On the surface, the idea of time travel seems great, but scratch below and you run into all sorts of problems. Chief among them is the fact that, if you so much as step on a butterfly in the past, you’ll return to a drastically different present. Here’s a list of movies that provide cautionary tales of traveling back and forth in time.
10. Time After Time
The only reason writer-director Nicholas Meyer’s brilliant movie is last is that it’s a sweet-natured romance. It depicts H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) romancing his soul mate, while pursuing Jack the Ripper (David Warner). Why is a gentle Victorian trying to hunt down a serial killer in ’70s San Francisco? Because Wells has made a time machine and the Ripper has used it to jet to the twentieth century.
9. Army of Darkness
The third Evil Dead ignores the fact that messing around in the past can radically alter the future. Who cares? Forcing beleaguered Ash (Bruce Campbell) to battle hordes of dead people in the Middle Ages, with nothing but a shotgun and soon-to-be useless junker (the era being without gas stations), makes for more gruesome gags than you’d think would fit into an 81-minute flick.
8. The Butterfly Effect
A brilliant psych major (Ashton Kutcher) has been thinking about his childhood and suddenly realizes he can put his finger on the moment everything went wrong. He then discovers he can project yourself into the past. Should he try to fix things?
Homicide detective John Sullivan (James Caviezel) never came to terms with the 1969 death of his firefighter father (Dennis Quaid). When he discovers that electrical activity allows him to communicate with Dad, via ham radio, he ends up reanimating a long-dead serial killer.
6. The Jacket
A shell-shocked Gulf War veteran (Adrien Brody) becomes the subject of a cruel drug experiment that jerks him back and forth in time, between 1992 and 2007. Brody is the chief draw in this sci-fi-tinged drama: there’s the evil doctor (Kris Kristofferson), the doc’s secretive colleague (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and a girl in the future he probably won’t be able to save (Keira Knightley).
5. The Triangle
A storm capsizes a yacht and forces its passengers — including single mother Jess (Melissa George), whose fledgling romance with rich Greg doesn’t sit well with his snooty friends — to take refuge on a seemingly abandoned ocean liner. Why is the ship tormenting Jess, by offering her a chance to do over the worst moment in her life?
4. Twelve Monkeys
Terry Gilliam’s feature-length variation on Chris Marker’s La Jetée sends Bruce Willis — survivor of a worldwide plague that has driven humanity underground — into to the past, to revisit the scene of a memory of seeing a man die at Baltimore-Washington Airport.
3. Los cronocrímenes (Timecrimes)
One minute, Hector is sitting in his backyard, idly scanning the woods with binoculars. Next, he’s up to his head in weirdness: watching a young woman strip off her top, dealing with a man swaddled in carelessly-wrapped bandages, and visiting a research facility where he hides inside a freaky machine with time-travel capabilities.
2. Donnie Darko
Richard Kelly’s dreamy fable of adolescent discontent centers on Frank, a man in a head-to-toe rabbit suit who warns alienated high schooler Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) that bad things are on the horizon. Can Donnie change them?
1. La jetée (The Jetty)
Told entirely in black-and-white stills, Chris Marker’s devastating 30-minute movie tells the story of a postapocalyptic plan to redo history. Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys riffed on Marker’s movie intelligently, but the original is an elegant distillation of life’s one unalterable: you can’t escape yourself.