The 25 Best Time Travel Movies of All...Time
Sci-fi time travel movies can be a confusing cacophony of temporal mishaps and ruptures of the space-time continuum. But there's no genre that can so directly address the human condition, whether seeing where we've come from or hypothesizing where we're going. Although many films could be on this list, we limited our search to films with sci-fi soul (sorry, Groundhog Day). These are the best sci-fi films that explore the fluidity of time.
25| Godzilla Vs. King Ghidorah
In this movie, Futurians travel from the distant future to sabotage Japan, since it becomes a global superpower surpassing all other nations. Through this time manipulation, King Ghidora is formed and begins wreaking havoc.
If you've ever seen a Godzilla film you know where this is going. Is it the greatest time travel film ever made? No. That's why we have 24 more left to go.
24| The Final Countdown / The Philadelphia Experiment
Although most people would file this film under "flop," The Final Countdown contains such an amazing premise it has to be recognized. The crew of the USS Nimitz enters a storm vortex and is transported to Pearl Harbor in 1941, turning a favorite imaginary wargame scenario into real life. Although the actual film elements aren't necessarily memorable, it does give us an incredibly good look the Nimitz (the film was shot on the actual carrier).
We also tossed The Philadelphia Experiment at the same spot, since it's essentiallty the reverse of The Final Countdown.
Jean-Claude Van Damme is a cop who polices time. In 1994, time travel becomes a favorite pastime of criminals and Timecops like Van Damme must catch chronal abusers and bring them to justice. As is often the case, Van Damme's own muckery with the past creates different and divergent timelines that not even Doc Brown's chalkboard could work out. Then again, Timecop isn't exactly a film that's going for narrative clarity here.
22| Men in Black 3
By the time director Barry Sonnenfeld directed Men in Black 3 in 2012, the franchise was 15 years removed from its fun and campy original, and Men in Black 2 has sucked out much of the franchise's charm. That's why MiB 3, despite its own faults, is still a surprising underdog of a film.
Agent J (Will Smith) goes back in time to stop an alien from mucking in the past and killing Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones/Josh Brolin). The film captures much of the original's fun, and Josh Brolin's portrayal of a young Tommy Lee Jones playing Agent K is simply awe-inspiring. Honestly, that acting work alone earns this spot for MiB 3.
21| Flight of the Navigator
Sort of like E.T., but with time travel. What Flight of the Navigator lacks in a substantial plot it more than makes up for on charm.
David Scott Freeman falls into a ravine and is knocked unconscious—for eight years. Although he doesn't age, everyone he knows does, and he soon finds he's part of something much larger. It's a fun film that will never outshine any Spielberg classics, but its campiness is too genuine to ignore.
20| Time After Time
H.G. Wells, Jack the Ripper, and time travel.
A film with perhaps the lowest budget on this list, Timecrimes is a Spanish-language film, which follows the typical time travel trope (many copies of one person causing major problems), but creates 92 minutes of truly enjoyable cinema. The fun moments of Timecrimes are the reveal after reveal after reveal, which snowballs into fascinating film.
18| Source Code
Source Code is like Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow with a twist. Instead of going back in time as himself, Colter Stevens (Jack Gyllenhaal) enters the body of someone else as he tries to stop a mass murder attempt. What the film lacks in depth it more than makes up for in pulse-pumping action, and the premise itself is a refreshing take on the usual time travel idea.
It will likely never be considered a high example of science fiction, but as far as time travel goes, it gets good grades.
17| Donnie Darko
Perfect amounts creepy and perplexing, Donnie Darko is another strange example of time travel, which is why it belongs on this list all the more. Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a high school kid with a less-than-sunny disposition. But when he begins seeing frightening hallucinations of a deranged and grotesque rabbit, things slowly begin to unravel, going from bad to weird pretty quickly.
For such a small-budget film—that was almost released straight to home video—it's made an outsized impact on science fiction and indie filmmaking. It's a great movie, btu also a polarizing one.
16| X-Men: Days of Future Past
When I heard Bryan Singer picked the seminal Days of Future Past comic story to be an X-Men film, I had a tough time containing my excitement. Luckily, the film does the story justice. Smashing together the old X-Men guard with the new is what makes this film one of the more successful cinematic outings for the mutant team.
In the film, Kitty Pryde sends Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back through time to stop apocalyptic events from unfolding. Maybe that's not the most original plot, but it's one that's too fun to resist.
15| Army of Darkness
"Shop Smart. Shop, S-Mart."
Depending on who you ask, Sam Raimi's Army of Darkness is either the best sequel to any film ever or the worst—there isn't much room in between. The chainsaw-toting Ashley "Ash" Williams is tossed back to medieval times where he must fight off a horde of undead monstrosities with only his ingenuity and his "boom stick.:
Even though it's slapstick comedy with wonderfully B-movie action sequences, it still remains an absolute joy to watch.
We had more than a few arguments about whether Denis Villeneuve's Arrival should even have a place on this list. Its peculiar handling of time features no physical time traveling, but the idea of time's fluidity plays an increasingly larger role throughout the film and ultimately makes it one of the more memorable works of science fiction of the past decade. So here it is.
Crime noir meets science fiction in Rian Johnson's Looper, and the match is magical. In a future where time travel is invented and immediately made illegal, crime syndicates use the technology for time-hopping assassinations. But to tie off some temporal inconsistencies, the assassin must eventually become the target—and that's where things get interesting. This isn't flawless sci-fi but it's certainly inventive.
12| Star Trek: First Contact
The Next Generation's big screen outings are a mixed bag, to put it nicely, but the best film by far is the time-bending Star Trek: First Contact. Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the USS Entreprise -E travel to the past to prevent the cybernetic Borg from mucking with Earth's history. It's a good film all by itself, but even more excellent if you're an invested Star Trek fan. We get to see huge, never-before-seen moments in the Star Trek universe, like humanity's first encounter with the Vulcans, and the Borg are just an excellent adversary.
Like iconic director Stanley Kubrick, Christopher Nolan loves to hop around genres. Whether a superhero flick, a magical period piece, or a psychological thriller, Nolan's demonstrated time and again that he knows how to make a movie. While Interstellar doesn't stand up to Kubrick's sci-fi opus 2001, it's a fascinating look into faster-than-light travel and does due diligence to present the theories behind this kind of travel as accurately as possible.
In this film, Joseph Cooper leaves Earth in search of another habitable planet. After some troubling deep space encounters, Cooper must somehow send a message to his daughter back on Earth in order to save humanity. It's a fascinating idea and Nolan's treatment of the material makes for a great two-and-a-half hours of sci-fi.
10| Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure
This film is "most excellent." One of Keanu Reeves' greatest achievements outside of The Matrix, 1989's Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure is kind of stupid yet scientifically impossible to hate.
Two less-than-studious high schoolers get their hands on a time machine and use it to make a stellar report for history class. Abraham Lincoln, Genghis Khan, Joan of Arc, Billy the Kid, Napolean, Sigmund Freud, and Socrates are all brought into the future. I can't even imagine what kind of historical ramifications that would have, but it's best not to think about it.
9| Edge of Tomorrow
Based on the Japanese novel All You Need is Kill, Doug Liman's Edge of Tomorrow essentially takes the concept of Groundhog Day and applies it to a military fighting an overpowering alien race. Whereas Bill Murray's temporal nightmare is never quite explained, however, Edge of Tomorrow eventually reveals the reason why William Cage (Tom Cruise) is stuck in a time loop. It's a film that is better than it has any right to be and another great example of time travel fiction done right.
8| The Time Machine
When it comes to time travel fiction, nothing gets quite as iconic as The Time Machine. Based on the novel by H.G. Wells, which coined the term "time machine," this 1960 film adaptation is a classic take on a classic story. H. George Wells travels through time and eventually to the year 802,701 AD where he meets the Eloi, Morlocks, and a world completely unlike his own.
The story itself might be old, but it never gets old.
7| Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Captain Kirk and crew must travel back to 200 years to 1986 to recover a humpback whale, which is extinct in the future, in order to stop an alien probe from annihilating Earth. It's Star Trek. It's time travel. It's whales. It's great.
6| Planet of the Apes
Most Planet of the Apes films (except for the recent prequel series) are time travel films, but the first is the best. With a screenplay from sci-fi legend Rod Serling, 1968's Planet of the Apes is just a monumental film in not only time travel fiction, but also science fiction in general. Charlton Heston plays George Taylor, who crash lands on a mysterious planet after traveling near light speeds. What unfolds is a story you likely know with an ending that's become enshrined in popular culture.
5| Time Bandits
Considered part of Terry Gilliam's "trilogy of imagination" (which also includes the incredible sci-fi film Brazil), Time Bandits is a cinematic oddity that's undeniably brilliant. The main character Kevin joins six dwarves who repair the fabric of time for the Supreme Being, and also pocket some treasure. this film hops all over the timeline and truly is an example of the nearly endless bounds of Gilliam's imagination.
4| 12 Monkeys
Inspired by the 1962 French short film La Jetee, 12 Monkeys is about a deadly virus and a last-ditch effort to save humanity. James Cole (Bruce Willis) is sent back in time to hopefully avoid his own nightmarish future. What follows is a two hours of sci-fi noir excellence with incredibly deep artistic talent with Brad Pitt, Christpher Plummer, and Terry Gilliam behind the camera. The film remains one of the best examples of time travel fiction and is uniquitously beloved by all sci-fi buffs.
3| The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day
The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day are perfect pieces of science fiction. We all know the story. A future T-800 Model 101 Terminator, iconically played by Arnold Schwarzenegger is sent back to 1984 Los Angeles with orders to kill Sarah Connor, the future mother of Skynet's most fearsome enemy, John Connor. Although Schwarzenegger plays the villain in James Cameron's original masterpiece, he reprises the role in 1991's T2—this time as the hero.
Although Primer is the clear "art house" pick on this list, it's a film with so much ingenuity it's hard not to watch in amazement. Directed by Shane Carruth, Primer is basically what is would be like if Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak instead of inventing Apple in their garage discovered time travel. Two engineers, Aaron and Abe, build a machine that essentially creates a time loop. But cumulative uses of the box soon create problems as Aaron and Abe begin wreaking havoc on the timeline, creating multiple versions of themselves.
1| Back to the Future
Could there really be any other? In 1985, Robert Zemeckis created a film and a subsequent franchise with so much heart and imagination that no other time travel film has ever matched it. Marty McFly, played by Michael J. Fox, escapes to 1955 and accidentally alters the timeline. He and scientist Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) have to team up to set things right again. Every role feels perfectly casted and every moment is as memorable as the next. It also happens to have one of the coolest time machines in sci-fi history.
Although the sequels would never quite reach the original, they certainly didn't damage the trilogy, which remains one of the best in cinema. And sure, there are a lot of plot points you could pick apart ("Wow, doesn't our son Marty look just like our good friend Marty from 1955?!), but no time travel movie perfectly cements all these narrative problems. If anything, plot holes are an indispensable part of the genre.
Now if you don't mind, we're going to make like a tree, and get outta here.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.