Time travel is complicated. Few filmmakers attempt the feat of making a time travel movie, and even fewer do it well. Often there is disappointment, but occasionally we come across the right combination of story, character, and time-based madness that makes us overlook all the flaws and buy into the impossibility.
The latest sorcerer of cinema to dive into the time travel genre is none other than Christopher Nolan with his latest big-budget thriller Tenet. Will it follow in the proud tradition of successful time travel movies? Even if it does, will your mind be ready to understand it? This is not a comprehensive list of the verry best, but it is a list of six time travel movies that will help prepare you for the mind-bending journey that is Christopher Nolan’s Tenet.
In the far off years of 2044 and 2074, a sinister crime syndicate has obtained time travel technology and uses it to kill people. Well, what else did you expect an evil cartel to use the most powerful technology ever created for? The movie Looper, directed by Rian Johnson, follows a mob hitman who is suddenly expected to kill a future version of himself. The hitman Joe 2044 (Joseph Gordon Levitt), must hunt down and kill Joe 2074 (Bruce Willis), or risk becoming a target himself.
Looper is possibly the least confusing time travel movie on this list, but in its simplicity lies its genius. The premise that it asserts its straight forward and uncomplicated. With only one time jump, one traveler, and one paradox to resolve it becomes accessible to an even wider audience. Looper feels more like an ultra-modern gangster flick masquerading as science fiction than a true time travel movie. Because of this, it is the perfect entry for anyone curious about the genre. If you’re curious about Tenet, but are generally unfamiliar with how time travel movies work, Looper is s a great place to start. The legendary Roger Ebert said this about Looper:
“Time travel may be logically impossible, but once we allow a film to use it, we have to be grateful if it makes sense according to its own rules.”
Roger Ebert Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
It might seem odd to see a film like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure on a list filled with such complex, chaotic, and cerebral entries. A film about two goofball rockers stumbling around the circuits of time for the sole purpose of passing a high school history exam may, at first, feel out of place. Though tonally Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is wildly different from any other films listed, rest assured, it punches well above its weight in terms of concept and execution.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure seems to straddle the line between a “fatalism” and “free will” time travel movie. Though there seems to always be the looming threat of failure, many moments appear predestined to occur. The best example of this is when our hero’s Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) must escape a sticky situation by simply knowing what they will need to escape, willing their future selves to acquire those items, and leaving them in a predetermined location. The film also reaches a Nolan-esque moment when the film folds back on itself, revisiting an earlier moment in the plot from a different angle. While it’s easy to miss these rather smart depictions of time travel, these are exactly the kind of things you’ll need to notice when watching Tenet.
No matter how you look at it, the 2001 cult film Donnie Darko is odd. On the surface is its difficult to even see it as a time travel movie. It follows the life of a somewhat troubled high school student named Donnie Darko. After an inexplicable brush with death, Donnie begins to see dark visions. Among these visions is a man in a rather macabre rabbit costume who seems to be leading the young protagonist toward a predetermined fate.
The film Donnie Darko is deceptive. You are never really certain if Donnie’s visions are real, or if he is indeed just an angsty teen suffering through schizophrenic episodes. The subject of time travel is discussed along the way, but only in the climax of the film do we see the confirmation that the fate of the world was indeed hanging in the balance. Repeat viewings do help in understanding the intricacies of the plot, but to truly understand everything that is at play it helps to have someone like Ricky Derisz, writing for Looper, to really dive in and explain the lore and lunacy of this extremely layered film. We can only hope someone will give Tenet the same treatment.
“Like a fine wine, its sickly sci-fi aftertaste takes time to mature. A little research and extra-curricular knowledge is required to piece everything together, and while a Ph.D. in physics isn’t necessary, it’ll sure help.”
Ricky Derisz 12 Monkeys
Imagine, if you will, a world where a mysterious disease has ravaged the globe. A world where humanity is forced to spend its existence sheltered inside for fear of contracting the deadly virus. I know, it sounds crazy, right? The film 12 Monkeys, directed by Terry Gilliam tells the tale of a man born into this world. A man named James Cole (Bruce Willis) is forced to travel back in time to gather information about, and possibly even prevent, the deadly virus that has destroyed the world. Should James stick to his mission, and gather information in hopes of finding a future cure, or should he go beyond and attempt to do the impossible, to stop the coming apocalypse.
12 Monkeys is the first film on this list to truly and openly contemplate questions about fate and destiny. Terry Gilliam’s directorial style and the fantastically off-kilter performances by Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt make this film an intense experience, but well worth it if you are willing to ponder the existential questions of free will. Much like Tenet, 12 Monkeys weaves a nonlinear narrative that may be a bit much to take in on the first viewing. Given this, it may be surprising that this is one of the more successful films on this list, to the tune of about 168.8 million US. Terry Gilliam admitted his own surprise in an interview with Ryan Lambie for Den of Geek:
“It was a great script, but when I read it, I said, ‘This isn’t going to get made. This is too complex.’ But we did it, and everything was handled right about it… it proved that there was an audience for intelligent films.”
Terry Gilliam Interstellar
Let’s face it, Only Christopher Nolan could get this film made. A reluctant corn farmer (Matthew McConaughey) must travel across the universe to save the human race from impending doom. Along the way, we met some very unlikeable characters, a time-bending black hole, enough scientific jargon to choke Stephen Hawking, and at least three or four endings. Despite all of this working against it, Nolan turned Interstellar into one of the most visually beautiful and emotionally involved films of 2014.
Even though Interstellar isn’t officially a time travel movie it is still an important addition to this list, if only because if it’s creator. Nolan has always been interested in the subject of time and memory, but Interstellar was the closest he had come to actual time travel before he began work on Tenet. If you want to prepare yourself for what may be in store for his latest adventure, sit with the twists and turns encompassed in the climactic finale, when the protagonist Cooper falls off the edge of physics and enters the 5th dimension. If, even after viewing this scientifically spectacular sequence, you are still confused fear not. It’s all dumbed down quite well in this article by Michael Arbeiter for Bustle:
“He has evolved, in a manner of speaking to a state of physical occupation of the fifth dimension, and as such can see past, present, and future all at once, strung together in the Michael Arbeiter shape of an ever-expanding Escher painting.”
Michael Arbeiter Predestination
In Predestination, a time-traveling agent (Ethan Hawk) is sent to stop a sinister terrorist with a very silly nickname, The Fizzle Bomber. It’s difficult to get into much more detail without significant spoilers, but this mission sends him down a rabbit hole of temporal intrigue the likes of which rarely make it to the big screen.
Though there is some stiff competition on this list, the 2014 film Predestination wins the gold medal for most mind-bending paradox in a time travel movie. The film takes the viewer on so many twists, turns, and narrative corkscrews, that at times you won’t be entirely sure who you are rooting for. As with Tenet, repeat viewing is almost required, if only to see all of the subtle nods and foreshadowing you probably missed the first time around.
The subject if time travel has a long history in cinema. From the 1921 silent film A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to today’s modern blockbusters, time travel movies always seem to capture our imagination in a special way. Despite paradoxes, loopholes, and the logical lunacy that are inevitable we can’t help but dive in headfirst. It’s one of the few genres that, regardless of small budget, plot holes, or goofball characters, can always manage to make us think deeply about our own existence and Tenet is no different, despite it’s original approach to time in cinema. If you do seek out the film’s on this list, perhaps it will ready your mind to ponder the existential insanity of Tenet.
Want more mind bending science fiction? Check out these articles from our other writers!