While this sometime overused plot device can easily become cliche, it still presents unique storytelling possibilities. Even after being consistently used in every form of media across hundreds of years, there are still new ways to use and interpret time travel.
What’s most exciting about time travel is the many ways that it can play out in a story. There are several main theories about time travel and how it can affect history, but even these main rules can be bent and molded into new directions. One of the most enticing aspects of any history-hopping tale is waiting to see the unexpected effects that will surely result from tampering with the time stream.
So in celebration of time travel and its many iterations, I’ve looked at five stories, each with their own rules and methods for this most alluring sci-fi notion.
Have a favorite film, time travel rule, or method of time travel? Let your voice be heard!
Director Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day isn’t about understanding sci-fi concepts or getting to the bottom of a mystery. Rather, accepting the film’s central premise about Bill Murray’s arrogant TV weatherman Phil Connors reliving the same day over and over again is the key to enjoying the rest of the film.
Is this a curse? Is God teaching Connors a lesson? What’s important is that Connors has been given a chance to reevaluate his life, who he is, and what is important. And like anyone given the opportunity to grow, he screws it up over and over again. But between the laughs comes something truly poignant that only this time travel concept can create.
Rule of Time Travel: The time traveler is stuck in a loop, repeating the same events over and over again. In the happier stories, the loop is broken when the right actions are taken.
Method of Time Travel: Bill Muray’s character must relive the same day over and over again, starting at the beginning once he falls asleep or dies. Maybe God is just waiting for him to get it right.
See Also: Edge of Tomorrow, Looper (read a full spotlight here), Run Lola Run
If there was ever a time travel story that was the antithesis of the adventure that is embodied in so many others found in the genre, Kurt Vonnegut’s seminal story is it. Not that this is a bad thing. Rather, time travel is a method to explore death and its unbreakable bond to what gives life meaning.
Protagonist Billy Pilgrim’s mind is the only thing that travels through time, reliving countless parts of his life without being able to change anything. Rather, he must relive everything from surviving the real life firebombing of Dresden in 1945 to being captured by aliens and displayed in their zoo. In the end, the acceptance of death is what is most important.
Rule of Time Travel: Time itself cannot be affected. Time travel is only a method of observing many different moments throughout life.
Method of Time Travel: Billy’s mind has become unstuck from his body, causing it to bounce around throughout his life, replaying various moments without being able to change them.
See Also: None! Vonnegut is a one of a kind.
U.S. Army pilot Captain Colter Stevens is tasked with reliving the last eight minutes of a train bombing victim’s life in order to find out who is responsible and prevent an even worse attack. Discoveries about the Source Code program, his own past, and his seemingly inescapable fate all intertwine as he dies over and over again.
Source Code is a twisty mystery mixed with exciting sci-fi ideas, but Colter’s emotional journey and desperation to save the woman he’s come to care about are what bring real heft. And what starts out as a action-focused version of Groundhog Day is upended by a last minute reveal of the true nature of Source Code and its effects. Spoilers in the rule and method sections!
Rule of Time Travel: Every instance of time travel creates a new parallel universe. The previous universe still exists, but is unchanged and the traveler cannot typically return.
Method of Time Travel: Computer program that allows the subject’s mind to relive a person’s last eight minute of life. What is envisioned as memory playback inadvertently creates multiple timelines.
See Also: Star Trek (2009), Primer, Triangle, Dragonball Z
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Unfolding mysteries and the true nature of an escaped murderer lead to a heart-pounding rescue, all thanks to a magical time travel device. Hermione’s Time Turner necklace makes this installment of the Harry Potter franchise quite unique. Added bonus points to J.K. Rowling for planting so many seeds throughout the story, only for them all to bear unexpected fruit once the rules of this version of time travel are revealed!
The use of time travel in Prisoner of Azkaban doesn’t just create twists and surprises, it yields real emotional moments, most notably Harry’s use of the Patronus Charm by the frozen lake. And yes, having the Time Turner show up in the other books/films would have made things a lot easier. But that would have made the stories boring.
Rule of Time Travel: There is a single fixed history. Everything done by a time traveler has already happened, typically causing the time travel in the first place and leading to a predestination paradox.
Method of Time Travel: Hemoine’s Time Turner necklace allows her to take more classes than physically possible. It also saves the day and ends up explaining all those weird occurrences throughout the story.
See Also: 12 Monkeys, “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath
Back to the Future
Of course this is on the list, it’s the quintessential time travel movie! The original Back to the Future features many elements of what has become the classic time travel story – culture shock, younger versions of characters, a race against time itself, and an awesome way to bounce through history.
Back to the Future has so many wonderful moments and two of the best science fiction characters of all time: Doc Brown and Marty McFly! Parts 2 and 3 carry on the story in unique ways, adding layers and bringing in an idea of generations replaying the same mistakes. Altogether some of the best sci-fi films of all time.
Rule of Time Travel: History can easily be changed, leading to both intended and unexpected consequences. This may or may not be catastrophic depending on the cynicism of the story and the degree of time travel’s ripple effect.
Method of Time Travel: Doc Brown’s Delorean zips through time to whatever date is placed in the coordinates once the car hits 88 miles per hour. And 1.21 gigawatts!
See Also: Back to the Future 2 and 3, The Terminator Series, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Frequency, Superman