The 25 greatest time travel stories of the last 25 years

Contributed by

September 2017 is SYFY’s 25th anniversary, so we’re using it as an excuse to look back and celebrate the last 25 years of ALL science fiction, fantasy, and horror, a time that has seen the genres we love conquer the world of pop culture. For us, that means lists! ALL THE LISTS! We’ll be doing two “25 greatest” lists per day all throughout September, looking back at the moments, people, and characters that shaped the last quarter century. So keep checking back. Please note: Our lists are not ranked; all items have equal standing in our brains.

What items in our lists were your favorites? Did we miss something? We welcome respectful debate and discussion, so please let us know in the comments!


WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS.

First popularized by H.G. Wells in his 1895 novel The Time Machine, time travel has ignited the imagination of audiences and storytellers ever since. As a plot device, it is uniquely suited to exploring philosophical questions around both fate and identity. It intellectually provokes while revealing exciting avenues for plot twists and suspense. Like any storytelling tool, though, it requires a deft hand to employ, and can easily be misused. Fortunately, genre fiction of the past 25 years has no shortage of skilled storytellers.

01

11/22/63

The creepy, supernatural undertones of 11/22/63 set it apart from other time travel stories. As Jake Epping gets drawn into his late friend Al’s mission to save JFK and change the world, history actually fights back. Jake is inexplicably covered in spiders, almost run over, and nearly crushed by a falling chandelier. This might have felt like Final Destination just subbing out death for history, but, in this case, it drives a terrifying and otherworldly menace within 11/22/63. The performances and design are flawless, transporting audiences into a fully realized 1960s America. 11/22/63 takes strange detours and withholds exposition, trusting viewers to follow along. That faith is rewarded with a strange, unique, and engrossing romantic thriller.

02

12 Monkeys (Film)

12 Monkeys is a masterpiece. A chilling, sci-fi spin on the Cassandra myth, Terry Gilliam’s film lives in a space of grim ambiguity. James Cole might not be Bruce Willis’ most iconic role, but it is his best executed. He must simultaneously appear dangerously deluded, but also believable and appealing. Brad Pitt and Madeleine Stowe also turn in incredible performances, buoyed by a disorientating and endlessly intriguing script from David Peoples (of Blade Runner fame.) The questionable nature of everything in the film allows for 12 Monkeys to sidestep the usual logical pitfalls that stand in the way of many time travel tales.

03

12 Monkeys (TV Show)

SYFY’s reboot of the above-mentioned time traveling classic takes advantage of its medium to fully explore the ideas of the original film. The apocalyptic future is barely glimpsed at in the movie, but the show fleshes that world out, creating a variety of interesting factions. The series also changes up its leads, with Railly being a virologist instead of psychiatrist/love interest, and swapping out Pitt’s manic animal rights activist for Emily Hampshire’s unpredictable math genius. Cole gets a little more moral clarity, and whole lot more hair. The show is every bit as trippy and intense as the film that inspired it.

04

All Star Superman #6

At their heart, time travel stories deal with the pain of lost possibility. They explore the connections that might have been, and open long-sealed doors. Processing regret is an abstract action, but time travel gives it form. All-Star Superman #6 – Funeral in Smallville applies all of that to a story about grief and loss. Comic books tend to use death as a motivational tool, as backstory to provide a hero with depth. All-Star Superman #6 brilliantly uses a time travel plot as a frame to explore the messy reality of loss, making it one of the most poignant Superman issues in any run.

05

Continuum

Fast-paced, action-packed, and full of smart twists, Continuum is the perfect example of a show that understands the tropes of its genre and how to use them. Rachel Nichols plays Kiera Cameron, a tough-as-nails cybernetically enhanced cop from the future who is mysteriously transported to the past along with a group of terrorists. With a surprisingly complicated plot and well fleshed-out mythology, Continuum explores the consequences of changing the past with a tremendous degree of nuance and clarity.

06

Chrononauts

What could be better than a Nobel Prize in Physics? Kicking around time and space for fun, of course! Best buds Corbin Quinn and Danny Reilly take the ultimate road trip in the hilarious, history spanning bromance graphic novel Chrononauts. Featuring car chases that utilize not just the entire world but all of history, and a livestream of the battle of Gettysburg, Chrononauts is an imaginative, juvenile romp.

07

Doctor Who

With thirty-six seasons and hundreds of episodes, specials, and stories, Doctor Who is a behemoth. Most IPs would collapse under the weight of that volume of content, but Doctor Who knows how to keep things fresh and iterate on its core concept. Many genre franchises center on action heroes who shoot their way out of trouble or defeat villains with brute force. The Doctor is a diplomat, opting to cultivate allies and understand enemies instead of simply murdering them. With Jodi Whittaker set to take over as the 13th Doctor, the show gets its first female lead, making a long overdue step, and demonstrating that this old dog can still learn new tricks.

08

Donnie Darko

Richard Kelly’s masterpiece launched Jake Gyllenhaal’s career and made Tears for Fears cool again. Donnie Darko’s genius is in how it blends together concepts and tones that are normally incompatible. It is secular but spiritual. It tackles mental illness and child abuse but still has room for smurf sex jokes. It is fatalistic but also optimistic. Set at the end of Reagan’s presidency and released just days after 9/11, Donnie Darko simultaneously feels like a film outside of time and thoroughly timeless.

09

Edge of Tomorrow

The Groundhog Day of action films, Edge of Tomorrow lives and dies (and repeats) on its clever premise. The script has a ton of fun finding numerous amusing ways to kill off Tom Cruise, as he gradually transforms himself from an everyman into a badass through the one asset he has – time. Cruise and Blunt have a surprising amount of chemistry, and their combined charisma elevates what could been a clunky final act. Smart without being overly intellectual, darkly humorous without being bleak, Edge of Tomorrow is Hollywood genre filmmaking at its finest.

10

The Flash

The Flash leans in hard to the comic book physics version of time travel. Alternate dimensions, word soup science, and reality-bending Speed Force are doled out in generous portions, but never to the point at which audiences feel gorged. Fun, zippy scripts and a light atmosphere keep the show accessible to genre outsiders, even as it dishes out fan service and indulges in the most comic book-y of comic book shenanigans.

11

Fringe

The cult TV series Fringe is a triumph of science fiction storytelling. Even as it utilizes heady, plot-centric elements like alternate realities and timelines as its narrative bread and butter, the core of it is the age-old question of what it means to be a human being. John Noble’s performance as Walter Bishop didn’t get a fraction of the mainstream recognition that it deserved, and it is unrelentingly brilliant from the pilot to the series finale. Episodes with titles like Transilence Thought Unifier Model 11 and Amber 31422 sound cold and sterile, but Fringe is a warm and emotional tour-de-force.

12

Groundhog Day

There are many influential films, but few that are resonant enough to become part of our common vernacular. Twenty-four years after its release, people still reference Groundhog Day when they are stuck in a monotonous task. Most fiction involving time strangeness goes out of its way to explain itself, but writer/director Harold Ramis wisely withholds why Bill Murray's Phil the weatherman is reliving the same day repeatedly. This allows audiences to make a clearer connection between their own lives and Phil’s predicament. “What would you do,” Phil asks the barflies around him, “if you were stuck in one place and everything you did was the same and nothing mattered?” The response of “that about sums it up for me,” is universal. It is simple for all of us to slip into comfortable routines and lose sight of what truly matters, and Groundhog’s Day prods us into self-reflection. Phil is presented as a cantankerous jerk who doesn’t care about the people around him, but Murray’s infectious charisma makes it effortless for us to connect with him. Despite losing the box office battle to Free Willy, Groundhog Day is one of the most enduring, perfect movies ever made.

13

Interstellar

There are many miraculous and inventive ways that Interstellar plays with time, but its greatest feat is making a three-hour film feel breezy. Nolan has always been a director who delights in tickling the brain, but Interstellar highlights his emotional intelligence. It is populated with characters who mean well, but hurt each other; who are heroic, but also selfish. Watching Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper – after learning that decades have passed in the blink of an eye – go through 23 years of messages from his daughter is devastating. Interstellar buoys its big ideas on the back of thrilling action set pieces and incredible performances from McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, and Anne Hathaway.

14

Legends of Tomorrow

Legends of Tomorrow centers on a team of superheroes assembled by Time Master Rip Hunter, as they battle supervillains and protect the timeline. Thanks to the work The CW has done in developing some of these characters in its other comic book properties, Legends of Tomorrow arrives feeling fully formed. Most pilots buckle under the weight of introducing so many characters and ideas, but Legends of Tomorrow assumes viewer familiarity, and wastes no time taking advantage of its era-hopping concept. Doctor Who’s Arthur Darville adds some genre cred to a talented young cast, and the show is every bit as light and fun as Arrow, Supergirl, and The Flash.

15

Looper

Paradoxes are an issue for most time travel stories, but Looper embraces them, daring audiences to overthink. The sheer volume of plot holes in Looper should sink it, but unexpectedly, they help it soar. Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt – despite looking nothing like each other – are both phenomenal as Old and Young Joe. Director Rian Johnson’s third feature film is full of bold storytelling decisions, including introducing major characters and concepts late in the film. The enthralling and unpredictable finale is beautifully executed and utterly jaw-dropping.

16

Lost

Lost gets a lot of flak for the approach it took in introducing mysterious elements. Instead of operating with a fully-formed plan, J.J. Abrams and his writing team threw a lot of strangeness at the wall. If something stuck, it was developed. If it didn’t, it was ignored. That stratagem led to many loose ends, but without that impulse to experiment, Lost wouldn’t have been half as groundbreaking. One of the show’s most successful experiments was its use of time travel, both as a storytelling device and a key part of its mythology. Lost expanded the possibilities of narrative delivery, inspiring even non-genre shows like Breaking Bad to bust out of the confines of linear storytelling.

17

Outlander

Part romance, part adventure, and part period drama, Outlander is quietly one of the best shows on TV. It is gorgeously shot, and Caitriona Balfe is mesmerizing as Claire, the married WWII nurse plucked out of her time and into 1743. Based on Diana Gabaldon’s widely popular novel series, Outlander is a sure-footed adaptation that handles the complexities of its source material with remarkable ease.

18

Predestination

Predestination is a moody and intoxicating blend of noir and science fiction based on Robert Heinlein’s brilliant All You Zombies. Though anyone with a passing familiarity with the tropes of the genre will guess where Predestination is heading, the questions it asks along the way are endlessly fascinating. This is one of those movies you see with a small group of friends and then debate about for hours afterwards.

19

Primer

Shane Carruth is a master of the low budget feature. Allegedly made on the preposterous budget of $7,000, Primer is a delightful puzzle box of a film. To explain the plot requires charts (the plural there is intentional). It is a rare film that reaps continuous rewards with every rewatch, thanks largely to writer/director/star Shane Carruth’s choice to withhold as much exposition as possible. Primer doesn’t come with instructions, and its trust of the audience to stay with it is refreshing and admirable.

20

Star Trek

Star Trek isn’t primarily a time travel focused franchise, but time dilation plays a key part in all its iterations. Voyager and The Next Generation both have incredible series finales that rely on time travel, and every Trek has a classic episode that utilizes the device. Along with holodeck malfunctions, jaunts forward and backwards in time are among the most common occurrences in the final frontier. The film reboot of the original series is entirely structured around a reset of the timeline, which allows J.J. Abrams complete narrative flexibility and creative freedom.

21

Source Code

Though the plot centers on interesting technological and scientific concepts, Source Code never forgets the human elements of its taut, well-told story. It neatly avoids paradoxes by having the Source Code program be a quantum physics based simulation rather than literal time travel. The film signals its tone right away, with a downright Hitchcockian opening sequence. As thrilling and twisty as the narrative arc of Source Code is, the true engine of the film is the emotional resonance of Jake Gyllenhaal’s Cole Stevens slowly coming to grips with his situation.

22

Timecrimes (Los Cronocrimenes)

There are five major conflicts that stories center on: Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Man, Man vs. Society, Man vs the Supernatural, and Man vs Self. Los Cronocrimenes (or Timecrimes) is very much the last of those. Nacho Vigalando’s debut feature is not concerned with character development. It is all plot, and it exists for one reason – to mess with audiences and play with genre. The opening scenario feels like a set-up for a stalker-based horror flick before its perfectly unremarkable protagonist is thrust squarely into a science fiction thriller. It dares audiences to keep up with its mind melting narrative, and layers one delightful twist on top of another as it ramps up towards its finale.

23

Timeline (Crichton Novel)

After Jurassic Park hit the big screen, Crichton’s writing style changed dramatically – and not for the better. He started trying to write books that were thinly disguised screenplays, losing some of the careful plotting and page-turning suspense that had marked his prior novels. Timeline was a return to form though, marrying the careful narrative architecture of his earlier works with his newly developed pop sensibilities. It made for a terrible film once adapted, but the book is smart and exhilarating.

24

Torchwood

Russell T. Davies had long been trying to make a sci-fi crime drama in the vein of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In 2006, he got the opportunity to fold his dream project into a Doctor Who spinoff. With John Barrowman playing his popular intergalactic conman Jack Harkness, and Eve Myles’s Gwen Cooper acting as an audience surrogate, Torchwood unofficially described itself as “Doctor Who for grown-ups.” Due to its late time slot, it could deal in more mature content than its parent series. The first season is uneven, but once Torchwood finds its voice, the show absolutely sings.

25

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Bryan Singer’s triumphant return to the X-Men movies is a knockout time travel romp, and he milks the bifurcated storyline for all he can. A couple years into the future, the Sentinels are killing off mutants and humans alike. After the bleak opening sets the stakes, Wolverine is sent back into the past to stop the Sentinel program. The action set pieces rival those in X2, and there is a sublime joy in watching one generation of X-Men actors pass the torch to the next. The film makes the early '70s come alive, relishing in the vintage kitsch. X-Men: Days of Future Past showcases the MCU at its best.

These were OUR choices from the last 25 years. What are yours? Let us know in the comments which time travel stories you’d put on your list!

And be sure to check out all of our "25 Greatest" lists here. 

Show more comments

More Stories