A Closer Look At… Time Travel in Cinema


The notion of time travelling captures the imagination of every child- who hasn’t dreamt of going back to the Jurassic age and encountering a dinosaur, or medieval England to see a princess in a castle? In the last century in particular, time travel has also been the subject of serious debate in philosophical converse, from considering whether it’s even theoretically possible, to the problems of reverse causation. (For example, could I travel back fifty years and kill my grandfather in his youth?) Regardless of whether it’s possible or not, we’d all love see what would happen if we really could time travel…and that’s where cinema comes in.

One of the first time travel films was, appropriately, the 1960 adaptation of H. G. Wells’ great work The Time Machine. The protagonist, named after Wells himself, builds a time machine that takes him to the future where he discovers that humankind has evolved to form two unique species; a surface dwelling passive one not unlike humanity as we know it and an underground civilisation of primitive but ferocious primates. A couple of years later a French film, La Jetée, was released. La Jetée is a less traditional tale centring on a World War Three soldier who experiences flashbacks to a pre-apocalyptic past, but its legacy is just as great (it is considered the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys). 1968 was an important year for science-fiction, seeing the release of the bar-raising Planet of the Apes, which changed the face of the genre thanks to that ending (I’ll say no more for those who haven’t seen it but the clue is: this article’s about time travel). More than a decade later, two significant time travel trilogies got underway in the form of 1984’s Schwarzenegger-starring Terminator and 1985’s Back to the Future, which shot Michael J. Fox to new levels of cool and showed that time travel stories can be light-hearted while just as clever. In ’93 Groundhog Day proved that time travel films need not be concerned with the fate of humanity or dystopian futures, so long as they feature Bill Murray. The best time travel film of the early 2000s is the supremely baffling Donnie Darko. Thanks to an eerie performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, Frank the terrifying rabbit and a fantastic causal loop storyline this film successfully brought out the dark side of time travel fantasy (also see The Butterfly Effect – warning: it stars Ashton Kutcher).

Time travel films are just as popular today, as J. J. Abrams Star Trek reboot demonstrated, and with original screenplays like Rian Johnson’s Looper coming off the production line the future of time travel cinema is bright (trust me, I’ve seen it…).

words: Peter West

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