Time travel movies have been around for a long time, in one form or another. It’s been an intriguing, fun and complex plot device ever since legendary author H.G. Wells published his novel The Time Machine in 1895. Since then storytellers have been using the concept of time travel in all forms and genres. We all wish we could go back in time sometimes, so it’s easy to understand why. With it being used more frequently than ever, in some of the biggest film franchises on earth, and with all the time travel movies out there, we are going to take a crack at listing the best. So without further ado, Movie Melt presents the 20 best time travel movies ever.
20. Timecop (1994)
This little Jean-Claude Van Damme thriller is a guilty pleasure movie of some, and despite some shaky acting it’s actually a fairly stylish and creative time travel movie. Van Damme plays a cop who witnessed his wife’s death 10 years prior to becoming a ‘Timecop,’ who patrols the proper use of time travel in the modern world. When he finds out that a corrupt senator is out to use time travel to fix the stock market, he goes back in time to prevent it, but also sees an opportunity to save his wife. Based on a comic book, Timecop is an entertaining effort for fans of the genre.
19. Deja Vu (2006)
Some may argue that Deja Vu is just another one of the cookie cutter Denzel Washington thrillers that we’ve seen come out over the last 10 years. Almost always good films, but somehow they all seem somewhat similar. To some extent that might be true, but at the same time Deja Vu is a unique literal wrinkle on the concept of a time travel movie, in that it is integrating the concept of Deja Vu, which we’ve all experienced at one time or another. You could even say it’s the closest thing to time travel that we ever experience, and it’s very weird when it happens. Well, in this tight little thriller from the late Tony Scott starring Denzel, Val Kilmer and Paula Patton, a group of ATF agents are using the phenomenon to try and solve or prevent a horrifying bombing. It’s not an incredible film but it’s certainly entertaining and it’s got Denzel in it.
18. Source Code (2011)
Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan star in this short and sweet thriller about a soldier who, with the help of some modern technology, is able to enter the body of a public train commuter in Chicago 8 minutes before a deadly bomb goes off, killing everyone on board. His mission is to replay the event over and over, gathering clues about who’s responsible in order to prevent future attacks. However, when he meets a woman on board he falls for her, and he begins to seek a way to not just gather clues, but prevent the attack in the first place, in order to save her life. Source Code is a more technological take on time travel movies, and it benefits from that. A clever, but unoriginal ending hampers the experience though.
17. Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
This low budget indie is a controversial choice, because it’s not technically very heavy on the time travel. It’s actually about a man who claims he’s figured out how to do it, which draws a set of Magazine writers to come and investigate, largely for the purpose of writing a humorous piece. Jake Johnson, Aubrey Plaza and Karan Soni star as the writers, who are of course cynical, and also very different from one another, who go on this road trip which ends up being a heart warming journey of friendship and discovery. As they begin to interact with the ‘crazy’ inventor, played by Mark Duplass (The League), their attitudes begin to change, and they learn a lot about themselves and each other. Jake Johnson is great as usual, and provides the most complex of the characters, but everyone does their part in this inspiring and sometimes hilarious gem.
16. Predestination (2014)
The most recent film on the list, and actually the one that inspired it’s writing, Predestination was a huge surprise. Ethan Hawke stars as an agent who goes back in time to prevent killers from committing their crime, which is of course a concept that we’ve seen plenty of times before. His latest case though is a villain he hasn’t been able to wrangle yet, and who has the worst crime yet lined up. Again, it’s not groundbreaking stuff. However, what is interesting is that the film takes the material and adds it’s own themes to it, to create what ends up being an extremely mind bending, but also quite deep and meaningful thriller. It’s packs a much stronger emotional punch than you might expect throughout, due to it’s themes and it’s performances. Look out for a standout performance from Sarah Snook.
15. Timecrimes (2007)
Timecrimes is a low budget, foreign thriller from writer and director Nacho Vigalondo, about a seemingly innocent everyday man, who finds himself in an unprecedented time jumping predicament. After seeing a beautiful woman in the distance from his yard, he goes to take a closer look, but is randomly attacked by a mysterious man. As he runs for his life, he ends up at a strange science lab which proves to be home to a time travel device which may or may not have the answers to the strange situation that Hector is in. What ensues is one of the most manic and mind bending time travel adventures on this list. It’s dark, and gloomy at times, and some times it is difficult to imagine that the plot points would hold under scrutiny, but it sure is entertaining stuff. Plus, I am a firm believer that just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean it doesn’t make sense.
14. The Time Machine (1960)
By far the better adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic novel, is this George Pal version (he also made the film adaptation of Wells’ War of the Worlds) from 1960. It stars Rod Taylor and for it’s time contains some impressive imagination and special effects as well as a plot that does a nice job honoring the original material. While it may seem a little dated now, in its day it was likely extremely impressive, and even know it’s got plenty of entertainment to go around. Its bright, colorful and fun at times, but as with the novel it can be quite scary in its themes and representation of the world of the future. Fans of movie roots should check it out.
13. Groundhog Day (1993)
This classic comedy is one of Bill Murray’s finest roles as a douche bag weatherman who get’s caught living the same day over and over again. He is able to give us his trademark wit and sarcasm, as well as plenty of gags, but he also has that rough around the edges charm that we’ve become accustomed to. As his imprisonment in the same day continues, he begins to learn more about the people around him that he’s been treating so poorly, and this enlightenment might end up being the key to getting back onto a 365 days a year type of schedule. You’d think that showing us the same day over and over would be a dangerous concept for a movie to go with, as it could get quite boring. That just isn’t the case, and Groundhog Day is one of the most beloved American comedies ever and possible the funniest of our time travel movies.
12. Midnight in Paris (2011)
Woody Allen makes a directorial appearance on our list of time travel movies, with this charming romantic comedy starring Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams as a couple who are engaged to be married and on a family trip to Paris. Wilson’s character, Gil is a very nostalgic writer, who loves the city of Paris and all of its history. His fiancee is more into material things and her family aren’t fans of Gil’s dreamy goals of doing what he loves. The magic begins when Gil starts mysteriously getting transported around historical Paris each night at midnight, where he meets some of its most legendary artistic figures, from Hemingway to Dali. It’s a charming, funny and nostalgic film that touches on plenty of themes, and is flat out enjoyable to watch. The incredible cast is full of stars, from Tom Hiddleston to the incredible Marion Cotillard, and all do wonders in their limited time. One of Woody Allen’s modern classics that takes a more lighthearted, magical approach to the time travel elements.
11. The Terminator (1984)
This legendary horror/sci-fi thriller from director James Cameron is largely responsible for vaulting former bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger into stardom, as the relentless, killer machine sent back in time to kill Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, a woman who is key to humanity and it’s survival. A human resistance hero is also sent back in time to save her, as Arnie brings death and destruction in a hauntingly inhuman way. The film gave us some incredible special effects, as we’ve come to expect from Cameron, and the action was thrilling and just kept coming. The Terminator just kept coming and coming, which is what made it all so terrifying and of course the time travel elements would set up all kind of plot points and complexities which would lead to future sequels, and unfortunately some strange reboots like the upcoming Terminator: Genisys.
10. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Star Trek is a cult franchise like no other, and arguably the greatest science fiction entertainment franchise of all time if you factor in television and movies (easy there Star Wars fans, if it was just movies then Wars would likely take the crown). This lesser appreciated gem was the cap on a trilogy story that actually began with Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Kahn. In it, our heroes are forced to travel back in time to a very normal San Francisco in the 1980’s, where they have to convince a scientist to let them borrow some humpback whales. Sounds pretty silly right? Well, it kind of is, and it lends to the strangely upbeat and humorous tone that this particular Star Trek film took on. The gravity of the situation has its moments of seriousness but this was a film that clearly didn’t want to take itself to seriously, and the experiment actually worked really well. The Voyage Home ended up becoming one of the most loved of the entire franchise.
9. Back to the Future 2 & 3 (1989 & 1990)
The two sequels to Robert Zemeckis’ classic pop culture defining adventure have been lumped together here, largely because they were similar in quality and so close together in terms of release date. Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd return as the unlikely duo of Marty McFly and Doc, who continue their time travelling ways and the fun is not quite as good as the original, but still pretty damn good. In part 2, Marty has to travel back in time to fix a situation he caused by travelling into the future, while in Part 3, he and Doc end up back in the Old West. The films are a little more convoluted in terms of plot and lack a little bit of that original charm, but are still hands above many modern films in terms of pure fun and entertainment value. Time travel movies don’t come much better than the Back to the Future Trilogy.
8. Looper (2012)
Writer/Director Rian Johnson dropped this surprise hit in our laps in 2012, and for me it was one of the best thrillers of the year. It takes the concept of time travel and makes it an illegal black market activity, and throws its own unique spin on it, where mobsters of the future send their hits back in time for a killer or ‘looper’ is waiting to perform the act. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays one such ‘looper’ called Joe but when his boss decides it’s time to bring his employment to an end he sends another killer, played by Bruce Willis back to take him out. All is not as it seems though, and when Joe meets a woman called Sara and her son, connections begin to form and a battle for the future and between right and wrong ensues. It’s a mind bender which isn’t free of plot holes, as is the case with most time travel movies, but it’s got some fantastic action, incredible originality and some moments of sheer intensity. One of the best and under appreciated science fiction movies in recent memory.
7. X-Men Days of Futures Past (2014)
The latest in the X-Men franchise employs time travel in such a way that was sure to cause mass nerdgasm across the comic book world, with Wolverine going on a time travelling mission on behalf of Professor X and Magneto to find and convince their younger selves to help them prevent a horrifying future, ruled by the merciless and emotionless machines that are the Sentinels. It may seem like an excuse to bring together the casts of the two X-Men arcs they have going, and I’m sure in many ways that’s exactly what it was. But it was also an incredibly exciting super hero action movie on an epic scale, with some incredibly larger than life moments that integrate some real life history to add a little extra bit of spice. The film has it all from humor and romance to thrills and betrayals. It’s Marvel at it’s modern finest.
6. Donnie Darko (2001)
One of the most well known cult favorites of all time, this brave film from Richard Kelly has a young Jake Gyllenhaal playing a strange young man who is dealing with strange visions of a giant rabbit and prophecies of the end of the world, while trying to navigate an already complicated personal life. The film is a confusing journey through time travel, multiple dimensions and realities and the implications of a young man’s actions in relation to these concepts. It’s actually not always easy to tell exactly what the film is about, but it never seems like a mess. It’s thoroughly engrossing in fact, and much of this is due to the incredible performance from a young Gyllenhaal. He’s remarkable and no matter what you think of the somewhat polarizing plot, you can’t deny the talent on show.
5. Primer (2004)
Shane Carruth could not have imagined the success this tiny little low budget indie would garner in the movie community. He basically served every function of film making, having written the film, been the camera man, directed it and even starred in it. It is about four entrepreneurs who are creating an advanced device for a company, but accidentally create a machine that has time travel capabilities. As they deal with the implications of what they have in their possession, they have all sorts of ideas about what it could be used for, including getting rich in the financial markets and making up for personal transgressions. But as the plot develops, the characters begin to have differing opinions about the morality of their device and it creates a very human and personal tension, which when combined with the remarkable science and genius plot, makes for one hell of a movie. I’ve always thought the best time travel movies are those which deal with the implications on a personal level, as well as a scientific one, and Primer is a prime (sorry) example of that.
4. Planet of the Apes (1968)
SPOILER ALERT. If you haven’t seen the film and plan to, then feel free to skip to number 3! The original Planet of the Apes was a generation defining movie in many ways. Watch the episode of Mad Men when Draper sees the film, and you’ll see that it’s influence is well known. It’s social and allegorical implications are clear, as are it’s scientific commentaries. Charleston Heston is in his usual brilliant form, and the make up work is way ahead of it’s time, creating some convincing walking and talking apes. The story of a group of astronauts who land on a strange planet ruled by apes is of course a science fiction film and one of the finest of all time. For the vast majority of it’s enthralling run time, it is not even a time travel movie. Until suddenly it is!
3. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
It is not often that a sequel to brilliant, genre leading film like The Terminator is actually any good. Especially outside of the Drama genre. But James Cameron defied that preconception with Terminator 2, which involves more time travel, but this time a more advanced Terminator model is being sent back to kill Sarah Connor’s (Linda Hamilton again) son John, who is destined to be a resistance leader. However, the Terminator model who was sent back to kill Sarah in the first film is not reprogrammed and sent back by the good guys to protect her. So this time Arnie is the good guy, and the film benefits from that, because it allows a newer and fresher villain to take his place. This liquid metal monster that could morph into any form gave Cameron the ability to dazzle us with some of the best special effects of that time, which of course won him plenty of awards. It’s also a film with a little more emotion and charm though, and never mind time travel movies: Terminator 2 is quite possibly one of the best action movies ever made.
2. 12 Monkeys (1995)
Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame is the director of this science fiction thriller about a prisoner of the future named James Cole (Bruce Willis) who is sent into the past to stop a deadly plague, in return for his freedom. However, as he goes back to attempt the mission a greater mystery begins to unfold and nothing is at it seems, including his own mind. It seems to have something to do with a strange activist group, and a collection of other characters, and Cole has to find the right path quickly. The film has a very distinct style and darkness, similar to the likes of Blade Runner, and is similar in it’s poetic and deeper meaning. One of my personal favorites, and ALMOST the best time travel movie of all time, 12 Monkeys is a masterpiece.
1. Back to the Future (1985)
Of course, Robert Zemeckis’ pop icon Marty McFly and his time travelling masterpiece owns the top spot. Back to the Future was such an incredibly huge hit when it was released in 1985, and this is largely due to the sheer fun of it all. It’s amazing, often silly, entertainment but it’s also a perfect portrait of a generation and has as much heart as most dramas. The heart and charm of it is just surrounded with hilarious gags, over the top characters and time bending implications. Christopher Lloyd is inspired as Doc and his character is certainly one of the most beloved of all time, while Marty McFly is a hero to all 80’s movie fans, young or old. It’s near impossible not to smile throughout, and while many of its stars stardom ceased with this trilogy, they can certainly live off of its fruits forever. The greatest of all time travel movies is Back to the Future.
Well, there you have it. Movie Melt’s list of the Best Time Travel Movies ever. Let us know what you think!