10 Time Travel Romances That Aren’t Sappy

By  · Published on November 7th, 2013

Earlier this week, Variety chief film critic Justin Chang wrote about time travel romance films in response to the new Richard Curtis movie, About Time. It’s a fair reading of the genre, focusing narrowly on Somewhere In Time, The Lake House and The Time Traveler’s Wife (which like About Time stars Rachel McAdams). These are all cinematic equivalents of the time travel romance novel (two are actually adaptations), of which there are hundreds of examples, and they’re all pretty sappy, whether they have sad or happy endings.

Of course, they’re concentrated on not only love stories, but ones putting the ideas of destiny and its obstacles to the extreme of temporal distance. So either concluding in a final parting (death) or union (finally getting together forever), there’s going to be a great sentimental power breaking through the tension at the end, a power that probably leaves its audience in need of a tissue.

But those four movies, including the latest, hardly represent the full extent of time travel romance in the movies. It’s just that most of the others are concentrated on the time travel narratives over the romantic. Still, they feel the need for those love interests, and the love story elements are always very interesting given the plots. See some notable examples below.

The Terminator

Of all the movies that seem distanced from the sappy stuff, James Cameron’s franchise-starting sci-fi classic isn’t really that far off from the “chick lit”/”chick flick” variety. Traditionally, time travel romance novels deal in fantasy over sci-fi and often have a present-day heroine to whom a time-traveling hero arrives. That’s the case here, too, and that protective hero even dies in the end while saving her life. How much more romantically tear-jerking can you get? But because the movie is focused more on the sci-fi stuff – what the couple’s lovemaking means for the fate of the future rather than for their hearts – it’s not sappy at all.

Groundhog Day

About Time’s premise has been compared to that of Groundhog Day because they both involve a guy who keeps repeating time in order to woo the girl just right. Groundhog Day isn’t thought of as much as a time travel movie, because Bill Murray’s character has no control over the plot. He’s not intentionally using some machine or power to fix his romantic situation through his own free will. In that regard it’s more about the lovers’ being fated to be together. Yet the movie is played first and foremost for comedy, to the effect that it’s rarely even labeled a rom-com, especially by its hardcore fans. Also, as far as the romance goes, it’s always been a bit weird how Andie MacDowell’s character is more like an Andie MacGuffin than a character who gets any say or awareness of the matter of love that’s happening to her.

Back to the Future Part III

A lot of time travel movies that have a romance component involve a love interest being rescued. We can include movies that aren’t primarily about time travel, such as Superman: The Movie with its Earth rotation cheat. While the first Back to the Future has a love story at its center, the hero is not a part of the romance except as an accidentally incestuous obstacle. It takes until the third installment for a true romance to kick in, for Doc Brown, who sort of winds up ultimately being the primary character of the trilogy (Marty is more like the narrative filter through which we view Doc’s life), and his arc is completed with the destruction of the time machine after finding love in the Old West.

The Time Machine

There are very different themes at play depending on whether a hero goes back in time and saves a woman who would die or had historically died (The Terminator; BTTF3) or he goes to the future and saves a woman who represents (with him) the future of humanity. The 2002 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel spells it out more that the traveler and his Eloi love interest are together in the end. I prefer the 1960 version, where there is a romantic connection between the hero and Weena, but maybe not enough that we’re even sure his hinted return at the end is for her or to teach all the Eloi, or both. And open endings are never really sappy.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Who knows what kind of royal lineage was destroyed and what Butterfly effects this caused, but who cares so long as Bill and Ted get the hot 15th century princesses in the end, right? Hardly romantic at all, the women here are mere objects, souvenirs of a temporal vacation. Rufus apparently saves them from being married off to “horrible” men but delivers them to these idiots, who are pretty much still strangers to them. And they have to adapt to a time five hundred years from all they know. But I guess, like the fact that Bill and Ted are the saviors of the world through their music, informed to us as just how it is, the destiny of these couples is just what must be. Sometimes destiny isn’t as enchanting as it’s made out to be.

Planet of the Apes

Sorry, spoiler, this is a time travel movie. And while it contains a hint of romantic feeling in the relationship between human hero Taylor (Charlton Heston) and ape doctor Zira (Kim Hunter) – even an awkward kiss in the end – the former winds up with a mute human trophy wife (Linda Harrison) in the end. In part because, well, I guess they’re the only ones who can re-populate the world with their own kind. But again it’s such a formality as opposed to true love, at least by the end of the first movie.

Captain America (1990)

Many would say this movie has no business being on any list ever except worst comic book adaptations of all time. But it’s worth noting how weird the love interest side of this low-budget superhero movie is. Captain America has a girlfriend back in his WWII days, then he travels through time by way of being frozen or fifty years and finds that his love is old and already married. But, hey, she has a hot daughter. Plus the old flame is killed so it doesn’t have to be all that weird. His reaction at the end, when the daughter is clearly into him, however, indicates he might be hesitant. Too bad we never got the sequel to find out what happens with them.

La Jetee/12 Monkeys

Like The Terminator, Chris Marker’s experimental short and Terry Gilliam’s semi-remake both deal with a man going to the present and dying there, only after falling in love with a woman he’d had visions of while in the future. It’s all fated and tragic and yet not quite sentimentally romantic in either version. Maybe it’s the calculated, hypothetical and certainly the ironic nature of the stories, including the love interest elements, not to mention that the hero kidnaps the woman in the later film, that keeps us from caring too much about whether the couple winds up together or not, concerned more with what narratively happens than what feelings happen.


There is also a kidnapping at play in this Woody Allen movie where he wakes up in the future and meets a socialite played by Diane Keaton. Stockholm syndrome isn’t really that romantic anyway, but for this movie it’s the joking and the slapstick that keeps it from being too emotionally involving. There are also the very technical elements to sex in the film’s setting. You perform sex in a machine, all the people are frigid, most of the men are impotent and you can get a PhD in oral sex. The theory of it, probably. But humor itself is pretty sexy, yet it’s rarely considered romantic in the romance novel sense. Also see Demolition Man.


If it wasn’t such a cheesy sci-fi action movie on the surface, the romantic side of this Jean-Claude Van Damme movie might come off as more sappy. After all, JCVD’s main story arc is that he’s an enforcer whose job is to stop people from using time travel for their own personal gain, but he breaks the very laws he professionally upholds in order to go back and save the life of his wife (and unborn child, it turns out). Fortunately, that act is tied to a greater mission he’s on, so it’s not seen as totally self-serving. If you’re easily affected emotionally by movies, the final scene might make you feel all warm inside, but there’s a weird sadness here if you really think of JCVD’s decade-long lack of memories with his now-alive wife and son. See Hot Tub Time Machine for a similarly complicated ending.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.