In no particular order, these are the best time travel movies of all-time.
Time travel is a subject that fascinates us—the idea of such a thing is incredibly intriguing and holds a certain mystique that inevitably draws us in. In turn, a lot of movies about time travel have been made. Like, a lot. Naturally, I have compiled a list of best 25 time travel movies. Set in no particular order, each movie was selected on the basis of how compelling its use of time travel is and how it elevated the film’s overall enjoyability.
Donnie Darko (2001)
Richard Kelly’s thought-provoking cult classic is perhaps one of the most profound films ever made involving time travel. And despite how deeply interwoven it is with the film’s plot, it’s not something you can immediately glean early on in the film. Jake Gyllenhaal plays title character Donnie Darko, who encounters a large bunny-rabbit named Frank. Frank informs Donnie that the world is going to end in 28 days, a timeframe during which an increasingly bizarre course of events begins to transpire. The film’s core themes are directly connected to its use of time travel and are a necessary addition to this list.
Groundhog Day (1993)
Perhaps one of the most iconic time travel movies, Bill Murray stars in Groundhog Day as a narcissistic weatherman sent to a small town to cover Groundhog Day for an assignment. However, he soon finds that he’s stuck in a time loop, forced to re-live the same day over and over again. This film has sent the precedent for several other time travel movies, many of which borrow the concept of a character living the same day repeatedly. But none do it quite as well as the original.
Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is one time travel film that brings the sub-genre to space and does so in such a gorgeously captivating way. Taking place in a dystopian future, a group of astronauts travels through a wormhole in order to find a new home for humans, who are struggling to maintain survival on Earth. The film is upheld by a great cast (Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway) and while it may have a near three-hour runtime, its unique exploration of mankind is worth it.
The Terminator (1984)
James Cameron’s The Terminator is not only culturally significant in terms of time travel movies, or even film in general—it has made an impact in pop culture on the whole. Even those who have not seen The Terminator understand the reference upon hearing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s famous line: “I’ll be back.” Schwarzenegger plays the Terminator, a cyborg sent back in time from 2029 to kill the woman whose son becomes responsible for protecting the world against machines. There is no doubt that as time goes on, this will continue to hold its spot as one of the most prominent time travel movies.
About Time (2013)
Oh, yes, About Time is definitely on this list. A romantic-comedy that soothes the soul, About Time uses the concept of time travel to ponder the beauty and fragility of life. A young man (played by Domhnall Gleeson) learns that the men in his family have the ability to time travel, and uses his newfound gift as a means of improving his future. Along the way, he meets a young woman (Rachel McAdams) with whom he falls in love, and his time travel gifts come into play for both the better and the worse. While it may have its cheesy moments, what makes About Time so great is how it uses the element of time travel to create a simple and honest portrayal of the human experience.
Back to the Future (1985)
Another iconic take on time travel comes from Back to the Future. Michael J. Fox stars as Marty McFly, a teenager who accidentally travels back in time to 1955 and interrupts his parents’ first meeting, quickly becoming his own mother’s love interest. As bizarre and hilarious as the premise sounds, the film is wonderfully fun and enrapturing, and its widely loveable nature makes it easy to partake in multiple viewings of the film.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes was perhaps one of the earliest films to play with time travel and managed to do so in a fairly unique way, even for its time. The film follows an astronaut crew who crash lands on a desolate planet situated 2000 years into the future. The crew soon discovers that apes have taken over as the dominant species of the planet, leaving humans to be the more primitive race. Time travel is utilized to portray quite the interesting role-reversal, and it was one powerful enough to launch a five-film series, along with a reboot series decades later.
Doctor Strange (2016)
A list of time travel movies wouldn’t be complete without mentioning everyone’s favorite time-manipulating sorcerer in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Dr. Stephen Strange, a cocky neurosurgeon who loses destroys his hands in a tragic accident. Desperate to find a way to heal them, Strange visits Kamar-Taj, where he discovers his last shot at recovery is to train under the revered sorcerer known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Doctor Strange may not necessarily be considered a movie about time travel, but it certainly plays a significant role, especially in the film’s final showdown between hero and villain.
Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
It’s not quite cinematic gold, but it seems impossible not to note when talking about time travel movies. The film stars John Cusack as Adam, who is taken back to 1986 with his two friends and nephew thanks to a time machine at a ski resort. Once there, they must make it through the entire night without changing anything to make sure that the nephew is stillborn. While it may not be anything more than light, charming fun, the film embraces its silliness—and really, how seriously should a movie about a time machine take itself?
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
This isn’t the only Star Trek movie on this list, but time travel plays a big role in The Voyage Home. In order to save Earth from a mysterious alien presence, Admiral Kirk and his crew head back to the late twentieth century, only to find that it is not quite what they expected. Another time travel film that refrains from taking itself too seriously and partakes in several lighthearted jokes, The Voyage Home is a great time travel movie and perhaps one of the best in the Star Trek franchise.
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed brings together time travel with romantic comedy once again. Aubrey Plaza, Jake Johnson, and Karan Soni play three magazine writers who embark on an assignment to interview a man (Mark Duplass) who placed an advertisement seeking companionship for time travel. The film has a natural feel to it and its exploration of the characters’ relationships with themselves and each other make it a worthwhile watch.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Not only is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban the best movie in the Harry Potter franchise (let’s all just admit it), but it’s also one of the best time travel movies. During his third year at Hogwarts, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) finds himself entangled with a known convict, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman). The film’s final act brings into play a magical object called a Time Turner that plays a key role in the outcome of events. With Alfonso Cuarón’s sleek direction, the enthralling story, and the beloved characters, this is easily one of the most unforgettable time travel movies.
Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Twelve Monkeys brings another interesting narrative to the world of time travel films. A convict from the year 2035 goes back in time to discover the cause of a deadly virus, only to be sent to the wrong year. He winds up in a mental hospital but soon winds up discovering the Army of the 12 Monkeys, thought to be responsible for the virus. The fantastic cast and creative storytelling solidify its success as a time travel film.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt star in this flick about an officer who is demoted and forced to fight in combat without a day of training. He quickly gets killed but takes down an alien with him at the same time. However, coming into contact with the alien has thrown him into a time loop, and he is forced to experience the same day of fighting and dying on repeat. Taking a cue from Groundhog Day, this movie mixes time travel with other familiar elements of science-fiction and ultimately makes for a clever final product.
In Looper, Rian Johnson creates a unique world of science-fiction that serves as a backdrop for complex characters. Time travel has been created but is only available on the black market, the mob sending those they want to get rid of 30 years into the past. When they arrive, a hitman named Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is waiting to clean up the mess. Looper manages to be fairly unpredictable for its subject matter and is thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking.
Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is an entry that might not seem like a time travel movie at first impression, but in fact, it is embedded into the film from its very first scene. The film follows a linguistics professor (Amy Adams) who is asked to attempt deciphering the language of the new life form that has landed on Earth. While it may not come across as a time travel movie in the conventional sense, it will leave viewers with much to think about long after the credits roll.
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)
Never underestimate the power of a good Anime film—The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is one of them. A schoolgirl named Makoto discovers a device that gives her the ability to physically leap through time. At first, she uses her newfound ability to do things like arriving on time and ace tests, but she soon realizes her time traveling has an effect on those around her. Sweet and charming, this film reminds us of who and what is important to value most in life.
Star Trek (2009)
Yes, there’s more Star Trek. Technically the first film in the reboot series and eleventh in the franchise overall, J.J. Abrams has upended most limitations by having the new films exist in the same Star Trek universe. In other words, the same characters are living in an alternate timeline, thanks to the possibilities set up by time travel. While the film may not center on time travel directly, this element is what allowed this film to be a success.
13 Going on 30 (2004)
I must say: perhaps this is the best time travel movie of all. 13-year-old Jenna gets her greatest wishes fulfilled when, after some enchanted dust falls on her head in a closet at her birthday party, she wakes up in an apartment as a 30-year-old woman (Jennifer Garner). Jenna has no choice but to quickly learn the ropes of her adult life. Not only is the concept original and fun, but it sheds light on the beauty of savoring childhood innocence and optimism in an overly pessimistic world.
The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009)
This seems like a good time to mention that Rachel McAdams has actually been in 4 movies about time travel (The Time Traveler’s Wife, Doctor Strange, About Time, Midnight in Paris), but is never the one doing the actual time traveling! In this film, McAdams plays the titular role, and her husband (Eric Bana) is stuck in a state where he involuntarily jumps through time, appearing at various moments in the life of his lover. While it may not be everybody’s cup of the tea, the film’s ambition for taking this concept and running with it should be applauded.
Source Code (2011)
Another film following in the footsteps of Groundhog Day, our protagonist (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) enters the body of someone new as he attempts to prevent a mass murder attack on a commuter train, re-living the incident over again. The film is more for entertainment than anything to think too deeply about, but it makes for some good action sequences.
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
In an epic X-Men installment, the X-Men join forces with their younger selves in order to change the past and salvage their future. Both time periods come together in order to save their species, all wonderfully brought together through time travel. This arguably made for one of the best X-Men movies in the franchise, and the time travel element really showcases the character development here.
Ethan Hawke shines in Predestination, in which he plays an agent who travels through time in order to stop criminals from going through with their crimes. The plot is fairly unpredictable, and it’s one that will make you think. Close attention to detail will pay off when watching this movie, and intricacy often makes for the best time travel film.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
A goofy but loveable entry, this film has Keanu Reeves and Alex Winters playing floundering high school students. The pair uses a time machine to travel back in time and put together a report for history class that will earn them an A+—one that involves bringing a group of famous historical figures back with. The concept may seem ridiculous, but the absurdity is what makes it great.
Shane Carruth’s Primer is definitely more arthouse than virtually any other movie about time travel, which is surprising in a way, because—as this movie shows—a lot of creativity can be had with the concept. The film follows two friends who build a device that unintentionally creates a time loop. Of course, they start out by using this to their advantage but quickly learn there are catastrophic consequences to their tampering with time. It’s very refreshing for a time travel film and is worth the watch for anyone desiring something unique.
While it seems like there are so many titles on this list, there were also so many wonderful ones that couldn’t make the list. But in terms of escapism, all time travel movies are pretty great. Since we can’t really travel through time (yet), I suppose watching movies about it is the next best thing.