4 Can't-Miss Tips For Making a Successful Time-Travel Film

Time Travel Movies

I’m a sucker for a good time-travel story. I’m also a sucker for a mediocre time-travel story with a stylish veneer or a sense of humor, so I found myself surprisingly captivated by the latest, belated Men in Black sequel. It doesn’t really work, but it does make for a more interesting story than the tedious Exploits with Alien Goo that I remember from the first two Men in Black films. Fortunately, it looks like there might be even better time-travel movies on the horizon. I have high hopes for Looper, which looks somewhat Twelve Monkeys in its mood and time-travel philosophy, and Sundance favorite Safety Not Guaranteed appears to be taking the indie, Dana Scully approach to the conceit. For these and other future efforts, I’m offering four ingredients for a successful time-travel story.

[Caution: Men in Black 3 spoilers follow]

1. Don’t bother me with the technical details.
I don’t care or want to know very much about how you’re explaining the mechanics of your characters’ temporal displacement. Drive your spaceship really fast around the sun? OK! Press a button and jump off the Chrysler building? Sure, that works. Find a special hot tub or a really smart Oxford academic or a guy with a genetic quirk? Whatever, that’s all fine, as long as you don’t bother trying to explain beyond the MacGuffin. It’s time travel – like your admission to Hogwarts or the rise of the Lycans, it’s never going to happen, so please don’t waste too much time explaining how it could.

I’ve never fallen in love with the Back to the Future films, partly because of their reliance on the DeLorean as a source of drama – the gadget that lets you time travel is never as inherently interesting as what happens when you do. Men in Black 3 almost spends too much time on the process, though I’ll forgive the excuse to do a vertiginous 3-D jump from a skyscraper. And I was relieved that there was relatively little drama around whether Will Smith would lose the doohickey or break the doohickey or have an alien accidentally swallow the doohickey and have to vomit it up in a 3-D DayGlo explosion. (You know that had to have been on the table at some point.)

2. It works equally well in light or dark. Or sometimes both.
Time travel movies can be as versatile as zombie movies, without all the gore. I still have a soft spot for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home; despite the Cold War-era jokes about “nuclear wessels” and the “Save the Whales” preachiness, I enjoy watching Kirk and Spock wandering around San Francisco and dealing with pre-Siri 1980s computers. On the other hand, Terry Gilliam’s dark Twelve Monkeys is one of the best, unblinking, fatalistic looks at what traveling in time would practically mean and how much it could potentially screw up everything.

I’m especially impressed by writers that switch tones within the same time-travel universe: James Cameron, who pivoted from the gritty sci-fi horror of the first Terminator film to the jokey action movie of the second; or novelist Connie Willis, who sent one of her time travelers into the Black Death of 1340’s England and then, in a quasi-sequel, sent that characters’ colleagues into a frothy Oscar Wilde comedy. Men in Black 3 is definitely on the lighter side, though some of my favorite parts were the darker hints provided by Michael Stuhlberg’s all-seeing character. And Looper’s jumping-off point appears to be that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is in charge of summarily executing travelers from the future, including his future self – played, in a bit of perfect overlap, by the Bruce Willis who could not escape his fate in Twelve Monkeys. How ominous is that?

3. It’s one timeline, people. Novikov said so.
I know, I know, how restrictive and narrow-minded of me. This is probably the hardest thing to get right, and something that a lot of time-travel stories don’t even try to do. (Hot Tub Time Machine, I’m looking at you.) But for me, the whole point of time-travel stories is to find an interesting way to close the loop – Skynet sends a Terminator back to kill Sarah Connor before her son is born, causing Kyle Reese to come back to protect her and to conceive that son with her; Harry Potter, saved by what he thinks is the ghost of his father, travels back in time and creates that ghost. I could never really forgive the Terminator sequels for screwing up the timelines, or The Sarah Connor Chronicles for blithely jumbling them – you scramble together too many alternate universes, and you wind up with Sliders. I have some questions about how the ending of Men in Black 3 could actually work, which the movie isn’t that interested in answering, but I admit that I find it easier to excuse that laziness in comedies than in darker stories. So let’s hope Looper lives up to its name.

4. And don’t forget the payoff.
A young hustler snaps Sarah Connor’s photo at a gas station, giving her the Polaroid that will inspire Kyle Reese, 30 years later, to come back for her. Bruce Willis, haunted by childhood memories of a murder, becomes the man murdered in front of his younger self. A newly-resurrected Tasha Yar chooses to travel back in time on a doomed ship, to prevent a present that the audience knows is out of whack. The coolest part of time-travel stories are the reveals, when everything falls into place like the last click of a Rubik’s Cube. Men in Black 3 kind of half-heartedly gives us this, though not for the mysteries I'm most interested in: While there's a nice nod to the origins of the J-K partnership, I still want to know what painful thing changed Tommy Lee Jones’ personality. There’s a lot of buildup to that question — Smith’s J asks Josh Brolin’s younger K at least twice, “What happened to you, man?” – and not a very satisfactory answer, unless we’re supposed to believe that watching the death of a unnamed military officer with a kid waiting for him turned the charming Brolin into the dour Jones. I’m hoping that the next time-travel movies I see pay more attention to their kickers.

Maria Aspan is a writer living in New York whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Reuters and American Banker. She Tweets and Tumbls.


  • Izzy says:

    I take it you are not a sci-fi fan in general.

    Time Travel is not real science. Don't fight it, just go with each movies's internal logics.

    • The Cantankerist says:

      That's fine as long as the internal logic (there's only one, or should be) of each movie is consistent. You can't have Arnie lower himself into the lava in a moment of great sacrifice, wiping out the last chance that Terminators will ever be built, and then... still have the protagonists standing in the middle of a foundry, bruised and battered. How did they get there? Why does John Connor even exist? The time travel paradoxes that Terminator 1 used so elegantly are abused (or ignored) in T2 and after.

      Btw, THAT would've been a great T2 ending: Sarah Connor realising that if they destroyed the last Terminator and saved the future of the planet, John Connor would be erased from existence in the process (Kyle Reese would never be sent back in time). If you wanted to show her journey from warrior to hugsy-feely, that would be the vehicle through which to do it.

      • The Cantankerist says:

        (You might think T1 is just as unhinged - there's no way for John Connor to exist in the first place to send Kyle Reese back - but the logic unfolds in the right order for the movie and, once complete, it fits together. T2 makes itself impossible.

  • The Cantankerist says:


  • The Cantankerist says:

    Dammit, my closing bracket ended up outside the timeline the opening bracket began in. THINK OF IT AS A VISUAL ILLUSTRATION OF TIME TRAVEL PARADOX.

  • Maria A says:

    Yes! This is exactly the problem with the end of T2, not to mention the rest of the sequels. I would have loved to have seen that ending.

    And agreed, fantasy of any sort - time travel to vampires to Harry Potter - has to follow its own internal logic once the rules are laid out. But I think the quasi-scientific trappings of time travel make that rule easier for a lot of people to ignore.

  • Millie Feske says:

    Maria, what's your take on the newest Star Trek movie's claim that time-travel has now altered the continuum of space-time, according to young Spock, and thus, the loop is not closed, but open to a different future. Is this a viable concept dramatically, or is it just a clever ruse to allow for sequels?

    • Maria A says:

      Millie, I have really mixed feelings on the Star Trek reboot. It doesn't really work for me as a pure time-travel story - I didn't love its creation of an alternate timeline and having people (Spock, the Romulan villains) crossing over between universes while retaining their memories of their original universe. And I had lots of other, non-time travel-related issues with the plot ... but all that said, I thought creating a new timeline was a clever way to do a prequel without locking the writers into having to work around everything that happened in the original series and movies. (Plus the movie was just a lot of fun, which can excuse a lot!)

  • one, day i hope to be a holywood moviestar and give back to the community.