The intricacies of time may never be cracked by actual science, but in the fictional world, possibilities run rampant. Ever since I was a kid reading Frank Peretti’s book The Legend of Annie Murphy (a western mystery with a cool time-bending climax), I’ve loved a good time travel story. Sometimes, it’s simply a device to propel a non-sci-fi plot; other times, it’s the catalyst for some fish-out-of-water humor or a geeky escalation that hurts the head if you think too hard about it. While there are plenty of examples out there, including some that are still on my to-watch list (like The Butterfly Effect and 12 Monkeys), these are my top twelve time travel films thus far. Let me know if you have other favorites, and I may go back in time to update it.
- Time after Time (1979)
Starting off much like H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, Time after Time sends Wells himself (Malcolm McDowall) from Victorian England to the present day, I mean 1979, as he searches for a time-hopping Jack the Ripper (David Warner). Not only does this film have fun with its setting and astute social commentary, it united McDowall and Mary Steenburgen, who married the next year.
- The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009)
While reviews for the big-screen adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s novel were so-so, this is one romance that enthralled me with its time-skipping premise. Eric Bana’s Henry DeTamble is unlikely to forge any lasting relationship, considering his mysterious genetic disorder that randomly displaces him in time, but Rachel McAdams’ Clare falls in love with him. They build a marriage as he jumps in and out of her life, and the result is touching and bittersweet. That fading handprint gets me every time.
- Meet the Robinsons (2007)
While not one of Disney’s biggest successes, Meet the Robinsons balances colorful silliness with deeper themes of belonging. When whiz-kid Lewis is whisked into the future by Wilbur Robinson, he meets Wilbur’s wacky family and faces past and future mistakes that threaten to destroy him. Based on William Joyce’s non-time-travel-related A Day with Wilbur Robinson, the film features plenty of laughs (and tears from my VC) and an admirable message that would make Walt Disney proud: “Keep Moving Forward.”
Mirroring the quiet tone of another favorite anime film of mine, Whisper of the Heart, The Girl Who Leapt through Time has plenty of plot holes that often plague time travel movies, but its sensitive teen drama overshadows any faults. When Makoto mysteriously develops time-jumping abilities after falling into the path of a train, she uses them for fun and realizes too late the negative impact her temporal meddling has on others.
- Source Code (2010)
Though Jeffrey Wright specifically explains that his source code is “time reassignment” rather than time travel, the differentiation between the two is minor enough to still earn this a spot on the list. Starting off much like Groundhog Day, Jake Gyllenhaal is tasked with finding a bomber by reliving his last strike on a passenger train. Twists and moral concerns abound, and the finale takes a brilliant detour to an unexpectedly satisfying end.
- X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
I didn’t think it was possible for the X-Men franchise to recover from the despicable blow that was The Last Stand, but director Bryan Singer delivered in spades. When Wolverine’s consciousness is sent back to the 1970s to stop events that lead to the mass extermination of mutants, he must deal with the seeds of disaster and unwilling allies with plans of their own. Not only does this latest installment build on the rebooted team with James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, but it ties up the earlier trilogy to grant the older characters the happy ending they deserved.
- TIE: The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
These two classics from James Cameron only employ time travel to bring the killer cyborg/rescuer from the future, but their mission has always been to change the past. Schwarzenegger’s Terminator in the first aims to murder John Connor’s mother before the resistance leader is born, while Arnie becomes a hero in T2 protecting young John from an even more advanced killing machine. Judgment Day is the best and coolest for me, with groundbreaking special effects that still hold up well, but both deserve placement here.
Now from a violent android actioner to a ridiculous dimwit duo! Dumb humor rarely strikes me as smartly as it does in this ‘80s cult classic. Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) may seem like the biggest slackers of San Dimas, but they’re destined for greatness, as long as George Carlin helps them with a history presentation. With a century-vaulting phone booth (which is obviously not the TARDIS), the two valley dudes collect historical figures left and right, only to lose them hysterically. Excellent!
- TIE: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) and Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
Both the original series of Star Trek and The Next Generation had some great time travel stories (such as The City on the Edge of Forever or Time’s Arrow), but they outdid themselves when they applied this classic sci-fi device to a full-length feature. The Voyage Home isn’t quite on par with Wrath of Khan or The Undiscovered Country, but it’s fun to watch Kirk and the gang in the 1980s as they search for humpback whales to save the planet. Hello, Computer! And First Contact went a far darker route, pitting Captain Picard against the Borg’s preemptive temporal attack and his own demons. It’s easily the best Next Gen film. I suppose the 2009 Star Trek reboot also features time travel, but these two always come to mind first.
- Somewhere in Time (1980)
One of my original cryfests, Somewhere in Time is a tragedy of star-crossed lovers separated by decades (and a penny). Christopher Reeve hypnotizes himself into traveling to 1912 in order to connect with an intriguing actress (the beautiful Jane Seymour). Coping with her uncooperative manager (Christopher Plummer) and the caprice of time, the two unite for a true tearjerker.
- Groundhog Day (1993)
Bill Murray found his greatest role in prickly weatherman Phil Connors, doomed to relive the same maddening Groundhog Day over and over. His responses to this unforeseen phenomenon are priceless as he enjoys, exploits, grows weary, and finally learns from all the repetition. His exchanges with the townspeople and lovely Rita (Andie McDowall) grow comfortably familiar over time, and as often as he relives February 2nd, I never get tired of watching Groundhog Day all over again.
- Back to the Future Trilogy (1985, 1989, 1990)
For many, Back to the Future was their first introduction to the idiosyncrasies of time travel, of ripple effects that could change the future, alternate time lines, and overlapping temporal corollaries. The trilogy also delivered all this timey-wimey mumbo jumbo with cool DeLoreans, flux capacitors, classic quotability, and the endearing odd couple team of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd). The first Back to the Future may be Robert Zemeckis’s most beloved film, but I’ve always been partial to Part II, which tied in brilliantly with the first, even if its version of 2015 wasn’t quite accurate. Time travel may be “heavy” at times, but Back to the Future kept it just light enough to be endlessly fun.
In addition to the alphabetical honorable mentions below, I should also name-drop some great time-hopping TV series, like Quantum Leap, Lost, and several episodes of Star Trek: Voyager (Future’s End and The Year of Hell, for example). I still need to check out more Doctor Who eventually, but I’m sure I have plenty of time.
13 Going on 30 (2004) – A cute rip-off of Big that was better than I expected.
A Christmas Carol (1951, 2009) – This would be much higher on a Christmas movie list. There are lots of good versions out there, but I usually go with the Alastair Sim classic or the Jim Carrey animation.
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) – What would happen if talking apes landed in 1970s America? Good question for a good film, sort of like the Star Trek IV of this franchise.
Field of Dreams (1989) – I’m not enamored of this film like many out there, but it’s still enjoyable with a small time-travel fantasy thrown in.
Flight of the Navigator (1986) – This light sci-fi film enthralled me when I was younger with its intriguing alien abduction plot.
Interstellar (2014) – I saw the twist coming, but Nolan’s latest movie gave him a chance to play with an interdimensional tesseract.
Men in Black 3 (2012) – Time travel breathed some new life into the franchise’s last entry, especially set against the 1969 moon launch.
Predestination (2014) – A mind-bending puzzle as only Robert Heinlein could conceive.
The Shining (1980) – This one may not seem like time travel, but the final scene does make one wonder.
The Time Machine (1960) – A favorite of my dad’s, George Pal’s adaptation of H. G. Wells’s novel still holds up all these years later.