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek]
It would be impossible to do a time travel list without including at least one Star Trek movie, and because Star Trek seems to love jumping through time, I thought it was only appropriate to include all four of the franchise’s temporally-focused films.

On the lighter side of the films there’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which has the original crew of the Enterprise going back in time to rescue a whale, but the better films at the time were the Next Generation cast’s Star Trek Generations and Star Trek: First Contact, which had the new crew facing off against a temporal energy ribbon and the Borg.

Lastly, and best of all, there’s J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot, Star Trek, which took a step back to the early days of the Enterprise crew as they faced the threat of a time travelling ship intent on destroying Spock and the planet of Vulcan. Abrams’ film is by far the most stylish on my list.

THREE – The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day
As one of the greatest action movies ever made, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best film, and it’s also one of writer and director James Cameron’s most unique visions. In both films, Schwarzenegger plays the nearly unstoppable Terminator, a cyborg sent back in time to kill the future leader of the human resistance, who would one day take on the computer network known as Skynet. Although the first film sets the tone, the sequel is a kick-butt firestorm that only a director like Cameron could have created.

TWO – Back to the Future [I, II and III]
It would be impossible to write a list about time travel movies without mentioning Robert Zemeckis’ comical, sweet Back to the Future trilogy. Overall the original will always be the greatest film of the bunch, but the entire trilogy still stands as a touchstone for the 80s, and one of Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox’s most memorable roles as Dr. Emmett Brown and Marty McFly respectively.

ONE – Primer
At the top of my list is an independent film that might surprise a lot of people, while others have likely never even heard of it. The brainy sci-fi drama was written, directed, and stars Shane Carruth who plays one of two guys involved in discovering a device that can move objects through time.

Unlike all of the other films on this list, Primer is a nerdy, intelligent film that wonders about the science and the application of a real-life time travel device. The characters aren’t dealing with robots or aliens, instead they’re figuring themselves out, and what it takes to use a device that makes the world even more complicated than it ever was before.

I’ll admit Primer is not for everyone, it’s simply far too smart for its own good, but it is a fantastic movie about the concept of time travel, which trumps all the others on this list.

Honourable Mentions

A lot of films made it into my longer list, but when I trimmed it all down I realized I had way too many films to include. Among those were a few titles that just weren’t worthy, and a few that I would only call quasi-time travel movies.

Here are the best of the rest…

Austin Powers in Goldmember & Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
Funny, hilarious, but just short of being truly classic, these films deserve a nod for being spoof-tastic, with frequent leaps between the groovy 60s and today.

Donnie Darko
On any other list I would probably have listed Donnie Darko near the top, but if I’m going to be honest it’s not really a time travel movie, even if it does deal with alternate realities and time.

Groundhog Day
Again, like Donnie Darko, Groundhog Day is a fantastic film–one of the best comedies ever made–but it’s not really a movie about time travel.

Hot Tub Time Machine
Short of one or two other films falling off my list, Hot Tub Time Machine almost made it into my top ten, but it missed it by a few laughs. It is, however, a really, really hilarious spoof of the ski movies from the 80s.

Kate & Leopold
Yes, I really wanted to include a romantic comedy on this list, but Kate & Leopold was just a little too cheesy, even for my tastes, but I’d still recommend it to anyone who loves Meg Ryan or Hugh Jackman.

Lost in Space
There were many cheesy movies in the 90s, but this one might be the cheesiest of them all, but it’s still definitely a guilty pleasure, thanks especially to the killer cast that features Gary Oldman, William Hurt, Matt LeBlanc, Mimi Rogers, Heather Graham, and Lacey Chabert.

Midnight in Paris
Who knew that a Woody Allen film could make a list that included The Terminator and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but Allen’s sweet romantic comedy is a brilliant film, it just didn’t quite fit into the top ten.

The Time Machine
Love this film as I do, I can’t help admitting that the second half of The Time Machine is a seriously misguided attempt at turning H.G. Wells’ original story into an action film. If you can overlook that though, The Time Machine starts off fantastically, and if it works at all it’s because of the frequently cool effects and the work of Guy Pearce and the stunning Samantha Mumba.

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