The mind-bending Looper opens today and is poised to become one of the biggest—and best-reviewed—movies of the fall. The plot, I think, can be boiled down to this: in 2044, assassin Joseph Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is tasked with killing an older version of himself (played by Bruce Willis) sent from 2072. Time travel movies often involve murder or its prevention. But the indelible genre has also said a lot about love. That’s no surprise considering the importance of time to long-term relationships—the honeymoon phases, anniversaries and seven-year itches—and too-brief romances that might make you want to go back to a time before you screwed everything up.
Here are five timeless examples:
Lorraine, George and Marty McFly in Back to the Future
First you get over the supreme discomfort of Marty’s (Michael J. Fox) mom Lorraine (Lea Thompson) hitting on him—and ogling his Calvin Klein tightie whities—after he’s traveled from 1985 to 1955 in a deliriously tricked out DeLorean. Then you appreciate the big, pure heart of this blockbuster as Marty scrambles to ensure that Lorraine ends up falling for his diffident father, George (Crispin Glover, sane), at the high school prom. The intergenerational bromance between Marty and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) is further evidence that the strongest relationships are actually more immutable than time.
Donnie Darko and Gretchen Ross in Donnie Darko
As far as romances go, this one’s puppy love. But however chaste Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Gretchen’s (Jenna Malone) relationship is, there’s enough affection involved for the tortured Donnie to harness his time traveling abilities, rewind through 28 days of psychodrama and sacrifice himself by lying in wait for a jet engine plummeting to earth. (It’s been awhile since I’ve seen the Director’s Cut, so connoisseurs please go easy on my interpretation.) This head trip about everything leading to the end of the world is an excellent metaphor for teen angst, which everyone knows can lead to the baddest romantic trips of all.
Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese in The Terminator
Even in his grittiest movie, James Cameron is an inveterate cornball. The director who brought us Jack and Rose and phosphorescent Na’vi sex never wrote a better screenplay than The Terminator. As a cyborg sent to 1984 from an apocalyptic 2029 to terminate Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), future mother of the man who’ll save humanity, Ah-nold stole the show with one-liners including “I’ll be back.” But the disarmingly tender romance between Sarah and Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), the flesh and blood time traveler sent back to protect her, brings humanity to this cyberpunk classic. The scene where Sarah deflowers her soldier is more romantic than any simulated flight on the bow of the Titanic.
Phil Connors and Rita in Groundhog Day
Curmudgeonly newscaster Phil (Bill Murray) is a time traveler permanently stuck in transit. He’s doomed to relive the same day ad nauseum, and in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania no less, where he’s reporting on another Phil the groundhog’s shadow and what it augurs for the end of winter. Phil robs a Brink’s truck, chainsmokes and eats a lifetime’s worth of pancakes. But the one shot he can’t nail despite repeated takes involves winning over his co-worker Rita (Andie MacDowell). The more Phil knows about Rita—her favorite drink, her toasts to world peace, her useless college major—the less successful his dates with her are, a sharp, winsome argument for submitting to romance in all its bumpiness rather than paving it over.
Rick Deckard and Rachel in Blade Runner
It’s not a time travel movie in the strictest sense of the genre, but Blade Runner is set in the future, consumed with mortality and most affecting when it comes to (manufactured) memories of the past. Bounty hunter Rick (Harrison Ford) is to kill the replicants (bioengineered beings) who’ve come from space to 2019 Los Angeles in hopes of extending their four-year life spans. He falls for Rachel (Sean Young), a replicant who thinks she’s human thanks to implanted memories. Lead replicant Roy’s (Rutger Hauer) famous “tears in rain” monologue about the fleetingness of life and questionable verisimilitude of memory is a beauty. But even better is one of the final lines, about Rachel: “It’s a shame she won’t live…but then again, who does?”