Everyone has thought about going back or forward in time at least once. It would be crazy to say the thought has not crossed your mind. Travelling through time is a concept of movement that has been readily discussed for decades (even centuries). Since time travel does not exist (or cannot be proven at this moment), theorists have been able to create many different scenarios on how time travel might be achieved. Black holes, time machines, cosmic strings, space-time vortexs, time jumps; it could be its own list.
However, reading scientific journals on time travel gets boring fast. Thankfully, we have filmmakers to make time travel fun. As previously stated, there has been no definitive findings on the proper way to travel through time which allows each filmmaker to make time travel their own. The results see protagonists trapped reliving the same day, crossing paths with their younger selves, creating time loops, and using sleek devices to achieve the impossible. It doesn’t always make sense, but when it does man is it worth it.
This is the 50 Greatest Time Travel Movies of All Time.
10. Frequency (2000)
One night, John Sullivan pulls out his dad’s old ham radio and begins to chat to another person on the same frequency. After talking to the other person for a while he realizes that it is actual his father, and that somehow the frequency they are on is crossing through time. With a thirty year gap to play with, John employs his father to hunt down the serial killer “Nightingale”. Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel are great in their roles as father and son, and the use of a radio to speak to one another is a great plot device. Seeing the effects on the timeline immediately after John talks to his father is also fascinating to watch as furniture changes and memories alter. However, it is just as much an intimate story about a father and son as it is a a thrilling murder-mystery thriller.
9. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
Back when that “Name a more iconic duo, I’ll wait” meme was going around, you’d have been hard pressed to find a more iconic ’80s duo than Bill & Ted. They are just a couple of slackers who are failing history, and trying to start a band. However, if they fail history class, the future utopian society founded on their music and philosophy will never happen. This leads to Rufus, a citizen from that future, going back to 1988 and ensuring that Bill & Ted pass that test by lending them his time machine. Comic hilarity ensues as Bill & Ted travel throughout the timeline rounding up historical figures like Napoleon, Socrates, and Billy the Kid. It’s a light-hearted and fun time romp that earns its A+ as much as Bill & Ted’s history project did.
8. Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Is Safety Not Guaranteed really a time travel movie? The plot follows three magazine journalists including intern Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) who go to investigate a strange classified ad from a man seeking a partner to time travel with him. This mysterious man Kenneth (Mark Duplass) forms an oddball friendship with Darius as she tries to figure out what he’s really about and he sets upon his preparations. The chemistry between the duo is strong and Johnson adds some comedy of his own in a bit of a tangent subplot. It doesn’t matter if the time travel is real or a figment of Kenneth’s imagination. The ad stirs much discussion of how time travel works and gives great character moments throughout.
7. Arrival (2016)
Based on the 1998 short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, the film is one of the best time travel films to use the “block universe” theory. The past, present, and future all exist concurrently meaning that it is impossible to change the past. Arrival adapts this theory through the relationship between linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and the extraterrestrials. The aliens reveal that they have come to help humanity because in 3,000 years they will need humanity’s help in return. Through the alien language, Banks is able to change her linear perception of time and see future events in her life. Denis Villeneuve does not mess around when it comes to directing compelling and thought-provoking films, and this is another example of that talent.
6. The Infinite Man (2014)
Where some time travel movies use the concept as a distant background for the action, The Infinite Man goes all in. What starts as simple time trip for scientist Dean to correct a bad date quickly devolves into a tangled mess with doubles of all three main characters. With only three actors in the cast, you end up with nine total “characters” by the end of the film. With doubles everywhere, director Hugh Sullivan does a masterful job of keeping you up to speed on who’s who, unless he is intentionally using sleight of hand. Still, by the end of the puzzle you’ll be stuck trying to unwrap what exactly just happened, but when you do, it really clicks. This movie is endlessly inventive, quirky and often funny.
5. Groundhog Day (1993)
There’s a reason so many prior movies on this list have been spins on Groundhog Day: it’s simply the best. Although the events take place on February 2, the films works as a near retelling of A Christmas Carol as Bill Murray’s miserly weatherman Phil must relive one of the most mundane days of his life. Yet, through these interactions, Phil gradually comes to appreciate the little things and treasure the time he has. The movie is absolutely hysterical while remaining heartfelt. No matter how many films put their own takes on the concept, this film is a classic that will continue to endure throughout time.
4. 12 Monkeys (1995)
Fourteen years after Time Bandits, director Terry Gilliam returned with another time travel film. Inspired by the 1962 short film La Jetée, the film follows a man (Bruce Willis) as he travels back forty years to 1996 to stop the release of deadly virus. The film employs a means of time travel similar to the Terminator franchise with the traveller having to go back naked. However, unlike Terminator, the traveller can be scooped back to his original timeline without any say from the traveller. It comes in handy when the plot needs to get the traveller out of harms way. The film features great performances from Willis (back when he still gave a shit) and Brad Pitt (before he only became known for his marriages) and has enough twists and turns to keep your thoroughly engaged.
3. Primer (2004)
What would you do if you accidentally invented time travel? Well, you’d go back and play the stock market! Of course, Primer is much more than just that. Shane Carruth, the writer behind the film, made sure to portray time travel, the time machine, and its scientists as realistically as possible. The time machine is a dull, grey box. The scientists do not “speak English”, but actually talk in scientific jargon. Lastly, the time travel logic is 100 per cent thought out. It’s a great time travel film with only one flaw. The film suffers as a result of attempting realism. Carruth wanted the film to mirror the complexity and confusion created by time travel which makes Primer impossible to fully understand in one viewing (in fact, he wanted audiences to not understand it the first time so they would keep coming back to the film). To quote Ian Malcolm, Carruth so preoccupied with whether or not he could portray time travel realistically, he didn’t stop to think if he should. Thankfully, there is an excellent 23-minute video explaining the multiple timelines and how many Aarons and Abes there are at the end of the film. However, Primer cannot be called the greatest time travel film of all time for these reasons. Plus, there are two other films that have stood the test of time and have created long lasting legacies.
2. The Terminator (1984)
There are technically two different definitions of time loop films. One focuses on a character reliving the same day, and the other is where the events of the film loop lead to history or the timeline operating on a loop. The Terminator features Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first appearance as a relentless, and truly intimidating, cyborg assassin sent from the future to kill Sarah Connor and prevent her son’s birth. Kyle Reese, a human resistance soldier from the same future, comes back to protect Sarah, and in classic fashion, actually ends up being John’s father. With amazing ’80s action set pieces and exploration of classic paradoxes, time travel films don’t get much better than this.
1. Back to the Future (1985)
It’s practically inarguable that Back to the Future is the best time travel movie of all time. Marty McFly and Dr. Emmett Brown are among the most iconic movie characters of all time and this is without a doubt the best of the series. The film was revolutionary in its use of the same actors to portray their characters, believably, 30 years apart. Also, the movie just oozes cool as Marty rolls along on his skateboard or blows out the biggest speaker shown on screen. Back to the Future has near-perfect time travel logic alongside intriguing and entertaining characters, and memorable scenes. It’s a film full of action, adventure, and comedy that has only gotten better with age as an encapsulation of both the mid-80s and the mid-50s. When it comes to time travel, Back to the Future remains the absolute gold standard.
What do you think of the selection so far? What are some of your favorite time travel movies? Maybe they will show up further on the list!