After centuries of rapid advancements in science, time travel still remains a mystery that continues to fascinate people, especially science geeks, world over. But the question remains: what is it about time travel that makes people so curious? Is it because time travel opens up endless possibilities, including giving people a second chance to fix their mistakes? Or is it because time travel could allow people to personally experience a part of history that they so longingly have just either seen in photographs or read in books? Or is it like any other “unknown” that by virtue of being unknown evokes curiosity inside people. Whatever it might be, there is no question that filmmakers have certainly been more than willing to delve into the idea and create some fantastic pieces of work.
I have assembled a list of movies about time travel from the best of filmmakers. Each of these movies have a wildly different take on time travel, but each in their own way manage to intrigue and entertain. With that said, why not directly jump into the list and take a look at the top time travel movies ever made. You can watch several of these best time travel movies on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime.
22. The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009)
Henry DeTamble is a librarian who can travel in time due to a genetic anomaly but cannot control the moment or destiny of these travels. After meeting Clare Abshire in a Chicago library, they fall madly in love and get married. However, this won’t be an easy because of his unexpected travels. ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ is a heartbreaking movie that reflects on the meaning of life and love. It is a fantastic adaptation of the book of the same name and has a terrific cast. Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams give incredible performances and light up the screen with their great chemistry.
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21. Timecrimes (2007)
A Spanish-language sci-fi thriller from director Nacho Vigalondo (who later directed ‘Colossal’ in 2016), ‘Los Cronocrímenes’ is the story of Hector, a man trying to evade a killer by traveling back in time. ‘Timecrimes’ stands out as a piece that manages to find comfort in convention before mining it to the fullest of its cinematic potential. The assured direction, nuanced sense of humour and compelling visual language sets it apart from countless stories in the exact same mould- and this strong direction saves a story that just keeps extending and extending from collapsing under the weight of its own ambitions.
‘Timecrimes’ is one of the “not made in Hollywood” movies that proves there’s no need for a star cast to get the job done. A strong competitor to Shane Carruth’s ‘Primer’, this Spanish thriller is full of paradoxes and mysteries that you’d never be able to predict where the story will go, right up until the end. With an 88% rating at review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, ‘Timecrimes’ is highly recommended, and it will surely leave you amazed, despite the low budget on special effects and overall production.
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20. About Time (2013)
‘About Time’ is probably the most complete film on the list. Its well-roundedness touches upon all the core emotions and requirements of a story which makes the film perfect for the top spot. While ‘About Time’ minimizes on the comic part, it certainly amplifies human emotion and relationship. One fine day, Tim Lake, a young, unassuming man, is told by his father of a special ability he possesses, much like all his male ancestors. With this revelation, he also warns Tim about the repercussions that he could have to face permanently if he isn’t careful. Poignantly acted and beautifully scored, ‘About Time’ represents a special category of films which go on to define genres and are remembered for centuries to come.
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19. Sleeper (1973)
‘Sleeper’ is a film that is delightfully silly. One of the two Woody Allen films to find their place on this list, ‘Sleeper’ is among the most relaxing films I’ve ever seen, because it doesn’t ask its audience to do the hard work of understanding the differences and hardships that time travel has bestowed upon the protagonist, mostly because everything is explained to us in typical Allen fashion, with existential, subtly Freudian dialogues that are played for effective humor, thereby not coming off as expositional.
The film carries a playful nonchalance in its attitude, with events going overboard at times, though nothing ever seems too obnoxious. You’ve got to show how the future works somehow, now, shouldn’t you? Woody Allen plays a man who is finally unfrozen from a state of cryogenic encapsulation (really, don’t bother yourself with the big words) after some 200 years, and has to plan an escape in the world of the future when he learns that the scientists who’ve brought him back to life wish to conduct tests on him that he is skeptical about.
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18. Looper (2012)
‘Looper’ is a story of contract killers working for crime syndicates to kill victims sent through time. A Looper is paid with silver bars strapped on to the victim and the final contract involves the contract killer himself sent through time to be killed by his younger self and paid in gold bars, thus ending his contract. Bruce Willis and Joseph Levitt Gordon are well cast and shine throughout the movie. Emily Blunt sounds convincing in her southern accent and delivers with what she’s given. Overall, Looper is a thought-proving, dark and entertaining, and is quite different from the other time travel movies out there.
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17. Donnie Darko (2001)
‘Donnie Darko’, in its own little way, is a masterpiece from the aboriginal writer-director Richard Kelly, which flopped at the Box Office so stupendously, it made people stretch out on the country road, with hoardings “Middlesex ahead.” Released only a few weeks post 9/11, the conspicuously cerebral sci-fi warded off it’s audience with a passenger jet-disaster scene in the movie, but made headlines with critics who symbolized the rise of sci-fi and religion through ‘Donne Darko’. Since then, it has garnered a huge cult following. The movie is full of twists and turns, where time travel is not just a mere concept but a tool used by Kelly to construct a elaborate puzzle that only he knows how to solve. Love it or hate it, I can guarantee that you are not going to forget ‘Donnie Darko’ once you have seen it.
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16. Midnight in Paris (2011)
The film knits together time travel and romance as closely as it can. We see two characters – Gil (Owen Wilson) and Inez (Rachel McAdams) in a relationship and a few weeks away from marriage, but they can hardly understand that they are not slightly like each other, Gil being more romantic, who is satisfied by subtle feelings and long night walks, and Inez more materialistic, being attracted to rich men and extravagant things. After then, what happens is way beyond what we could have imagined. Gil travels back in time to the era where Fitzgerald and Hemingway lived and gets addicted to it, whereas Inez goes to parties and makes merry with other men. Gil and Inez slowly get separated and they call off their relationship. And we are left to think that perhaps, this has been good for both of them. Allen writes, directs, films and makes a movie, which has nothing to be disliked in it.
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15. La Jetee (1962)
I’d been fighting with myself regarding the inclusion of this film since it is a 28 minute short, but considering that literally everyone who has ever talked about it following its release seems to regard it with as much respect and priority as a feature-length film, I’ll be doing the same here (that is not to disregard the truth in the public opinion that this film isn’t just some ordinary short).
‘La Jetee’ is a breathtaking original film that takes place in the aftermath of a hypothetical third World War, where Paris is left in ruins, as the Germans succeed. Scientists of the time conduct an experiment with time travel, using the protagonist of the film as their guinea pig (because of the strong connection he claims to have with a vivid memory from his childhood), and he ends up falling in love with a woman after he is transported to the past. It’s incredible to even think that a film like this was possible in the year that it came out. It was ahead of its time then, and I’m sure it would be considered the same several years later were it to come out now. I mean, which other film do you know of that presents a narrative using only photographs and narration?
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14. Predestination (2014)
‘Predestination’ is a narrative that boldly emphasizes on the pun; time travel never gets old. Born of German, the young directors, Spierig brothers constructed a timeless in the form of Predestination which garnered ridicules, but not before being called zeitgeists. The extent to which the Germans were willing to risk their careers bore so high to them that they created an almost surreptitiously magnificent examinee. Adapted from the 1959 short novel by Robert Heinlein, the film bares impeding resemblance to Spielberg’s ‘Minority Report’, based on a 1956 Philip Dick story. It’s venerably interesting to note how both movies drew timeline from the 1960’s. One of the underrated but top time travel movies.
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13. Planet of the Apes (1968)
If it weren’t for ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, this film would easily have been the greatest sci-fi release of 1968. It is set in the year 2500, when a scientist and his team travel faster than the speed of light to a sister planet to Earth, where almost everything about the place feels identical to our world, save for the creatures who have become the dominating race. The apes reign supreme here, and their go-abouts seem both strange as well as sinister to the alien figures who are our protagonists.
Rather than delving into the emotional side of things (though it doesn’t exactly lack too much of the same), ‘Planet of the Apes’ caters to the geeks, and is often considered to be one of the most fascinating as well as thought-provoking films ever made. What’s additionally surprising (to me, at least) is the fact that they were able to come up with as fresh a story as this for a sci-fi film at the time, part of the credit going to Pierre Boule. The film has developed a massive cult following after its release, and is still appreciated in film circles today.
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12. Source Code (2011)
From Duncan Jones, who previously directed ‘Moon’, ‘Source Code’ is such a science fiction movie which leaves us more than perplexed at the end. Jake Gyllenhaal‘s Colter Stevens is a pilot and a part of secret program of the government, by which he is given to relive the last few minutes in the life of another man, who died in a train explosion. Stevens is needed to learn the identity of the bomber, but when he takes up the task, he sees many things are at stake, the least available being time. ‘Source Code’ gives a new twist to the time travel movies we are used to seeing, and does so brilliantly.
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11. Interstellar (2014)
In the era of Nolan worship and appreciation, I feel as though I have little to add to the conversation with my write-up of what has since become one of the genius filmmaker’s most renowned films (then again, literally everything he’s ever made falls under that category). ‘Interstellar’ was the first Christopher Nolan film that I saw in theatres, and I’m glad I did, because if anything, the 2014 film is a visual masterwork. It isn’t just the homages made to sci-fi films of the past, it is also the uniqueness of the concept as well as the distinctive yet calculated approach to the time-traveling concept executed by this film that makes it an exceptional experience. I have my problems with the picture, mostly to do with the script and the addition of a surprise character halfway, but it redeems itself with a glorious third act, that feels like it is taken from the most scientific of dreams.
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10. The Butterfly Effect (2004)
Chaos theory is such a mind-boggling theory when it comes to Mathematics, which tells us that a small event at some place could lead to influential events far away. And when Eric Bress and Mackye Gruber made this theory into a film, obviously that was going to be something we hadn’t seen before. We see Evan (Ashton Kutcher), a teenager, who frequently blacks out due to unbearable headaches and is transferred to the past, where he can make alterations to his life and of others too. But when he finds out that small changes in the past can drastically change the present, Evan finds himself in macabre parallel realities. It is not a perfect film, but it is a damn interesting one.
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9. Pleasantville (1998)
Topics like societal beliefs and the inability to adapt to changes are the major concerns of ‘Pleasantville’, and the film goes a masterfully low-brow path to connect with its audience. To me, the experience of watching this film was like going blind, and then being able to see again, and that’s mainly because of how exceptionally the picture uses colors to communicate not just the shift in time, but the shift in ideologies, and the long walk towards societal progress.
There’s a particular scene with a rose that I’ve re-watched over and over again, simply because I couldn’t comprehend at the time how effective a moment that was! ‘Pleasantville’ tells a mostly humorous tale of two siblings from the present day who, as a result of a silly conflict, get transported into a TV show from the ’50s, becoming two of its primary leads. The rest of the picture is about how they attempt to blend into the atmosphere of an era they were previously never part of, while also figuring out how to get things to go back to normal. It is one of my favorite films of all time.
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8. The Time Machine (1960)
What do you see happening in the future? Are there flying cars all around? Do people have easier lives, as they are given the option of moving less for more comfort? What if the world didn’t end up being that way? What if what awaits us humans in another 20 years time is a dark, twisted, dystopian planet of nothingness and misfortune? Such a world is what is discovered by George, the protagonist of this cinematic adaptation of an HG Wells novel, completely shattering what he’d envisioned for the future.
This film is known and respected today for its groundbreaking special effects, which I will not take anything away from for the purposes of this write-up, though I’ll keep it short by saying that the Oscar it won for the same was very well-deserved, as the effects still have the power to stun even today. The way the plot has been handled is what I love most, because added to the brilliant visuals to the film is this amiable filmmaking style, presenting a horrific image in a lighter tone than is to be expected from films of this kind, making ‘The Time Machine’ one of the most re-watchable mentions of this list.
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7. Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Featured two superstars of Hollywood, Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, ’12 Monkeys’ centers around James Cole (Willis) in the 2030s, who is a prisoner, and is recruited for a mission and is sent back to the 1990s to gather information about a fatal plague, which has wiped a large part of population. The thing, which is to be noticed throughout, is the relation of him with the manic Jeffrey (Pitt) and subtle and desperate romance with Dr. Katherine Railly. Directed by Terry Gilliam and co-written by David Peoples, who previously authored Blade Runner, ’12 Monkeys’ explores the subjective nature of memories and their effect upon perceptions of reality through the concept of time-travel.
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6. Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)
I’ve become something of an ambassador for ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’ in my circles ever since I first watched the Francis Ford Coppola classic following a recommendation from a friend. It’s never ranked among the director’s best in popular film lists, though I feel it very well deserves such recognition. Time travel is used as a fuel for Peggy Sue’s understanding of the girl she once was, after she goes back in time, into her high-school body, but with her 40-something year old brain, given the chance to relive it all: the romances, the heartbreaks, the lifestyle, the entertainment, and best of all, the ignorance. I haven’t been this moved by many pictures, and the fact that I’ve seen it over ten times already should act as some kind of guarantee from me to you, I think. The score by John Barry is simply otherworldly.
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5. Groundhog Day (1993)
One of the best comedy movies of the last 25 years, this film can also not be denied as a science fiction classic, where the protagonist, Phil, a weatherman, finds himself in a continuous time loop and caught in a blizzard in a town where he went to report about the weather. The film is fascinatingly comical and romantic and heartwarming — all at the same time. An amazing performance from Bill Murray and wonderful direction by Harold Ramis make this film genuine, precise and a jewel in modern cinematic history.
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4. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Also considered to be an action classic (featured in our Best Action Movies of All Time), ‘Terminator 2’ not only provides engaging action sequences, but a surplus plot which involves labyrinthine uses of time-travel. T:2 continues the storyline of ‘Terminator’ and tells us about John Connor, who is being saved by a revamped T-800 robot from a shape-shifting T-1000 robot, both of whom have come from the future, one to save and one to kill John Connor, because he is the key to the victory of human race over a robot uprising. ‘Judgement 2’ may be remembered more for its action sequences, but let’s not deny the fact that it is an equally good time-travel film.
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3. The Terminator (1984)
My first viewing of ‘The Terminator’ is one I’ll never forget, because up until then, no other film had frightened me out of my wits like it had, with Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s menacing facial expressions haunting me for quite some time following the film’s release. It isn’t difficult to notice the film’s major connections to the fictional concept of time travel, though there’s so much going on here that people rarely bring it up in conversations about the picture these days, and this plot point lays in the background as a set-up for all the important events that take place in the picture to actually happen.
The film manages to meld the present with the past, as two opposing entities travel back in time, one of them to make sure certain events do not take place in their version of the future, and the other in attempts to stop the former from committing such an act. That’s about all I can say about ‘The Terminator’ without spoiling it, so I’ll leave the rest to you to check out. It’s one of my favorite James Cameron film ever, which is really saying something, because the genius director’s filmography is mostly filled with stunning works.
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2. Back to the Future (1985)
A film doesn’t get preserved in the AFI for no reason. Claimed to be one of the most profitable franchises of cinematic history, it all started with Marty McFly, when he is suddenly delivered to the past after an experiment by his scientist friend Doc Brown goes awry. The film doesn’t take the the normal course of science fictions and introduces a feel-good plot, when McFly strives for his parents to fall in love when they were younger, to make sure he is born. But after that, he also has to leave the past and return to the present to help out his friend Doc Brown. With Michael Fox and Christopher Lloyd in lead roles and directed by Robert Zemeckis, this film is worthy of the cult status it has gained over the years.
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1. Primer (2004)
Directed by Shane Carruth, who formerly was a mathematician turned software engineer, ‘Primer’ is the most authentic time-travel movie ever made. Period. There have been research papers written on the film and many experts claim that the science shown in the film can theoretically be used as the basis of time-travel. How many time-travel films can claim to be actually based on provable science? The film revolves around two friends, who accidentally invent a time machine, and as the film progresses, we, along with them, see how time traveling can irreparably mess up things.
‘Primer’ is not for the faint-hearted. it requires multiple viewing to fully understand the film. Even then, you might be left with few questions. And yet, over years, not only has it developed a cult following, but science-geeks worship the film. A film made on a meagre budget of $7000 manages to win Sundance Film Festival’s award for Best Film. That in itself speaks a lot about ‘Primer’ and its director, Carruth, who also performed the duties of actor, writer, cinematographer, editor, music composer, producer and distributor for the film. [Fun fact: He also helped Rian Johnson with time-travel in ‘Looper’].
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