Five Films that set the Standard for Time Travel Movies


Time travel movies, a subset of the Sci Fi genre, are a staple in Hollywood. Right up there with flight and invisibility, the ability to navigate the currents of history is a common fantasy among those whose imaginations are stirred by the fantastic.

Even though many producers and studios have historically had an aversion to movies that break the time barrier, the theme keeps cropping up. Here are a few that made their marks in the history of time travel.

“Buck Rogers in the 25th Century”

Early attempts at out of time stories solved the time traveling technology issues in the simplest way possible. By putting the protagonist to sleep for a century or 5. While not a new idea (see “Rip Van Winkle” and H.G. Wells’ “The Sleeper Awakes”), it produces the primary objective of placing a man out of his own time. Based on pulp stories and originally produced as a series of short features in the 1930’s and 40’s, Buck Rogers featured a World War I veteran who awakes in the far flung future where his primitive combat skills prove crucial for protecting the rarefied civilization of the far flung future from the menace of barbarian hoards from space. While technical accuracy of these shorts were on the same level as Flash Gordon and other similar serials, they helped calm the concerns of a population facing the rapid advances in science and technology. It promised that fundamental human values would never be surpassed by miraculous machines.

“The Time Machine”


Based on the H. G. Wells classic, this was the 2nd big budget Sci Fi movie to be produced from the author’s works. Its predecessor, “War of the Worlds” so impressed the estate of H. G. Wells that the executors offered the producer the choice of any H. G. Wells story to be used for a followup. The main character invents a time machine with 19th century technology and uses it to travel to the distant future, where mankind is divided into two species; the degenerate species called the Morlocks who in turn feed on the more placid Eloi.  With a solid story, good casting and special effects that were ahead of the game for that decade, they produced an entertaining and thought provoking movie warning of the ultimate dangers of war.

“Time After Time”

This is an example of ‘How to Make a Sci Fi Movie without a Big Effects Budget’. Easy. Have the protagonist travel from the past into present day San Francisco, where more than 90% of the movie takes place.

The premise of the movie is that H. G. Wells did not only author a story about time travel, he invented an actual time machine. Unfortunately, before he can demonstrate it, a friend, who turns out to be Jack the Ripper, uses the machine to escape to the 20th century, where Wells, whose utopian views of the future envisioned a time free of violence, fears that his friend Jack will wreak havoc.

Wells travels to the future (present day) and, with the help of a bank teller he meets on his first day in 1979, tracks down the Ripper and confronts him with his crimes. Jack schools his old friend, pointing out that his glorious future is so steeped in violence and war that people like Jack the Ripper are bumbling amateurs.

This move gets good marks for acting, script and the ability to create the ‘out of time’ experience without futuristic sets and effects.

“The Terminator”

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A classic film that spawned multiple movie careers and decades long franchised The Terminator shows what can happen when the future shows up a little too soon.

Basically, a killer robot (Arnold Schwartzenegger) is sent from the future to kill a woman who will give birth to a son who will grow to be a man who will challenge future robots for control of the earth. Complicated, but nearly all time travel stories are inherently so. Toying with the contrasting themes of immutable time lines verses multiple time lines, this chapter of the series ended with little change made to the events of the future, but only after great sacrifices made by all. This film also kept the special effects to a minimum while still producing a compelling story.

“Slaughterhouse 5”

Based on the Kurt Vonnegut classic, it features a main character that is ‘unstuck’ in time, flashing from the past to the present to the future and to other planets as the story unfolds in a disjunction but strangely orderly fashion. The book took many decades to write and is in many ways a self therapeutic work to help Vonnegut deal with the after effects of being a World War II prisoner of war in Dresden, before the firebombing of the city.

The story’s fractured nature sets up the premise that time travel, if accomplished, is often non-linear by its nature.

“Back to the Future: The Trilogy”

Unarguably the most successful set of time travel films of all, well, time; these movies came down on the multiple time line side of the debate while carrying a strong warning against misuse of time travel for personal gain.

In the first film, Marty McFly goes back in time in a machine invented by his scientist friend, Doc Brown, and inadvertently prevents an encounter between two people which will ultimately result in them becoming his parents. He must work with the 1955 counterpart to his professor friend to correct the time line before he and his siblings are erased from future history.

While he succeeds in insuring that his parents do indeed become his parents with minimal stress on the time space continuum, he did nudge the course of events just a touch. He returns to a time where his once loser father is now a successful author and his dysfunctional family is much less dysfunctional, and he gets a brand new truck in the bargain. This just shows that messing with the time line just a little is OK. The second and third installments continue this thread where Marty continues to use the time machine to problems in his personal time line, some of which affect the entire city.

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