Who among us hasn’t wanted to take a trip backwards or forwards in time? Humans are fascinated with stories about traveling to the future or past, as evidenced by the many movies out there about time travel. If you're ready to do a little cinematic time traveling yourself, here, in order of release date, are 15 films worth watching today.
This 1962 French alternate history classic begins soon after World War II. Paris lies in ruins, its only survivors forced to find refuge underground. In search of an escape, scientists experiment with time travel as a means to heal the present, and task a prisoner with traveling to the past. Not only is La Jetée a classic in its own right, but it also inspired another great time travel movie—Terry Gilliam's 1995 film Twelve Monkeys, in which prisoners are sent back in time to prevent an apocalyptic plague.
One of the films that director/writer Richard Kelly has said most inspired Donnie Darko, another movie on this list, Time Bandits is an absurd, imaginative delight. Eleven-year-old Kevin is obsessed with history, and largely ignored by his parents. He wakes one evening to a knight in armor riding out of his wardrobe, and eventually discovers that his wardrobe serves as a portal to the past. Kevin travels through it with a group of thieves who roam through the ages, pilfering riches from different eras. Featuring several Monty Python veterans (including John Cleese as Robin Hood!), Shelley Duvall, and music by George Harrison, Time Bandits is a truly weird, wonderful voyage through time.
The Terminator is the first film in a franchise focused on the post-apocalyptic conflict between humans and Skynet, a global synthetic intelligence intent on ending the human resistance and exterminating our species. A cyborg killer (the titular terminator, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) travels back in time to 1984 in attempt to kill Sarah Connor and therefore prevent the birth of her future son, John Connor, leader of the human resistance. Scary and smart, The Terminator only becomes more unnerving as our dependence on technology grows.
Back to the Future
We had to include Back to the Future, right? This 1985 comedy is a deserved classic. Michael J. Fox stars as Marty McFly, a teenager whose unlikely friendship with nuclear physicist Doc Brown leads to some very heavy adventures. Using a plutonium-fueled DeLorean invented by Doc, Marty travels back in time to 1995, and meets his high-school-aged parents—a reunion that has dangerous implications for 1985 Marty's existence.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Duuuuude! This late '80s flick made Keanu Reeves a household name. Bill and Ted are two adorably goofy and kindhearted teens. Unbeknownst to them, they're also the inspiration for a peaceful and perfect distant future—but if they don’t pass their history class, all will be lost. Enter Rufus (George Carlin), sent from the future to guide the boys through their exams by experiencing history first hand. If you don’t like fun, you will hate this movie. We happen to like fun.
This 1993 Bill Murray comedy has stood the test of time (see what we did there?). Groundhog Day was directed by the late, great Harold Ramis, and stars Murray as weatherman Phil Connors. Phil becomes trapped in Punxsatawney, Pennsylvania and is forced to relive Groundhog Day in an endless loop until he can mend his selfish ways and become a decent human being. Love, time travel, and groundhogs save the day!
Star Trek VIII: First Contact
Damn the Borg. They had the nerve to mess with Earth’s timeline, so now it’s up to Captain Picard and the USS Enterprise to travel back in time and stop them…or should I say it. Star Trek: First Contact is full of satisfying action, and features the cast of Next Generation, including Data, who plays a vital role in the story.
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This cult hit will change the way you look at bunnies forever. Donnie Darko stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a disturbed teen who begins receiving warnings of apocalyptic doom from a giant silver rabbit named Frank. In a desperate attempt to prevent the coming doomsday, Donnie makes drastic changes in his life, and turns to the book The Philosophy of Time Travel. Donnie Darko is a film that becomes more rewarding after multiple viewings; the plot always leaves a lot for audiences to unpack, and the movie's haunting, emotional core only grows more resonant.
Primer is a low-budget indie that will delight science buffs. Engineer Shane Carruth wrote, directed, edited, starred in, and composed music for this singular film, which centers around two friends who discover a means of time travel—and the massive consequences that accompany it. Filmed with a budget of only seven grand, you’ll be impressed with what Carruth was able to do with very little.
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13 Going on 30
This film is worth it for the Thriller dance sequence alone. 13 Going on 30 is the sweet, funny tale of Jenna, who on her 13th birthday wishes to be 30. Her wish comes true and she’s transported to 2004, where she’s a successful magazine editor. With the idealistic zeal of a 13-year-old, Jenna shakes up her own world and the lives of those around her, including her childhood best friend, Matty.
Safety Not Guaranteed
If you prefer science-heavy time travel movies, Safety Not Guaranteed probably isn't for you—check out Primer instead. But if the human element of voyaging through time is what interests you, this indie film from Jurassic World and Star Wars: Episode IX director Colin Trevorrow is sure to charm. The movie's title comes from a classified ad placed by its mysterious protagonist, Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a secretive loner in search of a companion for a journey through time. Aubrey Plaza plays Darius, a journalism intern who starts spending time with Kenneth as research for an article, but is eventually drawn to his strange determination.
In the future, time travel is illegal, although still used by assassin called "loopers" to discretely dispose of bodies. When a looper retires, they must kill their future selves, severing connections to the syndicate that employs them. Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Joe, a looper who learns that his future self (Bruce Willis) has escaped. Young Joe and Old Joe pursue each other throughout various timelines, leaving destruction in their wake. Looper might confuse at times, and it's not a film that yields up all its answers after one viewing—still, its originality and thrilling, neo-noir vibe more than make up for a somewhat convoluted plot.
We think stories about time-traveling men and the women who love them are a little overdone—Outlander aside, women don't seem to travel through time as often as men do—but About Time is a surprisingly sweet take on a tired formula. Domnhall Gleeson plays Tim Lake, who learns on his 21st birthday that the men in his family all have the ability to travel through time. After falling for Mary (Rachel McAdams, who had a very similar role in 2009's The Time Traveler's Wife), Tim uses his gift to return to their meet cute and save her number in his phone. From there, the movie follows Tim and Mary's relationship as he grapples with the implications his special skill has on the lives of those around him. It's a surprisingly thoughtful, bittersweet look at mortality and the difficulty of appreciating life as it happens.
Edge of Tomorrow
Adapted from Hiroshi Sakurazaka's novel All You Need Is Kill, Edge of Tomorrow is set in a near-future where humans are on the losing side of a battle with vicious extraterrestrials called Mimics. William Cage (Tom Cruise) is unwillingly drafted for a battle in France, and soon after landing in combat, it's clear the humans will be defeated. William is quickly killed—only to wake up a day before the invasion. Like Groundhog Day with more carnage, William relives the battle over and over again in an attempt to change the future. Edge of Tomorrow's use of time travel keeps the audience guessing throughout, and Emily Blunt is inspiring as Sergeant Rita Vrataski, a warrior responsible for one of humanity's few victories against the mimics. Also, if you're looking for a movie starring some truly freaky-deaky-looking aliens, this one delivers.
This time traveling epic is led by an all-star cast including Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and Michael Caine. In the near future, life on Earth is unsustainable and fraught with natural disasters. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) volunteers to journey through a wormhole in search of a team of scientists who disappeared while searching for habitable planets. Hours in space equal years on Earth, so while Cooper and his fellow explorers rush to find their predecessors, they also grapple with missing out on the lives of their loved ones back home. Although the plot drags at times, the incredible cast and the movie's sincerity make this trip worthwhile.
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Featured image of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure via Science on Screen.