We all love a good time-travel movie, but have you ever stopped to consider which model of time each one is using and how that affects its timeline?
When I began my PhD in Science Commuincation, I needed to find a topic that would keep me inspired for several years. I ended up choosing to study movies involving time travel or other temporal phenomena!
Following are 12 of my favourites (in reverse order of their IMDB score).
Sliding Doors (1998)
with Gwyneth Paltrow, John Hannah, John Lynch
Helen is running down the platform stairs when she bumps into a young girl. This only delays her by a couple of seconds, but it’s enough for her to miss her train. Then, without explanation, time rewinds, and she finds herself coming back down the stairs. This time she avoids the girl and gets through the sliding doors of her train. The story then continues with two parallel timelines: In the first, she returns home later, so doesn’t find out about her boyfriend’s affair, and their relationship continues. In the second, she returns earlier, discovers her boyfriend cheating and leaves him. IMDB rating: 6.7
The model of time is an open past, open future with a parallel timeline. Read my detailed analysis of Sliding Doors to find out why.
Slaughterhouse Five (1972)
with Michael Sacks, Ron Leibman, Eugene Roche
A man named Billy Pilgrim tells the story of how he became unstuck in time. He often drifts into a trance and finds himself in another random part of his life. He jumps in and out of time experiencing different parts of his life over and over again. But every part always plays out exactly the same. In one part of his life, aliens abduct him and take him to the planet Tralfamadore. Time and free will do not exist on this planet. He asks when he can leave and is told, “You are here, you have always been here and you will always be here because time does not exist there. IMDB rating: 6.9
The model of time is a closed past, closed future with a fixed timeline. Read my detailed analysis of Slaughterhouse Five to find out why.
Déjà Vu (2006)
with Denzel Washington, Paula Patton, Jim Caviezel
Doug joins an FBI surveillance team who can track the past using a new space-folding technology. It has a variable viewing window, but a fixed time lag of four days and six hours behind the present. The team can zoom down into a city through rooftops and walls to view and hear any conversation. They can record this and watch it again later but cannot retrospectively change their chosen viewing angle. Doug uses this technology to track down and arrest a terrorist in the present. But he tells Doug anyone who tries to stop his act of terrorism from happening, causes it to happen! IMDB rating: 7.0
The model of time is an open past, open future with a double-well timeline and causal loops. Read my detailed analysis of Deja Vu to find out why.
The Jacket (2005)
with Adrien Brody, Keira Knightley, Daniel Craig
Jack, a Gulf war veteran, sentenced for a murder he did not commit, is committed to a top-security mental asylum. There, he discovers Dr Becker is conducting illegal experiments on the patients. He drugs them, constrains them in a straitjacket and then places them in a basement morgue drawer. While in the drawer for hours on end, Jack finds he can travel 15 years into the future. He brings back information with him from 2007 and eventually uses it to help people. They are able to make different decisions causing their timeline to diverge and create better outcomes for themselves. IMDB rating: 7.1
The model of time is an undefined past, open future with a double-well timeline and causal loops. Read my detailed analysis of The Jacket to find out why.
The Time Machine (1960)
with Rod Taylor, Alan Young, Yvette Mimieux
In 1899, George invites some learned colleagues over for dinner and explains how time is a fourth dimension. He tells them how he is going to use his new invention to travel through time. Soon after, he sets off and after experiencing several world wars, he lands in 802,701 AD expecting to find a utopian society. But instead, he finds a primitive and dangerous land inhabited by the Eloi. He returns a week later to share the good news with his colleagues that his time machine works. Disillusioned that he cannot convince them, so travels back to the future to be with his Eloi lover. IMDB rating: 7.6
The model of time is a closed past, closed future with a fixed timeline. Read my detailed analysis of The Time Machine to find out why.
The Butterfly Effect (2004)
with Ashton Kutcher, Amy Smart, Melora Walters
Evan learns to re-experience his past by going in a trance state while reading his childhood journal. He finds that each small change he makes in the past can have significant consequences in the present. So, he changes past events to try and create better outcomes for his friends and family. Evan visits his father and tells him this ability is passed on from father to son. He says the more attempts Evan makes to fix the past, the more problems he will create in the present. His father warns him if he doesn’t stop, he will also end up in a mental institution! IMDB rating: 7.6
The model of time is an open past, open future with a double-well timeline. Read my detailed analysis of The Butterfly Effect to find out why.
Groundhog Day (1993)
with Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliott
Weatherman, Phil, is on location reporting on the annual Groundhog Day event. When his alarm wakes him at 6 am the next morning, he finds that time has inexplicably reversed. To his bemusement, Groundhog Day is starting over again. This pattern continues every day, and Phil gains cumulative memories, so can learn by his mistakes. Eventually he concludes he is doomed to spend the rest of his life trapped in this time loop. So, he tries several times to escape by committing suicide, but each morning his alarm wakes him, and it is still always Groundhog Day. IMDB rating: 8.0
The model of time is an open past, closed future with a diverging timeline. Read my detailed analysis of Groundhog Day to find out why.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
with Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter
Captain Taylor has been on a spaceship for six months. The dashboard shows that on Earth nearly 700 years have passed since they left. This is normal, as their ship has been travelling at close to the speed of light. The crew go into a deep sleep for the remaining 12 months of their journey. But they wake to find their ship crashed on a planet with a similar climate to Earth. The dashboard shows the Earth’s year has jumped forward another 1215 years. When they explore, they soon discover intelligent talking apes are running the planet with savage human mutes as their slaves. IMDB rating: 8.0
The model of time is an undefined past, open future with a future timeline. Read my detailed analysis of Planet of the Apes to find out why.
Twelve Monkeys (1995)
with Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt
In an apocalyptic future, scientists use their time machine to send convict James Cole back to 1996. His mission is to locate a radical group called the ‘Twelve Monkeys’, who they believe released the deadly virus that wiped out 99 per cent of the human race. When in the past, James leaves messages on an answer phone, which the scientists will listen to in the future. In 1996, his girlfriend rings the answer phone and leaves a joke message about the ‘dangerous’ Twelve Monkeys. This creates a causal loop because her message is why the scientists sent James sent back in the first place. IMDB rating: 8.0
The model of time is a closed past, closed future with a fixed timeline and a causal loop. Read my detailed analysis of Twelve Monkeys to find out why.
Donnie Darko (2001)
with Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell
Donnie meets the ghost of Frank, who is wearing a Halloween bunny costume. He tells Donnie that the world will end in 28 days. In the future, a jet engine falls off a plane and passes through a portal causing it to travel 28 days back through time to the present. It crashes through the roof of Donnie’s house landing on the bed where he would have been sleeping. This artefact causes a tangent universe to split away from the primary universe. Frank continues to haunt Donnie, urging him to save the universe before it collapses upon itself. He says Donnie must work out how to turn back time. IMDB rating: 8.0
The model of time is open past, open future with a diverging timeline. Read my detailed analysis of Donnie Darko to find out why.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong
John Connor, leader of the human resistance in the future, sends a cybernetic organism back to the present to protect his younger self. The machines in the future then send back a T-1000 advanced prototype made from liquid metal to kill young John. His mother, Sarah, strongly believes the future is not set, and there is no fate but what we make for ourselves. So, she figures if they can stop Dyson, the creator of Skynet, they can stop ‘Judgement Day’. This is the day when Skynet launches the nuclear missiles that destroy most of the human population. IMDB rating: 8.5
The model of time is open past, open future with a diverging timeline and causal loops. Read my detailed analysis of Terminator 2 to find out why.
Back to the Future (1985)
with Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson
Eccentric scientist Doc Brown invents a time-machine by adapting a DeLorean car. He then accidentally sends his close friend, Marty McFly, 30 years back in time. High school student, Marty arrives in 1955 before his parents are married. His presence causes his mother to fall in love with him, instead of his father. So, he has to correct the distorted events of the timeline by getting his parents back together, otherwise he will cease to exist. Marty tracks down the younger Doc Brown, who he hopes will help him get ‘back to the future’. IMDB rating: 8.5
The model of time is open past, open future with a double-well timeline. Read my detailed analysis of Back to the Future to find out why.
If you are a fan of time travel movies, you might enjoy the the article, The real physics behind time-travel movies, which can be found on another of my websites, Time Travel Movies. This also contains more than 100 detailed reviews of movies involving time travel and other temporal phenomenon, as well as the highlights of my academic research on the models of time travel used in movies.