The 25 Greatest Time-Travel Movies Ever Made16 min read
Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos Courtesy of the Studios
It must say something, surely, about humans, how often time-travel movies are about returning to the past rather than jumping to the future. As Mark Duplass’s forlorn character says in Safety Not Guaranteed, “The mission has to do with regret.” With all the potential to explore the unknown world of the future, so often when our minds conspire to bend the rules of time it’s instead to rehash the old. It’s compelling to watch a character in a movie do what we cannot — right past wrongs or uncover the reason for or meaning behind the events in their lives, whether they be emotionally catastrophic or merely geopolitically motivated.
So absent is the future from the canon, in fact, that when it is involved, typically future dwellers are leaving their own time to come back to the present. Back to the Future Part II aside, it seems as if there’s something about going forward in time that just doesn’t track for humans. (Of course, you could argue that this is because the present-day concept of bidirectional time travel would infinitely multiply or change beyond recognition any future that may occur, but that’s a knot for another article.)
In any case, the time-travel stories deemed worthy of Hollywood budgets aren’t always straightforward in their mechanics. Some films on this list barely qualify as time-travel movies at all; others could hardly qualify as anything else. There are movies about trips through time but also ones about the bending and fracturing and muddying thereof; then there are those about, as Andy Samberg aptly puts it in Palm Springs, “one of those infinite time-loop situations you might have heard about.” There’s even a movie in which we get only 13 seconds’ worth of time travel, when it functions more like a joke whose punch line hits at the film’s climax.
What these films all do have in common is a fascination with changing the way time works. That being said, the list leaves out movies in larger, more extended franchises in which time meddling is a one-off dalliance thrown into a sequel with little by way of foreshadowing: think Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Avengers: Endgame, and Men in Black III. (It also leaves off perhaps the Ur-time-travel movie, Primer, and the quite good Midnight in Paris because their directors don’t deserve the column inches.) We’re looking at self-contained stories using time mechanics from the start, with preference given to those that involve themselves more intently with the ins and outs of time travel; that ask questions about time, aging, memory and so forth; and that try to succeed at it in new and interesting ways. So let’s get to it.
Does Galaxy Quest really count as a time-travel movie? Some compelling reasons argue that it doesn’t: Time travel isn’t a major factor in the plot, and the time traveling that does occur is, yes, only a 13-second jump. But its use of time travel is meaningful insofar as the movie itself is a loving spoof of Star Trek, which makes use of time travel in three films (one of which made this list), not to mention dozens of episodes across its various TV iterations. Tacking on time travel as a deus ex machina for the actors in a Star Trek–like show pressed into service as an actual space crew by an endangered alien race is the exact right amount of ribbing in a movie that’s as on point as it is hilarious.
Galaxy Quest is available to rent on Amazon.
Pick away at the surface of a time-loop movie and you find a horror movie. Most of the entries on this list are covered in enough feel-good spin to land as comedies, but Happy Death Day stares the horror of the time-loop phenomenon right in the face. (It’s also quite funny.) Reliving the same day over and over is an unimaginably potent form of psychological torture, and adding murder to the equation does little to dull that edge. The film follows a college-age protagonist struggling to escape from a masked slasher hell-bent on killing her again and again while she tries to solve the mystery of how she got stuck in a time loop.
Happy Death Day is available to rent on Amazon.
Seriously, this may be the only good movie in which the film’s whole focus is using a time machine to travel into the future. The fact that it’s a sequel is telling — the characters already traveled into the past in the first movie, and the filmmakers decided to save “traveling even further into the past“ for the third film in the trilogy. Still, Back to the Future Part II is a fun time that makes great use of sight gags and references, recasting scenes from the first film in the distant future year of 2015 with all its hoverboards and self-lacing Nikes.
Back to the Future Part II is available to rent on Amazon.
It’s a dirty little secret of time-travel movies that they tend to be, well, pretty white. Tenet’s Protagonist aside, if Hollywood’s sending someone through time, they’re almost certainly not a Black person, and for obvious reasons: Most of post-contact North American history is deeply unfriendly to people of color, and the problems a person running around out of time and place is going to encounter are deeply compounded if they’ll likely be the target of racist abuse or violence — which makes See You Yesterday all the more compelling. Produced by Spike Lee and featuring one of filmdom’s most famous time travelers in a cameo role, it follows a Black teenage science prodigy who uses a time machine to try to save her brother from being killed by a police officer.
See You Yesterday is streaming on Netflix.
No offense to the Back to the Future franchise, but time travel never looks more fun on film than it does in the first Bill & Ted movie. It’s a concept that feels distinctly of a different era, so pure is its zaniness, that it’s hard to imagine anyone concocting it today. The titular duo, Californian high-school students in the ’80s, travel through the past looking for historical figures in order to ace a history project, then bring them all back to the present. High jinks ensue! We get Genghis Khan in a sporting-goods store and Mozart on an electric keyboard. What more could you want?
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is streaming on HBO Max.
Time-travel-film aficionados know this won’t be Jake Gyllenhaal’s only stop on this list, but no matter. Source Code finds him repeating the same eight minutes over and over as he struggles to find the culprit in a train bombing — with each replay ending in his own death by explosion. For some reason, a romantic subplot is shoehorned into this, along with a bunch of frankly unnecessary technical mumbo-jumbo, but the core idea is a compelling mix of the time-loop movie and the train whodunit that Gyllenhaal is a perfect fit for.
Source Code is available to rent on Amazon.
Some sort of law of nature dictates that every genuinely good idea and/or piece of true art has to at some point be turned into a Hollywood movie. Thank God La Jetée was adapted into something that can stand on its own feet artistically. 12 Monkeys may not retain its source material’s black-and-white look or stripped-down, static-image presentation, but it is a rollicking good time nonetheless. That’s in no small part due to director Terry Gilliam getting the best out of Bruce Willis and a young Brad Pitt, and recasting World War III as a planet-decimating virus. Which, like at least one other movie on this list, “speaks to the present moment,” or whatever.
12 Monkeys is available to rent on Amazon.
Unlike almost all of the other films on this list, the terms time travel and time machine don’t show up anywhere in Run Lola Run. Rather, it’s a sort of de facto time-loop scenario in which the protagonist tries repeatedly to pay a ransom to save her boyfriend’s life. In fact, if not for a few key details, it could easily be characterized (and often has been) as an alternate-endings movie rather than a time-travel film. But the fact that Lola seems to be learning from her past attempts with each successive one suggests that she is, indeed, using knowledge gained from previous loops to bring a satisfactory end to this situation.
Run Lola Run is available to rent on Amazon.
One of the most striking things about Groundhog Day is the mutability and replicability of its core conceit. Perhaps the best case in point is Edge of Tomorrow, sometimes known as Live. Die. Repeat. after its original tagline. It’s the kind of physically grueling movie only an actor as genuinely unhinged as Tom Cruise could pull off. A noncombatant thrust into a war against invading aliens, Cruise’s character finds himself reliving day one of combat over and over, slowly but surely refining his techniques in order to survive the extraterrestrial onslaught. Like the central twosome in the much less violent Palm Springs, he winds up with a partner in (war) crime, teaming up with the similarly time-trapped Emily Blunt, and the explanation for the replay glitch here is actually pretty satisfying.
Edge of Tomorrow is streaming on Fubo TV.
If you could create some sort of an advanced stat to measure controversy generated per unit of interesting filmmaking decisions, J.J. Abrams would have to be near the top in terms of his ability to rig up movie drama from almost nothing. This is a guy whose filmography is like Godzilla rip-off, Spielberg homage, safe reboot of cherished IP, repeat. Star Trek may be his best film, though, a sure-footed reinvention of a dorky sci-fi franchise that made it, well, cool. Somehow, the beauty of Spock and Kirk’s bromance being woven through chance encounters with future selves kind of … works?
Star Trek is available to rent on Amazon.
There’s a relative dearth of time travel in animated film, which perhaps is a function simply of the fact that it’s less impressive to stage in a world that’s already unreal. If you can Looney Tunes your way through physics, what’s so special about grabbing the flow of time and tying it into a bow? Still, the original Girl Who Leapt Through Time deserves mention here. It’s a beautiful story that interlaces the complexity of time leaping with the intensity of teenage emotion and the thorny process of growing up where the opportunity to redo things leads, over time, to growth — a less shitty Groundhog Day, in a way.
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is available to rent on Amazon.
She may not be the most famous, decorated, or emulated actress of her generation, but Aubrey Plaza is someone whose personality spoke to the irony-soaked 2010s in a way that simply could not be denied. Her character on Parks and Recreation, April Ludgate, was, by all accounts, created specifically to channel Plaza’s real-life personality to the screen, and she plays essentially the same character in Safety Not Guaranteed. Here, she’s a sarcastic intern at a magazine working on a story about a would-be time traveler and using her feminine wiles to slowly gain his trust. The chemistry between Plaza and Mark Duplass is probably the film’s high point; the subplot about the FBI feels like it was clipped out of a bad X-Files episode.
Safety Not Guaranteed is streaming on Tubi.
At only a 28-minute run time, La Jetée is arguably too short to merit inclusion on this list. However, what it lacks in content (and in, well, moving images; it’s almost exclusively a collection of static black-and-white shots set to voice-over), it more than makes up for in inventiveness and influence, and it would be a travesty to leave it out in favor of more recent by-the-book fare. Tracing the tale of a man held prisoner in post-WWIII Paris being used in time-travel experiments as his captors seek to remedy the postapocalyptic state of the world, he’s sent into both the future and the past and ends up unraveling a lifelong personal mystery while he’s at it.
La Jetée is streaming on the Criterion Channel.
Unlike the worse but more straightforwardly time-traveling Tim Burton remake, the relationship between the original Planet of the Apes and time travel is inexact — technically, the astronaut crew that lands on the titular planet does travel forward 2,000 years, but it’s not done via a time machine. The travel isn’t instantaneous: It literally does take them 2,000 years to get there; they’re just unconscious and on life support. Still, the way the film’s ending handles the iconic reveal is exactly in line with the best of the time-travel canon, the telescoping, mise en abyme feeling of the world shifting in front of your very eyes without your moving an inch.
Planet of the Apes is available to rent on Amazon.
The famous Bill Murray vehicle essentially invented the infinite-time-loop genre (and it’s hardly a movie that succeeds on the strength of its concept alone), but the idea at its core is so steeped in the casual misogyny of late-’80s and early-’90s cinema that it’s hard to watch today without cringing. Murray’s character employing what amounts to PUA-style techniques over and over and over in a desperate bid to fuck his hapless co-worker just doesn’t hit the way it did back then. If the story arc didn’t present a guy detoxifying himself of the worst aspects of masculinity in order to be worthy of a woman’s love as the primary way for a 20th-century white man to achieve full personhood, this would be much higher on the list.
Groundhog Day is streaming on Starz.
This is probably the most complicated film on the list. Following a “temporal agent” (played by Ethan Hawke) who’s trying to prevent a bombing in 1970s New York, it’s based on a Robert A. Heinlein short story and features Shiv Roy herself, Sarah Snook, in a star-making turn as someone with a complicated backstory and a secret. Like the best sci-fi, the film’s premise raises all kinds of fascinating questions about the titular concept and throws in some interesting musings on sex, gender, and the self in the process.
Predestination is streaming on Tubi.
Wes Anderson gets a lot of flak for his overwrought twee visuals, but Rian Johnson has a knack for making movies that feel and function like dioramas even if they don’t look it. Narratively speaking, everything here is constructed just so — and there’s a certain beauty in that — but who ever had a profound experience of art by looking at a diorama? Looper was probably Johnson’s least precious pre–Star Wars film, which is nice because the temptation to drastically overmaneuver the mechanics of a time-travel story can lead to disaster. The tech used to Bruce Willis–ify Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s face is distracting, and the third act’s retreat from the postapocalyptic city of the future to the postapocalyptic corn farm of the future is a brave choice that the film struggles to land. Still, Johnson’s vision of a future in which organized crime runs time travel is compelling and well worth a watch.
Looper is streaming on Netflix.
Donnie Darko is a bit of a genre mash-up. Part high-school movie, part sci-fi flick, part bleak meditation on the soullessness of late-’80s America, it’s nevertheless a weirdly successful piece of filmmaking that makes fantastic use of a young Jake Gyllenhaal, a great supporting cast (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Drew Barrymore, Jena Malone, and Patrick Swayze among others), and an absolutely iconic haunting cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World.” Watching high schoolers navigate parallel universes, wormholes, and time travel is a dicey proposition, but director Richard Kelly makes it work, somehow.
Donnie Darko is streaming on HBO Max.
While it’s clearly superior to the sequel (and leagues ahead of the final film in the trilogy), the original Back to the Future is a bit of a mess (John Mulaney was right, to be honest). Its racial and gender politics are cringey, and the incest subplot is weird (“It’s your cousin Marvin. Marvin Pornhub. You know that new plot element you’ve been looking for?”), but there’s a clear interest in time travel beyond its shimmering surface: the very real addressing of the “grandfather problem” in time travel via the slow disappearance of Marty from his family photo, the accidental invention of rock music, and a genuine curiosity about the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of time machines. Ahh, what the hell. It’s a romp.
Back to the Future is available to rent on Amazon.
No offense to Gen-Xers and boomers, but the best time-loop movie of all time is Palm Springs. The film isn’t without its missteps, but it’s much more curious about life than Groundhog Day was through the eyes of Murray’s misanthrope. Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg‘s characters, stuck in the loop together, are a perfect comedic match, and their shared humanity makes for a beautiful arc. The film raises questions about what’s worth doing in life when nothing lasts and how to stay sane when every day is the same. Of course, as a sort of polar opposite of Tenet, it benefited from coming out during the pandemic by speaking, as it does, to the experience of lockdown.
Palm Springs is streaming on Hulu.
Interstellar wasn’t enough for Chris Nolan, apparently. Tenet’s legacy may end up being little more than that of the COVID action movie no one saw — a bloated thriller that Nolan fought to get into theaters and bar from home viewing reportedly to swell the size of his own pockets. It really did suffer from bad timing, though, because this is genuinely a quintessential big-screen popcorn movie whose absurdity is all the more palatable when it’s given the audiovisual bombast it deserves. Ambitious in scope as it traces a war on the past by the future (yes, you read that right), Tenet is as enamored of action tropes as it is in bucking them, and its investment in rendering visible the brain-bendingly knotty mechanics of moving through time is laudable, even when the movie itself remains opaque — as impenetrable as the future, as hazy as the past.
Tenet is streaming on HBO Max.
A partner to Blade Runner in the mid-’80s invention of sci-fi noir, The Terminator is a stunning film in many ways, despite the third act’s now-iffy visual effects. While it’s not James Cameron’s debut, and it would go on to be bested by its sequel, it functions as an incredible showcase for an emerging young director who would exclusively make big stories for the rest of his career. Arnold Schwarzenegger is perfectly cast as the relentless, unemotional killer cyborg sent back from the future to terminate the mother of the eventual resistance leader, and the film’s romantic subplot has just the perfect amount of time-travel-induced cheesiness for it to work.
The Terminator is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
It’s not inaccurate to say Christopher Nolan is a director who’s more interested in scale and scope than in expressing the minutiae of the human experience in its purest form. But in Interstellar, a Nolan movie in its titular ambitions, there’s a core element of time travel wrought not as sci-fi fireworks but as a paean to the sheer force and will of the power of love. It both does and doesn’t work, depending on your capacity for cheese in space, but even besides that, Nolan’s use of time as story arc — the way Miller’s planet functions, in particular — is conceptually masterful in the best kind of time-travel-movie way.
Interstellar is streaming on Paramount+.
Whereas the franchise’s first movie spends more time on the question of time travel, in the second it takes a bit of a back seat to the action itself. It’s hard to fault director James Cameron for this decision; T2 remains one of the best action movies of the ’90s and — along with Jurassic Park and The Matrix — one of the decade’s best when for special effects. The groundbreaking T-1000 would honestly be enough to get this movie on the list; a tween John Connor grappling with questions of predestination and the fact that he is vicariously responsible for his own conception feel almost like icing on the time-travel cake. Much as in 12 Monkeys, time travel here is mistaken for delusion, as valiant Sarah Connor, in a Cassandra-esque nightmare, has to battle against the future only she knows is coming. Of course, Cassandra never had access to any firepower stored in underground desert arsenals.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day is streaming on Netflix.
It’s fair to wonder whether Arrival really is, in fact, a time-travel movie. The Ted Chiang short story it’s based on isn’t about time travel per se; rather, it’s an exploration of alternate forms of temporal understanding. The linguist protagonist, played by Amy Adams, doesn’t travel through time so much as come to experience it differently. Still, the plot ends up hinging on foreknowledge that she is granted not via visions but by actually experiencing her future simultaneously with her present and past. For our purposes, though, that’s time fuckery enough to merit inclusion, and boy howdy does the film deliver in overall quality. Partly, that’s simply a question of the source material. Chiang is arguably the most talented (and possibly the most decorated) American sci-fi writer of his generation. But the source story is not especially Hollywood friendly, and director Denis Villeneuve has adopted it lovingly, borrowing a plot device from another of Chiang’s stories, the more straightforwardly time-travel-based “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” in order to add some third-act blockbuster flavor. The result is a beautiful meditation on love, choice, and courage that packs art-film ethos into a genuine sci-fi blockbuster.
Arrival is streaming on Hulu and Paramount+.