Twenty-five years ago this week (yes, twenty-five, look it up) Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure made its theatrical debut, telling for all posterity the tale of two California slackers who use a phone booth/time machine to gather historical figures for a class project. It was but one variation on a favorite cinematic device: time travel. It’s been done in comedies and dramas, sci-fi and action movies, on budgets giant and miniscule, in spaceships and in DeLoreans. There are dozens of time travel flicks out there, but these are our favorites.
It might not technically count as a time-travel movie, since no one actually traverses through time in it (or do they?). But director Colin Trevorrow’s 2012 charmer certainly weighs the possibility — and asks what you would do if someone you came to trust said (no, insisted) that they’d figured out how to do it. Would you believe them? Would you follow them? And, given the chance, where (or, more accurately, when) would you go?
24. Time Crimes
Nacho Vigalondo’s 2007 Spanish effort is a low-budget thriller in the Primer mold, intrigued by the possibilities of traveling through miniscule amounts of time (in this case, a half hour or so), and the complications presented by multiple “versions” of the same person wandering around at the same time. It’s a clever compendium of conundrums, the kind of movie you need a pad of scratch paper for.
Jeannot Szwarc (whose best-known previous credit was, weirdly, Jaws 2) helms this 1980 time travel romance, in which Christopher Reeve — who knows a little bit about time travel himself, having done that whole turning-the-world-backwards business in Superman — stars as a playwright who falls in love with a picture of Jane Seymour (been there!) and travels back decades to romance her.
Being the best ‘90s-era Jean Claude Van Damme movie is, yes, kinda like being the leper with the most fingers, but Timecop is a zippy little actioner, stylishly directed by Peter Hyams (2010, Outland) and featuring a post-Ferris Bueller turn by Sloane Peterson herself, Mia Sara. More importantly, it’s got a clever premise, imagining a future (well, it was the future then) where time travel is tightly controlled by government agents like the Muscles from Brussels, the better to keep corrupt politicians like Ron Silver (never oilier, never better) from manipulating markets and elections.
Stewart Raffill’s 1984 sci-fi flick is based on a popular urban legend, in which a US Navy destroyer was rendered invisible in a Philadelphia port in 1943. Raffill’s movie imagines the experiment going awry and sending the two sailors on board to the Nevada desert, circa 1984 — where one of them falls in love with Nancy Allen, so how bad can their predicament be?
The original 1968 Apes (which, don’t worry, we’ll get to) was a time-travel story disguised as a space epic. For its second sequel, released in 1971, regular screenwriter Paul Dehn cooked up a reversal, sending three apes from the future back to early-‘70s California. There’s fish-out-of-water humor, sci-fi mythmaking, and genuine tension as director Don Taylor winds his way to a shockingly nihilistic ending (though the series would chug along for two more installments).
If for no other reason, for causing a whole generation to mispronounce the name “Freud.”
18. Time After Time
Nicholas Meyer’s brainy, nimble 1979 thriller imagines that the time machine H.G. Wells made famous in in his fiction was, in fact, a real device — and one he uses to chase Jack the Ripper through time, to present-day San Francisco. Toss in a dash of romance (with a never-lovelier Mary Steenburgen) and you’ve got a crackerjack little caper that’s due for rediscovery.
17. Déjà Vu
Tony Scott’s under-appreciated 2006 thriller turns the time-travel movie on its head, creating a complicated (yet plausible — for the movies, anyway) computer system that first allows our hero, Denzel Washington, to look into the past, and then to travel into it. Fusing science fiction with domestic terror concerns and themes of post-9/11 government surveillance, this is truly a time-travel movie for the 21st century.
The fourth, and perhaps most beloved, film in the original Star Trek series finds the crew of the Starship Enterprise traveling to San Francisco, circa 1986, to save the humpback whale from extinction. Cleverly plotted and assembled, while deploying a welcomely self-aware sense of humor that was all too infrequently displayed by the very serious series.
In contrast to the big-budget extravaganzas elsewhere on our list, director Woody Allen chooses (unsurprisingly) to eschew special effects for his 2011 comedy; when Gil Pender goes back to the 1920s, he’s just sort of there. The expected fish-out-of-water jokes and inside-literature references ensue, but Midnight is most notable for its message, unusual in time travel narratives (and particularly in the nostalgia-tinged work of its creator), that the past is often romanticized out of proportion, and that even those whose past we long for are themselves restless and unhappy in their present.
14. Source Code
Like Déjà Vu, Duncan Jones’ wickedly inventive 2011 thriller proposes time travel will occur not through ornate machines but complicated technology — this time, a program that allows soldier Jake Gyllenhaal to enter the body of a dead commuter for the last eight minutes of his life, repeatedly, in an attempt to discover who bombed a passenger train. It’s a taut action flick and a nifty little romance, while managing to squeeze in the customary (but still compelling) ethical concerns about tampering with the past and thus altering the future.
When the first sequel to Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 smash was released four years later, it felt like a big disappointment — it just didn’t fire on all cylinders as impeccably as the original did, abandoning humor and pathos and going for straight sci-fi. But as sci-fi, it’s pretty great; Zemeckis and writer Bob Gale realized early on that a sequel to a time-travel movie meant that they could literally revisit the original film’s events, and create a time-trotting tale that was dizzying yet satisfying in its whiteboard-filling complexity.
Most reviewers dismissed Francis Ford Coppola’s 1986 comedy/drama as a weaksauce Back to the Future rip-off, but it’s a deeper, smarter, and more melancholy effort than that. Kathleen Turner’s dissatisfied 40-something housewife wakes up a teenager, but with the full knowledge of the heartbreaks and mistakes that lie ahead; as she courts her future no-good husband and talks to a grandmother who has long since passed away, Coppola taps into the emotional consequences of time travel in a way that few filmmakers have bothered or dared.
11. The Time Machine
The great George Pal followed up his 1953 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds with this elegant and impressive take on the author’s influential 1895 novel, melding the Wells narrative with his own remarkable animation skills to create a muscular, memorable, definitive film version of the classic story. (And it’s miles better than that cringe-inducing 2002 version.)
Director Franklin J. Schaffner and screenwriters Michael Wilson and Rod Serling (of Twilight Zone fame) pulled off one of the best twist endings in movie history — spoiler warning, I guess, if you require them for 45-year-old movies — when they concluded the story of Charlton Heston’s journey to a distant planet “where apes evolved from man” with a jaw-dropping shot of the Statue of Liberty buried in said planet’s sand, revealing that they’d not traveled through space, but through time. It still packs a punch. (As with the previous entry, go with the original, and for God’s sake steer clear of its odious 2001 remake.)
James Cameron was a little-known special effects man and B-movie director when he wrote and directed this surprise 1984 smash, which mates everyone’s go-to time machine wish (“I’d go back in time and kill Hitler”) with good old-fashioned ‘80s action. It finally gave Arnold Schwarzenegger a role you could believe him in, and set up a series of time-travel conundrums that still fascinate viewers (and Cameron; keep reading).
As with Midnight in Paris, there is no wormhole or computer program or time machine — in fact, try as he might, Bill Murray’s Phil Connors can’t even control his wrinkle in time, much less end it. He merely wakes up every morning and it’s February 2, over and over again, until he takes the hint and stops being such a dick (albeit a funny one). By making the time loop a mere fact of life rather than the focus of the narrative, director Harold Ramis and his co-writer Danny Rubin adroitly background the gimmick and give the picture its considerable heart and soul.
7. Time Bandits
Terry Gilliam established himself as a director of note (and not just one of the Monty Python guys) with this 1981 comedy, in which a band of spirited little people use a valuable map to traverse “time holes” which lead them to Napoleon-era France, Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest, and the deck of the Titanic. Rowdy, rambunctious, and endlessly inventive.
6. Donnie Darko
Richard Kelly’s moody 2001 sci-fi drama hides in plain sight — yes, there’s talk of time travel, but among the Duran Duran dance numbers and full-sized rabbit hallucinations, it seems like mere window dressing. It’s only in the closing passages that the ingeniousness of the plotting reveals itself — along with the best twist ending for a time-travel flick since Planet of the Apes.
5. 12 Monkeys
Gilliam again, with a cockeyed vision of a dystopian future and a present careening towards insanity. His story of a time-traveling convict on a research mission is riveting and fascinating, winding its notions about changing the future and the Möbius strip of time into a breathless (and often darkly funny) popcorn thriller.
Shane Carruth’s 2004 indie, made for all of $7000, proved you don’t need big money to make a movie of big ideas — it’s a rare modern science fiction movie that places the emphasis on the first half of the expression, quietly and doggedly asking exactly how you could travel through time, and the practical, logistical ramifications of doing so. Low-key, modest, and utterly gripping, with a narrative that you’ll spend days (and multiple viewings) trying to unravel.
Writer/director Rian Johnson mates the time-travel movie with the modern action thriller and winds up with the best of both worlds. His story of a contract killer who can’t quite pull the trigger on his future self creates a compelling mythology and plays by its carefully crafted rules, right up through its ballsy climax, which is noteworthy for both its visceral thrills and its impeccable logic.
And if anything, Looper owes a debt to Cameron’s 1991 super-sequel, which turns his sci-fi actioner into a full-on, effects-laden spectacle — yet still makes room for egghead deep dives into time travel theory and narrative circularity.
C’mon — did you really think the top slot would go anywhere else? Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 pop masterpiece isn’t just a great time-travel flick; it’s also an uproariously funny comedy, a sweet little buddy movie, and a heartfelt examination of familial dynamics. (And it’s the movie that launched a thousand inaccurate memes.) It’s the kind of film that does so many things so well, it’s a little bit of a miracle; it is also, despite its Huey Lewis-heavy soundtrack, a genuinely timeless entertainment. (See what I did there?)