The 30 Best Time Travel Movies
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—while giving you a plot-induced headache in the process.
These are the 30 best sci-fi films that explore the fluidity of time.
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 U.S.S. 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 at the Nimitz (the film was shot on the actual carrier).
We tossed in The Philadelphia Experiment at the same spot, since it’s essentially the reverse of The Final Countdown.
Jean-Claude Van Damme is a cop who polices time. I don’t need to say more, but I guess I will.
In 1994, time travel becomes a favorite pastime of criminals and timecops like Van Damme must catch them and bring them to justice. As you might expect, Van Damme’s own mucking 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.
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 had sucked out much of the charm. That’s why MiB 3, despite its 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 recaptures 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.
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 in 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.
A film with perhaps the lowest budget on this list, Timecrimes is a Spanish-language movie that follows a 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 a fascinating plot.
Source Code is like Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow with a twist. Instead of going back in time as himself, Colter Stevens (Jake 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 an example of high science fiction, but as far as time travel goes, it gets good grades.
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 X-Men: Days of Future Past one of the more successful cinematic outings for the mutant team.
In the film Kitty Pryde sends Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, of course) 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 (if only for the ).
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 but also a polarizing one.
Based on Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi short story All You Zombies, Predestination is a head trip, like any proper time travel film should be. With a strong performance from Ethan Hawke and a script that will keep you guessing, the film is one of the more solid time travel entries in recent years and is a film that garners a rewatch so you can catch every detail.
“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 remains an absolute joy to watch.
So this is a soft time travel since since it really only uses time as an artistic tool rather than a plot in the film. The film’s name is actually a great description for the entire plot. Run Lola Run follows the fiery redhead Lola as she inexplicably relives the same run that changes only slightly each time she does it. But like Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder, these small changes to Lola’s run can have big consequences.
It’s an odd entry in this list, but what it says about time and its mechanics makes it a worthy inclusion.
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 Enterprise-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.
In this Marvel sleeper hit, Stephen Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) becomes the Sorcerer Supreme, and in typical Marvel fashion, is tasked with saving the world. Although the visuals alone are worthing giving this movie a shot, Dr. Strange’s manipulation of time as a superpower rather than a world-altering plot device is what sets it apart from the rest.
This 2006 award-winning Anime is a coming-of-age time travel story that even rivals Back to the Future. After school girl Mokoto Konno discovers a time travel device that gives her the power to leap through time, she uses her new gifts for mundane high school stuff, passing tests, avoiding awkward conversations, and to address her chronic lateness.
When she learns what her time traveling does to others around her and as the seriousness of her time jumping becomes more apparent, the film blossoms into an important story about loss and friendship.
Although not technically time travel (long stretches of cryo-sleep instead), Sleeper is Woody Allen’s sci-fi comedy that’s absurd, hilarious, and strangely poignant. Miles Monroe is a jazz musician and health-food-store owner who wakes up in the 22nd century after a botched gall bladder operation. The world is, as you’d expect, quite different and Monroe is a hilarious character to explore it with.
It’s a premise that’s been copied several times over ever since, so we’ll give honorable mentions to Austin Powers and Idiocracy right here.
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 has 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 the 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.
This film is “most excellent.” One of Keanu Reeves’s greatest achievements outside of The Matrix, 1989’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is kind of stupid and 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, Napoleon, 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.
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 A.D. 802,701 where he meets the Eloi, Morlocks, and a world completely unlike his own.
The story itself might be old, but it never gets old.
Captain Kirk and crew must travel back 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.
In the incredibly capable directing hands of Alfonso Cuarón, the Harry Potter series went from a children’s franchise to something much more. With time turner in hand, Harry and Hermione’s temporal adventure to save Hogwarts still stands as the absolute best film in the franchise.
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.
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.
Both films are great, but since they each use the same time travel schtick (naked person/robot + time bubble thingie), we’re just going to put them at the same spot.
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 it 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 essential creates a time loop. But cumulative uses of the box soon creates problems as Aaron and Abe begin wreaking havoc on the timeline, creating multiple versions of themselves.
It’s not the most flashy or Hollywood-friendly film on this list, but it is so refreshingly different that it easily earns its place among the very best.
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 cast 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 to 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.