As the clocks go back and the days get longer, and as our portals stretch out in front of us and our loops begin to close, spend some time with these sci-fi and genre choices and try not to go cross-eyed.
12 Monkeys (1995)
Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt and Madeleine Stowe star in this grimy paranoid thriller of time travel, obsession with the past and doomed romance. Willis plays James Cole, a convict sent back in time to help stop a terrorist attack which spreads a man-made virus that devastates the human population, and in turn, solve the mystery of a haunting event from his childhood. It’s eminently watchable, with director Terry Gilliam at the height of his studio work, and is based on Chris Marker’s 1962 short – or as he prefers ‘photo novel’ – La Jetée, which is also well worth your time.
Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (2021)
Directed by Junta Yamaguchi, this remarkable one-take time travel sci-fi comedy follows cafe owner Kato and his friends as they discover a ‘Time TV’ that shows them two minutes into the future. They talk to their past and future selves, chasing their two-minute deadline, with a sense of growing inevitability. The film embodies various time-travel tropes like financial promise and romance, escalating stakes and what it means to take control of your own future. The one-take format and the two-minute time stuff are beautifully complimentary conceits.
The Time Machine (1960)
The Time Machine promises to orbit you into the fantastic future! But what awaits our hero (H. George Wells played by The Birds’ Rod Taylor) is a new reality where humans have split into two hostile species. Director George Pal’s sci-fi classic – made by MGM in all its 1960s lushness – deals with ongoing war and the part that science can play in reaching peace, and the romanticism of invention versus commercialism, but its vision of the far future is now a racially problematic one. However, the film still has its charm and is worth a watch if only for the delightful presentation of the passage of time through speeding clock hands, burning candles, encroaching cobwebs, and changing fashions on an ageless shop mannequin.
The Endless (2017)
Visionary creative duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead bring us this ingenious half Lovecraftian cult drama and half time loop mystery in their inimitable lo-fi style. Two brothers return to the ‘UFO death cult’ they escaped as kids, only to discover there’s more going on there than they remember – pods of time cover the area, looping over and over to tell stories for an eternal being’s amusement. Smart witty storytelling and big ideas make this modern genre fave a must-watch.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
Stephen Herek’s joyous time travel comedy adventure starring Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter was a mainstay of nineties kids’ film watching, and still stands up today as an endlessly quotable treat. Bill and Ted are about to fail their history class unless they achieve an A+ on their final exam – oh and the fate of the world also hangs in the balance. The late, great George Carlin stars as Rufus, the boys’ guide through the circuits of history, and clever sequences involving lost keys, trash cans and tape players create superb time travel hijinks. Genghis Khan, Abraham Lincoln, Joan of Arc, Billy the Kid, Sigmund Freud, Napoleon, Beethoven and Socrates are all along for the ride, and the central tenet of the film is still one to live by… be excellent to each other and party on, dudes.
Your Name (2016)
This beautiful Japanese animation from director Makoto Shinkai follows Mitsuka and Taki as they travail teen life and – no spoilers, but time travel plays a large part in this body-swap comedy. Dreamy, ethereal visuals, a stunning score, and effective emotional beats create an unmissable anime from the makers of Weathering With You (2019) and the new Suzume (2022).
Groundhog Day (1993)
Harold Ramis’ quintessential time loop movie stars Bill Murray as a cynical weatherman having to relive the same day over and over until he gets it right and wins the heart of Andy McDowell’s longsuffering camerawoman and love interest. This is standard self-centred-protagonist-learns-lesson fare, sprinkled with so much wit it still feels fresh 30 years on. But if it does all feel a touch manipulative and you like a little more stab in your time loop, you should try 2017’s modern cult favourite Happy Death Day, starring the resplendent Jessica Roth as college student Tree, the day of whose murder replays again and again until she discovers the identity of her killer.
The Terminator (1984)
One of cinema’s most enduring and influential time travel stories, James Cameron’s The Terminator created and solidified tropes like photographs yet to be taken, memories as dreams, and flashforwards to apocalyptic warscapes. Humanity’s final battle is being fought in the present, with Arnold Schwartzenegger’s terminator traveling back in time to kill its saviour before he’s even conceived. Other stars Linda Hamilton and Cameron’s frequent collaborator Michael Bien cement its blockbuster status, plus brief but memorable cameos from Dick Miller and baby Bill Paxton. The future is not set.
Bruce Willis’ second mind bending time travel appearance on this list, and directed by eclectic visionary Ryan Johnson, Looper is set in the near future where time travel will be invented in 30 years and immediately outlawed, but where criminals use it to deal with pesky dead bodies by sending people back in time for ‘loopers’ to assassinate and dispose of. Willis plays a looper sent back to be dealt with by his younger self, played by the brilliant Joseph Gordon Levitt, and Emily Blunt is the mother of a young boy destined to become a deadly gangster. There’s lots of stuff here about looking back at your past self, memories fading as the present catches up, and more changing the past to change the future. It’s extremely stylish, with a tight narrative and lots of clever twists to keep you guessing.
Donnie Darko (2001)
Richard Kelly’s debut feature, Donnie Darko captured the imagination of a generation of cool kids™. Featuring an ensemble cast including Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary McDonnell, Noah Wyle, and Patrick Swayze, this darkly comedic coming of age tale follows our titular Donnie, a paranoid schizophrenic highschooler fighting inner demons and imaginary giant rabbits to save the world. It’s all pre-destiny, vessels and portals, wormholes and philosophy. It has some now iconic – and sometimes terrifying – imagery and an incredible 80s soundtrack to boot, featuring Echo & the Bunnymen, Tears for Fears and Duran Duran. Do you believe in time travel?