How a time travel movie is conceived and executed establishes how complicated it can become. Some filmmakers avoid the complexities, others attempt it and make a mess of the timeline(s), but a few embrace the convoluted nature of time travel and do a fantastic job with the execution. Before we go into the list, let me be clear on how I define a time travel movie. So long as there is one person experiencing time in a non-linear fashion, the film makes it into the category. This is Barry, welcome to my site, and here is my list of the most complex time travel movies that are well-executed (in no particular order).
Back To The Future: Part 2
I’m talking specifically about the second part. And why is that? Because a significant portion of the film’s events happens on the same date as the first movie. You see two of Martin and Doc Brown, and they have to make sure they achieve their objective without disturbing any of the events from the first film. This complexity does nothing to affect the film’s humour and quirky characters.
The timeline diagram that Doc Brown draws on the blackboard is iconic and is used by almost everyone to explain complicated time travel movies today. Watching many of the scenes from the first part in the backdrop of this sequel is what makes it extraordinary. Many other time travel movies have emulated this idea in their plots.
Oriol Paulo’s films are a pleasure to watch. He’s got a real talent for non-linear storytelling in the genre of murder mysteries. Mirage combines a crime-thriller with science fiction and time travel in one movie. This time travel movie follows a multi-timeline approach and keeps you on edge with multiple plot twists. A mysterious storm causes a TV to become a bridge across 25 years, enabling characters to communicate with the past. Information that is shared with the past results in different decisions and thereby creates an alternate timeline. Facts and events from each timeline are aggregated to solve the case of murder. It’s enjoyable to watch other subtle pieces of information getting unearthed due to the altered timeline and how they feed into the plot.
The ending of the film wraps up all the time-complications very well, leaving almost no plot holes. Placing a murder mystery within the container of time travel and the movie’s non-linear narrative really make Mirage quite unique.
You can find a detailed explanation with a timeline diagram here – Mirage Explained.
You have probably not heard of this low budget Australian film, but it’s a pretty wicked time travel movie. A man wants his girlfriend and himself to relive their anniversary of the previous year. When they do so, they end up encountering multiple versions of themselves travelling back various times into the past. You really need to not blink when you watch this film, as the same events are revisited time and over from different perspectives. The Infinite Man follows a single timeline model and handles the time-complexities superbly. Each character loops back a different number of times. The execution challenge then becomes how to let the who is who and what the reason was for travelling back in time. This complexity was handled excellently in the film.
Infinite Man really deserves more attention considering something this complicated was achieved in a tiny budget with three actors and no special effects. Oh, did I mention some scenes are damn funny too?
For a detailed breakdown of the film and a timeline diagram, read this – The Infinite Man Explained.
The fate of 20+ films was riding on Avengers: Endgame. We had already witnessed X-Men: Days Of Future Past, which was otherwise a good film, mess up the timeline so badly it erased the events of the original movies and left the fate of future films in the dark. Endgame needed to revisit multiple films of the MCU to temporarily borrow Infinity Stones. To achieve this, the multiple timeline approach was strategically adopted. Meaning travelling to the past of the prime MCU timeline cannot alter it, and all past events occur in alternate timelines. This ensured that all of the prior 20+ movies were preserved. It also provided a clear direction for future MCU films which will be set in the prime MCU timeline. Using this setup, they took the liberty to mess around with the events of previous movies to introduce repercussions of time travel. Examples of this are when we see two Caps fighting and Loki disappearing with the Tesseract.
The best part of this is if future directors choose, they can explore tinkering with plots set in any of the five alternate timelines created in Endgame. Considering the time travel movie wrapped up revisits to older movies in a smart way, learning from the small mistakes in Back To The Future, Endgame definitely deserves mention in this list.
For an extensive analysis of the time travel, plot and characters with a timeline video, go here – Avengers: Endgame Explained.
Primer is centred on two guys who discover time travel accidentally while experimenting with gravitational effects on objects. While the first couple of trips to the past make the film look easy, it soon escalates into a web of timelines folding onto themselves in an extremely convoluted manner. Primer also sports one of the most creative mechanics of time travel using the simple logic that you cannot travel back to before the time machine was switched on or primed. The movie smartly uses this limitation to show how the characters need to come up with ingenious ideas to travel back multiple times. The fascinating bit is that the reason for time-travel comes from pure scientific curiosity and not to achieve a grand purpose. While there might appear to be a few loose ends, the film wraps it up nice and tight. Do pay close attention to everything in this film, and yeah, you’ll need to watch it twice.
No time travel movies’ list is complete without the mention of Primer. The film was produced within a teeny tiny budget of $7000 and yet presents one of the most complicated sets of timelines one can imagine.
Here’s a detailed timeline-wise explanation of this movie – Primer Explained.
12 Monkeys is too close to the COVID-19 virus epidemic for comfort. This time travel movie sees a dystopian future trying to identify the original strain of a virus that took out most of the living beings on the planet. The scientists of the future rely on time travel to identify the source of the infection. The film sports a single faultless timeline with every event tying up beautifully at the end. Small pieces of apparently isolated incidents begin connecting and come together as a whole to reveal the planned solution for the epidemic.
Wading through the misdirections, and the way Cole slowly narrows down and locates the source and how his actions affect the timeline (or rather don’t) makes this film an excellent piece of time travel thriller.
Here’s a detailed plot analysis and explanation of the film – 12 Monkeys Explained.
Predestination is the mother of all time complexities that one can witness in a time travel movie. When you try to mentally visualize this single timeline’s flow of events, you will have a couple of nosebleeds. Based on the short story All You Zombies, Predestination extrapolates the book brilliantly. The character development, their interaction and how their stories merge into a larger scheme of events is intriguing and surprises you continually. Every time you think you are getting a hold on what’s happening, the film takes it up a notch and in the end, brings it all together and leaves you talking to yourself.
Predestination is perhaps the most flawless execution of an extremely complex time travel plot while establishing that everything about the movie is one giant paradox.
Here’s everything you need to understand and untangle this film’s plot (yes, there’s a timeline diagram) – Predestination Explained.
Déjà Vu is the classic tale of hunting down a bomber before he strikes again. The catch, however, is that the team uses a time device to follow the life of one of the victims to get the bomber. While the folks of science, who believe in paradoxes, believe that the victim’s fate is sealed, Agent Doug finds it impossible to ignore the obvious that apart from nabbing the bomber he can save the lives of many, but this requires messing with time and rewriting history as they know it.
Though the execution of the film does introduce mild plot holes, the timelines in the movie are wrapped up pretty convincingly at the end. The really innovative sequence is the car chase taking place between two vehicles in entirely different times.
Timecrimes is a fun Spanish time travel movie happening over the duration of one day and a single timeline. What’s unique about this film is that the lead character who travels through is an average Joe. Typically the person travelling through time intends it and is well versed with the science behind it. Not in Time Crimes though. Héctor fumbles his way through most of the plot, and it’s the nature of time that seems to iron things out automatically. The entire film is a giant series of accidents complicating matters for the central character as he gets through his extra-long day.
Multiple Hectors cluelessly running around and amplifying time complications provides for a good deal of humour. Timecrimes is well-executed, and the end of the film wraps up any loose ends and maintains the timeline integrity beautifully.
To read a detailed explanation of this movie, go here – Timecrimes Explained.
Butterfly Effect toggles back and forth, repeatedly creating multiple futures based on small yet significant actions. The story is thought through well and lays out the prime timeline with strategically placed voids in the first half. The latter half revisits these pockets of missing memories, offering a choice to the protagonist to execute a different action.
The protagonist making a small change to a single event causes a cascading effect over years leading up to a drastic and unexpected change to the future. True to its name, Butterfly Effect plays off on Chaos Theory fantastically.
This is a low budget film showcasing an innovative angle to non-linear events via the means of a mystical camera that takes pictures of the future, of the next day. Time Lapse lacks quality characters but makes up for it by executing a single timeline well. At the beginning of the film, we are shown one picture weeks into the future, while the remaining photos are 24hrs into the future. The characters witnessing the pictures of their future creates a chain of events leading up to that final photograph. What’s more, is that the camera possibly takes photos as close as 12 hrs into the future. Regardless of the characters’ intentions and actions, they keep feeding into their fate which refuses to get altered.
Despite a complicated chain of events, the film manages the timeline accurately. It leaves no room for flaws in the execution and hence Time Lapse finds its way into this list despite its poor character development.
Here’s a detailed plot analysis for the film with each of the pictures from the camera – Time Lapse Explained.
Triangle is not strictly a time travel movie. But as I mentioned before, as long as one character experiences time non-linearly, the film qualifies. The film contains time loops that have three versions of the lead at any given moment on a abandoned ship. The film is quite complicated and yet manages to deliver an airtight sequence of events looping on itself wonderfully.
Placed in the slasher genre, Triangle has brilliantly conceived time loops. The cherry on top really is the ending which discloses the reason why the loops have come into existence.
Here’s a complete numbered loop-wise detailed breakdown of the movie – Triangle Explained.
Barry is a technologist who helps start-ups build successful products. His love for movies and production has led him to write his well-received film explanation and analysis articles to help everyone appreciate the films better. He’s regularly available for a chat conversation on his website and consults on storyboarding from time to time.
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