Some time travel movies will live long in the memory while others, such as the misguided 2002 adaptation of HG Wells’s classic novel The Time Machine (directed by Wells’ great-grandson Simon Wells) will remain lost in time, forgotten by all but the most ardent fans of bad science fiction.
We’re going to focus on the genre’s best in this article and we have picked out 10 movies that we think are worth making time for. Do you agree with our picks? Or have we inspired you to invent your own time machine so you can zap into the past to convince us to add different titles to this list? Let us know in the comments below.
The Terminator (1984)
If James Cameron had control of a time machine, he would likely go back in time to ensure Piranha II: The Spawning wasn’t the first movie of his directorial career. His follow-up movie, the now-classic sci-fi action flick The Terminator, was much better and it gave him the credibility he needed in Hollywood to continue a life in film.
You know the plotline of the movie, we’re sure. A human soldier from the year 2029 (not long now folks – turn off your Alexa devices) travels back in time from his ravaged future to eliminate a seemingly unstoppable cyborg before it kills the mother of the unborn child who is destined to save mankind from an AI-caused apocalypse!
Michael Biehn gives a great performance as Kyle Reese, the man who journies into the past to stop the Terminator, but it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger who made the biggest impact as the near-indestructible killing machine. He returned to the role several times – well, he did say he would be back – but Terminator 2 aside (also directed by Cameron) the sequels failed to capture the tension of this groundbreaking movie.
About Time (2013)
About Time, from Love Actually director Richard Curtis, centres on a young guy named Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) who discovers the men in his family have the ability to travel back to any point in their own timelines.
Tim is able to use this ability to his advantage as it gives him the opportunity to get a second chance with a girl he previously struck out with. But this is far more than just a romantic comedy with a time travel twist. It’s also a movie about Tim and his father (Bill Nighy) and it’s their relationship that gives this movie its emotional core.
When his dad dies, Tim is able to spend time with him again by travelling into the past but as the plot’s events unfold, there comes a point when he realises he has to let go of his father and say one last goodbye. This is difficult, not only for him but for any audience member who knows what it’s like to lose a loved one. Unless you’re a cold-hearted Terminator, you will need a handkerchief if you decide to sit down with this enjoyable but heartbreaking movie.
Director Rian Johnson is now best known for the divisive Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the Daniel Craig-starring murder mystery flicks Knives Out and Glass Onion. But his best movie is arguably Looper, a twisty time-travel thriller starring Bruce Willis who takes on the role of a contract killer (looper) named Joe who has to assassinate targets who have been sent from the future into his present.
Unfortunately, every ‘looper’ has a shelf-life and when they sign up for the job, they know that they too will be sent back in time to be killed. When it comes time for Joe to have his loop closed, he is sent back into the past where he comes face to face with a fresh-faced version of himself (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who has been tasked with the assassination.
Young Joe hesitates and this gives the older Joe the opportunity to flee. We won’t spoil what happens next just in case you haven’t seen the movie but believe us when we say this smart and action-packed time travel flick is one that is well worth seeing. In essence, it’s a cat-and-mouse thriller where the cat is also the mouse, which is a concept that has rarely (if ever) been played out on the screen before.
12 Monkeys (1995)
Looper wasn’t Bruce Willis’s first-time travel movie! A few years earlier, he also starred in this post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller where he journeys into the past again, this time as James Cole, a convict who can earn himself parole if he is able to prevent a deadly virus that has caused devastation in the future.
Unfortunately, Cole’s warnings about the oncoming apocalypse are unheeded because his warnings sound like the ravings from somebody who has gone insane. It’s not long before he is arrested and thrown into a mental facility, but this is a good thing as he gets to meet Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), a mental patient who has a connection to the virus that will one day wipe out humanity.
12 Monkeys is directed by Terry Gilliam, the man who previously brought us Time Bandits, so he is clearly no stranger to the genre. That film was a comedy but 12 Monkeys is far darker in tone and surprisingly relevant considering the recent pandemic that brought life as we know it to a temporary standstill. It’s one of Gilliam’s best movies with a memorably off-kilter performance from Pitt in one of his earliest roles.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
On the verge of failing their high school history class, lovable airheads Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves) and Bill S. Preston, Esq. (Alex Winter) are given the opportunity to travel into the past when they enter a phone booth that turns out to be a time machine. What follows is a crazy (and often hilarious) adventure through time, where they encounter such historical figures as Billy the Kid, Joan of Arc, and Genghis Khan who provide the boys with everything they need to complete their history assignment. Excellent!
Stephen Herek’s movie was very popular back in the day, especially amongst teenage audiences who probably wished they had a time machine of their own to prevent them from flunking their history classes. A sequel followed in 1991 (which wasn’t as bogus as the title) and in 2020, Bill and Ted were given the opportunity to travel through time again, this time much older but not a lot wiser!
The 1989 movie is arguably the best of the trilogy, largely due to the freshness of the premise. There were lots of teen comedies around at the time but few were as funny as Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure which was less concerned with the realities of being a teenager and more concerned with making us laugh at the expense of its two lunkhead characters.
Planet Of The Apes (1968)
When audiences first laid eyes on this sci-fi masterpiece, they had no idea that it was a time travel movie at all. On the surface, it’s about an astronaut named Taylor (Charlton Heston) who crash-lands on a planet that is populated by a highly intelligent species of ape. On this planet, the apes are the dominant species and humans are the ones who have been enslaved (unlike the caged monkeys that are found in our world’s zoos), and Taylor becomes their next prisoner shortly after his arrival.
As you will know already if you have seen this classic movie, Taylor isn’t on a planet that is far removed from our galaxy. He’s actually on Earth at a time in the future when mankind has almost been ruled out of existence due to a nuclear war. Taylor realises this when he discovers the remnants of the Statue of Liberty and the shock he experienced at this discovery was shared by cinemagoers at the time who didn’t realise he had travelled in time to a future reality.
Time hasn’t diminished the power of this movie although the sequels that followed didn’t have the same level of impact. Tim Burton’s 2001 remake (complete with its own twist ending) didn’t match the 1968 movie either, although the reboot of the franchise, which began in 2014, almost captures the power of the original.
Last Night In Soho (2021)
Edgar Wright’s movie is far removed from the comedies (Shaun Of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) that he is perhaps best known for. This is the darkest movie he has made to date and it’s arguably his best in terms of creativity and style, which is quite fitting considering the plot is centred around Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), an aspiring fashion designer who travels to London to study for her career
After taking up residence at a bedsit owned by the crotchety Ms. Collins (the late Diana Rigg), Eloise begins to have strange dreams that later bleed into her reality. In these dreams, she travels back in time to the 1960s, where she becomes obsessed with a glamorous young woman called Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) who catches her eye at a nightclub.
Eloise’s dreams are exciting and she enjoys her excursions into the past. But it’s not long before she realizes the dreams are based on real-life events and that her life could be in danger. We’ll say no more here in fear of spoilers but check out our review and Ending Explained article if you want to learn more about this remarkable and unforgettable movie.
Time After Time (1979)
As far as we know, author HG Wells didn’t have an actual time machine, despite writing a novel about such a fantastical device. But according to this underrated gem from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan director Nicholas Meyer, he did have his own time machine, but he later lost it when it was stolen by Jack the Ripper (David Warner) who then travelled into the future from Victorian-era England to 70’s San Francisco.
Wells (Malcolm McDowell) is able to give chase when his time machine returns to him and the movie follows his attempts to track down the serial killer before he strikes again. In the process, he falls in love with a bank teller (Mary Steenburgen), whose life is put in danger when Jack returns to his murdering ways. Jack’s antics cause Wells to realise his time machine is too dangerous for mankind and he destroys it, which (in the movie at least) is the reason why we never learned of its existence.
Time After Time isn’t a movie that is widely discussed today but it won several awards during the time of its release and it was very well-received by critics. We have included it on this list as we think it deserves more attention. It’s an exciting race-against-the-clock-type thriller with an intriguing concept and an excellent cast that excel in their roles as the fictionalised versions of their characters.
Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)
If you were given the opportunity to relive your high school years again, would you? The prospect isn’t too appealing – boring school lessons, homework, and bullying are not things many of us want to experience again – but if going back into the past gave you the opportunity to make better decisions in your life, you might not think it such a bad idea if you were presented with the opportunity.
Of course, the chances of any of us getting the opportunity to travel back through time are slim to none! We can still put ourselves in the shoes of this movie’s protagonist, Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner), however, as she faces up to the question we asked after she faints at her high school reunion and wakes up in her own past as a senior at high school. There, she is faced with various life-defining choices, such as having to make a decision about her then-boyfriend (Nicolas Cage) who she later separated from as an adult. Should she stick with her sweetheart, even though she knows the relationship is doomed to failure? What would you do?
Francis Ford Coppola’s movie is a nostalgic delight and is often overlooked due to a very popular movie that was released the year before (see below). However, it’s definitely worth a look, especially if you have contemplated what life might be like if you returned to your high school years, although it might make you feel a little bit of regret if you aren’t happy with the choices you made when you were a teenager.
Back To The Future (1985)
Back To The Future is a widely loved classic and it could be considered the best time travel movie of all time. This is partly down to the entertaining story which was written by Bob Gale and the film’s director, Robert Zemeckis, but the biggest credit for its success must go to Michael J. Fox, who gives a fantastic performance as Marty McFly, the young teen who comes to face to face with his parent’s younger selves when he travels back in time to 1955 after setting foot in his friend Doc Brown’s plutonium-powered DeLorean time machine.
Marty’s journey into the past is not without consequences as he almost wipes himself out of existence when the high school version of his mother starts to fall in love with him. To save himself (and his parent’s marriage), he needs to make sure his future parents fall in love with one another, which isn’t easy when his dad’s junior self is an absolute clutz!
You don’t need us to relay any more of the plot to you as we’re sure you have seen it countless times before. The movie is full of memorable scenes that few of us are likely to forget, such as Marty’s manure-coated encounter with Biff Tannen and the prom sequence where Marty stuns the crowd with his musical rendition of ‘Johnny B. Goode.’ You will likely have your own favourite scene, not only from this movie but also the two sequels which are almost as good as this time travelling masterpiece.
So, there we have it, our pick for the 10 best time travel movies. Do you agree with our picks? Or have we missed any movies that you think deserve a mention? Let us know in the comments below.