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 15 best time travel movies:
(To see Part 1 of this article, my picks for #16-30, click here!)
Note: Since we are discussing time travel, there may be plot-related spoilers! Proceed at your own risk.
#15 – Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Use of Time Travel: A hijacked Klingon bird of prey, at warp speed around the sun in the opposite direction of rotation. Somehow it works, Scotty is a genius.
Past, Present, or Future? Past. 1986 in fact, the same year this movie came out. Strange. Anyway, the crew has to go back in time to find some whales, which are extinct in the future. Survival of Earth depends on it.
Star Trek has often gone back in time. This film was the first time they did it on the big screen. It was also a more comedic, lighthearted take on the franchise. Still, audiences ate it up and to this day it remains one of the best Star Trek films, at least because it is so different from the others.
#14 – Interstellar (2014)
Use of Time Travel: After a mission through a wormhole goes awry, and with no other option available, astronaut Joseph Cooper points his ship towards a black hole.
Past, Present, or Future? Past, Future, and Present. When Cooper enters the black hole, he enters the fourth dimension where he is able to reach out to different moments in time. Some of these moments are shown earlier in the film, and his ability to interact with them is what ultimately leads to his mission. Soon, he figures out a way to re-enter his own timeline, although he ends up in the future from when he left.
Interstellar is a big movie in every sense of the word. It has big ideas, travels great distances, and takes place over many years. Its use of time travel is unique, and endearing as a father reaches through time to connect with his daughter.
#13 – The Girl Who Lept Through Time (2007)
Use of Time Travel: Highschooler Makoto Konno stumbles upon a time travel device. Makoto uses the device to make her life easier – getting good grades, avoiding people she doesn’t like, etc. But soon finds out the power is limited, and once she realizes the truth behind the device, must make some difficult decisions.
Past, Present, or Future? Present. This is a film uses time travel to discuss some of the challenges of growing up, specifically how challenges are part of the process.
The only animated film on this list, and for that reason I felt it had to be ranked high. Despite discussing the implications of time travel, the film never gets complicated or convoluted. It remains grounded, which is what makes it so appealing.
#12 – 12 Monkeys (1995)
Use of Time Travel: In order to try and prevent a deadly virus which ravages mankind, prisoner James Cole is sent back and time to try and stop it. The virus is believed to originate with the terrorist group known as the Army of the Twelve Monkeys.
Past, Present, or Future? Past. Cole is unable to find proof of what he was sent to do, and questions his own sanity. Eventually he figures it out, but not soon enough.
12 Monkeys is the first film on this list from Terry Gilliam, a director known for his wacky, mind-bending films. 12 Monkeys is arguably more serious, but some great performances and excellent use of the time travel narrative to spin some interesting plot twists makes this one memorable.
#11 – Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
Use of Time Travel: A telephone booth, given to two slackers who become saviors of humanity in the future. But first they have to pass their history class, and so they travel back in time to gather famous people in order to use them in their presentation.
Past, Present, or Future? Past. They visit ancient Greece, ancient China, the middle ages, America during the civil war, and others. Although, much of the film’s entertainment comes from seeing how these famous figures from history interact with modern (1980’s) suburban American society.
On the more lighthearted side of time travel is this film. Well-loved and remembered best of all for two things – the easy-going performances of its leading duo, and time travel. The word essential comes to mind with this film in association with time travel, as do the remaining films on this list. But it wasn’t a good enough film to make it my top ten.
#10 – Star Trek (2009)
Use of Time Travel: After the destruction of their homeworld by a supernova, a renegade group of Romulans gets transported through the resulting black hole, which send them back in time. They seek revenge against Spock and his homeworld of Vulcan after Spock’s attempt to stop the supernova failed.
Past, Present, or Future? Past. The film creates a new timeline in the Star Trek franchise, one in which we get to see a younger version of the Enterprise crew come in to their own.
The latest time-travelling Star Trek movie is also the best one. Not only did it essentially save the Star Trek franchise, it brought a new approach. The time travel aspect in this film was different than what we had seen before, and an ingenious way to not encroach on the series’ beloved origins.
#9 – Groundhog Day (1993)
Use of Time Travel: A bitter man must mend his ways or else spend eternity reliving the same terrible day over and over again.
Past, Present, or Future? Present. Phil is a TV reporter who gets caught in some sort of magical spell where he relives the same day. He tries various methods to escape, including suicide, but the only way he can escape is to look inside himself.
Time travel and comedy have often gone hand-in-hand. Bill Murray’s performance in this film is near-perfect, and has elevated it to become a modern classic. No one else could make eternal struggle so entertaining to watch.
#8 – Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Use of Time Travel: At the end of Avengers: Infinity War, the big baddie Thanos wins. His plan is to destroy half of the life in the universe, and he succeeds. The only way our surviving heroes can stop him is to go back in time using technology developed from the research of Dr. Hank Pym in the quantum realm. They go back in time to find all of the Infinity Stones, which gave Thanos his power in the first place, and plan to use them against him.
Past, Present, or Future? Past. The film is a fitting end to Marvel’s Phase 3. It transverses back through many of the films which came earlier, allowing the audience to relive them with a new perspective.
Endgame is perhaps one of the biggest, most eagerly-anticipated, and most watched movies ever made. The fact that time travel is central to the film’s plot makes it all that much more exciting. Time will tell if it becomes more associated with time travel than the films I ranked it lower than on this list.
#7 – Time Bandits (1985)
Use of Time Travel: A group of thieves steal an ancient map of time from The Supreme Being, and use it to find famous people in history and steal from them. In their exploits, they accidentally end up in the bedroom of a young boy, Kevin, who is fascinated with history. He joins them on their adventure.
Past, Present, or Future? Past. The group visits Napoleon in France, Robin Hood, ancient Greece, and the Titanic. But the Supreme Being is after them, and he captures them, bringing them into his own realm.
Terry Gilliam’s creativity as a director is almost limitless, and this is a film which demonstrates this. It is fun, silly, and adventurous, always pushing forward to new, unexpected places. With a kid as the main character, it is almost like exploring the mind of a child. The entire premise of the film is based on time travel, and that’s where it derives its entertainment.
#6 – Donnie Darko (2001)
Use of Time Travel: Donnie receives warnings in a dream about the end of the world in 28 days. It is actually a warning about a black hole which will develop when an alternate timeline collapses back into the original time. In the alternate timeline, Donnie is saved by a figure in his dreams, who is from the future of this doomed timeline and directs Donnie to take actions which will restore the original timeline (but, unfortunately, kill Donnie).
Past, Present, or Future? Past, but also an alternate future. Bear with me on this one. Frank, the man in the bunny suit, is warning Donnie from an alternate future. He saves Donnie from death but only in the alternate timeline. The original timeline is corrupted, and can only be fixed by the destruction of the alternate timeline, which results in Donnie’s death.
Donnie Darko is a strange movie. It is also complicated. Maybe borderline nonsensical. Its take on time travel is not straight forward. But that is also what makes it so great. It is dark, and sinister. Reveling in chaos and turmoil. This is a film full of angst and frustration. It certainly leaves its mark on the viewer.
#5 – Planet of the Apes (1968)
Use of Time Travel: Four astronauts are sent hundreds of years through interstellar space to a seemingly inhabitable planet. When they land, they find the planet to be inhibited by advanced apes, and humans are the seemingly inferior species. Later it is realized the astronauts traveled through some sort of time inversion, ending up back where they started, but in the future.
Past, Present, or Future? Future. Later films in the franchise would fill in the blanks between the time of humans, and the time of the apes. In the third film, apes travel backwards in time through the same inversion, ending up in modern times.
Few endings in film are as iconic as the one in the original Planet of the Apes. It is the grandfather of all shocking twists, and one which has to do with time travel. For this reason (and also because it is a classic science fiction film), I had to rank it high on this list.
#4 – Arrival (2016)
Use of Time Travel: When mysterious alien craft arrive on Earth, they sit in dormancy. Their arrival is to try and teach humans their language, so that in turn humans can use their language to look into their future and stop a global catastrophe.
Past, Present, or Future? Future. Linguist Louise Banks is brought in to try and figure out what it is the aliens want from humanity. As she works on trying to understand them, she begins to have dreams of her future. She begins to understand what will happen, and ultimately uses that knowledge to prevent China from starting a war which would destroy humanity.
Arrival’s use of time travel is more subtle than many films on this list. It uses time travel for the ultimate twist at the end, which nicely ties together the film. In addition to the thought-provoking narrative, the film is just an all-around excellent example of science fiction.
#3 – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Use of Time Travel: Ok, so this one isn’t technically time travel, but I am going to count it because essentially the main character is able to live in his past again. The main character is Joel Barish, who has learned his ex has hired the services of a company to erase her memories of him from her mind, to spare her the pain of their breakup. Joel decides to do the same thing, and in the process realizes it was a mistake, and tries to go back through his memories and save her.
Past, Present, or Future? Past. Joel lives through his memories once again as they are being deleted, and just as the last memory is being erased his ex tells him where to meet her. Somehow, they both remember this and end up at that place. Despite both of their attempts to remove each other from their lives, they still find a way to reconnect.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of the most creative, endearing, and thought-provoking films ever made. Despite the heavy topic, it has this positive energy. It delivers a message of hope, that we should not take for granted what we have, and we certainly should not let the bad times in our life overshadow the good ones. I think it counts as a time travel film because by revisiting his past, Joel is able to change his future.
#2 – Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Use of Time Travel: Much like the first film, Skynet sends a Terminator back in time to kill John Connor, future leader of the human rebellion. However, this time the humans send back their own Terminator in order to protect him.
Past, Present, or Future? Past. The first attempt by the machines was to kill Sarah, John’s mom before he was born. That ended up making John possible in the first place. In this film, while also working to save John’s life, Sarah works to prevent the creation of Skynet in the first place, and succeeds. The machines should probably stop sending themselves back through time, it only seems to make things worse for them.
T2 is the perfect sequel. Bigger, louder, more explosions, more advanced, more kick-ass. It repeats the premise of the original film, but with a twist. The bad guy in the first film is now the good guy. I don’t think any other sequel has done something like that. It earns the #2 spot on this list because it is the best representation of the franchise I would name the runner-up as the best time travel franchise of all time.
#1 – Back to the Future (1985)
Use of Time Travel: A Delorean DMC 12, invented by mad scientist Doc Brown. The flux capacitor allows the operator to visit any date, future or past. Just punch in the number and hit the accelerator until the speedo reads 88 mph.
Past, Present, or Future? Past. The time machine is powered by a plutonium reactor, of which Doc obtained by promising to build a bomb for some Libyan terrorists. When the terrorists suddenly arrive, teenager Marty McFly has to escape in the time machine. He travels back to 1955, meeting the younger Doc Brown. However, Marty’s appearance in the past is problematic because it begins to change the future, including erasing him from existence.
When I think of time travel movies, this is what comes to my mind first. No film is as iconic a time travel movie as the original Back to the Future. It is pure 80’s movie magic, a spectacularly fun visit to the 1950’s full of adventure, romance, and action we STILL haven’t stopped talking about 34 years later. The film’s iconic cast gave the film a charm which is hard to ignore, and the time travel element (especially the time machine itself), made it unforgettable. No time travel movie will ever be able to top what Back to the Future accomplished.