What it’s about: Two lovers arrange to have each other removed from their memories after their relationship fails.
What it’s really about: Kate Winslet’s blue/green/orange hair.
How it messed with us: Imagine the realest, most touching and brutal romantic movie of all time. Then cut in scenes of Jim Carrey as a giant baby, people getting snatched away into the black nothingness of lost memories, and an ending that makes, if you think about it, negative sense. That’s Eternal Sunshine. It’s straight up terrifying that having your memories taken away essentially means you’re trading away days (or weeks or years) of your life for the misplaced comfort of “forgetting,” but apparently humans will do anything to avoid emotional pain.
What it’s about: A soldier’s chance encounter with an alien entity gives him the power to reset the last day of a global war.
What it’s really about: We’re all useless worms compared with Emily Blunt.
How it messed with us: You’re trucking along getting used to the premise of Edge of Tomorrow, when BAM: You realize that there are tons of minute visual and verbal cues that give away where and when Bill Cage is along his timeline. By the way he looks, talks, and moves, you can approximate how long he’s been in any particular situation and whether or not he’s going to get it right. Edge of Tomorrow rewires your brain to work on video game logic. That is the sickest shit ever.
What it’s about: A hit man named Joe is assigned to kill his future self, but ends up scrambling to avoid a paradox when Future Joe escapes.
What it’s really about. Choices, morality, and how weird Joseph Gordon-Levitt looks with blue eyes.
How it messed with us: Hey, science, what happens when you come across a future version of yourself? Will the world collapse? Is it a paradox? Does your past self get slowly dismembered by the mob so your future self can’t run away as the time shift destroys their body with all of the torturous damage being inflicted on their former frame? Poor Paul Dano, man. This movie was screwed up.
What it’s about: X-Man Wolverine is sent back in time to stop Mystique from sparking off a chain of events that leads to the mutant apocalypse.
What it’s really about: Quicksilver, tbh.
How it messed with us: What happened in this movie? Some stuff about time travel and…friendship? Enemyship? Doesn’t matter. Quicksilver is important. That slowed-down sequence where the audience gets to experience the world as it looks to someone who is thousands of times faster (and more awesome) than the average person — that is what happened in this movie. OK, that and the retcon of the century.
What it’s about: Thieves who specialize in extracting information from people’s dreams are hired to perform the opposite process of “inception.”
What it’s really about: Self-delusion, and how we’re really all just one falling top away from totally losing it because reality is really difficult to prove.
How it messed with us: Besides introducing all of us to the cultural phenomenon that is the Inception Horn, Inception reminds you that your friends aren’t your friends, your brain is a lying jerk, nothing is real, and oh yeah, you’re still dreaming. Bonus points for everyone who really tried to get into lucid dreaming after watching the movie and realized that even that is a lie. Bwaaaaaaa.
What it’s about: A grumpy news anchor gets stuck in a time loop that forces him to relive Groundhog Day over and over.
What it’s really about: The uncharacteristically optimistic theory that humanity will default to becoming better versions of ourselves — if we have enough time.
How it messed with us: There’s a throwaway line in there about how Bill Murray’s character tried to kill himself literally hundreds of times and nobody really talks about it but that’s…pretty dark. Everyone remembers the fuzzy groundhog and all of the sex he had while stuck in the time loop, but there’s some pretty serious shit going on in the background of this movie. You know he went through decades of therapy once he got out of that loop.
What it’s about: A teenager is haunted by a 6-foot-tall bunny rabbit that compels him to “save the world” by performing disturbing tasks.
What it’s really about: Alternate timelines? Sacrifice? Not sure if anyone actually knows. Maybe a metaphor for puberty? Movies are hard.
How it messed with us: Donnie Darko tackled the “multiple parallel universe” theory in the creepiest way possible, by suggesting that our universe is constantly torn apart and repaired by unseen forces that rewrite our lives. Oh, and there is apparently a sacrificial ritual that must be performed to keep each universe in its own place — a theory that has some seriously haunting implications for any “freak accidents” you might read about after watching this movie. Sleep tight.
What it’s about: A man’s consciousness is projected into the past to catch a terrorist who has already bombed a commuter train.
What it’s really about: Technology and autonomy, and how even the “good guys” can do some pretty messed up stuff when they don’t fully understand the power they wield.
How it messed with us: One time-travel premise was not enough for Source Code. It had to start out with one idea — that the government invented a way to enter a 3D simulation of the past — and then bait-and-switch every science-fiction fan ever by instead making it about parallel universes. The takeaway? Always assume Jake Gyllenhaal is there to repair a parallel universe, no matter what the script says.
9. In Time
What it’s about: In a world where time is used as currency, a working-class man is gifted a fortune by a stranger.
What it’s really about: Mass poverty = genocide.
How it messed with us: The concept of a time-based currency messed with our minds because it made us rethink phrases like “saving time,” “out of time,” and “time is money,” all while thinking about how much time we waste every day. Is a cup of coffee worth five minutes of your life? Is a $10 movie ticket worth the two hours you spend watching the movie? Did that just get too meta?
What it’s about: Four engineers stumble upon the secret of time travel and discover that it’s much more dangerous and unpredictable than anticipated.
What it’s really about: Making your brain miserable.
How it messed with us: Primer is one of those films that needs to be watched roughly 18 times before it makes sense. Whole websites are dedicated to explaining the logic behind its intersecting plot points and seemingly impossible twists: There’s one around three-quarters of the way through the film that just ruins you for the rest of the day.
What it’s about: A man with constant short-term memory loss attempts to solve his wife’s murder.
What it’s really about: Guy Pearce looks so fucking cool in a tan suit.
How it messed with us: How didn’t Memento mess with us? The movie is told backwards; the film throws linear storytelling in the garbage to put the audience in the shoes of Leonard, its amnesiac protagonist. Add in an iconic reversed opening sequence and the world’s most unreliable narrator and you’ve got a movie that has you doubting your own memory for the rest of your life.
What it’s about: A teenager accidentally activates a time machine and gets stranded in 1955.
What it’s really about: A teenager accidentally activates a time machine and gets stranded in 1955.
How it messed with us: Back to the Future popularized time travel as a storytelling vehicle and introduced mainstream audiences to the concepts that all subsequent time-travel films would have to tackle, like the butterfly effect and the “what if your parents never met” trope. Pop culture owes a lot to Back to the Future. You owe a lot to Back to the Future. Take a moment today and thank your friendly neighborhood Back to the Future.