According to the list in Wikipedia, the first time travel movie was an adaptation of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1921), of which only a few isolated reels survive. This was followed by a range of mostly forgotten (and probably forgettable) improbable adventures in time.
The first memorable time travel movie was George Pal’s The Time Machine (1960), a semi-faithful adaptation of the classic book by H.G. Wells. It won the Oscar for best special effects, although the effects are woeful by today’s standards – which is not a comment on the film but on the amazing advances in special effects over the last half-century.
This was followed by a few more minor movies, including a couple of feature-length episodes of Dr. Who, but the next major “time travel” movie was the great Planet of the Apes (1968), directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and starring Charlton Heston. It was not a true time travel movie, because the characters only travel into the future through spending many centuries in suspended animation, but the effect is roughly the same. It’s a bit dated, of course, but well worth seeing.
Planet of the Apes was a smash hit, and the producer tried to talk Charlton Heston into doing a sequel, but Heston refused. Zanuck would not give up, and Heston agreed to do the sequel (Beneath the Planet of the Apes) on condition that he had only a minor part and that he could destroy all future attempts at sequels by blowing up the world at the end.
But it only took a couple of apes in a conveniently located time machine (this is an extreme example of what is called “deus ex machine) to create a whole series of sequels (Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Battle for the Planet of the Apes), all greatly inferior to the original movie, but still worth watching. This was followed by a bewildering collection of television series, and now we are in the middle of a new series of Planet of the Apes movies back on the big screen. Apparently you can’t keep a good ape down (or a bad one, for that matter).
One time travel franchise which would be very hard to beat is the ever-popular Back to the Future. I assume that everyone has seen this wonderful, glorious, funny, scary and touching series, but just in case, I will give you a very quick summary.
Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) is showing off his new time-machine-in-a-car when he is attacked by Libyan terrorists, whom he stupidly tried to cheat. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox, pre-Parkinson’s), who is in the car at the time, escapes by accidentally setting off the time machine, and finds he has gone back 30 years to 1955. Okay, this movie is too complicated to summarize, but through a succession of clever, lucky and exciting circumstances, he gets back home. Just watch the movies, okay?
I said Back to the Future would be hard to beat, but I think that feat has been achieved by The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. While Back to the Future excels in wit, comedy, and above all in brilliant story construction, I think The Terminator just wins for action, suspense, excitement and hard-hitting emotion.
One recent film which I believe was underrated by many critics is Edge of Tomorrow (2014), in which Earth is invaded by some rather scary aliens called Mimics that come in three varieties: ordinary foot soldiers (extremely abundant), Alphas (very rare) and Omega (only one). The premise is complicated but highly original, and the storyline is so complex, it took me two viewings to get the details right (though I am a bit slow on the uptake).
Tom Cruise plays Major Cage, an extremely annoying character who experiences the same day over and over, Groundhog Day style, except that he usually dies in the first a few minutes. He meets super soldier Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) and learns that he acquired his amazing ability by being within the sphere of influence of a dying Alpha. Because these troops are so valuable, the Omega resets time back one day every time it happens.
The trick is that Cage will lose his ability unless he dies before the reset happens, so any time he is wounded, Rita has to kill him (though I’m not sure why she seems to enjoy it so much). A challenging film, but thoroughly enjoyable for those prepared to think it through.