Thursday, January 1, 2015

Turning Back the Clock: A Tribute to the Best Time Travel Movies

I have always been intrigued by the concept of time travel. The end of the year seems like an appropriate time to list my picks for best time travel films and then learn what Cafe readers have to say about the subject. Starting from the top:

1. Time After Time. This ingenious concoction of science fiction, thriller, and romance comes from the fertile imagination of Nicholas Meyer. Meyer first gained recognition with his best-selling mystery The Seven Per Cent Solution, which teamed up Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud. Meyer serves up a second unique pairing in Time After Time--only with two nifty differences. Instead of working together, the pair are friends-turned-adversaries in the form of H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) and Jack the Ripper (David Warner) . And instead of setting the plot in the past, it involves time travel from the past to the future. The usual time travel conumdrums are explored here, but they never get in the way of a delightful love story and clever social satire. In short, an underrated gem.

2. The Terminator. Given the blockbuster status of its sequels, it's easy to forget that the original Terminator was a sleeper hit by unknown director named James Cameron. Although Terminator 2 is a near-perfect action film, the first Terminator is grounded by a solid love story and gets kudos for setting the concept in motion. I imagine most of you have seen it, but those who haven't I won't spoil the "nested loop" that makes the head-scratching plot so memorable. By the way, I've often wondered if Cameron borrowed parts of his premise from the 1966 Michael Rennie B-film Cyborg 2087.

3. Repeat Performance. Decidedly offbeat 1948 B-film stars Joan Leslie as a popular stage actress who kills her husband on December 31st--and then gets the chance to live the year over again. Knowing the outcome, can she change the events that lead up to her murderous act? This atmospheric film benefits from a surprisingly good cast with Richard Basehart, Tom Conway, and Natalie Schaefer. It was remade for TV in the late 1990s as Turn Back the Clock with Connie Selleca. Repeat Performance is not shown often on TV; I haven't seen it in years.

4. The Time Machine. George Pal's 1960 adaptation of the famous H.G. Wells novel is still the best version. The once state-of-the-art special effects hold up pretty well and Rod Taylor makes an appealing hero (Alan Young, from TV's Mister Ed, is even better as a friend). Taylor's romance with Yvette Mimieux (as Weena of the Eloi race) lack a certain magic for me, but Wells' ideas remain fresh and the time machine itself looks way cool. Click here to read ClassicBecky's fine review, posted at the Cafe earlier this year.

5. Somewhere in Time. There are people that loathe this film and those that love it. I naturally fall into the latter group. I must admit, though, that my perceptions are clouded...I first saw this romance with my future wife when we were young and very much smitten with one another (we still are). The plot, which Richard Matheson adapted from his cult novel Bid Time Return, stars Christopher Reeve as a playwright who falls in love with a photograph of an actress (Jane Seymour) and wills himself back in time to be with her. The leads are photogenic and likable, the location filming at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island is breathtaking, and the music score by John Barry (who weaves in Rachmaninoff) is one of my all-time favorites. By the way, for many years, Somewhere in Time was the top-grossing film in Japan...though it flopped in the U.S. until rediscovered years later on video.

6. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Leonard Nimoy devised the entertaing premise which sent the original Enterprise crew back in time to rescue some humpback whales (who are needed to save Earth in the future). Nicolas Meyer, who already explored time travel in the aforementioned Time After Time, contributed to the screenplay. Although some of the social humor is now dated, this is one of the best of the Star Trek film series and, accounting for inflation, is probably the biggest box office hit of the original Trek pictures.

7. Back to the Future. Speaking of blockbusters, this family smash about a teenager who goes back in time and meets his parents in high school is undoubtedly the best known time travel movie with contemporary audiences. The performances are engaging and the story gets a lot of laughs out of its unlikely situations (Mom, as a teenager, is attracted to her son). The sequels, which were shot back to back, are not as good. Back to the Future 2 gets mired in its plot entanglements by sending its heroes to multiple time periods. Back to the Future 3 is set primarily in the Old West and at least restores some charm to the series.

8. 12 Monkeys and Time Bandits. Although these movies are very different, I list them together because they both sprang from the fertile imagination of Terry Gilliam. For me, Time Bandits is an adult fantasy masquerading as a family film; its visual images (e.g., a knight on horseback bursting into a child's room) are what I remember most. 12 Monkeys is a richly layered time travel film, in which once again a person from the future is sent back in time to alter future events. I have several friends who will cringe to see 12 Monkeys listed way down in the No. 8 spot. I admit, I haven't seen it in awhile, so I may be off base on my ranking of this one...but if so, not by much for me.

Honorable mentions: Berekley Square and its remake I'll Never Forget You, the influential French short film La jetee, Planet of the Apes, and 1964's The Time Travelers (which may feature the most bizarre ending of all time travel movies).

OK, so there are my choices. What have I left out and how would you rank the best time travel pics?


  1. I enjoy time travel movies as well, thanks for sharing!!

  2. Repeat Performance was my Dad's fave time travel movie--I haven't seen it in years. Wish TCM would show it. I fondly remember Time After Time. I saw it with some friends because the movie we originally were going to see was rated R and we had no adult. It was a wonderful accident -- highly enjoyable take on time travel & the Ripper Legend

  3. What a great article, Rick! I just love time travel movies, and have seen all but Repeat Performance (which I wish would be on TCM too), the Time Travelers, Berkely Square and the French one. The others are just wonderful, especially The Time Machine (thanks for mentioning my article), Somewhere in Time and Time after Time. I'm going to watch those 3 this weekend! It's been a while. Thanks for a fun trip through time!

  4. As we are nearing the end of another year, an article about Time Travel seems quite, well, timely. I really liked your carefully thought out list, Rick. "Time after Time" was fascinating and the performances of David Warner and Malcolm McDowell are impeccable. I love "Somewhere in Time" and find that John Barry's score is timeless. The setting on Mackinac Island is lovely, too. Excellent article, Rick! And Merry Christmas!

  5. In addition to being a friend and admirer of Jack Finney, whom he considered the master of time-travel romances such as TIME AND AGAIN, Matheson has long been fascinated with the concept of time travel. He adapted Finney's story "Second Chance" in the TV-movie DEAD OF NIGHT, and paid tribute to him with the character of Professor Finney in SOMEWHERE IN TIME. Matheson touched on the subject time after time, if you'll excuse the expression, in his fourteen scripts for the original TWILIGHT ZONE. These include "The Last Flight," "Young Man's Fancy" (featuring an offbeat kind of time travel), "Once Upon a Time," "Death Ship" (which also played with time in an unusual way), and "Spur of the Moment." For further information, see my book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN (

  6. Great list. Time After Time would top my list as well. Nearly flawless movie with lots of twists and turns that is so satisfying. I just re-watched it the other night, so my timing on reading this was perfect.

    Merry Christmas!

  7. How nice to hear from other TIME AFTER TIME and SOMEWHERE IN TIME fans! I don't think those films, especially the former, get their due respect. Matheson is one of my favorite screenwriters, though I disagree with him on one point: I liked THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (and still think it's the best version of I AM LEGEND). Gilby, I don't know many people who have seen REPEAT PERFORMANCE, so that was fun that your father enjoyed it, too.

  8. Terrific post, Rick. I can't recall a classic time travel movie that hasn't been mentioned here, although one that may be deemed a classic is BILL & TED'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE. Watching scientists travel through time is intellectually stimulating; watching two lovable idiots do it is just funny. More recently, Nacho Vigalondo's LOS CRONOCRÍMENES (aka TIMECRIMES) was a solid time travel film. Thanks, Rick, for -- as Bill & Ted would say -- a most triumph list!

  9. Really very effective list.Totally agreed.Some of names in the list are new.I am looking forward for them also

  10. Rick, My favorite movie from your movie time travel list is, Time after Time. The movie has a fantastic '70's atmosphere. For me, the movie is highly entertaining and it features some wonderful humor. Of course having an 19th century main character who for the first time takes a look in the future 1979 is already good for some laughs. Such as the time were he visits a McDonald's or comes up with the name, Sherlock Holmes when he talks with the police. Malcolm McDowell, is extremely good and convincing as a 19th century gentleman and scientist H.G. Wells. David Warner, is also perfectly cast as... Jack The Ripper. The movie also has a beautiful musical score. I think most everybody will enjoy this movie as it is an entertaining one as well as a thriller .

  11. Rick,

    I never see Time After Time mentioned at all so am very happy to see it on your list AND as a top choice! I haven't seen it in quite a while but like it immensely. Great cast and love the story - can't beat the time travel/ripper combo! I am also an avid crime fan. Great choice!

    The rest of the list is wonderful as well. A list which, I might add, consists of films I've actually seen. I would make one major adjustment to it, though - Back To The Future would be way up there for me. That's a huge charmer/winner.

    Fun, TIMELY topic!


  12. Really great choices. I've not heard of REPEAT PERFORMANCE, but your description of its plot is fascinating, and I hope to have an opportunity to see it. A related idea is what TV shows have been about time travel. I recall the show THE TIME TUNNEL from the 1960s, which sent 2 travelers to various time periods each week to encounter dramatic situations. As I remember, it was an entertaining show. Also, the 1960s STAR TREK show occasionally had a time-travel episode, in which Kirk and Crew visited different historical periods.

  13. Personally Time After Time is my favorite on this list but not to detract from the others, they are all great too.

    I saw that movie when I was 9 in the theater and was obsessed with time travel ever since. It led to star trek which led to TNG and now I am a hobbyist of science particularly quantum mechanics. I am intrigued by the physical aspects of it and the theoretical as well.

  14. My favorites would be The Terminator, Star Trek IV, and Back to the Future (the obvious ones), but I did really like Time After Time and The Time Machine. While the premise of Somewhere in Time intrigued me, I wasn't as engaged by it.

    The one choice that I haven't seen (or heard of) is Repeat Performance. The story sounds interesting, but I expect it would be hard to find from what you say.

  15. Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure was co-written by Chris Matheson, son of Richard.

  16. Oh I love all your choices except Time Bandits which I thought was okay but not something I'd watch again. Somewhere in Time has such a romantic glow to it, a friend of mine went to Mackinaw Island on her honeymoon because of her love of the film and said it was as charming as it was in the film.

    So glad to see Repeat Performance amongst you choices. I saw it years ago, loved it and had kept an eye out for it ever since. Happily a couple of weeks ago I found it in its entirety on Youtube and quickly rewatched it. Just as good as I remembered. Not the greatest print but if it's all ya got..., not sure if it's still there films pop up and then disappear just as rapidly.

  17. Joel and Dan, REPEAT PERFORMANCE is now available on Amazon Prime. I haven't watched that print yet, so I can't vouch for its visual quality. CRL, I never made the Matheson connection!

  18. Time After Time and Time Machine are my favorites. Philadelphia Experiment was another favorite time travel of mine.
    - Jez

  19. Excellent list--especially agree with Time After Time and 12 Monkeys. It's missing one of my favorites of this genre--Happy Accidents starring Marisa Tomei and Vincent D'Onofrio

    1. I haven't seen it! But I looked it and I'm intrigued.

  20. Actually "The Terminator" was 'stolen' from a pair of "Twilight Zone" Episodes written by Harlan Ellison
    (You can see what's coming, right?)
    Yes, when James Cameron admitted it during an interview for STARLOG Magazine, Harlan found out and sued him. In consequence ALL Terminator Movies now have an "Addenda" that credits Ellison for the original concepts. Wait 'til the end, it's the very last thing on the screen.

    (The Moral: DON'T mess with Harlan Ellison! EVER!)