The idea of being able to travel through time has long appealed to man, and so it is no surprise the concept has been often depicted in film. Join us as we countdown the 30 best movies which feature some sort of time travel.
I love movies which feature time travel. Even the sappy romantic comedies like The Time Traveller’s Wife or Somewhere in Time have some sort of appeal where I would not otherwise be interested. What makes time travel movies so interesting in my mind is the idea of putting a character in a place they don’t really belong. There is entertainment associated with them interacting with their new surroundings. It can be a moment they’ve already lived through – an opportunity to correct a mistake or erase a regret. It can be a completely new experience – exploring the wonders (or horrors) of the future or past.
When I sat down to write this, I was originally planning on exploring the top ten best time travel movies. But as I thought about it, I kept adding more and more movies with time travel to my list – movies I didn’t want to discount by leaving them off. So, I settled on the top thirty time travel movies so far. Some of these movies feature time travel in the traditional sense – i.e. a character moving through time – while others are a more obscure, or supernatural take on the idea.
These are ranked by my own personal opinion of how well they utilize the idea of time travel to create an entertaining or thought-provoking viewing experience. They have to either feature a character who travels through time, or else use a narrative where one or more of the characters understands they are removed from their normal timeline of existence. Movies which have achieved pop-culture notoriety because of their time travel are ranked higher, and of course good films are chosen over bad ones.
Without further delay, here are my picks for the 30 best time travel movies (#16-30):
Note: Since we are discussing time travel, there may be plot-related spoilers! Proceed at your own risk.
#30 – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Use of Time Travel: Hermione Granger receives a Time Turner, a device which can create short-term time travel. She was given it in order to be able to attend two classes at the same time. But ultimately she uses it to save Harry Potter and Sirius Black.
Past, Present, or Future? Past. Harry and Hermione go back in time with the Time Turner after the dementors capture Sirius Black. Knowing Black is actually innocent and has been framed, they save him and help him escape.
Ok, so the first film on this list is not really a film you associate with time travel, but it is such a good film I couldn’t leave it off the list. As one of the best Harry Potter films, and also a time travel movie which is not science fiction, it was a difficult one for me to ignore
#29 – Source Code (2011)
Use of Time Travel: Army Captain Colter Stevens is sent into a computer simulation of a terrorist attack on a train. Stevens must figure out who is responsible for the attack. He relives the attack over and over again, picking up on new details every time in order to try and piece together an answer.
Past, Present, or Future? Technically Stevens travels to the past, an event which has already happened. However, the place he is travelling is later revealed to be an alternate reality, and so in a way it is also his present.
One of many films on this list with an atypical approach to time travel. Critics have noted the similarities of this film to Groundhog Day and Tony Scott’s Deja Vu. I would also add it is similar in premise to Edge of Tomorrow, but with a different outcome.
#28- Frequency (2000)
Use of Time Travel: A ham radio allows a son to talk with his father who died thirty years earlier. The father, Frank is a firefighter who dies in a fire, and the son, John manages to prevent his death by warning him over the radio. But when he does this, John’s present changes and the two have to work together to prevent even more tragedy.
Past, Present, or Future? Past. Technically, John doesn’t travel to the past, but is otherwise able to make changes in the past which affects his present.
Some may argue that it is not a time travel movie, but I would disagree because the plot revolves around the passage of time. John may not be physically travelling back in time, but his words are.
#27- Time After Time (1979)
Use of Time Travel: When H.G. Wells’ friend (Stevenson) turns out to be Jack the Ripper, he evades the police by stealing H.G. Wells’ time machine to escape to the future. The machine automatically comes back to the time it left from, which allows Wells the opportunity to follow his friend into the future to try and hunt him down.
Past, Present, or Future? Future. At least it is the future for the film’s characters. Stevenson travels from 1893 to 1979.
The first film on this list featuring H.G. Wells’ time machine and a nod to the story which essentially first invented the idea of time travel. It is a very clever film for the time period, surely one which would influence the popularity of time-travel movies in the 1980’s and beyond.
#26 – Predestination (2014)
Use of Time Travel: The main character is a temporal agent – a person who uses time travel to try and stop major crimes from happening.
Past, Present, or Future? Past. The protagonist is trying to prevent a serial bomber in 1970’s New York. He travels to other destinations preceding the appearance of the bomber, but is ultimately from the future.
The concept behind Predestination may seem similar to those campy time travel B-movies of the 1990’s, but the execution is different, and much better. Predestination is a detective noir where the protagonist is searching through different time periods for clues, rather than different places. The story is more clever than it seems, an excellent use of time travel in cinema.
#25 – Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Use of Time Travel: Kenneth Calloway places an ad in a newspaper for a companion to travel with him back in time to try and save his girlfriend.
Past, Present, or Future? Past. The film questions whether or not Kenneth is being truthful when he says he has the ability to travel back in time. The main character of the film is basically hired to find out, and only determines that he is being truthful at the last minute.
A rare film on this list which features a time travel aspect, but does not really revolve around the actual time travel. It is a more whimsical approach to the time travel movie, more concerned with exploring relationships and regrets. The premise of Safety Not Guaranteed is unique, endearing, and charming.
#24 – The Time Machine (1960)
Use of Time Travel: As the title alludes, the main character invents a machine which allows the user to travel through time. The inventor is George, who explores the future with curiosity, only to find horrors he could not ever have imagined.
Past, Present, or Future? Future. George initially starts his adventure at the turn of the twentieth century, and travels forward in time (WWI, WWII) to see moments which would be considered the past, even when the film was released in 1960. He continues forward and eventually reaches a time which is the distant future.
The Time Machine is a classic time travel movie. It is based on the seminal novel of the same name by H.G. Wells, which is believed to be the first story which uses mechanical means for time travel. That story inspired most of the time travel ideas in the other films on this list, and the movie version brings it to life in an entertaining fashion. I had to include it on this list.
#23 – X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Use of Time Travel: To save the future, Wolverine is sent back in time to prevent the rise of the sentinels which have nearly wiped out the mutants.
Past, Present, or Future? Past. 1970’s exact. But Wolverine isn’t physically transported back in time, only his consciousness is. His older mind inhabits his younger body.
I feel like this is an example of where time travel helped a franchise out by doing something a little different. It ties a familiar X-Men storyline together with the reboot series’ panache for putting its characters in different decades of the past. By showing us the implications of what Wolverine is fighting against, the film has more weight and drive.
#22- Star Trek: First Contact (1998)
Use of Time Travel: When a Borg invasion of Earth fails, the Borg queen travels back in time to try and kill the first human to invent the warp drive, which would set back humanity’s development hundreds of years.
Past, Present, or Future? Past. It is the past for the characters of the film, but the future for the audience.
Star Trek has a long history of time travel, including in its feature films. The time travel episodes and movies tend to be fondly remembered, and so it is no surprise that this one is the best feature film for the Next Generation cast.
#21 – Army of Darkness (1992)
Use of Time Travel: So technically the time travel takes place at the end of the last film – Evil Dead II. In that film, a spell is spoken which opens up some sort of a portal. Both Ash and his car are sucked through the portal and end up in the middle ages.
Past, Present, or Future? Past. Ash lands in the time of Knights and kingdoms. He becomes heralded for his ability to kill the undead, but has to once again find the Necronomicon in order to open the portal and return home.
Time travel movies don’t have to be straight science fiction. This is one of the more comical examples which is more supernatural than science fiction. Army of Darkness has earned a cult following, and has long been rumored to be of interest for a sequel or reboot – there’s a good reason for this: it is an incredibly fun film.
#20 – Primer (2004)
Use of Time Travel: Two engineers accidentally invent time travel, decide to use it in order to trade stocks with future knowledge to get rich. But their original plan gets derailed when they begin to have differing opinions on how to use the technology, leading to desperate actions against each other.
Past, Present, or Future? Past. Well, 6 hours at a time. The time traveller starts the machine ahead of time, and then waits 6 hours before entering. When they get into the machine (which is basically a box), time moves backwards – so they wait 6 hours inside and by the time they get out it is about the same time the machine was switched on. However, this process essentially ends the existence of the person who entered the machine and creates a new one six hours earlier.
If this method of time travel sounds complicated, that’s because it is. It’s a low-fi indie movie, but the questions it has about the idea of time travel are what makes it interesting. The film’s entertainment comes from its mystery – from paying attention to all the tiny little details and trying to figure it out.
#19 – Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Use of Time Travel: Aliens invade earth. When one man is killed in combat, he wakes up in his bed the preceding day. Every day he relives the engagement and dies, only to wake up and have to do it over again. Each time he has memory of what happened before, and gradually he learns to survive and team up with another who has the same problem to try and end the invasion and stop the loop.
Past, Present, or Future? Present. Major William Cage has to relive the same day over and over again from the moment he wakes up until the moment he dies. As he is more successful, he manages to live longer.
Another atypical use of time travel, Edge of Tomorrow is an even more atypical example of a well-received high-concept science fiction blockbuster, and cemented Tom Cruise in his current day resurgence of practical action-movie hero.
#18 – Run Lola Run (1998)
Use of Time Travel: The characters don’t use time travel, but the movie itself does. In the film, Lola has 20 minutes to bring a large amount of money to her boyfriend. Her first attempt causes her death. The film plays out alternative attempts until she gets it right.
Past, Present, or Future? Future. Each of the film’s three timelines starts from the same moment. Events in one timeline appear to influence Lola’s actions in the proceeding timelines. Her decisions also change the fortunes of the characters she meets along the way.
While not a traditional time travel movie, Run Lola Run belongs on this list because it essentially uses time manipulation to explore the idea of free will vs. fate. By running Lola through the same situation over and over, we can see how minor changes have major impacts. That is essentially what time travel movies have always been about.
#17 – Looper (2012)
Use of Time Travel: In the future, time travel is used by crime syndicates to send their victims back in time to be killed. The reason for this is that they can’t be easily disposed of the body in the future. The individuals who are responsible for carrying out these killings are called “loopers”.
Past, Present, or Future? Present, although the plot progresses through time and there are various points where we see the future and characters travel to the past (formerly the present)….let’s just say it’s complicated.
Looper is one of the films which demonstrates the complexities of time travel. Movies which have tried to discuss this aspect of time travel have not fared as well as those which try to keep it as simple as possible. The fact that Looper ends up being such a thought-provoking and engaging film despite the complications makes it a winner.
#16 – The Terminator (1984)
Use of Time Travel: In the future an artificial intelligence entity called Skynet becomes self aware and begins killing humans with an army of machines. Skynet sends one of its machines, called a Terminator, back in time to try and kill the mother of the man who would lead the human resistance.
Past, Present, or Future? Past. While the film takes place in contemporary times, the time travel is used to go backwards from the future. The future that the machines send back the T800 from is 2029, so we happen to be closer to the future portrayed in this film than the “present”.
Besides Back to the Future, there are no other major movie franchises which revolve around the idea of time travel as much as the Terminator franchise does. Although the franchise’s best film ends up higher on this list, I couldn’t ignore how influential and game-changing the original film was.
Check back next week as we reveal the top 15 time travel films!