The 15 Best Time-Travel Movies, Ranked

 
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Making a great time-travel movie, as it turns out, is not very easy. Quite a few films have tried and failed for a variety of reasons. There’s the logic, obviously, which can become an issue, but oftentimes a story might rest too heavily on the plot device, resulting in a lack of rich or memorable characters. But there are some truly phenomenal movies involving time travel that seize upon the premise and craft unforgettable and inventive stories, many of which have long stood the test of time.

One such film is Groundhog Day, which obviously takes place on Groundhog Day—which is today! So in celebration of that film’s upcoming 25th anniversary on February 12th (it’s back in theaters now for a limited time, and a 25th anniversary Blu-ray has been released), I’ve looked back at the lexicon of films involving time-travel and curated a list of the best of the best. Some are silly, some are sweet, and some are just a hell of a lot of fun. As with all lists, this one’s subjective, and there will undoubtedly be one or two of your favorites that don’t make this cut, but I’ve done my best to make the case for why these 15 films in particular are the best time-travel movies ever made.

 

15.) Primer

THINKFilm/IFC Films

Most time-travel movies try to keep the actual mechanics of the time-travel simple, but that’s definitely not true of writer/director/star Shane Carruth’s head-spinning 2004 film Primer. The indie drama revolves around two engineers who accidentally discover a mechanism of time-travel while tinkering with entrepreneurial tech projects. Carruth doesn’t “dumb down” any of the science of the movie, and indeed charts have been made to explain the exact mechanics of what’s going on in this film, but it nevertheless remains one of the most scientifically intense time-travel movies ever made.


14.) The Terminator

Orion Pictures

I mean, this has to be on the list right? Director James Cameron’s groundbreaking 1984 sci-fi actioner is far more grounded and low-key than it sequel, but The Terminator still packs a punch all these years later. With a truly inventive premise, charismatic performance from Linda Hamilton, and proof that Arnold Schwarzenegger could act, The Terminator’s influence reaches far and wide.


13.) About Time

Image via Universal Pictures

About Time is certainly the most emotional entry on this list. Writer/director Richard Curtis had previously melted hearts with Love Actually and Pirate Radio, but About Time brought the filmmaker back to his Four Weddings and a Funeral roots (which he didn’t direct, but he did write). The time-travel genre offers the opportunity to wax philosophical about death and regret, and About Time seizes it in a unique way by focusing on a very earnest relationship between a father and a son. The romantic comedy portion between Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams is the hook, but the relationship between time-traveling father and son Gleeson and Bill Nighy is this film’s tearjerking heart.


12.) Back to the Future Part II

Image via Universal Pictures

There are people who say Back to the Future Part II is a bad movie, and those people are wrong. Director Robert Zemeckis’ original is untouchable, but for the first sequel the notoriously ambitious filmmaker doubles down on the time travel premise while also echoing the first movie in a brilliant way. First, we get a kitschy, Easter Egg-filled vision of the future, then we get to see the events of the first film recontextualized as Marty McFly has to go back in time once again to save the future—all while avoiding his other time-traveling self. It’s a tight rope walk of an extremely difficult sort, and one that only a director with this much vision and guts could pull off.


11.) Idiocracy

Image via 20th Century Fox

You know, that movie that was a ridiculous fiction until it kind of became reality. Filmmaker Mike Judge couldn’t have predicted just how spot-on Idiocracy would be over a decade after its release, but indeed Judge and co-writer Etan Cohencertainly had their finger on the pulse of what was happening in America at the time—enough to hit upon ugly truths that remain relevant today. While the central premise of a man being “frozen” for hundreds of years has been done before, the comedic precision with which Judge executes his dumbed-down vision of America’s future is what makes Idiocracy endure. And also the batin’ jokes.


10.) Looper

Image via TriStar Pictures

Whether it’s in an indie noir like Brick or a massive blockbuster like Star Wars: The Last Jedi, writer/director Rian Johnson has always showcased an impeccable mix of ambition and meticulousness, never allowing his reach to exceed his grasp. Looper marked Johnson’s first foray into the sci-fi genre, and he did so with vigor, offering up a twisty time-travel story rooted in character first and foremost. The film takes the premise of, “What would you do if you went back in time and met your younger self?” and spins it on its head, adding in terrifically tense action sequences and heady moral quandaries for good measure.


9.) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Image via Warner Bros.

As the best movie in the franchise (fight me), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban also stands as one of the best time-travel movies ever made. Director Alfonso Cuaron shook up the aesthetic and narrative approach to the adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s beloved book series, and while the foundation of the storytelling is all Rowling, Cuaron’s execution really makes this thing soar. From tremendous cinematography to aural motifs that clue the audience in to the shifting time scenarios, Azkaban is full of wonder, curiosity, and danger, and it’s an absolute joy to behold.


8.) Star Trek (2009)

Image via Paramount Pictures

Director J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise sidestepped the problem of “erasing” the legacy of the films/TV shows that came before by using one specific device: time-travel. This genius idea allows Abrams’ wildly entertaining film to both exist in the same universe as the previous Star Trek movies with Kirk and Spock and the whole gang, while also opening up new possibilities for the future—even though Abrams’ Trek focuses on Young Kirk, he exists in a new and changed timeline, so the future is not 100% set. That the film is able to explain this concisely while also serving as an incredibly entertaining adventure all its own is the minor miracle that is Star Trek (2009), and while the sequel Star Trek Into Darkness hampered some of that goodwill, Abrams’ initial film still stands as one of the most effortlessly rewatchable blockbusters of the 21st century.


7.) 12 Monkeys

Image via Universal Pictures

While filmmaker Terry Gilliam is no stranger to time travel (Time Bandits just missed the cut on this list), his 1995 film 12 Monkeys remains one of the most memorable entries in the genre. The sci-fi drama combines Gilliam’s more odd sensibilities with gritty and grounded time-travel, resulting in a dirty and unforgettable experience. Brad Pitt delivers a pretty phenomenal performance as a maybe-crazy mental institution patient while Bruce Willis plays a future prisoner sent back in time to discover the origins of a deadly virus that ravaged the Earth. Never one for the traditional, Gilliam keeps things delightfully strange throughout.


6.) Edge of Tomorrow

Image via Warner Bros.

Edge of Tomorrow is the perfect cocktail—a dash of Tom Cruise action, a sprinkle of Emily Blunt strength, a swirl of writer Christopher McQuarrie’s unique sensibilities, and a heavy helping of director Doug Liman’s wild ambition. Many have tried and failed to imitate the “stuck in a loop” premise of Groundhog Day, but Edge of Tomorrow takes that nugget and runs with it, keeping every single scene fresh even if we’re watching the same day play out over and over again. The secret sauce is having Tom Cruise play an out-and-out coward, which stands in contrast to public perception of his onscreen persona and results in a wonderfully refreshing viewing experience. Edge of Tomorrow is the White Whale of Hollywood: a genuinely unique and wildly entertaining blockbuster.


5.) Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Image via Orion Pictures

1989’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure combined the sci-fi genre with the teen comedy to result in a wonderfully inventive—and hilarious—adventure. Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter are perfect as a pair of burnouts who use a time machine to complete a history report. The whole thing is an incredibly silly affair, but it’s made with such affection for its characters that it’s impossible not to love. There are terrific jokes aplenty, especially involving historical figures, and George Carlin’s Rufus remains an icon to this day. It’s a movie that probably shouldn’t work, but totally does. Be excellent to each other, indeed.


4.) Planet of the Apes

Image via 20th Century Fox

So Planet of the Apes is technically a time-travel movie, even though audiences who first laid eyes on the 1968 film didn’t know it until that final, jaw-dropping scene.Charlton Heston’s astronaut Taylor hasn’t simply stumbled upon a planet made of apes, he’s traveled into a future Earth where apes have actually taken over the planet. The film is rife with socio-political commentary, which continued throughout its underrated sequels, and features one of the best Jerry Goldsmith scores ever created. But that ending, which paints the rest of the film in a whole new light, is what solidifies it as a classic.


3.) Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Image via TriStar Productions

We should have known, given Aliens and The Abyss, that director James Cameron’s Terminator 2 wouldn’t just be any old sequel. Indeed, the ambitious filmmaker made a very different movie than the original Terminator, weaving in shades of a buddy comedy, PTSD drama, and family story into this sci-fi actioner. Terminator 2 is a minor miracle of a film, turning its own premise on its head to present a time-travel story that’s similar to the first Terminator, but different in key ways. It also feels positively epic. This one ticks all the boxes.


2.) Groundhog Day

Image via Columbia Pictures

Star Bill Murray and director Harold Ramis famously butted heads while making Groundhog Day. Murray reportedly wanted the film to be more philosophical, while Ramis was always pushing the comedy. But it’s the push-and-pull between these two ideas that makes Groundhog Day a stone-cold classic. It’s hilarious, featuring some of Murray’s best comedic moments, but it’s also profoundly sad. The film doesn’t disregard the inherent loneliness of the premise—being stuck in the same day over and over again. It goes to some surprisingly dark places, but Murray’s humanity always shines through, and Andie MacDowell does some terrifically understated work as his foil. It’s a classic, full-stop.


1.) Back to the Future

Image via Universal Pictures

But there’s really nothing like Back to the Future, is there? Filmmaker Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 original takes a universal idea—the fact that we’re never able to truly know what our parents were like when they were our age—and adds his usual dash of insane ambition by playing that out as a time-travel story. And given the hardships during production, it’s crazy the movie turned out as great as it did. Michael J. Fox is a revelation; Christopher Lloyd is perfect; and Lea Thompson is so good you forget she’s actually playing Marty’s mom. It’s hilarious and new and different and inventive, but it’s also rooted in universal truths that make it so relevant throughout the decades. And yes, it’s also a movie about trying not to bone your mom.


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