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No matter how much we try to hold onto time — which is less of a tangible thing and more of an ethereal human construct — it always seems to slip away through our fingers like sands glimpsed through an hourglass. To borrow a lyric from Pink Floyd's "Time": "And then one day you find ten years have got behind you."
Doesn't that just hit you right in the feels?
Perhaps that is why we, as a species, are so enamored with the idea of time travel and the tantalizing, yet elusive, promises the genre has always held in the realm of science fiction. If the ability to travel to the past or the future existed, we'd be able to rectify egregious mistakes, visit with notable historical figures, or fight off unstoppable robot assassins from the future. Okay, maybe not the third thing, but you get the point. Our collective fascination with temporal displacement isn't going anywhere and to that end, we present our ranking of the 31 best time travel movies ever made.
31. Idiocracy (2006)
As the years go by, Mike Judge's sci-fi comedy about a guy with average intelligence who wakes in a world full of morons (effectively making him the smartest man alive) feels less like satire and more like reality. Sad, yet true. Why water crops with an energy drink? Because it's got electrolytes! Why electrolytes? Because electrolytes are what plants crave! Duh, everyone knows that.
30. Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
Hot Tub Time Machine could have easily taken the lazy route with tired jokes and poorly-written characters. Instead, the film offers up a surprisingly tender message about yearning for the past and getting a second chance to fix the missteps of one's youth. It also helps that the comedy is just as strong as the emotion. What's more: you've got Chevy Chase playing a mysterious repair man who recalls Don Knotts' character in Pleasantville. What else could you really ask for?
29. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)
Shagadelic baby, yeah! On par with parody greats like Airplane and The Naked Gun, the first Austin Powers film lampoons to the James Bond franchise to perfection. Not only that, but the concept of a womanizing British super-spy from the 1960s trying to navigate the modern world felt ahead of its time, putting forth ideas of contemporization nearly a decade before Daniel Craig stepped into the shoes of 007.
28. Timecop (1994)
Timecop is exactly what it's title suggests: in the future, there exists a police force tasked with monitoring the timeline. Simple as pie. Nineties action icon Jean-Claude Van Damme stars as Max Walker, a titular temporal cop who must prevent a dangerous political from altering the past for his own gain.
27. The Time Machine (1960)
No, we're not talking about the Guy Pearce version from 2002 — we're talking about the OG adaptation of the iconic H.G. Wells tale directed by George Pal and starring Rod Taylor. The actor takes on the role of time traveler (duh) who gets way more than he bargained for when he travels to a future where humans battle a subterranean species of monstrous creatures known as morlocks.
26. Flight of the Navigator (1986)
A stone-cold ‘80s classic whose influence can certainly be felt in films like The Adam Project, Flight of the Navigator centers around a young boy who unwittingly travels to the future in an alien spaceship. A remake's been in the works for years, but it doesn't seem like much progress has been made on it.
25. Back to the Future Part II (1989)
One of several sequels on this quantum list, Back to the Future Part II set the stage for Avengers: Endgame three decades in advance with the idea of revisiting fan favorite moments of a previous movie via the utilization of time travel. When future Biff goes back to 1955 to give his younger self the sports almanac, Marty must follow and evade the version of himself in Part I. Great stuff!
24. Time After Time (1979)
H.G. Wells returns in this time-twisting movie in which the sci-fi writer attempting to stop Jack the Ripper, only for the infamous killer to use Wells' time machine against him. Several years later, director Nicholas Meyer would go on to direct another sci-fi classic — Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
23. Time Bandits (1981)
Most likely a major influence on Tony Fleecs' Time Shopper comic (well worth the read!), Time Bandits was among Terry Gilliam's first efforts as director. It's just something you won't get anywhere else: a unique Monty Python spin of the time travel genre. A tale of time-leaping dwarves on the hunt for treasure. As of 2019, Thor director Taika Watiti was attached to a small screen remake at Apple TV+.
22. Army of Darkness (1993)
Army of Darkness is where the Evil Dead series went completely off the rails in the best way possible. After two outings at a possessed cabin in the middle of the woods, writer-director Sam Raimi needed a change of scenery? He could have gone to another contemporary location, but deciding to thrust Ash Williams back in time to the Dark Ages was a stroke of unexpected genius.
21. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)
There was no way we could talk about the best time travel movies ever made and not give a shoutout to Mamoru Hosoda's 2006 masterpiece of an anime.
"The film plays the time-looping games of Groundhog Day, but it's also a sweet, credible study of a girl who wants to turn back the clock on her relationships with two boys who are starting to think more about romance than baseball," Kim Newman wrote in their review for Empire Magazine. "It has few fireworks, but still sticks in the mind, and is a definite upgrade from Digimon: The Movie for director Mamoru Hosoda."
20. Back to the Future Part III (1990)
Immediately following the events of Part II, Marty travels back to 1885 to save Doc Brown from living out the rest of his life in the Old West (Emmett's favorite time period). While there, our favorite skateboarding teenager runs afoul of Biff's ancestor, Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen. Oh, and Doc falls in love with a schoolteacher named Clara, giving us a softer side of the mad scientist we've come to know over the last two installments.
19. About Time (2013)
Richard Curtis — the man who gave us Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually — tries his hand at the time travel genre with heartwarming results. Curtis, who both wrote and directed the film, is less interested in the sci-fi element and more preoccupied with the human drama of a young man who suddenly learns that the men in his family can jump through time.
18. Timecrimes (2007)
Writer-director Nacho Vigalondo's tight sci-fi thriller sort of flew under the radar when it was initially released back in 2007. If you haven't yet watched it, we can't recommend this one enough. Its handling of those pesky paradoxes that come with the time travel territory is *chef's kiss*.
17. Bill & Ted Face the Music (2020)
It only took about three decades to get another entry in the Bill & Ted saga, but Face the Music was well worth the wait. An offbeat exploration of what it means to get older and come to terms with not achieving all the goals you once hoped to achieve, the third outing for Bill Preston and Ted Logan hits all the right notes. Even after all these years, Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter have still go it. Rock on!
16. Star Trek (2009)
It had been close to a decade since the release of Star Trek: Nemesis when J.J. Abrams brought the classic franchise back to the big screen. But how do you reboot such a beloved property after so many decades of shows and movies? You take it back to its roots with just a few twists here and there. Enter the narrative device of time travel, which gave audiences fresh takes on Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Sulu, and the rest of the Enterprise crew while still remaining true to who these characters were in the OG run.
15. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
You can set anything in the 1970s and you're going to have a good time. Based on the seminal comic book arc by the dynamic X-Men duo of Chris Claremont and John Byrne, Days of Future Past finds Logan traveling back in time (courtesy of Kitty Pryde) to prevent the mutant-hunting Sentinels from every being created. The finished product is a perfect marriage of the Bryan Singer films with the prequel continuity established by Matthew Vaughn in First Class. The ‘70s-set adventure is seriously groovy (who could ever forget that Quicksilver sequence set to Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle"?), while, in the dystopian present, the last gasp of mutant resistance engages in the real last stand against the Sentinels, which have been encoded with Mystique's adaptive cells. Nail-biter is an understatement.
14. Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
The second Star Trek feature to be spun out of The Next Generation TV show, First Contact features a race against time (both literally and figuratively) to stop the Borg from preventing humanity's first contact with an alien species (the Vulcans).
"I think the most important plot aspect of the movie and what gave it its title was that Vulcan encounter at the end," co-writer Brannon Braga told The Hollywood Reporter in 2016. "This is what Star Trek is and this is where it all began. And you want it to happen. It's what's at stake — Star Trek itself — and that to me gives the movie such a strong core.
13. Run Lola Run (1998)
If you're a fan of that Community episode that explores all the potential outcomes of a simple game night gathering, then you'll probably enjoy Run Lola Run. Similar to Pulp Fiction four years prior, Tom Twyker's third directorial effort plays around with the timeline of its storytelling (something that would serve Twyker well on Cloud Atlas). When the titular woman's boyfriend loses a bag of money that belongs to a very dangerous crime lord, Lola only has 20 minutes to come up with the dough. A simple and engaging premise gets an added boost from the screenplay's exploration of fate and how our actions can lead to unforeseen consequences.
12. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Time travel isn't something we often associate with witches and wizards (Doctor Strange being an obvious exception), but Prisoner of Azkaban features one of the tightest examples of a paradox-free time loop you're likely to find anywhere in the genre. When Sirius Black and Buckbeak the hippogriff are wrongly sentenced to be executed, Harry and Hermione use a Time Turner to save both innocent souls. Director Alfonso Cuarón effortlessly sets up the temporal element long before we ever get to that point, so that when our heroes do go back to change the past, it feels both earned and satisfying. Moreover, the time travel sticks to a concrete set of rules about not changing that which is immutable. Good stuff. Magical even.
11. Source Code (2011)
Groundhog Day, but as a heart-thumping action mystery/thriller. That's Source Code, baby — the second feature-length effort from David Bowie's filmmaker son, Duncan Jones. His follow-up to 2009's Moon proved Jones was not a one-hit high concept pony. Jake Gyllenhaal leads the project as Colter Stevens, a man forced to relive a specific train journey in an effort to find out who bombed the locomotive. Verga Farmiga, Michelle Monaghan, Jeffrey Wright, and Michael Arden round out the cast with Scott Bakula making a voiceover appearance as Colter's dad (most likely a loving reference to Bakula's role as Dr. Samuel Beckett in Quantum Leap).
10. Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)
Whoa! On paper, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure sounds so off the wall as to be un-filmable: Two high school slackers with a love of rock n' roll travel through the centuries in a futuristic phone booth given to them by risqué comedian George Carlin in order to ace their history exam and not be sent to military school. If we were Hollywood executives in the late ‘80s, we'd probably ask what kind of reefer screenwriters Chris Matheson (son of famed sci-fi icon Richard Matheson) and Ed Solomon were smoking. But it works! And by golly, it works well.
9. Groundhog Day (1993)
Less of a time travel movie and more of a time loop movie, Groundhog Day is, perhaps, the finest directing effort from late actor/writer/filmmaker Harold Ramis. In this existential comedy, a bitter and self-centered newscaster is forced to relieve the same day over and over again until he learns a bit of humility. He can't leave the epicenter of the titular holiday (Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania) and any suicide attempt simply sends him back to the previous morning. It's a horrifying prospect, living out a hellish purgatory of repetition each and every day, but in Ramis's able hands, Groundhog Day keeps things light, earning its place as one of the finest dramedies ever made.
8. Looper (2012)
Looper is noteworthy for two big reasons: 1) Rian Johnson's snappy screenplay never gets too bogged down in the "rules" of the time travel genre and 2) Joseph Gordon-Levitt went the extra mile to wear facial prosthetics that made him look like a younger Bruce Willis. The decision to focus on a low-level enforcer for a group of future mafiosos who dispose of their victims in the distant past is pretty genius stuff. Johnson not only makes time travel feel fresh, he also manages to breathe new life into the crime thriller space. Not an easy feat by any means.
7. 12 Monkeys (1995)
Terry Gilliam just couldn't help himself; the dude just had to churn out another time travel masterpiece 15 years after Time Bandits. And we're very thankful he did. A top-of-his-game Bruce Willis steps into the shoes of a convict who is sent back in time to learn about a mysterious pathogen that wiped out a good chunk of humanity. The movie itself is a remake of the French film made in 1962. Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, and Christopher Plummer co-star. Pitt, who played mental patient Jeffrey Goines, nabbed a Golden Globe victory and Oscar nod for his performance.
6. Arrival (2016)
Denis Villeneuve's first foray into the world of science fiction, Arrival is a thinking person's time travel story. In fact, that little detail isn't really made obvious until the very last act. If you're looking for explosions and cheesy one-liners, then you're looking in the wrong place. Might we suggest our list of best action flicks from the ‘90s? Arrival takes a methodical and procedural approach to the question of: how would the world react if alien spaceships showed up on our doorstep tomorrow? How would we communicate with beings that are so wildly different from ourselves? The film is subdued and thoughtful — a masterful slow burn of an audition for its director's genre chops.
5. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Source Code walked so that Edge of Tomorrow could run. Edge of Tomorrow, Live. Die. Repeat. — Call it whatever you want, just don't call us late for the battle against the Mimics. Under the direction of Doug Liman, Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, and the rest of the cast (which features the late Bill Paxton) clearly have a ton of fun in this movie about a man thrust into a war against his will. He can't fight for crap, but when an alien bleeds time travel blood all over him, he gains the ability to relive the same day over and over again. Liman plays everything organically, taking the time to allow us to learn the rules alongside our hero before he truly figures out how to use his newfound ability to his advantage. Now, when is the sequel coming out?
4. The Terminator (1984)
"Come with me if you want to live!" This shouted by a complete stranger who, just a few moments ago, showed up in a back alley naked as the day he was born. We are, of course, referring to Kyle Reese, the soldier sent back in time to prevent the T-800 from murdering the mother of John Connor, who will one day lead humanity against the machines. Little does Mr. Reese know that he is destined to be the father of that child. Time travel is just a means to an end here: an excuse to pit two flesh bag protagonists against an unstoppable killing machine with one simple goal: assassinate Sarah Connor.
3. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
The fourth Star Trek movie to feature the OG cast members from the '60s-era television series, The Voyage Home, Kirk, Spock, and the rest travel back to San Francisco (circa 1986) and communicate with whales. You shouldn't be laughing over there, because that's actually what happens. Leonard Nimoy, who sat in the director's chair for this one, wanted to go for a very different Trek story.
"No dying, no fighting, no shooting, no photon torpedoes, no phaser blasts, no stereotypical bad guy," he once remarked. "I wanted people to really have a great time watching this film [and] if somewhere in the mix we lobbed a couple of big ideas at them, well, then that would be even better."
2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Arnie's T-800 wasn't kidding when he said "I'll be back" seven years prior to the release of T2: Judgment Day. He definitely did come back and with quite a vengeance. Except this time, the killer android with the Austrian accent didn't come to the past to kill young John Connor, but to protect him from a new mechanical threat: the shape-shifting T-1000.
Sequels are tricky to pull off properly, but writer-director James Cameron has yet to fumble the follow-up ball. This film ramped up everything audiences loved about the first movie, deepening the mythology while never losing sight of its heart: the fractured relationship between John and his mother as well as the budding relationship between John and his buff, sunglasses-wearing protector.
1. Back to the Future (1985)
You knew this one would be at the very tip-top of our list, didn't you? There's just no getting around it, no matter what timeline you travel to, Back to the Future is the greatest time travel movie of all time. Despite an overt lack of coherent rules and paradox resolution, the movie speeds by (at 88 miles per hour, of course) on charm, memorable characters, and relatable stakes.
And that's not even mentioning the most iconic time machine in the history of the genre: a winged-door DeLorean that runs on a plutonium-powered Flux Capacitor. What's a Flux Capacitor? Again, don't mind the science — just sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride to 1955, where young Marty McFly has to ensure that his parents end up together, lest he and his siblings disappear forever.
Speaking with SYFY WIRE in 2019, Back to the Future co-screenwriter Bob Gale summed up the film's immortal legacy: "The idea that we were able to just tell this time travel story and make it not about changing history; making this human story and the big surprise was that everybody in the world has wondered the same thing: ‘What did my parents do on their first date?' It just connects with everybody."