Time travel movies may all share a core premise, but there’s a surprising variety of films that explore different ideas within the genre. Characters being transported through time can be caught in action-packed adventures, romantic entanglements, and even philosophical loops that can change the trajectories of their lives.
From the underrated sci-fi romance flick About Time, to the beloved ’80s classic Back to the Future, the best time travel movies explore the countless possibilities that arise when characters are flung through the past, present, and future. The greatest entries in the genre range from silly mindless comedies to hard-hitting emotional movies, ensuring that there’s a perfect time travel film for every type of viewer.
About Time follows Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson), who, on his 21st birthday, learns a family secret from his father, James Lake (Love Actually‘s Bill Nighy). The men in the Lake family inherit the ability to time travel, which Tim immediately uses to improve his life in tiny, but crucial ways, particularly his romantic involvement with Mary (Rachel McAdams). He soon learns that time travel doesn’t make him immune to heartache and troubles, though.
Director Richard Curtis’ romantic sci-fi drama weaves a beautiful and surprisingly tearjerking tale that underscores the importance of the small details that make life worth living. The time travel element is used to highlight Tim’s evolving relationships with his partner, friends, and family, as well as what those connections teach him. About Time reminds viewers to embrace the fleeting and imperfect moments that often end up becoming the most cherished memories.
Director Mike Judge’s comedic sci-fi satire revolves around an average Joe serving as a U.S. Army librarian, who’s selected to participate in a top secret military experiment that goes wrong. Chosen for being the “most average individual” in the military, Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) is put in hibernation alongside a woman, Rita (Maya Rudolph). They’re forgotten about and eventually wake up in the year 2505, where the intellectual bar has plummeted, making Joe the smartest person on earth.
Idiocracy is a hilarious, yet unsettling satire that shows the extreme consequences of consumerism and capitalism. The future it portrays is dominated by ads and low-brow pop culture consumed by an anti-intellectual population. Joe’s basic suggestions like not watering crops with a popular sports drink end up transforming the nation, making his unintentional trip through time a positive one. Although this film wasn’t received well when it first premiered, the box office bomb has become a cult classic with a dedicated fan base today.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a hired gun in director Rian Johnson’s Looper, which is set in a future world where time travel technology exists. Only the wealthy criminal organizations from the future have access to it, though, and they use it to eliminate their targets by sending them to the past, where “loopers” like Joe kill them. When Joe’s boss “closes the loop” by sending the protagonist’s future self (played by Bruce Willis) back in time, his present version can’t bring himself to shoot him.
Although its logic is shaky at times, Looper mostly achieves what it set out to do, which is be an engrossing action-thriller that also touches on the cyclical nature of time. The film is bolstered by fantastic performances and the obvious chemistry between its leads, Gordon-Levitt and Willis, who masterfully play the roles of two different versions of the same man.
In director Makoto Shinkai’s visually stunning anime Your Name, two high school students form a mysterious cosmic connection despite having never met. Mitsuha Miyamizu (Mone Kamishiraishi) and Taki Tachibana (Ryunosuke Kamiki) wake up one day to find themselves in each other’s rooms, with the sudden body swap initially leading to chaos and then unexpected joyful moments in their lives. They eventually learn the true reason for their unique situation.
A gorgeous and moving combination of fantasy and romance, Your Name chronicles the unlikely relationship that forms between the two main characters as they fall in love with each other with every new day of body swapping. It would be impossible to discuss the movie’s time-bending twist without spoiling its well-written plot, but audiences who are fans of anime films should definitely consider the modern classic essential viewing.
Edge of Tomorrow sees a future version of Earth that’s overrun by seemingly invincible aliens. Tom Cruise stars as Major William Cage, an inexperienced soldier who’s assigned to a suicide mission that almost immediately kills him. Instead of actually dying, Cage ends up in a time loop where he uses what he learns about the aliens to plot against them, even if that means dying over and over again.
Alongside Emily Blunt, who plays the role of the equally determined Sergeant Rita Vrataski, Cage embarks on a relentless quest to find the aliens’ weakness. It becomes impossible not to root for the determined Cage, who endures one brutal death after another alongside his team of brave soldiers, especially as the action sequences and accompanying special effects escalate and build toward an explosive conclusion.
Before Keanu Reeves was an action star, he starred in the movie Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, a wacky time travel comedy and adventure flick. The film follows the two titular high school friends, Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Reeves), whose desperation to pass their history class leads to their encounter with a time traveler, Rufus (George Carlin). The duo uses Rufus’s time machine to travel to different points in history and meet significant figures who can help them with their crucial presentation for the class.
Director Stephen Herek’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is silly in the best way, with the film never taking itself too seriously and piling on one absurd plot point after another. Its protagonists’ meetings with historical figures like Napoleon Bonaparte, Billy the Kid, and even Joan of Arc are often gut-busting, as Bill and Ted end up involved in those individuals’ most important actions.
Director Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys portrays a postapocalyptic future where a plague has wiped out most of the population. The surviving humans are confined in bunkers and scientists decide to send the criminal James Cole (Bruce Willis) back to the 1990s to learn more about how the disease started. After an excruciating trip, James lands in a mental health facility for claiming to be from the future. There, he meets the paranoid Jeffrey (Brad Pitt), who’s about to play an important role in releasing the virus.
12 Monkeys is a gritty and chaotic film in the best way possible, with James and Jeffrey’s frenetic interactions effectively building dread as they slowly reveal more about humanity’s fate. Bruce Willis gives an amazing performance as the confused, tortured, and terrified protagonist, whose limited perspective defines what audiences know and don’t know about the origin of the man-made virus.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day is often used as an example of a sequel that’s better than the original, and for good reason. The stakes are higher than ever before in director James Cameron’s legendary sci-fi action classic, which has the original Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) returning from the future, this time to protect Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), as well as her son, John (Edward Furlong). The trio are pursued by another Skynet Terminator, whose task to kill the future leader of the human resistance endangers humanity’s fate.
The incredible sequel is considered not just the best from the franchise, but one of the greatest sci-fi and action movies ever made. Its groundbreaking use of special effects has helped it age well, not to mention its flawlessly choreographed action sequences and endlessly quotable lines like “Come with me if you want to live!” and “Hasta la vista, baby.”
Director Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day is the quintessential time loop movie that everyone should see at least once. The comedy-fantasy film stars Bill Murray as the cynical and self-centered weatherman Phil Connors, who’s assigned to cover the Groundhog Day events in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. While there, Phil finds himself suddenly and inexplicably trapped in a time loop, forced to relive the same day over and over again.
Groundhog Day may be a comedy, but it won over audiences with its philosophical message, which reveals itself as Phil goes through various emotions in the process of repeating the same day. The ordinary is transformed into the extraordinary as the protagonist finally stops to notice the small things that make life beautiful. Murray is perfectly cast as the weatherman whose predicament soon teaches him more than a few valuable lessons, and his excellent performance also proved that the comedy star could take on more serious roles, too.
One of the best sci-fi movies of the ’80s, Back to the Future is a nostalgic classic that needs no introduction. Director Robert Zemeckis’ enduring time travel adventure is centered on California teen Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), who accidentally ends up in 1955 after testing out Doc Brown’s (Christopher Lloyd) time-traveling DeLorean. While there, he runs into young versions of his parents and mistakenly prevents them from falling for each other, which threatens Marty’s existence.
The influential flick is likely the first film many think of when considering the greatest time travel movies ever. It’s just an entertaining film with a well-executed story that relies heavily on the performances and chemistry of Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, whose characters would become pop culture icons. The original Back to the Future would also go on to spawn a successful franchise that continues Marty and Doc Brown’s story in exciting ways.