What causes a good movie to flop in theatres? The answers are as divergent as the titles of the films themselves. When it comes to time travel movies that gain cult or critical followings but achieve dismal earnings in theatres, it can sometimes be a matter of bad scheduling decisions or poor marketing.
If that’s not the case, there’s also the distinct possibility the film in question just doesn’t have enough mainstream appeal to make money. Films that fall into this category are considered ahead of their time – which makes perfect sense when examining the often heady themes and experimental tones of unappreciated time travel flicks. Instead of playing into audience expectations about characters moving through time, the flops below focus more on the illogical consequences of journeying into the past or future.
10 Mr. Nobody (2009)
Mr. Nobody is a film all about choices, life paths, and the infinite universe that houses humanity. Jared Leto stars as Nemo Nobody, a 118-year-old man who is the last mortal on Earth after the species attained immortality.
As Nemo recalls vital moments from his existence, he moves around through time, which is represented like a branching tree in the film. Despite being hailed by critics, Mr. Nobody only received a limited release in the United States in 2013 – four years after its European debut.
9 Donnie Darko (2001)
Richard Kelly’s time travel film that hinges on a plane crash was released right after the September 11 attacks, causing it to bring in just over $500,000 in US theatres during its run. Now a cult classic, Donnie Darko went on to recoup its budget in international theatres.
Set in October 1988, the film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a high schooler who receives a startling prophesy by Frank, a guy in a demented bunny costume, that the world will end on October 31. Convinced he must do something about it, Gyllenhaal’s titular character pursues Roberta Sparrow, a former science teacher who wrote The Philosophy of Time Travel, in order to find a way to save his loved ones.
8 Frankenstein Unbound (1990)
Frankenstein Unbound is co-written by Roger Corman, the king of B-movies who doesn’t shy away from camp and excess. Corman’s last film is no exception, and it reimagines Mary Shelley’s beloved 1818 book Frankenstein within a time travel narrative.
The movie stars John Hurt as a scientist who is accidentally sent back in time to 1817 Switzerland, where he meets Victor Frankenstein and his creature. As it goes with many other Corman films, critics and audiences alike didn’t know what to do with the film, and it only earned about $330,000 during its time in theatres.
7 Predestination (2014)
Based on a short story by well-known sci-fi author Robert A. Heinlein, Predestination seems to possess all the elements for success: a time-traveling agent played by Ethan Hawke, an intelligent plot, and noir aesthetics. Unfortunately, it made just $4.8 million against its $5 million budget while in theatres.
In Predestination, Hawke’s Agent Doe is on his final mission: tracking down a criminal who has evaded him across time and space. Full of twists and turns, this multilayered genre gem remains an underground favorite from the 2010s.
6 The Wave (2019)
Despite starring Justin Long, The Wave never received a wide enough distribution to give it any chance for mainstream success. Long plays a disgruntled insurance lawyer who takes a hallucinogenic at a going-away party that turns his normal sense of perception in on itself.
As Long’s character Frank reels from the experience, he soon realizes his relationship with temporality is forever altered. In fact, Frank can move freely through space and time – visualized in the film through trippy graphics and sequences.
5 Warlock (1989)
Steve Miner, known for his work with the Friday the 13th franchise, is behind this feature about a time-traveling warlock hoping to escape persecution in the 20th century. Julian Sands stars as the male-identifying witch, who is transported from 1691 Massachusetts to 1980s Los Angeles by Satan right before his scheduled execution.
The film was held up in limbo for two years due to financial issues, and it wasn’t released in US theatres until 1991. Replete with cheesy special effects, occult imagery, and action-movie dialogue, Warlock is now a cult classic that appeals to a certain brand of sci-fi fan.
4 The Jacket (2005)
Adrien Brody gives an insane performance in The Jacket, which stars the actor as a Gulf War veteran who is blamed for the death of a police officer and sent to a sanitorium. While incarcerated, Brody’s character, Jack Starks, is subjected to horrific experiences.
Jack begins to dissociate from his body to cope with his situation, eventually learning how to mentally time travel. This tense, underappreciated psychological thriller earned $21 million against its $29 million budget.
3 The Future (2011)
Miranda July is a director and writer with a singular vision of the world. In The Future, July co-stars alongside Legion‘s Hamish Linklater as a 30-something couple that adopts a stray cat who begins to influence their sense of time, space, and each other.
Childlike and bizarre, The Future unfolds from a jejune perspective as time travel themes are integrated into its plot. Made for just $1 million, the film brought it just under that during its small theatrical run.
2 Southland Tales (2006)
The second film by Richard Kelly on this list, Southland Tales is his much-anticipated follow-up to Donnie Darko. A rift in space-time causes the cult film’s disparate characters to band together in a dystopian 2008 Los Angeles devastated by nuclear war.
Kelly’s maddening and chaotic film stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Seann William Scott. After being received poorly at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, Southland Tales underwent intense editing – ultimately only earning $350,000 against its $17 million budget.
1 Palm Springs (2020)
Palm Springs would have been a box office success if it hadn’t been released in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. Fortunately, Hulu picked up this unique comedy for distribution, which helped it reach wide audiences.
This hailed take on the rom-com stars Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti as two people who find themselves in a time loop while attending a wedding celebration in Palm Springs, California. Made with $5 million, the smart time travel romp only garnered about $765,000 worldwide.
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