7 Movies Full of Time Travel Action! [Time Travel 101]
In the last Time Travel 101 post, we looked at the scarier side of time travel. It revealed a horrifying landscape, replete with nightmare time loops, unstoppable killing machines, scissor-wielding maniacs, slashers in baby masks, Dead-ites, and alien super-predators. It’s enough to make even the bravest would-be time traveler consider scrapping the whole endeavor.
Fortunately for us there’s a perfect remedy for that: watching villains and monsters get their asses kicked by larger than life heroes capable of vanquishing even the scariest time travel baddies. These seven films are always big, sometimes dumb, and just what the doctor ordered if we’re cowering in the corner after seeing all the potentially horrific outcomes a time traveler may face on their journey(s).
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“Somebody put me back in the fridge.”
My tastes may have changed drastically since, but as a kid on the cusp of teendom Demolition Man was catnip. It delivers all the hallmarks of prototypical muscle-action films of the 80s and 90s, but in a big, colorful, silly package.
Stallone does the usual Stallone things — alternating between eye rolling at the absurdity of the future he finds himself in and diving out of the way of gunfire and explosions. Sandra Bullock charms audiences in her first big primary role before Speed would make her a household name seven months later. Denis Leary plays Denis Leary, but like a super dirty subterranean version who grounds the strange social satire-lite that powers the plot (why, tho?). But it’s Wesley Snipes who steals the show, as villains so often do.
I don’t know if Snipes was actually having fun on set — he’s an angry and mercurial man, after all — but he sure seems to be having a great time playing the action villain for a change. He certainly leans all the way into his over the top performance as Simon Phoenix, the agent of chaos whose reign of terror forces the police to thaw hero cop John Spartan from his undeserved place in ice prison.
Is Demolition Man a particularly good movie? No. Does any of the plot make sense? Absolutely not. But it’s a pretty solid representation of second tier 90’s action movies with some uniquely quirky twists, and it most certainly can’t be left off any self-respecting list of time travel action.
Time Travel 101 Lesson: Post-apocalyptic wastelands aren’t the only brand of horrifying potential futures.
[Side note: Are there tax incentives in Hollywood for naming the heroes in action films John? Seriously. John Wick, John McClane, John Rambo and John Shaft. There are the movies where the name John is part of the joke, like Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Hancock. Point Break is Johnny Utah, so that counts. There’s The Rock, Passenger 57, Commando, Kindergarten Cop, and Eraser. Even humanity’s only hope for salvation against the machines in the Terminator movies is named John. Studios realize John isn’t the only male name, right? There have to be at least 50 other names out there, 60 even!]
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“Damn it, Ricky! I catch you fucking this machine again I’m gonna break your neck!”
Like Demolition Man above (this was released the following year), I enjoyed Timecop as a kid. That’s incontrovertible proof that kids are idiots — or, at least I was — because this movie is exceedingly, almost impressively dumb.
How do you produce and release an entire time travel movie without ever nailing down how the time travel works? Either you need to sit in the cockpit of a railcar as you get launched at a wall at great speed, or you can just create a portal and walk through it to another time and place. In Timecop, on the one hand, you definitely need the railcar; but on the other hand… you don’t? It’s top notch storytelling.
It’s too bad this movie sucks, because the bones of the film are actually pretty cool. We might have a great sci-fi action movie on our hands if we cleaned up the absolutely nonsensical time travel logic, choreographed actual fight scenes that feature more than splits and pointless high kicks, and fleshed out the characters beyond single lines of dialogue. Oh, and we’d have to fix that fucking ending. At the very least it should be acknowledged how problematic it is that a totally innocent version of our hero is unceremoniously erased from existence, and a kid’s loving father is replaced by a complete stranger!!
Long story short, Timecop is a bad movie, but as with Demolition Man it simply fits the bill too perfectly to be left off this list.
Time Travel 101 Lesson: Kids are fucking stupid.
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Live. Die. Repeat. (aka The Edge of Tomorrow)
Cage: “I’m not a soldier.”
Rita: “Of course not. You’re a weapon.”
While Timecop makes this list purely because the premise fits too perfectly to leave it out, and Demolition Man is at best a serviceable action flick, Live. Die. Repeat. is the first straight up great time travel action movie on this list.
An adaptation of All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, it puts a fun action twist on the auto-resetting time loop trope. [Hey! Here’s a list of auto-resetting time loop movies you should watch!]
This movie is smart, funny, and well-directed; Blunt and Cruise are great in it; the action is thrilling and fun; and it features some of cinema’s coolest, most imaginatively designed, disturbingly formidable alien invaders ever to set their sights on exterminating all life on earth.
I get all the reasons why he’s icky, but it sure is fun to watch Tom Cruise do his thing. There’s a reason he is by far the biggest action star of all time when it comes to box office success.
If you’ve never seen Live. Die. Repeat., you should remedy that as soon as you can. If you have seen it, it’s a pretty fun rewatch.
Time Travel 101 Lesson: Perhaps every sentient species carries within them the seed of their own destruction.
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“I get emails from a raccoon, so nothing sounds crazy anymore.”
In case you’re wondering, yes, Endgame is an action movie (among other things), seeing as it’s built entirely around its action setpieces. Remove the time travel and the action, and the movie would basically be: Tony Stark leaves the world’s saddest voice message; Captain America, Black Widow and the gang are feeling mighty low; Tony has a precocious young daughter and lives a peaceful life with Pepper Potts out in the sticks; Thor got fat and has a blood feud with a child who goes by the name noobmaster69; Hawkeye has a terrible new haircut and a full tattoo sleeve; professor Hulk gives autographs and loves tacos; there’s a funeral that makes everyone cry; fin.
As a franchise that jumped into the time travel game well into its run (a phenomenon we’ll explore in a future post), they sure did a great job delivering that sweet, sweet timey-wimey goodness. Not only is there time travel, but a series of attempted time travel heists. It’s pretty damn fun!
More impressive is the way the time travel in question was used to conclude what had come to be called the Infinity Saga, taking fans on a journey revisiting a decade’s worth of MCU milestones. I’m confident saying their success using time travel to create a comprehensive franchise retrospective will never be replicated. I’m less confident no one else will ever try to replicate it, since there’s at least a 40% chance Vin Diesel insists they do it in a future Fast and Furious installment.
Time Travel 101 Lesson: If you’re going to provoke the Avengers, you’d better go for the head.
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Cable : “I use a device to slide through time. The longer I travel, the harder it is to control. I got two charges: One to get me here, one to get me home.”
Deadpool: “Well, that’s just lazy writing.”
The time travel action in Deadpool 2 revolves around a riff on the basic structure of Terminator 2. A killing machine (or at least part machine) comes back from the future to kill a child. Although, this time the aim is to prevent the apocalypse as opposed to ensuring it.
It takes the first Deadpool movie’s foul-mouthed, irreverent humor and somehow finds a way to turn it up even higher. It’s got lots of violence, lots of cursing, and a heart of gold. And let us not forget that the film gives us one of the greatest time travel montages in history (not that there are very many of those out there), as Deadpool leaps around the past, striving to put right what once went wrong. By which I mean saving his girlfriend, and aborting both the original X-Men Origins: Wolverine Deadpool travesty and Ryan Reynolds’s decision to star in Green Lantern.
All in all, it’s a wonderful entry into the time travel action canon.
Time Travel 101 Lesson: If Kevin Feige doesn’t follow through on his promise to bring R-rated Deadpool into the MCU, he might find himself a target in Deadpool’s next time travel expedition. Update: Since this post’s initial publication, we’ve discovered that not only is Deadpool really and truly coming to the MCU, but he’s bringing Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine along for the ride!!!!!
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“Wait a minute. Using an RX modulator, I might be able to conduct a mainframe cell direct and hack the uplink to the download … It means that with the right computer algorithms, I can hack you back in time. Just like a time machine.”
Kung Fury is some of the most unapologetically extreme silliness ever committed to video. The 31-minute short — available to watch for free on YouTube — is totally bonkers nonsense in the best possible way. It plays like what would happen if a 12-year-old in the 80’s procrastinated from writing a report on Adolf Hitler by watching a ton of bad police action movies, kung fu films, and some especially crazy anime, then decided to write an insane screenplay instead of the report. Oh, and the kid also happens to be really into dinosaurs and Nordic-themed metal for good measure. Stand aside Chris Hemsworth, the real Thor has entered the building (jk, Thor: Ragnarok forever!!).
What makes all the insanity work is how impressively well-made the short is. David Sandberg commits entirely to the frenetic VHS visuals and absolutely nails it.
Also, if you like this, here’s some good news for you: Kung Fury 2 is coming! Not only will the whole original gang be back, but it’ll also feature Arnold Schwarzenegger as the president, and Michael Fassbender playing a character named Colt Magnum. Need I say more?
Time Travel 101 Lesson: Little known fact, but if you’re falling from a great height, you can actually open the door to your Lamborghini by firing a gun at it. No damage will be done to the car, and you’ll land safely in the driver seat ready to ride off and kick some ass.
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Terminator 2: Judgment Day
“Hasta la vista, baby.”
This is the one time travel action film to rule them all. I’m not one of those 80’s babies who watched the film over and over like a holy rite, but there’s simply no disputing T2’s place at the top of the heap.
It’s an interesting beast. The rare sort of sequel that departs greatly from the tone of the original. Gone is the lean sci-fi horror film (as seen in the previous Time Travel 101 post), replaced by a massive sci-fi action spectacle that at the time was the most expensive movie ever made.
It’s a truly generational film, so much so that it would be impossible to overstate the film’s cultural impact. It was a massive box office success, holding the title of highest grossing R-rated movie ever until The Matrix Reloaded came along in 2003.* It left a huge mark on the action landscape, with an influence that still reverberates today. Its CGI was innovative, as was Cameron and co.’s seamless blend of CGI and practical effects to avoid the uncanny valley far more than they had any right to considering the tech available at the time.
I’d argue the clearest way to see the scope of the movie’s cultural impact is in the way the film created multiple memes that spread across the culture like wildfire — and I mean meme in the broader sense of a “unit of cultural information spread by imitation.” I’m talking lines and moments that weren’t just quoted or referenced, but used to communicate other thoughts and punchlines. And this was to a truly inescapable degree. That wasn’t a thing in 1991. Yet T2’s memes had an impact that far exceeded even the most popular of today, and without any help from the internet.
Long story short, this movie was a big deal.
Time Travel 101 Lesson: The downside of all these T2 memes was millions of people delivering absolutely terrible Schwarzenegger impressions, but it’s the price we pay for an accent that has given us so much delightfully quotable dialogue over the decades. “Get to the choppa!” and “C’mon! Do it now!” from Predator are two of my personal favorites. The dude is a one man meme machine!
*I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that if you adjust for inflation, The Exorcist has never been dethroned as the highest grossing R-rated film of all time. It’s actually not even close. Suck it, Cameron!
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Other viewing: Boss Level; Freejack; Returner; Timeline; Trancers; Army of Frankensteins; 2009: Lost Memories