Marty McFly. The Terminator. Donnie Darko. Some of the coolest movie characters have gotten to travel through time– which is undeniably what made them so cool in the first place. After all, a film’s hero should take the audience along for an otherwise impossible ride. And what could be more impossible than controlling time itself?
We’re looking at the best movies where the characters have either gone forward, backward, or been stuck in time. The time travel doesn’t always need to be the focal point of the story, just as long as it’s utilized at some point within the movie. Also, any films where the characters travel to alternate realities (eg It’s A Wonderful Life) will not be considered on this list.
If humanity survives long enough, the science fiction of time travel may one day be a reality. But in the meantime we’ll have to settle for binge watching the 20 Best Time Travel Movies Of All Time.
20. Army of Darkness
“This… is my BOOM stick!”
Every since Bruce Campbell raised said boom stick in the air over a crowd of medieval peasants we’ve never been able to refer to a shotgun as anything else. Army of Darkness is the Evil Dead series at its kitschiest, which catches up with Bruce/Ash (seriously, is there any distinction between the actor and character?) after he’s transported to the year 1300 AD. Once again, Ash must battle against an army of Deadites using his chainsaw hand and double-barreled Remington.
After the effectively creepy Evil Dead, and the hilariously bloody Evil Dead 2, director Sam Raimi was able to keep the third installment feeling fresh by abandoning the cabin in the woods format altogether and transporting the story to the Middle Ages. Though Army of Darkness may be the lesser of the three film it remains a wildly entertaining time travel adventure. In the end, Ash makes it back to the present day, where his battle against the Deadites rages on in Ash Vs. Evil Dead.
19. Edge of Tomorrow
Based on the 2004 Japanese novel titled All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Edge of Tomorrow takes place in 2020 after Earth has been invaded by Mimics. Tom Cruise plays Major William Cage, an officer with no combat experience who is forced to fight in a massive assault against the aliens who have taken over Continental Europe. Cage is killed in battle, but not before being dosed in Mimic blood which subsequently sends him a day back in time. With the help of famous Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), Cage continues to repeat the loop of “live, die, repeat” while slowly gaining a prescient advantage over the Mimics.
Despite largely positive reviews, Edge of Tomorrow had a lukewarm performance at the box office. Possibly audiences were tired of seeing Cruise in yet another sci-fi action flick. Or maybe they were afraid that watching the same 24 hours over and over again would grow boring. However, Edge of Tomorrow was able to keep the loop constantly engaging as Cage transforms from coward to combat hero during a number of exhilarating battle sequences.
18. Source Code
Just two years after his superb directorial debut Moon, Duncan Jones treated us to another trippy sci-fi film. Source Code follows Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he is sent into a computerized reality to find a bomber who blew up a commuter train en route to Chicago. Captain Stevens inhabits the body of Sean Fentress, a school teacher aboard the train, and the soldier is able to live out the last few minutes of Sean’s life while he attempts to locate the bomber on board.
Similar to Edge of Tomorrow, Source Code finds creative ways to add variation to the same eight minute loop. The audience becomes wrapped up in Colter’s struggle to save the passengers, including his traveling partner Christina (Michelle Monaghan), despite the fact that everyone aboard the train has already been killed. Many time travel movies preach that you can not change the past, and that everything that happens has already taken place. But Source Code dares to think otherwise.
Mike Judge, creator of Beavis and Butt-Head, Office Space, and Silicon Valley, wrote and directed this 2006 satirical time travel movie that was largely overlooked by audiences at the time of its release. Idiocracy follows Private Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson), who is selected for an army experiment because he is deemed average in literally every way imaginable. When the experiment is forgotten, Joe emerges from his suspended animation chamber in the year 2505 to find that he is now the smartest man in the world. During the past 500 years, natural selection favored those who reproduced the most, and any intellectual curiosity or notions of human rights slowly withered away.
Mike Judge gives us a future where the President sports a tank top and sings the State of the Union Address in auto-tune, and where prison guards will let you walk free as long as you tell them you were standing in the wrong line. Idiocracy is both a hilarious and terrifying look at the possible future of the human race.
16. X-Men: Days of Future Past
In a dystopic future, a band of X-Men are hiding from the mutant-killing Sentinels, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) sends Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) consciousness back 50 years in time to alter a course of events that will eventually lead to the downfall of the human race. While in 1973, it is Wolverine’s mission to prevent Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the man who created the murderous Sentinels.
This 2014 Marvel movie served as a sequel to both X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men: First Class. By sending Wolverine back in time the filmmakers were able to seamlessly link the two X-Men timelines into one interconnected story. The film impressively balances a large cast of characters within two time periods. This resulted in X-Men: Days of Future Past becoming the best rated and highest grossing movie in the franchise (only to be out-grossed by Deadpool earlier this year).
Seven years after Rain Johnson released his debut film Brick, the director teamed up with Joseph Gordon-Levitt again to make this 2012 neo-noir time travel thriller. Gordon-Levitt plays hit-man Joe, refereed to as a “looper”, who kills people sent back in time by the mob. This is complicated when an older version of Joe, played by Bruce Willis, is sent back so young Joe can close the loop on himself.
Despite an impressive makeup job, it can be hard at times to imagine Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young version of Bruce Willis, but the pithy interplay between the two actors quickly makes up for any differences in appearance. Johnson said that he didn’t want Looper to solely focus on the intricacies of time travel, but rather on how the characters are affected by it. We hope that Johnson can bring the same depth to the characters while he continues his work on Star Wars: Episode VIII.
14. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
The future of the world depends upon airheads Bill (Alex Winters) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) acing their oral history exam. Therefore, Rufus (George Carlin) is sent back to 1988 in a time machine telephone booth to take the two metalhead slackers on a real life crash course through history. The two dimwits fraternize with Napoleon, Genghis Kahn, Joan of Arc, and the founder of Western philosophy himself, Socrates (better known as “So Crates” to Bill and Ted). After narrowly escaping death in the iron maiden (“Bogus!”) and trying to woo a pair of historical babes (“Excellent!”) the duo eventually make it back to present day California with a number of historical figures in tow.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure went on to spawn an animated TV series and a film sequel, titled Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, which was released in 1991. A plan for a third movie, with Reeves and Winters reprising their roles as the lovable doofuses, has been in the works since 2010.
13. About Time
This 2013 British film follows Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson) who is told by his father (Bill Nighy) that the men in their family have the ability to travel through time. However, there are some limitations to their powers: 1.) They can only travel to the past 2.) They can not go back to before they were born, and 3.) They can only return to times and places where they were before. After Tim’s father discourages his son from trying to acquire money or fame, Tim, a hopeless romantic, decides he will use his powers to improve his love life.
After a number of errors and resets, Tim finds himself happily married to Mary, (Rachel McAdams) and together they start a family. However, when Tim travels back in time to try and improve his sister’s life, he discovers that going back before his daughter was born can seriously disrupt the timeline. This is only further complicated when Tim’s father comes down with terminal cancer. About Time is easily one of the more sentimental films on this list, but it makes the important point that you only waste more time getting hung up on past mistakes, and that life was meant to be appreciated in the present.
12. Donnie Darko
Donnie Darko may not be your typical time travel movie, and in fact, even after repeated viewings, it’s hard to figure out exactly how and why everything happens. But don’t feel bad, even writer and director Richard Kelly has said he doesn’t even understand every aspect of his puzzling film. But in the end, that’s what makes watching Donnie Darko such an engaging experience.
One morning, troubled teen Donnie is greeted by a figure in a beyond-creepy rabbit suit, who tells Donnie that the world will end in exactly 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. This countdown eventually leads to Halloween night, where Donnie attempts to find out if time travel is possible when he visits the house of Roberta Sparrow, a senile old woman who once penned the book The Philosophy of Time Travel. “What does philosophy have to do with time travel?” one of the characters asks Donnie. We’re still not sure. But what we do know is that Donnie Darko has enough atmosphere and mystery to fill ten movies.
11. Groundhog Day
If you think Groundhog Day is just a silly comedy about a man who gets six extra weeks of winter than you’re dead wrong. Using the premise of a 24-hour time loop, the film explores themes of monotony, hedonism, and ultimately the meaning of life. Pretty deep for a ’90s comedy starring Bill Murray.
Murray plays the contemptuous Phil Conners, a meteorologist who is sent to Punxsutawney to cover the Groundhog Day festivities. The next morning Phil discovers that he has to live through Groundhog Day yet again. And again. And again. After overcoming the shock, Phil takes advantage of living consequence free. He overeats, engages in one night stands, and refuses to filter himself. But when the thrill wears off, Phil resorts to killing himself day after day in an attempt to find some kind of escape. (Seriously, there’s an awful lot of suicide for a PG movie.) Finally, Phil decides to overcoming his self-absorption and use the loop to help benefit others. Groundhog Day is sure to hit home with anyone who feels like they’re living the same day over and over again with no escape.
10. The Time Machine
H.G Wells’s classic novella has seen its fair share of adaptations (including a 2002 film directed by none other than Wells’s grandson). However, the 1960 version was able to capture the author’s vision more succinctly than any of the others. Obviously, the story owes a lot to science fiction author H.G. Wells, but so does every other film on this list – as the phrase “time machine” was coined by Wells himself. It’s amazing to think that a short story about a man traveling in a vessel hundreds of thousands of years into the future was conceived back in 1895– after all, cars were still far from being commonplace.
The Time Machine follows George, who travels in his own invention to the year 802,701 AD, where he discovers that the human race has evolved into two separate species: the Elio, who are childlike and fragile, and the Morlocks, underground savages who feed on the Elio. The film was a box office success and even earned an Oscar for its impressive time-lapse photography.
Made on a $7,000 budget, Primer may not have all the bells and whistles (and fire-ball explosions) of a big budget sci-fi flick, but what it lacks in spectacle it makes up for in cleverness. In fact, Primer is such a mind bender that we suggest watching the movie with a pencil and pad so you can take notes right along with the characters.
Four friends/entrepreneurs work on inventions in their garage at night, attempting to build error-checking machines. However, two of the friends discover that they may have in fact built a time machine. They reconstruct the same device in a storage unit so they too can travel back in time. To do what you ask? Buy stocks, of course; just enough steady profit to stay off the radar. But their ambitions soon get the better of them, and you’ll have a hard time telling which friend is truly living in the present and which one is already two steps ahead.
8. Safety Not Guaranteed
After discovering an ad in the classifieds, three magazine writers head out to interview a man who is seeking a time travel partner. But things become complicated when Darius (Aubrey Plaza), the cynical and detached magazine intern, starts to develop feelings for Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the peculiar man who’s obsessed with going back to 2001.
There’s not much time jumping in Safety Not Guaranteed, but the performances by Plaza and Duplass, along with Jake Johnson, who plays Aubrey’s egotistical boss Jeff, are more than enough to keep you invested in the film. Safety Not Guaranteed takes a more human approach to time travel, and the story is largely a character study that explores themes of regret and getting over your first love. Darius and Kenneth are two wounded characters weighed down by past mistakes they wish they could undo, which is inevitably something that we’ve all wished we had a time machine for.
7. Planet of the Apes
In light of the reboot series, starting with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it’s easy to take the twist ending of the original 1968 Planet of the Apes for granted. But spoiled ending, aside this is still one of the greatest time travel movies of all time. The original script was penned by none other than Twilight Zone‘s Rod Serling, who worked off the French novel La Planete Des Singes, about a world where apes have become the dominant species.
Charlton Heston plays Taylor, an astronaut who crash lands on a mysterious planet in the year 3978 after traveling in deep hibernation through space. That mysterious planet is of course Earth, which is revealed in one of the most iconic shots in film history, when Taylor discovers the remains of the Statue of Liberty while walking on the beach. If we’ve learned anything from watching these types of movies it’s that time travel is not to be trifled with, but we’d gladly take the risk and go back in time to warn ourselves not to watch the 2002 Planet of the Apes remake.
While trying to apprehend the “Fizzle Bomber” a temporal agent’s face is extensively burned after containing a bomb and saving hundreds of people’s lives. This results in the agent undergoing facial reconstruction before the Temporal Bureau sends him on a final mission. And that’s just the set up of Predestination – a film that’s plot is so complex and replete with paradoxes that it would probably just be shorter to watch the film than try to unravel the whole thing here.
But what we can tell you is that Predestination is based on the short story All You Zombies by Robert A. Heinlien. The film has a number of nods to the late, great sci-fi icon, as much of the dialogue is lifted straight from the short story and a copy of Heinlien’s Stranger in a Strange Land can even be seen next to the Barkeep’s typewriter. Ethan Hawke plays the Barkeep, while actress Sarah Snook inhabits the mysterious Unmarried Mother– a character who tells one of the most bizarre bar stories we’ve ever heard. And things only get stranger from there.
Unlike many of the films on this list, this 2007 Spanish thriller is not a character study. Instead, Timecrimes (or Los Cronocrimenes) is a masterly crafted chess game, interested in exploring the paradoxes of going back in time and bumping into yourself.
Karra Elejalde plays Hector, a man who spies a woman undressing in the woods nearby his house with a pair of binoculars. Once his wife leaves, Hector ventures into the woods only to find the naked woman lying unconscious. Hector is then stabbed by a mysterious man wrapped in pink bandages. Who might the masked man be? For a movie that deals with going back in time, you probably already have a good guess. But good luck keeping Hector 1, 2, and 3 distinguished from one another. Director Nacho Vigalondo even shows up as a scientist to help clarify the timeline for Hector (and the audience). Is Timecrimes an allegory for adultery, or simply a paradoxical puzzle? Let us know if you can figure it out.
4. Twelve Monkeys
Twelve Monkeys is one of three movies where Bruce Willis travels back in time to meet a younger version of himself. The other two are Looper (which was already featured on this list) and The Kid (which won’t be featured here at all). The present in Twelve Monkeys is a dystopian future, where a deadly virus has already wiped out most of the human race and the survivors are forced to live underground. Willis plays prisoner James Cole, who is sent back in time to locate the Army of the Twelve Monkeys and discover a cure for the virus. Brad Pitt turns in one of his best performances as a hyperactive mental patient turned leader of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, Jeffery Goines. Allegedly, director Terry Gilliam took away Pitt’s cigarettes on set to nurture the character’s nervousness.
The film even spawned a TV series of the same name which debuted on Syfy in 2015, where a third season is currently in the works.
3. Midnight in Paris
While many of the films on this list are made for movie lovers, Midnight in Paris is really a movie made for art lovers. Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is a successful screenwriter vacationing with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) in Paris. While Gil dreams of moving there and becoming a novelist, Inez is more than happy with their life back in Malibu. As the couple grows distant, Gil finds himself wandering the streets of Paris at night and subsequently ends up traveling back in time to Paris in the 1920s.
Woody Allen wrote and directed this 2011 movie, which finds Gil rubbing elbows with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Pablo Picasso. The advice these icons give Gil about his manuscript and relationship with Inez is both hilarious and insightful. Midnight in Paris is not only a great time travel movie, but one of the best romantic comedies in recent memory.
2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Terminator 2 isn’t just one of the greatest time travel movies of all time, it’s also one of the greatest action movies ever made. Before James Cameron started to monkey around with that big boat and blue aliens, he had a hankering for futuristic cyborgs, massive explosions and liquid metal. Cameron reunited with Arnold Schwarzenegger to make one of the most expensive and advanced CGI films up until that point in time.
Schwarzenegger resumed his roll as the Terminator from the 1984 film. But this time around he’s sent back in time to protect the son of Sarah Connor from the T-1000, a far more advanced, shape-shifting terminator. Ironically, the relationship between John Connor and the futuristic cyborg brings a human center to a movie that could have easily become a slideshow of shoot-outs, car chases, special effects, and robot fist-fights. Admittedly, those are pretty awesome to watch too.
1. Back to the Future
When Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) gets sent back to 1955 in a time-traveling DeLorean built by Dr. Emmet Brown (Christopher Lloyd) he finds himself playing matchmaker for his future parents. The stakes: If Marty fails he’ll never be born. The problem: Marty’s mother has the hots for her future son!
What’s there to say about this 1985 masterpiece that hasn’t already been said? Back to the Future is the perfect time travel movie, brimming with action, comedy, romance, and suspense. Just thinking about the climactic scene where Doc and Marty have to harness the power from a lighting bolt (“1.21 GIGAWATTS!”) in order to send Marty back to the future is intense enough to make our palms itch. Back to the Future spawned two enjoyable sequels that delved deeper into the logistics of time travel and the space time continuum, but they could never recreate the perfection of the original. How Marty and Doc became buddies in the first place remains a mystery, but the friendship between the rock ‘n’ roll teen and the nutty professor has since become timeless.
So did your favorite time travel movie make the list? Let us known in the comments!
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