Time travel has long captivated filmmakers, but the time travel itself has been approached with varying levels of scientific concern. Some movies try to use hard science and consistent internal logic to explain how time travel might be possible. Others simply use time travel as a springboard to wacky hijinks.
Ultimately we have no idea what time travel would actually look like, but we all have ideas of how to understand time travel because of movies like these. Here is a list of some of the best time travel movies, ranked in descending order of how much the time travel adheres to internal consistency and sense .
The Terminator features logically-consistent time travel, and follows Sarah Connor, whose life in 1984 Los Angeles is overturned when time-travelling soldier Kyle Reese saves her from the titular Terminator, a cyborg shape-shifting assassin.
Sarah learns that, in the year 2029, an evil artificial defense network called Skynet will try to exterminate humanity in a global nuclear war, but that Sarah’s future son John leads a successful resistance movement against them. Skynet sends the Terminator back in time to kill Sarah, so John will never be born to defeat them.
While fleeing the Terminator, Sarah and Kyle fall in love and have sex, leading to John’s conception. They explode the Terminator, but in the process Kyle dies, leaving Sarah alone to keep her child alive to save humanity’s future.
Terminator makes sense because the events of the movie reinforce a timeline that would happen anyway. Nobody is changing the past, they’re only ensuring the past happens as it is supposed to. John could have been born from any random guy; it just so happened that sending Kyle back made him the father.
Nothing in this story stops Skynet’s war, it only ensures the AI doesn't wipe out John’s resistance movement before it starts. The Terminator and Kyle both die, tying up all of the future’s loose ends. There are no paradoxes, only the creation and closure of a consistent timeline.
Back to the Future
I know, okay. Back to the Future probably should be number one. This time-travel movie sets the standard for how we know and love time travel in film today. But not everything about this icon of cinema makes sense...
Marty McFly uses a souped up DeLorean to travel back to 1955, the same year his parents first got together. He meets younger versions of his parents and his mad scientist best friend “Doc” Emmett Brown, and Marty also saves his dad from a car crash that would have led to his parents’ first meeting, the moment they fell in love.
After altering the past, Marty must figure out how to get his parents back together ,while Doc discovers how to get Marty back to the future. Any action they make in the past butterflies out to change Marty’s future, so the two need to be careful with how much they meddle.
All of this makes sense. Any change to the past leads to changes in Marty’s future. However, hear me out: Marty’s siblings start disappearing from a family photo, which warns Marty that his actions have prevented his parents from forming their family. Soon he will cease to exist, too. So why doesn’t Marty immediately disappear when he accidentally stops his parents’ meet-cute?
This film’s core conflict creates a paradox. If Marty wrecks his parents’ meet-cute, he should vanish from time. But then, he wouldn't exist to meddle with time in the first place. He’d stay alive—only to go back and mess things up again.
The film gives Marty time to fix his mistakes without playing out this paradox because that’s a better story. And because we love this movie, we’re all willing to overlook this paradox too. But it’s there. We know it’s there. And that’s why it’s number two instead of number one.
Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure
It’s 2688, and the world is a utopia because of the music of the two Great Ones, Bill S. Preston, Esq., and Ted Logan. Except none of this will happen if time traveler Rufus doesn’t make sure Bill and Ted pass their history test in 1988.
Bill and Ted must write a report on how historical figures would view the present, so Rufus takes Bill and Ted through time to see these historical figures in person. Bill and Ted end up kidnapping Napoleon, befriending Billy the Kid and Socrates, and making a pit stop to see the peaceful future that their band, the Wyld Stallyns, inspires.
But there's a wrench in this movie’s time travel sense. Rufus explains that time will progress normally for Bill and Ted, so they have to make sure they don’t miss their class presentation the next day. If you have a time machine that allows you to travel anywhere in time, why can’t you use it to make sure you end up in the right period ten minutes before class starts? And why does Bill and Ted’s meddling in the past never influence their present?
Kidnapping Napoleon should lead to some wild geopolitical ramifications, but all that ends up happening is the short conqueror enjoys a few frames of bowling.
Endgame should make sense. The writing tries to make the time travel make sense by referencing other movies on this list. But in all its meta-discussion of time travel films, Endgame still throws some of its own rules out the window.
The Avengers have cracked the time travel math that will allow them to retrieve Thanos’ destroyed Infinity Stones, which will let them reverse the snap that killed half of the galaxy’s living creatures. Bruce Banner explains that they can retrieve the Infinity Stones without changing the present as long as they return everything exactly as they found it. Otherwise, any changes will lead to alternate realities.
After restoring half of the galaxy and defeating Thanos’ army, Captain America returns the Infinity Stones to their proper places and times. But then, he never returns. Instead, he chooses to go back to the 1940s and live out the rest of his life with Peggy Carter, his love from the first Captain America film. Elderly Steve passes the Captain America shield to Sam Wilson.
But from Captain America: The Winter Solider, we know Peggy married a soldier whom Steve saved from a HYDRA blockade during World War II. They had two kids. If Steve takes this man’s place, this seems like a huge deviance. So either Steve kept his head down for decades while his best friend was being brainwashed and tortured by HYDRA’s Winter Soldier Program, and nobody on earth recognized Peggy’s new beau as the recently disappeared Captain America—or maybe Endgame just doesn’t make that much sense.
But hey. It made almost three billion dollars in the box office. Any SFF writers out there, let this be encouragement that your time travel does not need to make sense to be a hit.
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
This delightful movie is all about time loops and secret portals!
Abe Portman spent his childhood at “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.” He tells his grandson Jake all about it. One day, Jake finds his grandfather dying, with his eyes removed, and with his last breath Abe tells Jake to find “the loop of September 3, 1943.”
Jake discovers a portal in the ruins of a children’s home, which takes him to this very date, when the house is still intact and full of children. They are cared for by a Peculiar named Miss Peregrine, who can turn into a peregrine falcon. The children and their caretaker escape detection by living in a time loop, set to constantly repeat September 3, 1943.
This time loop is fairly unique. It's not like Groundhog Day, in which many of the events repeat in each time loop. Characters are still growing and learning in their static environment in Miss Peregrine's Home. Even if they don’t age, they still have physical needs.
Which leaves viewers to wonder—do both the characters and the world move back in time? The children aren’t repeating the same day over themselves, so how are they learning and growing without their bodies aging? Most importantly, how does this home for children get groceries? I know the answer to these questions is “magic” and also “it ain’t that deep,” but still, I would like to know the answers.
This movie probably makes sense if you are a physicist. As I am not a physicist, I have many questions.
Interstellar follows a group of astronauts journeying through a wormhole in space to find a habitable planet for mankind. Engineer-turned-farmer Cooper leaves his daughter Murphy behind so he can pilot the expedition, and Murphy grows up to be a NASA scientist who cracks gravitational theory to help humans safely leave Earth.
Interstellar is a time travel movie in two ways. First, the mission's proximity to massive planets and black holes means time moves slower for Cooper than for his family back on earth. In other words, Cooper skips decades into his family's future within minutes for him, missing his daughter’s entire childhood in the blink of an eye. Second, Cooper ends up visiting the past with use of a tesseract, which allows him to see into his daughter’s childhood bedroom, where he can leave her secret messages to aid her research.
The time travel in this film is so different from stories viewers are used to. Instead of using time travel machines, the movie relies solely on Einstein’s theory of relativity. Cooper doesn’t manipulate time as much as time, math, and physics manipulate him.
Because of this, the film doesn’t make as much immediate sense as other time travel movies do, but the script takes pains to explain these real-world concepts to viewers. Ultimately, it's effective—and not as confusing as Christopher Nolan’s next film, the final movie on this list.
If you thought Interstellar was confusing, Tenet is on a whole new level.
This film follows a secret agent who manipulates time to prevent a world-annihilating event set off by Russian oligarch Andrei Sator. The agent starts by tracking the sale of “inverted” bullets, which have reversed entropy that allows them to move backwards through time.
Both the film’s protagonists and antagonists can move any direction in the time stream as they please, which leads to a sequence of assassinations, revivals, and battles that are too mind-boggling to describe with mere words. To sufficiently explain, I would need a diagram covered with red strings and post-it notes detailing everyone’s future and past locations.
This confusion spiral outwards from the film’s murky 'entropy inversion' time travel device. After Interstellar’s commitment to hard science, Christopher Nolan reportedly was not too concerned with the scientific accuracy of Tenet’s time travel, stating, “We’re not going to make any case for this being scientifically accurate.”
Because of its lack of time-travel sense, I must rank this film as our final title. But then, must a Christopher Nolan movie be comprehensible to be enjoyable? Is it not enough to see a baffling concept portrayed onscreen, both bombastic and beautiful?