This weekend sees the 30th anniversary of The Terminator, the movie that not only gave James Cameron, Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger (the actor) to the world, but also reminded people that, hey, time travel stories could be a lot of fun if done right — even if they didn’t all include Bill Paxton as the dad of his own best friend when he was a kid. Uh, spoilers, I guess…?
In celebration of the movie’s birthday, here is some of the best time travel to be found on Netflix right now. (Although, as the following movies might make you wonder, what does “right now” even mean, if you look at it in the right way…?) From simple jumping to the future by accident to the creation of alternate timelines through matters and means that might presage the end of existence as we know it, it’s all here — as long as you can find enough time to watch all these movies, of course.
BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER: THE WAR OF 1995 (1960)
What says “Cold War-era time travel movie?” better than a film in which a U.S. airman ends up in the distant future — by which I actually mean the year 2024, which seemed like a long time away back then — only to find that it’s a diseased dystopia ruled by telepathic Russians. Even worse: there are other time travelers who have come to the era, and they’re Russians as well. If you’ve ever wished for a version of Planet of the Apes where the political metaphor was far less subtle, then this beauty is all for you.
THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT (1984)
Oddly enough, the mid-1980s saw an upswing in time travel tales. In the same year as Terminator, this cult pic — which includes RoboCop’s Nancy Allen and future Groundhog Day insurance salesman Stephen Tobolowsky (sadly, Groundhog Day isn’t available on Netflix Instant) — expanded on the real-life urban myth of the 1943 naval experiment in which the USS Eldridge was believed to become invisible to enemy detection by suggesting that the reason it was invisible was that it had traveled 40 years into the future. To be fair, that’s as likely as any other explanation…
STAR TREK IV THE VOYAGE HOME (1986)
Readily agreed to by all but the most hardcore fans to be the most frothy of the Star Trek movies, watching William Shatner’s Captain Kirk, Leonard McCoy’s Spock et al travel back to the present day in order to save both the whales and humanity gave the series its sense of humor back, and made the outer space adventures of the crew of the erstwhile Enterprise far more inviting and entertaining than they had been for some time. All this, and the chance to see punks, too much velour and one of the best scenes involving a boom box in all of cinema.
BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE (1989)
It’s very possible that time travel movies peaked with the first Bill & Ted, which managed to be impressively stupid and quietly, sneakily clever in a way that few time travel stories dare to be — watching the two heroes figure out their jailbreak and all the coincidences that come into play in real time as a result is quite something, if nothing else. A quarter of a century later, it might still be the best movie that Keanu Reeves ever appeared in, as well.
TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY (1992)
While the original Terminator may not be on Netflix streaming, its sequel is. Terminator 2 did for the franchise for James Cameron’s Aliens did for Ridley Scott’s Alien series: beef up the violence and tone down the harder sci-fi aspects of the first movie. So this time around, we get twice the time traveling, but less of the time paradoxes of the original — with the result being something that’s far more visually spectacular than the first Terminator, but maybe a little less interesting in the process. Still, at least we get Robert Patrick as a killing machine who’s so much scarier than Arnold.
LES VISITEURS (1993)
This French twist on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court brings a proud knight and his faithful servant to modern-day France only for them to immediately get into exactly the kind of trouble you’d expect from a European farce — which is to say, sex, misunderstandings and class commentary are on the menu in this odd, likable movie. Think of Astrerix, but with more sauciness.
DONNIE DARKO (2001)
Sure, everyone remembers Donnie Darko for the giant rabbit and the chance to see Patrick Swayze as an unsettling motivational speaker, but it’s really all one big time travel movie with two distinct timelines to play in and a couple of science teachers trying to explain that to Jake Gyllenhaal’s title character and the audience while everything’s unfolding. Whether or not they succeed is open to interpretation — it’s certainly not the most easily understandable movie ever made — but as an example of twisty time-travel stuff, it’s nonetheless particularly hypnotic.
LOST: THE CONSTANT (2008)
Talking of the twisty stuff, hidden away in the fourth season of the ABC drama that — let’s be honest — disappointed most of us by the time we got to the end was this great little hour of time-travel genius. Recalling Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, watching Desmond be unstuck in time before finally being reconnected with his true love might not be the kind of thing that appeals to those for whom sci-fi is a purely intellectual exercise, but if you’ve got a beating heart inside your chest, I dare you not to get a lump in your throat when the two get to speak again for the first time in too long.
TIME TRAVELER: THE GIRL WHO LEAPT THROUGH TIME (2010)
Both an adaptation of and a sequel to the Japanese novel Toki o Kakeru Shojo, this comedy of time traveling errors has more than a little bit of Back to the Future in it — a scientist sends her daughter back in time to get a message to her first love, but she ends up in the wrong time period and hijinks (and multiple mistaken chronological paradoxes) ensue. Admittedly, there’s no DeLorean, but there are people literally falling on each other as they jump through time, which more than makes up for it.
DOCTOR WHO: THE DAY OF THE DOCTOR (2013)
Last year saw the 50th anniversary of the BBC’s long-running science fiction show, and to celebrate, the producers offered up this feature-length tale that went for broke in terms of what the lead character himself would call “timey-wimey-ness”: Three different versions of the Doctor end up crossing paths at an important part of their shared histories, only to discover that none of them might be remembering it properly all along. Admittedly, relatively heavy on the larger mythology of the series — although you can definitely pick up the essentials in this episode alone — and hidden away thanks to Netflix’s odd categorization system (It’s the second-to-last episode of the seventh season, apparently), but as an example of what can be done within the genre, it’s pretty hard to beat.