The Best Time Travel Films of All Time

2013_05_07 Predestination_0407.tif

There’s currently a film on VOD called Predestination, which has to be one of the trippiest time travel flicks I have ever seen.  Based on the Robert Heinlein short story “All You Zombies,” directed by the Spierig Brothers (don’t worry, I didn’t know who they were before this either) and starring Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook (if there is any justice, a star should be born here) as two temporal cops hopping through time to stop the crimes of the Fizzle Bomber, it blew my mind that this had not been given a major theatrical release.  Had the similarly minded Wachowski Siblings made this right after The Matrix, it would’ve been a huge hit and they would probably be remembered today for the latter and not the former.  But it blew my mind more for what it was able to achieve in storytelling.  It’s impossible to talk about what happens in detail without giving away major plot points.  Early on I had a hunch what might be happening, but I was totally floored by the depth of what was happening and how the filmmakers dragged us down deeper and deeper into this endless temporal loop.  It makes no sense while simultaneously it makes beautiful sense in its own twisted logic.  It made me wonder…could this actually be one of the greatest time travel movies ever made?  Only time will tell…

…for the purpose of this musing list, let’s be optimistic on its lasting impression and notch it at number 10.  Let the rest of the countdown begin:

Somewhere in Time

9.  Somewhere in Time (Jeannot Szwarc, 1980) – Legend has it this was one of the first films to find success in the early days of video cassette rentals (ahhh…somewhere in time indeed).  I remember making my parents let me watch it with them when I was very young (maybe 6 or 7) because Superman (Christopher Reeve) was in it, and it left me confused as I didn’t understand how one of King Henry’s wives (Jane Seymour) was still alive and acting in movies.  Also during this timeframe in my life I was similarly confused as to how a medieval Saint (Joan Van Arc) ended up staring on TV’s Knots Landing.  At any rate…lush visuals, haunting music, a beautiful setting and a love story beyond time has made this a huge cult hit, and rightfully so.

Happy Accidents

8. Happy Accidents (Brad Anderson, 2000) – This is not a romantic comedy.  I repeat: this is not a romantic comedy.  It’s actually one of the best time travel movies ever made.  It’s a shame Brad Anderson has never really found the huge success he deserved after delivering a trio of thoughtful, well done genre pieces (this, Session 9 and The Machinist).  This one is also a bit of a miracle as it made the always annoying Vincent D’Onofrio actually likable for once in his miserable acting life.  Oh yeah, and Marisa Tomei is lovely here, too.

Edge of Tomorrow

7.  Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, 2014) – This deserved to be a bigger hit last summer though it still produced some rabid fans and moderate bucks for the studio.  This Tom Cruise vehicle is both funny and action-packed.  It’s just good old-fashioned time-travel what-the-eff-ness slickly made and playfully inspired by Groundhog Day.  Will it be considered a classic one day?  Who knows, but I kinda hope so.

Time After Time

6.  Time After Time (Nicholas Meyer, 1979) – How bad-ass is this plot: Jack the Ripper escapes capture and vows to kill again by hijacking HG Wells’ time machine to whisk him away to then modern-day San Francisco only to have the famous author follow him to thwart his evil plans?   Pretty bad-ass.  Throw in a ridiculously lovely young Mary Steenburgen as the love interest, and you have one of my earliest “discovered on cable on a random rainy day after school and it blew my mind” films from childhood.

The Terminator

5.  The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984) – Speaking of bad-ass.  Do I need to explain this one?  Spoiler alert: the experimental French film from 1962, La Jette, inspired both this and the film at number one.

Star Trek IV The Voyage Home

4.  Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (Leonard Nimoy, 1986) – When I was a little kid I adopted a humpback whale named Littlespot.  I’ve always loved whales.  And I grew up in what is commonly referred to as a Star Trek House, as opposed to say, a Star Wars House.  When Kirk, Spock and crew were called on to travel back in time to San Francisco (hey, just seven short years after Time after Time was there!) to find and bring back a humpback whale specimen (which in the future are extinct) so that it can communicate with an alien space probe that last visited earth in the prehistoric days and only had whales to talk to, my seven year-old self thought, “This. Is. The. Best. Movie. Ever.”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt; Bruce Willis

3.  Looper (Rian Johnson, 2012) – Joseph Gordon Levitt and Bruce Willis play the same guy, a time traveling hitman who pops in and out of time to take out marks without leaving a trace, who gets caught in a loop trying to stop the rise of The Rainmaker, a brilliant mob head who can move matter with his mind and brings the future world to its knees.  This thing totally knocked my socks off and was one of the best films of 2012.


2.  Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014) – I struggled with the decision to put this one on the list.  Is it really about time travel since for Nolan (and Einstein) it’s all…relative?  Eh, it’s about time travel as much as it is about space travel.  And it was the best film of 2014.  So here it is.

12 Monkeys

1. Twelve Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995) – Bruce Willis (again) is an ex-con living in a post-biological apocalypse Philadelphia and is charged with going back in time to trace the source of the virus that killed over 5 billion people (or so he says).  Madeleine Stowe is at her most melancholic lovely as the psychiatrist who tries to treat this madman, Brad Pitt is bonkers as a playfully psychotic eco-terrorist rich kid, and the much maligned Philadelphia International Airport is the site of one of the saddest denouments in film history.  Gilliam was at the height of his creative powers here (it’s been sadly and precipitously downhill for the former Monty Python star since) and delivered a time travel film that hit all the marks:  trying to fix the wrongs of the past and save a doomed future, a tortured protagonist, an unforgettably haunting setting (my own backyard) with music I can still hear in my mind, a spellbinding atmosphere, and a tragic love story.  At 15 years old and full of teen angst and grunge music, I saw this in the theater opening weekend at the forefront of an incoming blizzard, and the thick white snow covering the earth as we exited the building was like the physical manifestation of the heaviness in my heart after experiencing this gut-wrenching endless loop of a child unknowingly watching his own death over and over and over and over, all while those 5 billion people die again and again and again and again in the years spanning that definitive moment and the final realization.  This is one of my all-time favorite films…and it is an absolute crime that an ill-advised bland-looking TV series version/remake is infecting television later this year desiring to rape our memories of melancholy and the infinite sadness.

Written by David H. Schleicher

So….what time travel films would make your list?

Back to the Future

(I’m going to head you off at the pass here and just say that had this been a list of 11, Back to the Future would’ve been number 11…so there…hope that makes some of you feel better)


  1. A trip down time — very nostalgic indeed 🙂

    Here are my favorites (in no particular order)

    Back to the Future
    Edge of Tomorrow
    Terminator 1 and 2
    12 Monkeys
    Midnight in Paris
    Run Lola Run
    Planet of the Apes (1968)
    Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

    • And (like it or not) the summary of the top 20 most mentioned, most popular time travel movies as represented by the best 21 posts of top time travel lists is as follows:

      Back to the Future (1985)
      The Terminator (1984)
      Twelve Monkeys (1995)
      Primer (2004)
      Groundhog Day (1993)
      Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
      Looper (2012)
      Time Bandits (1981)
      Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
      Donnie Darko (2001)
      The Time Machine (1960)
      Timecrimes [Los Cronocrimenes] (2007)
      Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
      Time After Time (1979)
      La Jetée (1962)
      Back to the Future Part II (1989)
      Midnight in Paris (2011)
      Planet of the Apes (1968)
      Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)
      Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)

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