Six Films with Insane Time Loops

By  · Published on September 1st, 2011

The best thing to do if you find yourself traveling through time is to go back in time and tell yourself to never travel through time, because you’re almost certainly going to fuck something up. For more advice on time travel, hop in your time machine and re-read this paragraph.

Done? Okay. Now, assuming time travel really did work, there are multiple theories on the hows and whys. I could get really detailed on each, but I have a word limit and, like most Americans, I’m terrible at science (and please keep that in mind if I mess up any of the science in the rest of this article). I count myself lucky that my school even taught me evolution at this point.

But one of the most compelling models of time travel is that of the closed time loop. In a closed time loop, time is immutable and there are no alternate timelines. You can’t change time because you already traveled back in time before. You always hopped in that time machine to go have one last bottle of Crystal Pepsi. It’s already a part of history (just like Crystal Pepsi, sadly). Yes, that does mean that in the normal flow of time, you popped in from the not-yet-defined “future”, drank your Crystal Pepsi, and disappeared again, creating a paradox that would only be solved when you built the time machine and… yeah, let’s not get into all that.

The point is, closed time loops can lead to some pretty clever storytelling and fun brain hemorrhages for the audience. But not only that, they’re really the only type of time travel that’s actually relatively stable. (Technically, alternate timelines are stable, but if they’re infinitely growing based on every branching decision, that opens up a whole other can of worms.) So here then, are six movies whose stories hinge around closed time loops and thus, only have relatively minor predestination paradoxes. Isn’t science fun?

12 Monkeys

Bruce Willis plays Bruce Willis in this Terry Gilliam film about fate and destiny and Brad Pitt being crazy. Throughout the film, Bruce flashes back to a childhood memory of a man being shot by police at an airport shortly before a virus hit that wiped out the majority of the population. Long story short, time-traveling Bruce from the future is that man and the whole film is just a big time loop of himself getting shot, over and over, which is probably the most depressing karmic punishment ever.

Also consider that since his actions in the film directly lead to his own death and being sent back in time in the first place, he’s the cause of his own suffering, just like that guy in Memento (minus the DIY tattoos).

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

In the third Harry Potter film, which, if you’ll recall, takes place squarely between the second and fourth films, Harry and Hermione end up taking a leisurely stroll through time and affecting all the events of the film which already occurred. The neat thing here (and yes, it’s in the book, too, good for you) is that we see the the characters’ future-selves’ actions before the characters even know that they’re going to travel back in time.

Of course, this always leads to the inevitable question of why they didn’t use the time-turner thingy to travel back in time and make killing Voldemort easier, and the answer is simple… just kidding, there is no answer. Apparently someone wiped their wizard ass with it or burned it or something.

Donnie Darko

This is the film that introduced both Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal to the world, a deed for which no human will never forgive it. Jake plays the titular Donnie, who seems to be haunted by a dude in a bunny suit and having other strange visions. But don’t worry Donnie, you’re not crazy – you’re just stuck in an alternate dimension where everything is falling to shit. Okay, maybe you are crazy, also.

This film actually takes a bit of a twist on the traditional time loop. Essentially, the universe experiences a paradox (a plane engine that shouldn’t exist falls from the sky) and then spawns its own unstable alternate universe that serves the sole purpose of creating a time loop to make the paradox a little less paradoxical, thus closing the time loop and eliminating the alternate universe. Lost? It’s okay, just watch the scene where the little girl from The Ring says “fuckass” a few more times.

The Planet of the Apes Series

The original Planet of the Apes films, before the new reboot and the shitty Tim Burton attempt, features its own overarching time loop, of sorts. Charlton Heston travels to Earth in the year 3978 AD and finds that those damn, dirty apes blew it all up. In the second film, a bunch of damn, dirty humans blow the entire fucking planet up. Where it gets weird is the third film, in which three of the apes use Charlton Heston’s ship and the force of the planet blowing up to time travel back to 1973.

When the apes get back to 1973, one of those apes gives birth to Caesar, who leads an ape rebellion that causes humans to become an underclass. In the fifth film, we see the beginnings of the cult of humans who blow up the planet in the second film and an ambiguous ending that technically shows apes and humans living in harmony… but that’s still 1,300 years before Charlton Heston shows up. A lot can happen in 1,300 years, and it’s not unreasonable to believe that the apes and humans could have another war in that timespan, leading back to the events of the first film.

The point is, if Charlton Heston had never gone forward in time, the apes wouldn’t have had his spaceship to go back to 1973 and cause the rebellion that led to the apes becoming the dominant species on Earth. Don’t you see, Captain Taylor? You were the damn, dirty ape all along.

The Terminator Trilogy

The first three Terminator movies actually have a pretty solid timeline, if you look at it as a whole. Forget about the fourth Terminator film, partially because your brain cells will thank you, but mainly because it doesn’t figure into this. We’ll also ignore the fact that Skynet is the stupidest sentient AI in history. (Why would you send your most powerful Terminator back to the time when he’s a freaking adult? Send it when he’s a kid, for God’s sake.)

John Connor sends his own dad back in time (yes, this is a paradox, but in a closed time loop, it’s technically acceptable) to keep him safe as a kid, then two T-800s, one to his early teen years and one to his early 20s. Kyle Reese successfully keeps him alive. Cool, timeline preserved. But then in Terminator 2, they (ostensibly) prevent Judgement Day. Wait a fucking second here. If you prevented Judgement Day, you negated the reason for sending Kyle Reese back in time and therefore John Connor doesn’t exist. But technically, the Terminator from the first movie doesn’t exist either, so there’s none of his leftover bits to reverse engineer to create Skynet either, right?

Except that the third film establishes that Skynet was going to come online anyway because the military bought up Cyberdyne, and so they’re the ones built Skynet. Luckily, it also re-establishes that Judgement Day did occur. So, really, the timeline is still intact, but Skynet is also still really fucking stupid.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

As crazy as this is going to sound, one of the greatest uses of closed loop time travel in cinema history comes from the Bill and Ted movies. Yes, as in the Keanu Reeves and guy with the mullet in The Lost Boys Bill and Ted movies.

What makes it so great is the way that the two dudes use their own time loops to their advantage, planting items and ideas (notice how the only reason they know Rufus’ name is because they heard themselves saying it) in a way that’s both incredibly silly, but totally logical and fitting in with the nature of the series as well. The whole climax of the film is made up of nothing but escalating time travel abuses. It works, though, because they’ve already done those things before the movie even begins (like stealing Ted’s dad’s keys) and so the timeline stays stable, which is a bit more than you can say for Alex Winters’ acting career.