Long-distance love stories: 12 TV shows and movies where romance transcends space and time

Long-distance love stories: 12 TV shows and movies where romance transcends space and time

The Lake House (Screenshot); Source Code (Screenshot); Outlander (Photo: Starz); Terminator 2 (Screenshot); Star Trek: Discovery (Photo: Jan Thijs/CBS)
The Lake House (Screenshot); Source Code (Screenshot); Outlander (Photo: Starz); Terminator 2 (Screenshot); Star Trek: Discovery (Photo: Jan Thijs/CBS)
Graphic: Rebecca Fassola

As technology continues to advance, physical proximity to our jobs and loved ones becomes more of a perk than a necessity. Still, keeping a relationship going strong isn’t easy over Zoom. A 2010 German study found that the average length of a long-distance relationship was 2.9 years, while “proximal” relationships lasted 7.3 years. But if you aren’t able be with your Valentine this February, don’t give up hope on your lasting love. We only need look to our pop culture role models for proof that not only can Jim and Pam make it through Pam’s summer studying graphic design in New York, couples can survive being separated by lightyears, actual years, and even death. Here are a dozen examples of TV and film love stories that took the meaning of long-distance relationship to the extreme.

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The Terminator (1984)

The Terminator (1984)

You know things are rough, romance-wise, when the unstoppable killing machine hunting you and your potential paramour down isn’t even the biggest obstacle keeping you from a possible happy ending. No, for Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese (played here by Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn, although the Terminator franchise would swap both actors out pretty aggressively as time travel/contracts demanded), the big hurdle has to be that 40-year gap in between their births. It’s a classic May/May-but-I’m-from-the-post-apocalyptic-future romance, one that would probably get a whole lot more complicated if Kyle was fated to actually survive the opening days of the pair’s relationship. But even if there really was no fate but what we make, Sarah and Kyle would still have to cope with an even creepier fact: That Kyle was essentially indoctrinated from a young age by the pair’s son, John, to fall in love with Sarah so that he’d be willing to go back in time and father his future boss. That’s not just a parent trap; that’s a parent phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range. [William Hughes]

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Chances Are (1989)

Chances Are (1989)

Souls are tricky things, apparently, and can easily get garbled up in heaven before getting sent back down to earth. That’s the premise of more than a few movies, including 1989’s Chances Are. When Louie Jeffries dies too young, he impulsively jumps back to earth from heaven. Unfortunately, that means he comes back as a baby—though without the all-important “shot” that will make him forget his former life. Twenty-some years later, an all-grown up Alex Finch (Robert Downey Jr.) unknowingly strikes up a relationship with a classmate who happens to be Louie’s daughter Amanda (Mary Stuart Masterson). Alex suddenly remembers his past life as Louie when Amanda takes him home to meet her mother (a.k.a Louie’s wife) Corinne (Cybill Shepherd). It’s all very confusing, although Downey throws himself wholeheartedly into the physical slapstick this role apparently seemed to require. Eventually, Alex is able to convince Corinne that he’s really Louie come back to life, but their now-significant age difference makes rekindling their romance a bit awkward. Fortunately, Alex finally gets the shot that makes him forget he was ever Louie, so that he can pursue a romance with Amanda. Louie’s daughter. Ew. [Gwen Ihnat]

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Made In Heaven (1987)

Made In Heaven (1987)

Also in that “tricky souls” category, Timothy Hutton was the hero sent to heaven too soon (after saving a family from drowning) in Made In Heaven. There, Mike (Hutton) meets Annie (Kelly McGillis), a “new soul” that hasn’t been to earth yet. The two fall in love in the skies—even though, as a new soul, Annie has all the affect of a wood post. But when she gets her inevitable ticket to earth (“I’m going to be somebody’s baby,” she enthuses), Mike strikes a deal to get sent down as well to find her. The man in charge of heaven, Emmett (played by Debra Winger, who was married to Hutton at the time and is unrecognizable in an orange crew cut and loud suits), agrees, but only gives him 30 years to find her, and saddles him with the new name Elmo. It’s an odd departure for Roadie director Alan Rudolph, but it does offer a killer soundtrack (featuring R.E.M., Luther Vandross, and Martha Davis of The Motels) as well as a bunch of rock-related cameos, like Neil Young as a truck driver and The Cars’ Ric Ocasek as a mechanic (ha). [Gwen Ihnat]

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The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003)

The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003)

Plenty of stories have involved star-crossed lovers traveling through time, but there might be only one that features half of the central pair uncontrollably flying through the years thanks to a genetic anomaly. The Time-Traveler’s Wife focuses on a librarian, Henry DeTamble, and his wife, Clare Anne Abshire, as they try to navigate the travails of their unusual relationship, thanks to that aforementioned condition—Henry involuntarily travels through time. This leads to some complicated meet-cutes: Clare meets Henry for the first time when she’s 6 and he’s in his late 30s, whereas Henry meets Clare for the first time when he’s 8 and she’s 20, at which point she’s already known him for most of her life. The story tracks the messy course of their relationship, covering the highs and extreme lows that come when the love of your life is prone to disappearing in front of your eyes for unknown amounts of time. And yes, we’ve intentionally emphasized the narrative here, for an obvious reason: Read the book, skip the big-screen adaptation. [Alex McLevy]

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Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)

If you’re ever worried about your significant other forgetting about you while you’re apart, find solace in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind’s Joel and Clementine. After a bad fight, Clementine (Kate Winslet) opts to have her memories of boyfriend Joel (Jim Carrey) erased in a procedure performed by a tech company called Lacuna. In response, Joel wants his memories erased as well. The remaining hour of the film sees Joel reliving his relationship with Clementine backwards, as she disappears from his brain in reverse chronological order. As Lacuna’s team begins to target earlier, happier memories, Joel fights hard to keep Clementine with him—attempting to hide her in unrelated moments from his past. Ultimately, the procedure is completed and Joel is left to wander the world with no idea of his past love story. That is, until he is drawn to visit the town where he and Clementine first met and the two fall for each other all over again. Out of sight, out of mind, but not out of heart. Put that on a pillow. [Patrick Gomez]

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Just Like Heaven (2005)

Just Like Heaven (2005)

Mark Ruffalo and Reese Witherspoon managed to find love across dueling planes of existence in Just Like Heaven. She stars as Elizabeth, a hard-working doctor who finds herself the victim in a tragic late-night car accident. Ruffalo, in the midst of his rom-com heyday, is David, a lonely landscape architect who moves into the San Francisco apartment vacated by Elizabeth—only to find her haunting it. He thinks she’s a ghost; she’s convinced that she’s still alive, but she can’t remember anything. They proceed from trying to shoo one another from the premises to falling in love—aided, naturally, by a mystic (Jon Heder in the Whoopi-Goldberg-in-Ghost role). Fortunately, it turns out that Elizabeth is just in a coma (what are the odds?) but only David can see her spirit for some reason, which naturally leads to all sorts of rom-com hijinks. The most grueling part about this movie for Witherspoon must have been having to sport the exact same haircut/outfit for almost the entire shoot. [Gwen Ihnat]

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The Lake House (2006)

The Lake House (2006)

Forget fated romance and midnight meetings atop the Empire State Building; who’s ready for the riveting cinematic image of a magical… mailbox? Enter The Lake House, a genuinely weird entry in the separated-through-time subgenre that finds two lonely souls discovering they can communicate, thanks to living in the same house, two years apart from one another. Dr. Kate Forster (Sandra Bullock) discovers notes in her mailbox from an architect, Alex Wyler (Keanu Reeves), who is confused as to how she could know about paw prints on the walls his dog has yet to make. Soon, they learn the truth: He’s living in 2004, she in 2006. The pair begin corresponding daily, learning more about each other’s lives, and eventually crafting virtual dates for the other person, like a walking tour of Alex’s favorite places in Chicago, via an annotated map he makes for Kate. It’s corny, and more than a little silly, but Reeves and Bullock manage to sell the supernatural hokum, with the overall oddness of the story making it a fascinating curio; just don’t expect a romance for the ages. It’s only two years’ difference, after all. [Alex McLevy]

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Misfits (2009-2013)

Misfits (2009-2013)

At the onset of this British sci-fi series about juvenile delinquents who acquire supernatural powers, shy outcast Simon (Game Of Thrones’ Iwan Rheon) and party girl Alisha (The Good Doctor’s Antonia Thomas) were the furthest from Misfits’ romantic center. But in season three, Alisha meets a future version of Simon who is far more confident, and whose power has upgraded from invisibility to time travel. Their romance blossoms quickly, but there’s a catch: Future Simon informs Alisha that he and Future Alisha fall in love, but she is tragically killed and now he’s come to the past to spend more time with her. Unable to change Alisha’s fate, Simon resigns himself to existing in an endless time loop where he and Alisha can experience their short love story from beginning to end over and over again. Only able to travel back in time and not forward, perhaps Simon is driven mad, travels to Westeros, and becomes Ramsay Bolton. [Patrick Gomez]

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Source Code (2011)

Source Code (2011)

From the point of view of Christina (Michelle Monaghan), the romance subplot in Duncan Jones’ 2011 Moon follow-up Source Code is pretty straightforward: Her regular train commute flirt buddy Sean finally asks her out on a date, she says yes, they get some coffee while looking at Chicago’s famed Millennium Park Bean. What Christina’s not privy to, though, is that “Sean’s” new gumption comes from the fact that he’s now horrifically wounded Afghanistan war veteran Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), transplanted into the mild-mannered teacher’s body by the government’s mysterious “Source Code” project. That’s a pretty big gap in awareness, even before you take into account that Colter hails from a timeline in which Christina’s already dead, having been blown to bits in the bombing he was sent back in time (sort of, it’s complicated) to gather information on. Jones’ film pushes resolutely past the many horrifying implications of its time-hopping, body-stealing ending—not the least of which being that Christina is now dating a guy who only thinks he looks like Jake Gyllenhaal, rather than the actual deal. [William Hughes]

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Outlander (2014-present)

Outlander (2014-present)

Outlander’s James “Jamie” Fraser (Sam Heughan) and Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) don’t just come from different countries, they come from different centuries. Claire, a former World War II nurse, accidentally travels from 1945 to 1743 Scotland, where she meets Jamie, a Highlander warrior fighting the British redcoats. Their tryst begins unconventionally when she marries him out of necessity, but it doesn’t take long for their sparkling chemistry to turn into an epic, heartwarming romance that spans years and continents. They get into so many dangerous adventures—from trying to stop battles to quashing villains—that they are often separated for periods of time. But through it all, they maintain a hardcore magnetic field that draws them back together. The longest they’re apart is when Claire goes back to her own time (while pregnant with Jamie’s child!) for two decades before returning to her long-lost love. For that scene, and many others like it, Outlander might just win the trophy when it comes to earnest reunions. [Saloni Gajjar]

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Star Trek: Discovery (2017 – present)

Star Trek: Discovery (2017 – present)

Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz were celebrated when it was announced that their Star Trek: Discovery characters—chief engineer Paul Stamets and chief medical officer Hugh Culber, respectively—would be the Star Trek universe’s first openly gay couple. Gay fans in particular championed the depiction of their relationship throughout the first season—and were understandably devastated when Culber’s neck was snapped by a Klingon at the end of season one. But this is Star Trek, and love finds a way: One of Culber’s tears apparently made it into the mycelial network, where the cells begin to grow into a new Culber body. In season two, the Discovery crew work their way into the network themselves and find Culber, albeit one who is worse for wear due to his long isolation. (We feel you, Culber.) The crew science the shit out of things and restore Culber to their corporal world, where he and Statmets begin to slowly regrow their connection. [Patrick Gomez]

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The Space Between Us (2017)

The Space Between Us (2017)

Dating someone from out of town sounds like a lie we made up in high school to seem like we had a love life. But in The Space Between Us, Tulsa (Britt Robertson) strikes up a friendship in an internet chatroom with a boy on Mars. Gardner (Asa Butterfield), who was born on the Fourth Rock from the Sun, ends up having surgery to increase his bone density so he can come to Earth in search of his father. Upon arrival, Gardner is told his body will not survive long in Earth’s atmosphere, but he escapes and enlists Tulsa to help in his quest to find the man he believes is his dad. Even though the film is somehow not based on a YA novel, Gardner and Tula’s relationship turns romantic—and when Gardner must return to Mars, Tulsa will not be denied her love and ends the film entering a NASA training program. May her choice inspire you to expand your Tinder radius beyond a mile from home. [Patrick Gomez]

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