The 24 Best Time Travel Movies Ever
By Michael Rougeau on
It's a temporal week in entertainment.
Here at GameSpot, we love good sci-fi, especially of the time travel variety. That's what makes this week so exciting: Not only does Happy Death Day 2U, the sequel to the Groundhog Day-like slasher movie, hit theaters this Wednesday, February 13--Netflix's Umbrella Academy, about a quirky team of superheroes that includes a time traveling 15-year-old, releases on Friday, February 15. That's a lot of temporal displacement.
Happy Death Day 2U and Umbrella Academy succeed on the backs of a long history of time travel fiction on the big and small screens. To celebrate, we're going to look back at both--click here for the best time travel shows, and read on for the greatest time travel movies of all, uh, time.
Note: These are presented in no particular order, because ranking them would just take too much time. ;)
1. Happy Death Day (2017)
Groundhog Day has had surprisingly few imitators in the grand scheme of things, possibly because it's not an easy thing to pull off. Happy Death Day is probably the most successful one, at least on an artistic level. The movie marries the core concept with a slasher flick, waking protagonist Tree (the fantastic Jessica Rothe) up over and over on the same morning in a stranger's dorm room bed, and tasking her with solving her own murder as it plays out again and again that night. The sequel--out today, February 13--reveals exactly how and why this occurs, but even taken simply on its own, Happy Death Day is a fun ride.
2. Timecrimes (2007)
Timecrimes--or, in its original Spanish, Los Cronocrímenes--is one of those movies that just perfectly captures the complexities of practical time travel in seemingly effortless fashion. Director Nacho Vigalondo creates a believable time loop in which one man unknowingly plays the roles of victim, aggressor, orchestrator, and pawn. The timeline keeps folding back on itself, but it's never hard to follow thanks to the movie's clever directing and clear vision.
3. Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Aubrey Plaza, Jake Johnson, and Mark Duplass star in this unique time travel movie in which very little time travel actually takes place. Instead, Safety Not Guaranteed is a quirky comedy about a man who believes he's invented a time machine and seeks a partner to test it out with him. Sure, it involves training montages and a healthy dose of cute romance, but Safety Not Guaranteed has a darker edge too, and the writing is utterly convincing.
4. Terminator 2 (1991)
You could argue that the original Terminator didn't need a sequel. It was a tight, self-contained action movie. But if it had remained as only that, we never would have gotten the masterpiece of action cinema that is Terminator 2, including arguably Arnold Schwarzenegger's best ever performance as a time-traveling murder-bot with a heart of gold. Everything about this movie holds up today, so give it a watch if you haven't lately. Then, read more about one of the movie's most iconic scenes.
5. Groundhog Day (1993)
You can't blame early critics for not immediately recognizing Groundhog Day's total genius. After all, as Robert Ebert famously put it in his revisiting of the movie in 2005, "it unfolds so inevitably, is so entertaining, so apparently effortless, that you have to stand back and slap yourself before you see how good it really is." Bill Murray's Phil Connors relives the same day countless times--maybe hundreds, maybe thousands--until he learns to be less of a dick, and also to flawlessly play invigorating jazz piano. It's a perfect movie.
6. Back to the Future (1985)
Back to the Future has proven so influential that it's still one of the most-referenced movies today, more than 30 years after its original release. So much about this movie and its sequels, from the Delorean time machine to the totally radical hoverboards in number 2, has become part of pop culture legend. Even with that scene where Marty makes out with his mom, Back to the Future is an undeniable classic.
7. Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
There are plenty of serious, scientific-ish time travel movies. And then there's Hot Tub Time Machine, in which John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, and Clark Duke accidentally travel back to the 1980s after an accident involving a hot tub and an illegal Russian energy drink known as Chernobly. Masterpiece cinema Hot Tub Time Machine is not, but it's definitely a fun romp that captures the lighter side of the genre.
8. Looper (2012)
Before he was either ruining or saving (depending who you ask) Star Wars with the divisive Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, director Rian Johnson crafted an extremely neat little time travel action movie called Looper. In the near future, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a time traveling hitman who comes into contact with Bruce Willis, who's supposed to be an older, more grizzled version of himself. Even though the two don't really look alike, the whole thing works really well, especially with its exceptionally satisfying conclusion.
9. Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)
One of the classics of time travel comedy, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure saw Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (an extremely young-seeming Keanu Reeves) cavorting through time in search of historical figures to help them with a school project. This wonderfully dumb concept gave rise to hijinks, comedy, and a cultural influence still felt today.
10. Primer (2004)
Primer is a love it or hate it kind of movie. Fans adore everything about it, from the dense writing and absurdly over-complicated timelines, to the understated, homespun performances of Shane Carruth and David Sullivan as two mediocre scientists who accidentally invent time travel in their garage and let it twist them into ruining their lives. It all came from the mind of Carruth, who wrote, produced, directed, edited, and scored the movie, in addition to starring in it--all on a shockingly low budget of only $7,000. But love it or hate it, Primer is a must-see for sci-fi fans (and a must-see-multiple-times if you hope to actually understand what's going on).
11. Donnie Darko (2001)
Another love it or hate it indie movie, Donnie Darko bombed at the box office but has achieved cult status since its 2001 release. It follows a young Jake Gyllenhaal in what might have been a typical coming-of-age high school dark comedy, were it not for the ethereal murder bunny Frank, the falling jet engine from nowhere, and the time vortex that appears above Donnie's house. Donnie Darko is depressing and charming in equal measure, so if that's your kind of thing, have at it.
12. Time Bandits (1981)
Monty Python's Terry Gilliam directed, produced, and co-wrote (with fellow Python Michael Palin) this zany kid's movie about an 11-year-old named Kevin who goes on adventures through time with a gang of thieving dwarves. It's definitely on the sillier side, but with Gilliam at the helm and a cast that included Palin, Sean Connery, John Cleese, Shelley Duvall, and many more talents of the time, Time Bandits is a guaranteed classic.
13. 12 Monkeys (1995)
Not to be confused with the Syfy show of the same name--which is pretty good in its own right--12 Monkeys is yet another Terry Gilliam classic on this list. This one stars Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis in a thriller that spans 1996 and 2035 and involves a viral outbreak that kills 99% of all humanity. Like any good thriller, it's packed with action, plots, and twists galore.
14. Army of Darkness (1992)
The adventures of Bruce Campbell's bullish antihero Ash Williams, who for decades has battled demons and the undead throughout the Evil Dead series, have probably gone on way longer than anyone could have predicted based only on the 1981 original. Army of Darkness sent Ash back in time to the middle ages, where he--surprise!--once again battles evil. With the series' distinct comedy ratcheted up higher than ever, Army of Darkness is no cinematic masterpiece, but it's earned a cult following for a reason.
15. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Edge of Tomorrow has the odd distinction of having been renamed as "Live. Die. Repeat" on its home release, which is a weird move if you want people who saw your movie to actually go out and buy it. But that's really just a footnote, since--whatever you call it--this movie is maybe the most solid, slick time travel action movie of all time. It has elements of Groundhog Day as Tom Cruise's Major William Cage relives the same day over and over while training to fight an invading alien race. It manages to be a solid popcorn flick and a competent time travel tale all at once, with possibly the most raw box office appeal of anything on this list.
16. The Endless (2017)
The Endless is yet another indie time travel movie, this one again concerning time loops a la Groundhog Day. The duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead produced, directed, edited, and starred in the movie, while Benson wrote it and Moorhead helmed the cinematography. They play brothers who return to a cult after years away, discovering phenomena they can't explain. It exists in a shared universe with their previous film, 2012's Resolution, marking Benson and Moorhead as a team to watch.
17. Your Name (2016)
This anime film concerns a city boy, Taki Tachibana, and a countryside girl, Mitsuha Miyamizu, both high school students, who find themselves inexplicably switching bodies and possibly falling in love in the process. It's rightfully been described as part part body swap and part time travel--with other sci-fi genres thrown in at various points--although it's not until the climax that all the pieces really come together. Nevertheless, Your Name is an emotional and original journey that everyone should see.
18. Midnight in Paris
Midnight in Paris is by no means a typical time travel movie. As successful screenwriter (but struggling novelist) Gil Pender, Owen Wilson travels back in time every night to 1920s Paris, a period of cultural and creative renaissance. Pender gets cozy with historical figures like Cole Porter, William Faulkner, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, and more, while coming to terms with his own nostalgic delusions and the realities of his failing relationship. It's a charming, beautiful film that will make you want to read classic 20th century literature while sipping espresso at a cafe in Paris, which is not a terrible goal to have.
19. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Although it's not revealed until the movie's climax, time travel is essential to the third Harry Potter book adaptation, which also happens to be (arguably) the best of the films. This is where the series started to take on its own identity separate from the page, thanks largely to director Alfonso Cuarón's stylistic vision. And Hermione's use of time travel as a study aid is one of the most creative twists ever seen in the genre.
20. Project Almanac (2015)
The "found footage" thing has surely been done to death, but Project Almanac is one of the better examples. Told through the lenses of a bunch of teenagers' phones, Almanac follows high school senior David Raskin (Jonny Weston) as he and his friends build a time machine based on plans left behind by his deceased father. Predictably, they use the time machine just like real teenagers would--irresponsibly and with dire consequences, most notably to attend Lollapalooza in the timespan of a bathroom break during class.
21. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Days of Future Past is somewhat messy, but that's bound to happen when you mash up the separate casts of two disparate incarnations of the same franchise, with time travel serving mostly as a hacked together excuse to have Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, and more all in one over the top X-Men movie together. Honestly, I'm not complaining.
22. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Star Trek IV has one of the weirdest plots of any movie on this list: Kirk and Spock must travel to the past and bring now-extinct humpback whales back to the future with them, so the whales can somehow communicate with an alien probe and prevent it from destroying Earth. Honestly, if you haven't seen it, that synopsis just won't make a lot of sense--but that's Star Trek for you.
23. Predestination (2014)
On first glance, Predestination seems to be a cookie-cutter time travel action movie in which temporal Agent John Doe (Ethan Hawke) embarks on a mission to prevent a bomb from killing thousands. But it's smarter than it sounds, and benefits from an excellent performance by Australian actress Sarah Snook.
24. Frequency (2000)
Frequency goes in depth on something all serious time travel movies have to address: the ripples that small changes in the past can cause in the present and future. John (Jim Caviezel) inexplicably reconnects with his decades-dead father through a mysterious ham radio, warning him of his impending death and thus changing the past--which, understandably, has consequences. It's a solid sci-fi movie that doesn't get the love it deserves today.