8 Time Travel Movies Where a Protagonist is Literally Their Own Worst Enemy. [Time Travel 101]
There’s no doubt that when Nietzsche said, “The worst enemy you can meet will always be yourself,” he meant it figuratively. Yet, if our boy Freddy Wilhelm had taken time travel into account, I’m confident he would’ve expanded his meaning to include a literal interpretation.
The relationship each of us has with ourselves is a complicated thing. It’s often fraught and conflicted. For many of us it’s downright contentious. It’s a truth we see reflected in film, as the history of cinema is teeming with varied examples of self-sabotage. I’d say it’s harder to find movies where the main characters don’t act as one of the main obstacles they need to overcome as they fight for what they want or need.
Usually in movies, as in life, that struggle with self is internal. However, once you add time travel into the mix, the possibility arises for a character to encounter a past, future, or interdimensional version of themself. Suddenly, there’s a chance for this whole self-sabotage thing to slide decisively into the ‘external conflict’ column.
Obviously we’d all like to believe that, given the chance, all our various selves would be on the same team. After all, two, or three, or even ten heads are better than one. But sadly, if movies are any indication, the opposite is far more likely.
Needless to say, this is something any would-be time traveler needs to be prepared for! Whether it happens due to carelessness or necessity, once we start creating time loops that might bring us into contact with other versions of ourselves, dire consequences might be just around the corner.
The movies below can be a primer of sorts [hey, that’s the title of one of these movies!] as we explore one of the biggest hazards in time travel. There are so many dangerous characters we might meet out there in the spacetime continuum, but like Nietzsche (sort of) said, the most dangerous of all is probably you.
Here are eight time travel movies where a protagonist is literally their own worst enemy.
Spoiler Warning! For several of these movies, even finding out they belong on the list is a spoiler. As such, I implore you to proceed with the utmost caution. I’ve put them in ascending order of spoilerines, saving the most egregious examples for the end.
I don’t want to talk about time travel, because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.
In Looper, the whole ‘your own worst enemy’ thing is baked right into the cake.
The film imagines a future where time travel exists, but the murder and discreet disposal of bodies has become a virtual impossibility. Rather than just giving up on the whole homicide thing, crime syndicates send the unfortunate targets of their ire back in time, where they are executed by specialized hitmen, such as the one played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
It’s a highly lucrative gig for those with the necessary lack of conscience, but it comes with a terrible caveat: taking the job means agreeing to eventually ‘close your loop’ by executing your future self, with grizzly consequences if you fail to do so.
As can be expected, our protagonist inadvertently lets his future self escape, kicking off a race against time. Joe needs to kill himself before it’s too late, sacrificing his distant future to salvage his present.
Enter Emily Blunt and the wee mutant Cid. Complications ensue, pathos is added to the time travel mayhem, and Rian Johnson proves yet again that no matter what genre he tackles, he’ll never fail to do something interesting and well-crafted [and yes, I’m including The Last Jedi. Fight me!]
If you’re trying to understand the whole ‘your own worst enemy’ time travel trope, Looper is where you begin.
Time Travel 101 Lesson: Don’t kill people for money. [I really hope this is a lesson you’ve already learned, with or without time travel being involved!]
You disgust me, but that doesn’t mean you’re useless.
Ahead of the film’s release, if you’d asked fans, “Which heroes will get the most screen time in Avengers: Endgame?,” I can’t imagine anyone would’ve had a hard time correctly identifying that Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America would comprise the top three spots. After that, however, is there single fan alive who could have guessed that Nebula would come in fourth?!
The Russo Brothers had the daunting tasks of closing out a decade’s worth of stories, providing satisfying farewells for some of the most beloved characters in modern cinema, and trying to balance screen time and narrative significance for a remarkably large cast. To say screen time and narrative weight were at a premium would be a considerable understatement. Yet somehow, a supporting player from a franchise at the fringe of the MCU played a central role in the events that closed out the Infinity Saga.
Yet for all her time in the spotlight, it’s easy to miss just how great Nebula’s time travel storyline is. We’re talking USDA Prime time travel goodness, as Nebula literally grapples with the person she used to be. It’s a story arc that easily could’ve been the basis for an entire standalone Nebula film, yet in Endgame, it’s just another layer in a remarkably satisfying lasagna. [That’s two back-to-back food references, apparently I need to go make a snack.]
All that to say that, with Endgame, Nebula has earned her place amongst the all time great characters in cinematic time travel history!
Time Travel 101 Lesson: If you used to be a blood-thirsty murder-cyborg obsessed with earning the approval of an evil god, time travel is probably going to be more perilous for you than it is for the rest of us.
The Infinite Man
Lana: “Why do you hate yourself so much?”
Dean: “Are you kidding? Look at him.”
Proof that you can make a great time travel movie with a minuscule budget, The Infinite Man is one of my favorite discoveries from this cinematic time travel deep dive. It’s funny, smart, and full to the brim with airtight time travel fun.
When a romantic weekend getaway goes horribly wrong, a man creates a way to go back in time for a second chance to get things right. Unfortunately, the insecurity and self-loathing that ruined the weekend in the first place only get worse as he adds more versions of himself into the mix.
No other film I’ve seen does a better job of using the ‘own worst enemy’ trope as a metaphor for our own propensity for self-sabotage, and this won’t be the last you’ll hear from me about this gem of a film that too few people have heard of! For now, suffice it to say you should absolutely watch it!
Time Travel 101 Lesson: If you hate yourself, using time travel to create even more of you is never going to be a good idea. Or, to put it another way, if you’re already your own worst enemy figuratively, it’s a terrible idea to risk making it literal.
In any case, proceed with extreme caution if you make the ill-advised decision to use time travel as a way to work out your issues with intimacy and self worth.
Time Travel 101 Bonus Lesson: If you run into trouble while traveling in time and need some help, you could do a lot worse than heading down to Oceania. Australia and New Zealand have created a disproportionately large percentage of time travel films over recent years, including three of the nine movies on this list! It shouldn’t be hard to find some experts in the field, cinematically speaking of course.
Mega Time Squad
I’m a sucker for droll New Zealand comedy [Taika for life!], and Mega Time Squad delivers in spades. It even features What We Do in the Shadows’ Jonny Brugh as a “crime boss” in small-town New Zealand (and I mean smallllltown), whose entire gang is just a bunch of dumb, shiftless 20-somethings.
One of those dumb, shiftless 20-somethings is John, our time traveling protagonist. During an inept robbery meant to be part of an even more inept double-cross, he winds up taking a bracelet that can zap him a short ways back in time. As they always are, the magical bracelet is cursed. As they always do, he ignores the warning.
As he tries to elude would-be murderers, John starts creating time loops to team up with two or three versions of himself at a time. Surprising no one, this quickly escalates. The result is the creation of so many Johns that they start their own gang: the Mega Time Squad!
Trouble is, when all the Johns want the money, and all the Johns want to get the girl in the end, it’s not hard to see how the whole thing quickly devolves into an ‘own worst enemy’ scenario.
While it features a fair amount of murder, Mega Time Squad is still a bighearted comedy filled with dim-witted but lovable characters and all the offbeat, deadpan Kiwi comedy you could ask for.
Time Travel 101 Lesson: Don’t use time loops to intentionally create a bunch of versions of yourself. Just don’t.
The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part
The winds were ferocious. The isolation, intense. I waited for my friends, seemed to last forever. That’s when I learned, there was no one I could trust but me.
Let’s be honest, the first LEGO movie was far better than anyone expected. The general, well-warranted assumption was that the film would be the sort of lazy kids movie that uses a familiar IP to make a bunch of money, even though the movie is shit. Think The Smurfs franchise, The Angry Birds Movie, The Emoji Movie, the Alvin and the Chipmunks franchise, and on and on.
Instead, we got a smart, well-written, genuinely funny, feel good movie with an unexpected bit of emotional depth on the back end.
While it’s not as good as the original, The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part is still a worthy successor, and this time there’s time travel!
Who knew Undar of the Dryar System would turn the relentlessly optimistic and warmhearted Emmet Brickowski into such a huge dick? Well, it did, forcing present-day Emmet to face off against Rex Dangervest, a bitter, angry, badass future version of himself.
Oh, and Rex also just so happens to be voice actor Chris Pratt’s movie avatar: “a Galaxy-defending archaeologist, cowboy, raptor trainer — who likes building furniture, busting heads, and having chiseled features previously hidden under baby fat!” It’s exactly the sort of silly but clever plot twist we can count on in a Phil Lord and Chris Miller joint.
Time Travel 101 Lesson: No matter how great you are now, you still need to be wary of future versions of yourself. None of us are immune to turning into an asshole.
One More Spoiler Warning: These last three are relatively even in spoiler factor, and that degree is significant. All three are must watch time travel movies, but knowing the characters wind up fighting themselves is a considerable spoiler.
Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes)
We still have a while before it starts raining.
Nacho Vigalondo’s 2007 time travel horror/thriller is an indisputable must-watch title if you’re taking a tour of the genre. It’s also required viewing for the educational purposes of Time Travel 101.
Hector’s day is horrifying enough when he’s stabbed by a mysterious man in a trench coat and a face wrapped in pink bandages. That day gets significantly worse when, while trying to hide from said villain, he inadvertently gets in a time machine.
His trip to earlier that day kicks off an ever-worsening nightmare scenario. Every time he gets back in the machine, hoping to preclude the day’s tragedies, he only continues to reveal a horrible truth: the tragedy is worse than he realized, and he played a larger role in it than he could’ve imagined.
Los Cronocrímenes is a great example of the ‘own worst enemy’ trope, and it’s on my shortlist of the greatest time travel films of all time.
Time Travel 101 Lesson: It may only take a few hours to transform you into someone you barely recognize, both literally and figuratively.
What’s worse, you know, thinking you’re being paranoid, or knowing you should be?
This microbudget-mumblecore-sci-fi gem is the platonic ideal of DIY filmmaking. There are no special effects, the most exotic location is a storage facility, wardrobe most likely came directly out of the actors’ closets, the main cast could fit in a sedan, and the time travel machine props were probably built with supplies from a quick trip to Home Depot. Long story short, the entire film cost $7k to make!!
It’s the story of two men who inadvertently create a time machine, then struggle to come to terms with how to use it responsibly, while still using it for personal gain. As their philosophies on time travel continue to diverge, their relationship devolves into a web of mistrust and betrayal. This not only pits them against each other, but against alternate versions of themselves — some of whom they don’t even know exist!
The film’s tension is primarily powered by how tightly crafted the mind-bending time travel chicanery is. The budget for the pens and paper you’ll go through trying to track the time loops will likely approach what it cost for writer-director-star Shane Carruth to make the movie in the first place!
Time Travel 101 Lesson: Time travel is a powerful thing. You suddenly have the ability to act in the past with knowledge of the future, or interfere with events over and over until you get a desired outcome. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how easily this might begin to feed our darker impulses,
Proceed with caution, because as the adage goes, power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and time travel power corrupts time
Downstairs right now is a copy of me. Me! Walking and talking with Greg!
With this entry, Triangle officially becomes the first movie to be featured on two different lists! [Spoiler alert: it won’t be the last time the movie shows up!]
The film features three iterations of the same time loop, overlapping each other as they repeat simultaneously in the same physical space, albeit in staggered sequence. Needless to say, it’s up there with Primer as the two mind-bendiest films on the list. Every time you think you’ve figured things out, the movie rocks beneath your feet, shifting your perspective to reveal nothing is what you thought it was. Even for the seasoned cinephiles among us, who pride ourselves on seeing reveals coming a mile away, the movie has a habit of turning those reveals upside down later in the film.
The sole character aware of what’s happening quickly finds herself at odds with the versions of herself from the other loops (I told you, it’s mind-bending!), leaving her desperately trying to figure out what the fuck is actually happening in time to save her friends in spite of herself. Literally.
The possible causes of the time loop in Triangle are more mysterious and supernatural than any time travel we might get up to, but it still most definitely offers a worthwhile case study in just how horrifying interactions with alternate versions of one’s self can get.
Time Travel 101 Lesson: [Significant additional, but theoretical, spoiler! Do not read if you ever plan to watch this movie!] If the reason you’re at odds with yourself is a repeating time loop kicked off when you did something truly monstrous, you just might be in hell!
Bonus: Deadpool 2
You’re welcome, Canada.
Deadpool 2’s main story doesn’t feature any characters battling themselves, but the post-credits scene sure does. Wade Wilson uses Cable’s time travel device to right wrongs as he hops back and forth along multiple timelines. After making sure to retroactively save his girlfriend from her tragic demise, he breaks the fourth wall long enough to correct two infamous Ryan Reynolds career choices. He kills the horrible Deadpool adaptation from X-Men Origins: Wolverine (right before he has a chance to kick off the terrible final battle), then murders the actual Ryan Reynolds just after he decides to accept the eponymous role in Warner Bros’ Green Lantern. Are they examples of a character at odds with other versions of himself? Yes. Would ridding the world of those two abominations be a gift to humanity? Definitely! However, as far as ridding the world of abominations goes, he does ultimately fail to find the nerve to kill baby Hitler.
Time Travel 101 Lesson: Be careful about the embarrassing mistakes you make, or else a vindictive, smart-ass version of yourself might come back and kill you just to get a laugh.
And there you have it, 8.5 movies to help us navigate one of time travel’s greatest perils. Happy watching!
Additional viewing: Bill & Ted Face the Music, Hurok, Reset, Army of Darkness, Predestination, +1.