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10 best time travel movies ever made, according to a metaphysics

I am a philosophy professor and joint director of the interdisciplinary Centre for Time at the University of…
10 Best Time Travel Movies Ever Made, According To A Metaphysics

I am a philosophy professor and joint director of the interdisciplinary Centre for Time at the University of Sydney. My research focuses on the nature of time and our relationship with it. I explore the metaphysics of time in philosophy, connecting to physics and psychology. My next book will examine how our experiences of time influence our preferences about when good and bad events should occur – for instance, whether we should prefer bad events to be in the past rather than the future and good events to be in the future rather than the past.

Here is my list (in reverse order) of some of my favorite time travel films. I’ve included a variety of films from different genres that explore various aspects of time travel. Be warned, discussing them properly means there are some spoilers!


1. Midnight in Paris (2011)

10 Best Time Travel Movies Ever Made, According To A Metaphysics

Unlike many time travel films, Midnight in Paris doesn’t focus on the metaphysics of time travel. It doesn’t delve into how time travel works or its implications for understanding time, free will, and the past. Instead, it explores the theme of nostalgia. The story follows disillusioned screenwriter Gil Pender, who is visiting Paris with his girlfriend. Each night at midnight, he catches an old car that transports him back to 1920s Paris. This film is unique because, unlike others, it’s not about wanting to change the past. Gil is enchanted by the romance of the past, constantly thinking life was better in 1920s Paris. He eventually realizes that no matter where we are, we often idealize earlier eras, mistakenly believing they were the golden age. This exploration of the desire to visit, rather than change, the past is why this film is on my list.


2. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)

10 Best Time Travel Movies Ever Made, According To A Metaphysics

This film is an example of what metaphysicians call a consistent time travel story—one where time travelers don’t change the past but do interact with it. In inconsistent stories, the time traveler alters the past, making it change from one state (where the traveler wasn’t present) to another (where the traveler is present). Philosophers believe changing the past this way is impossible, so they see these stories as depicting impossible and inconsistent events. On the other hand, consistent time travel stories involve the time traveler always having been part of the past. The traveler interacts with the past, making it the way it always was.

One scene in this film makes it particularly memorable. Bill and Ted need keys to get into a building. They don’t have the keys, but the reason is that if they can access the keys in the future, they can travel back in time and leave the keys for their younger selves. They figure the keys will already be there if they succeed. And they are. This illustrates consistent time travel and a time travel loop: the keys are there because they will place them there, and they decide to place them there because that’s where they now find them.


3. Back to the Future (1985)

10 Best Time Travel Movies Ever Made, According To A Metaphysics

This classic time travel film exemplifies an inconsistent time travel story. In this story, Marty McFly travels back to the past and accidentally changes events, risking his parents’ relationship. This jeopardizes not only the future he knows but also his existence and that of his siblings. He and his siblings will never be born if his parents never become a couple. To prevent this, Marty must ensure that his parents get together.

This scenario illustrates the grandfather paradox. If someone travels back in time and kills their grandfather before their father is born, they will never be born, meaning they won’t be there to kill their grandfather. As a result, they will be born and able to travel back in time. Most philosophers believe that no time traveler will ever succeed in such an attempt. Since Marty nearly changes the past in a way that could undo his existence, this is considered an impossible story. However, that doesn’t make it any less entertaining.


4. About Time (2013)

10 Best Time Travel Movies Ever Made, According To A Metaphysics

This film explores the idea of changing the past in small ways. Tim, the protagonist, learns he can go back in time and make different choices each time. Although it doesn’t focus on the metaphysics of time travel, it would depict an impossible story if it did. Instead, the film examines what we value and what we would change. When Tim alters the past to protect his sister, he changes the identity of his future child. He realizes that the present results from all the small choices we make. By changing the past, we change the present. Reflecting on what he values, Tim eventually restores the past to its original state and learns to appreciate the present for what it is.


5. Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022)

10 Best Time Travel Movies Ever Made, According To A Metaphysics

This surrealist film is fascinating. While it may not strictly be a time travel movie, it’s about universe-hopping. Evelyn, the protagonist, is periodically taken over by a version of herself from a parallel universe. The film delves into the concept of life choices, showing a world where every decision creates multiple universes with different outcomes. It reflects on the vastly different lives we could have led if things had turned out slightly differently.


6. The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009)

10 Best Time Travel Movies Ever Made, According To A Metaphysics

This is an excellent, consistent time-travel story. It follows Henry, an involuntary time traveler who experiences life out of order. He feels largely disconnected from others until he meets Clare, who becomes his wife. The film explores their unique relationship as they meet at different times. Sometimes, an older Henry meets a young Clare; other times, a younger Henry meets an older Clare. It reflects on how our lives intersect and imagine what it would be like to live a life where events don’t unfold in a straightforward timeline but involve jumping around in time.


7. Interstellar (2014)

10 Best Time Travel Movies Ever Made, According To A Metaphysics

Finally, we have a science fiction film. “Interstellar” follows Joseph Cooper as he searches for a wormhole to help humanity escape a dying Earth. This movie is unique because it focuses on traveling to the future via time dilation rather than the past. What makes it particularly fascinating is its scientific plausibility. It offers a glimpse into the type of time travel we might encounter.

“Interstellar” explores the effects of a supermassive black hole on a crew investigating a planet. Although they spend only a few hours on the planet, 23 years pass due to the intense gravitational time dilation of the black hole. Since time moves much slower near a black hole than elsewhere, this creates a one-way trip to the future without any possibility of return.


8. Tenet (2020)

10 Best Time Travel Movies Ever Made, According To A Metaphysics

This is a film worth watching multiple times. It elevates the concept of time travel by introducing the idea of people and objects being “inverted” in terms of entropy, thus moving backward in time while we move forward. From our perspective, these inverted individuals appear to do everything in reverse, while we seem to be moving in reverse to them.

This fascinating premise aligns with the fact that, in principle, many processes can be reversed. Our physical laws are time-reversal invariant, meaning that its reverse is also possible for any process that can occur. In this respect, the film accurately represents the science, though it’s hard to imagine a device that could locally invert entropy as depicted. This film showcases consistent time travel. At one point, the protagonist fights a time-traveling version of himself and an inverted version of himself. It’s clear why it took Christopher Nolan years to write this complex story, but it’s worth watching.


9. 12 Monkeys (1995)

10 Best Time Travel Movies Ever Made, According To A Metaphysics

This is one of my favorite time travel films and a great example of a consistent story. It also features a causal loop, where an earlier event causes a later event, and that later event, in turn, causes the earlier one. In this film, James Cole is sent back in time from 2035 to 1996 because of a deadly virus outbreak that happened in 1996. He’s not sent back to prevent the outbreak because, in 2035, they know the outbreak occurred, and the past can’t be changed. Instead, they want to find the virus’s origin to develop a cure.

Having looked at historical records, Cole believes that the Army of the 12 Monkeys, led by Jeffrey Goines, is responsible for spreading the virus. However, it turns out the Army of the 12 Monkeys wasn’t the source of the epidemic. The causal loop comes into play because Goines started the organization after hearing about it from Cole. And Cole heard about it because Goines started it. So, we have a causal loop.


10. Predestination (2014)

10 Best Time Travel Movies Ever Made, According To A Metaphysics

His is my top choice. Based on a story by Robert Heinlein, Predestination is a remarkable example of a consistent time travel story. The film revolves around a character named Jane who, it is revealed, is intersex and possesses both male and female reproductive organs. Jane meets and falls in love with a young man and becomes pregnant with his child. After he disappears, Jane’s life spirals out of control. Later, she transforms into John, traveling back to meet Jane.

Predestination explores themes of free will and predestination. John remembers his experiences as Jane, and despite the pain, he encounters when he travels back as John, he fathers a child with Jane and then abandons her. To add complexity, the baby Jane bears is sent back and becomes Jane (and later John). Thus, Jane’s existence forms a causal loop—she is both her mother and father, coming into existence through this loop. The film delves into the complexities of fate and how much control we have over our lives.


11. Conclusion

These films entertain and challenge our understanding of time and its complexities. Whether exploring paradoxes, causality, or the nature of reality itself, each movie on this list offers a unique perspective on the concept of time travel, making them essential viewing for anyone intrigued by the possibilities of temporal manipulation.


12. FAQs

Q1: How do these movies relate to metaphysics?

Ans: These movies often explore metaphysical concepts such as determinism, causality, alternate realities, and the nature of time itself. They provoke thought about the philosophical implications of time travel and the human experience within temporal frameworks.

Q2: What makes these movies stand out for a metaphysicist?

Ans: These films delve beyond the surface of time travel as a plot device, engaging with deeper questions about existence, consciousness, and the fabric of reality. They challenge viewers to contemplate the nature of free will, fate, and the interconnectedness of events across time.

Q3: Are these movies scientifically accurate?

Ans: While some aspects may align with current scientific theories (like time dilation in “Interstellar”), many elements are speculative or exaggerated for dramatic effect. Nevertheless, they stimulate discussions about theoretical physics and the boundaries of our understanding of time and space.

Q4: Can time travel exist?

Ans: According to current scientific knowledge, time travel remains theoretical and subject to ongoing debate among physicists. These movies explore hypothetical scenarios based on current theories, offering imaginative interpretations of what time travel could entail.

Q5: What philosophical themes do these movies explore?

Ans: These movies delve into profound philosophical themes such as the nature of causality, the existence of parallel universes, the implications of free will versus determinism, and the ethical dilemmas of altering the past or future. They challenge viewers to reconsider their perceptions of time as a linear construct and to ponder the interconnectedness of events across temporal dimensions.

Ans: Yes, many of these movies use recurring motifs such as clocks, mirrors, and symbolic imagery to convey deeper meanings about time and existence. These symbols often underscore the themes of inevitability, introspection, and the cyclical nature of human experience within the context of temporal manipulation.

Ans: While they may take artistic liberties with scientific concepts, these films contribute to shaping popular culture’s fascination with time travel. They provoke curiosity and debate about the theoretical possibilities and consequences of manipulating time, fostering a broader appreciation for the complexities of temporal theory beyond their entertainment value.

Q8: Can these movies offer insights into metaphysical theories beyond time travel?

Ans: Absolutely. By exploring themes of identity, consciousness, and existential angst, these films resonate with metaphysical inquiries into the nature of reality itself. They encourage viewers to contemplate the fundamental questions of existence and the boundaries of human perception within the vast tapestry of time and space.

Q9: How do these movies contribute to our understanding of the human experience?

Ans: These movies explore time travel and its implications and offer insights into human nature, resilience, and the quest for meaning in the face of temporal uncertainties. They often depict characters grappling with profound existential questions and ethical dilemmas, resonating with universal themes that transcend the boundaries of time itself.

Q10: Are there notable directors or actors associated with these films?

Ans: Yes, many of these movies are helmed by visionary directors known for their adept handling of complex narratives and thematic depth. Actors often embody roles that require navigating intricate timelines and emotional landscapes, contributing to the films’ impact and resonance with audiences.


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