Time Travel in the Movies

Time travel, specifically that which a human could survive, is generally accepted as a scientific impossibility.  Various theories concerning cosmic strings, black holes and wormholes have all been put forward by scientists throughout the years however the concensus is that even if time-travel were possible, the effects would destroy our bodies thus rendering the experience moot.

Time travel in movies is, however, a common experience.  How this is achieved and what mode of transport, if any, is used varies from film to film.  Here are a few notable occurences of time travel on the big screen:

The Time Machine (1960)

Based on H. G. Wells’ 1895 story of the same name, which popularised the concept of time travel, The Time Machine features George, an inventor in Victorian England, who has constructed a machine that enables him to travel into the distant future. Once there, he discovers that the descendants of mankind have split into two seperate species; the passive, child-like, and vegetarian Eloi and the underground-dwelling Morlocks, who feed on the Eloi.

Although The Time Machine was not the first movie to feature time travel, it did, like the book it was based on, popularise the idea of travelling through time and featured a distinctly different future from the current present.  The film won the 1961 Academy Award for Best Special Effects for the time-lapse photography effects used to show the rapidly changing world as the time traveller journeyed to the future.

The actual time machine can only be described as a Victorian-style snow sled. It consists of an elaborate chair, brass siding, an oval control panel, multiple levers and dials and a spinning vertical dish mounted at the rear.  The best thing about the machine is that it is somehow believable, both as a functional device and as a ‘futuristic’ device from the Victorian era and talk of the ‘fourth dimension’ (time) is the general explanation of how the device actually works.


Factoid: A fictional version of H. G. Wells (played by Terry Kiser) appeared in several episodes of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, in which Wells had actually created his time machine and used it to help preserve the timeline.

Back to the Future (1985)

Teenager Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is an aspiring musician living in Hill Valley, California.  On October 26 1985, Marty meets up with his scientist friend Dr Emmet ‘Doc’ Brown (Christopher Lloyd) in a car park of a local mall, who has adapted a DeLorean car into a time machine, powered by plutonium stolen from Libyan terrorists.  Said terrorists arrive and Marty is accidentally sent back to 1955.  Marty must convince the past version of Doc Brown to help him get back to the future despite having no access to plutonium while also making sure his parents end up together.

The movie is brilliantly constructed, easily weaving in its own time travel rules within the narrative in what is one of the most celebrated science-fiction comedies of all time.  One such rule was the way in which changes to the future could be observed by looking at a photograph, which would alter depending on current circumstances in the past. Marty himself even began to fade away when it looked as though his parents would not get together due to his accidental interference (paradox alert).  The film was swiftly followed with two sequels, taking place in the future of 2015 and then the old West respectively.  While neither film matches the original both are enjoyable adventures featuring two wonderful characters played by actors obviously enjoying themselves.

While Fox and Lloyd get top billing, the DeLorean itself has become a pop culture icon and almost qualifies as a character in itself.  The mechanics of the time machine do not change throughout the trilogy.  The driver operates the time circuits, setting a destination and, once the car hits 88 miles per hour, the flux capacitor activates and send the car back/forward in time in a flash of blue/white light.  When Marty becomes trapped in 1955 the past version of Doc Brown uses lightning as a substitute for plutonium and after a visit to the future the car is retrofitted with hover capabilities and a Mr. Fusion, which turns garbage into fuel.  The third film finds the car’s fuel line damaged, meaning the vehicle is unable to reach 88 mph and an alternative plan is hatched whereby a steam engine pushes the time machine to the required speed.

The DeLorean is an iconic vehicle and, for many, would be the method of choice for time travel.  Plus you can pick up a hoverboard from the year 2015 (if only).

Factoid: In an early draft of the film, the time machine was an old refridgerator.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)

Starring Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves as Bill and Ted, this enjoyable romp through time has the two future saviours of mankind and current students failing their history class, which would result in their separation from each other and the end of their band, Wyld Stallions.  Enter George Carlin as Rufus, who comes from the future and grants the slackers a time machine so that they can travel through history and ace their history final, thus securing the utopian future based on their music.  Said time machine is a telephone booth in a nod to British sci-fi series Doctor Who.  A sequel followed which, although involving some time travel, focused more on death and the afterlife.

Once again the future is malleable here and could be altered, although none of the interactions with history have any dire consequences for the timeline.  Focused more on comedy than anything else, the time machine here involves dialling specific numbers to set a destination in time, followed by some flashing and electrical effects before disappearing in a hole in the ground.  Taken literally, we can assume a hole is opening in the space-time continuum which the booth is able to access and journey through, but since this is a comedy movie, don’t worry too much about the science.

There are a couple scenes in the two movies in which the idea of doing something later for the benefit of the present is explored, reversing the idea of cause and effect.  Throughout the first movie Ted’s father, a police captain, appears to have lost his keys and blames Ted, who denies any knowledge.  Later on their new friends (the historical figures they have taken from history for their project) are locked up in the police station and the characters lament that they wish they could find said keys.  Realising they could get the keys later and travel back in time, leaving them for their past selves to locate, the duo find the keys next to them and are consequently able to free their captive friends.  Ted then realises that it was he who had taken the keys, albeit the future version of him doing so in the past.  A similar scene in the sequel helps the teens defeat the villain of that movie, as their future selves laid traps in the past for them to take advantage of in the present.  Considering the comedic nature of the movie, it’s a daring concept to include but is ably explained by the characters within the narrative without interrupting the flow of the story with an exposition dump.


Factoid: Originally Reeves and Winter auditioned for the opposite role to which they were cast.  In an online chat with Moviefone, Reeves recalled ‘I got a call saying that I got the part. So I went to the wardrobe fitting, for my wardrobe fitting, assuming I was playing Bill, and I get there and Alex Winter, who eventually played Bill, went to the wardrobe fitting thinking he was playing Ted. Then we were informed that that wasn’t the case’.

Donnie Darko (2001)

A cult film starring Jake Gyllenhaal in the title role, Donnie Darko tells the tale of a young man apparently suffering from a form of schizophrenia, which includes visions of a man in a rabbit costume called Frank.  After a conversation with Frank which helps Donnie avoid death when a falling jet engine crashes into his bed, the narrative goes on to discuss time travel, visions, guilt, death and love.  At the end of the movie a time vortex appears into which a jet engine falls- this engine falls through time onto Donnie’s bed.  This time Donnie is in bed, having rewound the events of the previous 28 days and as a result of this he dies.  Several people had died in the alternative future so Donnie’s death effectively prevents theirs.


The events of most of the movie happen in an alternate reality which is closed off by Donnie’s return to the past and his death.  The events throughout the alternate reality are all designed to bring Donnie to the point where he can close this timeline.  Characters affected by Donnie in the alternate timeline seem to experience emotional echoes when order is restored, such as the guilt Patrick Swayze’s peadophile feels upon waking up back in the true reality.  There are many theories as to the true meaning of Donnie Darko, including the director’s own opinion, which you can search for yourself online or simply have your own view.

Factoid: There are many familiar faces in the film including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Noah Wyle, Drew Barrymore and Mary McDonnell.  You will also spot (in his feature film debut) a young Seth Rogen, now famous for his more comedic roles in films such as Pineapple Express and Knocked Up.

The Terminator (1984)

In the near future machines have taken over and the world is a war zone.  Having had no success in killing John Connor, the leader of the human resistance, the machines send a killer robot known as a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back in time to kill John’s mother Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) before she even conceives her child.  The resistance also send a fighter back in time to protect her- Kyle Reece (Michael Biehn), who turns out to be John Connor’s father.  A wonderful, action-packed chase movie that has spawned several sequels which, with the exception of Terminator 2, have failed to match the original, the first movie has simple time travel rules that focus on destiny.


The time machine used in this movie (and not seen until the latest film) can only send living flesh back in time, hence the reason travellers arrive naked when they appear in a ball of light and intense heat plus a bit of (unsurprisingly) lightning.  The Terminator, being a cyborg covered in synthetic skin, is also able to make the journey.  Later films featured more advanced models of terminator which used a ‘metal skin’ to bypass this clause.  The original portrays the events of the future as fixed while subsequent movies varied between a future that could be completely changed, a flexible future where the end result was the same and a completely malleable future where totally different events occur (see Terminator Genisys if you have to).



Factoid: Terminator 2 features two terminators, one hero and one villain, fighting against each other in their respective missions to save and kill John Connor.  The idea of using two cyborgs was originally the plot of the first movie although budget constraints stopped James Cameron from proceeding with this notion.  The rest, as they say, is history.


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4 thoughts on “Time Travel in the Movies

  1. Finally! An entertaining and well-written blog. I had only one disappointment in this post…I was hoping that you would be able to clearly explain the movie, “Donnie Darko”. I’ve seen it many times, but I still can’t figure it out!

    Ah, well. You’ve got a new follower at least!

    Best…Melissa 🙂


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