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Despite time travel being considered more of a science fiction trope, there is something positively enchanting about the idea of being able to go back to another time or forward into the future, even if just for a moment. While this list deals with a mix of films, some of which consider the hazards of time travel (mostly through time loops), for the most part, these films see time travel as a net positive. Time travel is also a sphere that is mostly occupied by television, thanks to shows like Doctor Who, Quantum Leap, and Lost, even though the number of time travel movies has shot up over the past two decades or so.
Unfortunately, the earliest this list goes is 1962; while there are some time travel movies from the Old Hollywood days, they lack a lot of the imagination and thoughtfulness about the nature of time that the movies on this list bring. This list is a mix of straight dramas, killer action, rollicking comedies, and heartfelt romance — and sometimes, all of those elements exist in a single movie. This list is unranked, and mostly grouped together according to each movie's particular "genre" of time travel: conventional time machines, time loops, magical circumstances, and missions to save the past and the future at the same time. These are 23 of the best time travel movies of all time.
<i>La Jetée</i> (1962)
Kicking off an unranked list of time-travel movies chronologically seems like a good place to start, actually. La Jetée is also probably the most experimental of the films on this list. A French Left Bank short film set in a post-nuclear apocalypse future told through narration and photographs, this is not the first time-travel film by any means, but its impact on the time-travel movies that came after, like 1995's 12 Monkeys, cannot be understated.
A young prisoner (Davos Hanich) is forced to undergo torturous experiments to induce time travel by using impactful memories — and unlike those who came before him, he succeeds, but he ends up discovering a time loop in the process. This is an incredibly stylish telling of what is now a familiar type of story, but in 1962, it was absolutely revolutionary. Honestly, because of its unique technical and visual elements, it still is.
<i>Time After Time</i> (1979)
Nicholas Meyer is behind not one, but two brilliant time-travel movies that made this list. For this particular film, he not only wrote the screenplay but also made his directorial debut. The tale of two 19th-century former friends, H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell, unusually wide-eyed and adorable) and John Leslie Stevenson a.k.a. Jack the Ripper (David Warner, never more menacing yet charming), as they chase each other through 1979 San Francisco thanks to Wells' time machine, Time After Time doesn't spend too much time on the science of time travel, and it's better for it.
This is, in essence, a romantic thriller, as Wells falls for quirky bank clerk Amy (Mary Steenburgen, delightfully independent) while in search of his old friend turned enemy. It has chase scenes, interrogation sequences, gory murder (courtesy of Jack), and a delightful sense of humor as Wells learns to navigate the future. He thought it would be a utopia; instead, he finds a world in sore need of his idealism, kindness, and dedication to justice.
The <i>Back to the Future</i> trilogy (1985, 1989, 1990)
While it's true that the first Back to the Future movie is probably one of the greatest time-travel movies of all time, with its two sequels living in its shadows, all three are essential to understanding the character of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox). The Back to the Future trilogy is an '80s version of a bildungsroman about a teenager who has to learn that there's much more to life than being, well, a teenager. The first film, confidently directed by Robert Zemeckis, is imbued with so much humor and heart, it's all too easy to get sucked into a plot that should be convoluted, but that works so awfully well.
Back to the Future Part II evokes a bit less feeling than the original, and it's significantly grittier, but it's still "another fantastic voyage" as EW's Ira Robbins wrote, flinging Marty and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) into a slightly prescient future version of 2015. Back to the Future Part III, meanwhile, restores the heart, but its story is slighter as it wraps up Marty's saga, sending Doc off on a brand new adventure all his own. While the first Back to the Future movie is required viewing for any time travel enthusiast, stick around for the rest of the trilogy, too: Even if this franchise's view of time travel is riddled with potential paradoxes, they are entertaining paradoxes nonetheless.
<i>Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure</i> (1989)
"Be excellent to each other" is the reigning philosophy of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, the adventurous, fun-loving, stoner time-travel comedy that spawned a franchise, including a third installment released in 2020. Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves absolutely triumph in the roles of lackadaisical teenagers Bill and Ted, respectively, as they journey through time to bring back legends in order to pass their history class.
If the film seems silly, that's because it is meant to be. Whereas the Back to the Future franchise intended to craft a legend, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure kicks off the journey with George Carlin as the duo's time travel guide and mentor, Rufus, who intends to enlighten the pair on their mission and destiny. In any other film, the two budding legends, with their free-wheeling ideals and misadventures, would bring down the fabric of time and space itself. However, Excellent Adventure is not a time-travel film that forces you to think too hard about its premise; instead, it invites you to just kick back and have a good time.
<i>Meet the Robinsons</i> (2007)
Meet the Robinsons received mixed reviews when it first debuted, but of the 3-D animated movies that came out of Disney Animation in the 2000s, it's probably the most imaginative and outstanding of the bunch. Following a young orphan as he goes on a fantastic voyage into the future with another young boy who is a time traveler (kind of), Robinsons is stylish to a point and is filled with heart. It's probably also the most kid-friendly entry on this list, but its good-natured humor and complicated emotional palette will appeal to adults, too.
It also fits neatly into a more classic genre of time travel, with time machines, eccentric inventors, and kids looking to make an impact — not just on their time, but on the time they find themselves in, be it the near future or the distant past.
<i>Run Lola Run</i> (1998)
This is, in many ways, the time loop movie; debuting in 1998 to rave reviews, Run Lola Run, a German experimental thriller, is one you will not be able to shake, long after you've finished a viewing (or even a second, to catch what you missed the first time). The protagonist, Lola (Franka Potente, in a punishingly physical performance), is forced to relive a scenario, again and again, involving saving her boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu) from certain death.
Potente's performance alone is worth the watch, and of the films on this list, Run Lola Run is actually one of the shorter ones, using its 80-minute runtime to its full advantage. The other time loop movies on this list are also worthy viewing experiences in a lot of ways, but for a pure shot of adrenaline, you can't miss the film EW deemed "a masterful pop piece, humming with raw romance, youth, and energy." If you're interested in more of director Tom Tykwer's work, he also codirected 2012's Cloud Atlas with the Wachowskis, which, while not a pure time-travel movie, certainly plays with the intertwined nature of time and memory.
<i>Source Code</i> (2011)
Duncan Jones made a splash with his 2009 feature directorial debut Moon, a moody, philosophical insight into possible lunar labor practices in the future. He followed that thoughtful film up with Source Code, which, while not a movie that could always be described as "thoughtful," could certainly be described as moody. Hitchcockian in a sense, Source Code follows the misadventures of a U.S. Army pilot (Jake Gyllenhaal), as he attempts to stop a terrorist attack on a Chicago commuter train — repeatedly.
Source Code does have something to say about the commodification of bodies and minds in the service of the so-called "greater good"; while Gyllenhaal's Captain Stevens' services are no doubt helpful, are they necessary, the film asks. Is it really a good idea to force someone to relive an incredibly stressful idea, over and over again? The movie has its funny moments, even in the thick of all the intense chase scenes through the train; EW noted back in 2012, "The director finds moments of humor in unlikely corners of that train of fools." Indeed. If you enjoyed a film like The Commuter (2018), but thought it could use a time loop and the potential of alternate realities, Source Code is your next mandatory viewing.
Before Rian Johnson introduced us to Benoit Blanc or journeyed to a galaxy far, far, away, he made the tangled time-travel film fittingly called Looper. Starring Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a younger Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt, Looper tells the tale of a contract killer sent after his next target: himself. This is a complicated film, and it is imperfect in a lot of ways, but its brutal appraisal of a possible dystopian future, and the efforts one man takes to prevent that future, are worth the amount of head-scratching you might find yourself doing throughout.
That Johnson likes his narratives to be impenetrable Gordian knots that only his designated protagonist can solve can perhaps be frustrating to the audience. However, if there's one thing that the Knives Out franchise seems to have reinforced, it's that not trying to unpack the mysteries of his work might work to your advantage as a viewer, because Johnson will probably have someone explain what just happened by the end, anyway. Like most of his films, Looper has a social conscience lurking within it as well. As EW's Lisa Schwarzbaum noted, "It's time to wipe the drops from our eyes or else get stuck in a loop, an endless cycle, a rut" about Looper's core tenet back in 2012. It's a worthy takeaway from a film obsessed with self-fulfilling prophecies people find themselves within.
<i>Edge of Tomorrow</i> (2014)
Time loop movies need some incredible editing in order to really succeed, and Doug Liman's enthralling Edge of Tomorrow certainly does so on that point. While Tom Cruise is the lead as a cowardly lion–turned–near-super soldier, all eyes are on Emily Blunt as Rita Vrataski, who rules this movie as one of the few heroes this dystopian, post-alien invasion world actually has left. While the quest Cruise and Blunt go on may be a bit convoluted, the film is so incredibly entertaining because it's so sharply cut, keeping up the pace even as we see similar things over and over and over again.
A tip of the hat must, of course, go to the action, which is as compelling as you would expect from a mega-star who seems determined these days to do all of his own stunts. In an era of often depressing science fiction, Edge of Tomorrow, as EW's Chris Nashawaty mentioned, is a fun, "deliciously subversive kind of blockbuster" to immerse your senses in for two hours, if nothing else.
While this film might technically be considered more of a space opera than a time-travel movie, there's no reason it can't be both. Christopher Nolan's Interstellar is a dazzling portrait not just of space travel, but of the love between a father and daughter that stretches over the thin fabric of both time and space. Matthew McConaughey as the astronaut father has never been so serious, but acclaim needs to go to Jessica Chastain and Anne Hathaway as Nolan's strongest women characters to date.
Interstellar varies between being almost too tense to stand, and, at other points, utterly relaxed. As a cinematic experience, it feels all-encompassing, using every possible outstanding special effect to draw its viewers in before the script hits them with emotional truth. While Nolan can certainly be considered "cold and clinical" as EW noted, his space-journeying meditation on the intersection between love and time is anything but.
<i>Palm Springs</i> (2020)
Releasing a time loop movie during a global pandemic where life felt increasingly repetitive and bizarre was certainly a strategy for Hulu and Neon with Palm Springs, but it paid off. While the film was certainly developed long before COVID-19, the scenario of two wedding guests trying to escape the situational loop they've found themselves definitely resonated at the time, and it still does. Palm Springs may seem serious from the above description, but it is actually a fun sci-fi-tinged tale that is largely driven by the comedic skills of leads Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti.
EW noted that the movie avoids "true discomfort comedy," and honestly, it's all the better for it. If Palm Springs had been angrier, it wouldn't hit home so hard, and it also wouldn't be nearly as entertaining. Instead, it's an often sweet rom-com that doesn't take itself or its completely made-up time loop physics too seriously. It was a Sundance darling for a reason, never quite letting up on the wild ride it takes its characters or its viewers on over the course of its 90 minutes.
<i>Somewhere in Time</i> (1980)
Somewhere in Time might employ one of the strangest methods of time travel of all the movies on this list: time travel by hypnosis, of all things. (And self-induced hypnosis, for that matter.) Time travel on such shaky ground can't possibly hold up, and it somewhat doesn't, in the end. Science fiction great Richard Matheson adapted his own novel into a lackadaisical screenplay for this film, starring Christopher Reeve in a perfectly tragic role as the young man who gives his all for a woman (Jane Seymour) he can never really have.
In many ways, Somewhere in Time feels like a curio of the era from which it came, serving as a time capsule of how stories were told in the late-'70s and early-'80s. That is actually not a mark against it; this is a film that is just a peak tragic romance in a lot of ways; special nods must also go to Christopher Plummer as the young woman's cynical mentor, who seems to possess a certain foresight about the impossibility of Reeve's character. If you want a time-travel movie that is beautifully romantic, from its iconic score to its grand cinematography, you shouldn't stray from Somewhere in Time.
<i>Peggy Sue Got Married</i> (1986)
The tale of a grown, about-to-be-divorced woman forced to relive her high school days and her courtship with a dorky-cool musician, Peggy Sue Got Married might be one of Francis Ford Coppola's most small-scale movies, but it decidedly has the most soul of his catalog of mostly epics. Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner, in an Oscar-nominated performance) just wants to leave Charlie (Nicolas Cage) behind, but her time-traveling coma dream conspires against her to force her to reconsider. (It forces Charlie to become a better person, too.)
The film combines the cynicism of a rightfully embittered '80s housewife with the unbridled idealism of a '60s teenager to make one heck of a sincere cinematic concoction. That the film starts at a high school reunion could mean it becomes awkward very quickly, but instead, it's completely joyful. Whether Peggy Sue Got Married started a tradition of "person has some sort of crisis and subsequently ends up in another time" movies is unclear, but it does have a rather clear descendant in one of our next entries.
<i>Kate & Leopold</i> (2001)
Doesn't everyone want a young Hugh Jackman from the 19th century to fall out of the sky and into their lives? Leopold (Jackman) is a foppish and geeky, if not perfect, gentleman who quickly has Kate (Meg Ryan) falling for him despite her modern understanding of the world. That so many time-travel movies somehow end up in romantic territory is an interesting phenomenon, but one that does make sense. There is something appealing about falling for someone whose time is not your own.
Kate & Leopold is decidedly not a perfect film, although it is the first of director James Mangold's and Jackman's collaborations (see 2017's Logan for the much grittier future fruits of their labor). It's fluffy, it's light, and it creates a paradox without even really acknowledging it. Someone looked at the Meg Ryan comedies of the '80s and '90s and asked, "But what if we made them science fiction?" It works in spite of itself, with Jackman's physical comedy as he plays "a doll of a boyfriend" and Ryan's sardonic tone carrying the day.
<i>13 Going on 30</i> (2004)
When a 13-year-old girl is crushed after being tricked at her own birthday party, she makes a wish to be "30, flirty, and thriving," quickly waking up the next day to find herself just that, in the body of Jennifer Garner. Instead of traveling back to the past à la the protagonist of Peggy Sue Got Married, Jenna (Garner, Christa B. Allen) ends up in a potential future, where she is all the things she wished for, but definitely not as happy as she thought she would be.
The 2004 rom-com is a magical time travel tale — there's literally "magic wishing dust" — but that doesn't take away from the hilarity that comes with a 13-year-old trying to navigate an adult woman's life. Of course, in the end, Jenna learns her lesson — it's okay to just be young, for a little bit longer — but the journey she goes on as she discovers not just herself but also her true love (Mark Ruffalo) is worth all the silliness in the end.
This lovely little gem directed by Japanese animation visionary Mamoru Hosoda tells the story of a little boy who unhappily gets a baby sister and ends up learning a lot of lessons about the past and the future. Kun (Moka Kamishiraishi) gets a chance to meet not only the grown, future version of his sister Mirai (Haru Kuroki) but also members of his family at different points in their lives. Mirai is a delightfully imaginative film with some gorgeous animation that contains some "mind-boggling visuals" as EW's Christian Holub pointed out.
It is also a genuinely heartwarming tearjerker; while all ends well for little Kun, the meditations this film offers on the nature of family bonds over the course of multiple generations might just leave you in a state of reflection on your own ties that bind. While many time-travel movies tell their stories from the perspective of youth, few unveil them through the eyes of a rambunctious preschooler, and gaining that perspective, in this case, allows for a truly precious journey.
<i>Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home</i> (1986)
If you know anything about Star Trek, you know the fourth film is "the one with the whales," but if you don't know anything about the franchise, you probably also know that this one is "the one with the whales." Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home often gets acclaim as the funny Star Trek movie, but it brings a lot more than just comedy. The original crew of the Enterprise fling themselves back in time to save humpback whales in the past in order to save the future from a strange probe that threatens Earth...and will stop, but only if it hears some natural whalesong.
The crew finds themselves in 1986 San Francisco, so it's great that Time After Time's Nicholas Meyer returned to the franchise not as director (he helmed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), but as a screenwriter. Watching these characters from a literal utopia navigate a world not designed for them creates not only dynamic humor but great tension as well. As they almost always do, the Enterprise team breaks all the rules in order to save the future as well as the whales. Or, as EW noted in a tribute to the film: "It has heart, and passion — Save the Whales! — and a tremendous sense of fun."
<i>Star Trek: First Contact</i> (1996)
Star Trek: First Contact doesn't particularly feel as much like a Star Trek movie as Voyage Home does, and EW, in fact, says it harnessed "a sleek, confident style fully independent of its predecessors." As a Trekkie, this may not be the most complimentary way of looking at it, but as a film fan, however, it might be the highest honor someone could bestow upon a movie within this franchise. Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) turns from a peace-loving diplomat to a Borg-slaying action star while the rest of his crew tries to get the inventor of the Warp Drive (the technology upon which the future relies) to stop drinking so much and actually invent the thing. James Cromwell, as the inventor, Zefram Cochrane, serves as the comedic relief for a remarkably serious and often scary film.
The Borg, '90s Star Trek's biggest villain, are the main antagonists here, and they do provide some chilling action, even if the introduction that they can easily time travel would really wreck things for some future Trek series. Stewart manages the transition from his mild-mannered diplomat to traumatized warrior well, turning in one of his most ferocious performances. Star Trek: First Contact also gives us a look at a post-apocalyptic world in the midst of a recovery, and in that respect, it makes it both a thoughtful entry in the Trek canon and a time travel action-thriller with a brain.
<i>The Terminator</i> (1984) and <i>Terminator 2: Judgment Day</i> (1991)
What would a best time-travel films list be without including at least one of the Terminator movies? While an often brutal franchise with diminishing returns after James Cameron's first two installments, the misadventures of an evil cyborg-turned-good (played to physical perfection by Arnold Schwarzenegger) in a consistently dangerous world are always thrilling and entertaining.
Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, mother of the future's savior (and much, much more), is also due an acknowledgment; while the films are remembered for Schwarzenegger's portrayal of the T-800, Hamilton is the heart of this franchise a great deal of the time, as she refuses to die or let her son face the same fate, either. The first two Terminator films are so much more than "scary robots take over the world, everybody dies" – they're action-packed, bloody thrillers with startling narratives, pioneering visual effects, and, of course, time travel as the catalyst.
<i>Safety Not Guaranteed</i> (2012)
"Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke...I have only done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED": This is part of the joke classified ad from which this movie was inspired. You might inspire a more risky movie from the tone of the ad, but what you get is a light comedy that served as the first leading film role for Aubrey Plaza. This Colin Trevorrow-directed film isn't so much about time travel as it is about the cultural assumptions that surround the concept, and those who think it might be possible.
In that sense, it's a meta-narrative on nearly every time travel story which has come before it, and quite possibly, that will come after it. EW called it "a fable of 'redemption'"; redemption, and the acts of salvaging something, anything, for the benefit of the future, is a regular time travel theme, from all those time machines to all those time loops. Safety Not Guaranteed manages to explore these themes with a lot of irony and a splash of heart.