Top 10 Time Travel Movies Of All Time

Tim Ebl

Jump in your time machine, travel back, and watch these again

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Photo / Gerd Altmann / Pixabay

Time travel is fascinating. We are obsessed with time because it rules us with an iron fist. There’s no escape from the passing of time.

Because of time’s tight grip, we can’t step outside it and return to the past or skip to the future. We are locked into a plodding forward pace to our future fates. It’s inevitable. This must be why we tell so many stories about escaping the constraints of time.

But my favorite movies have nothing to do with how they travel through time, it’s more about the what-if and the fantastic. We need to use our suspension of disbelief and embrace the wonder to really enjoy movies anyway.

That spirit of enjoyment is behind the movies here. It isn’t a hard sci-fi list. It’s about good storytelling.

Here are my 10 top time travel movies of all time. Grab some popcorn and get ready for a blast from the past.

10. Donnie Darko

This movie sticks in the brain long after you watch it.

There aren’t any time machines or time cops in this one. A hapless teen gets caught up in a time anomaly that creates a parallel universe.

It all starts when Donnie has a sleepwalking dream about a guy named Frank wearing a creepy rabbit costume. Frank tells Donnie in this dream that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds.

When Donnie wakes up on a golf course and returns home he finds that a jet engine mysteriously crashed into his bedroom while he was gone. But there were no plane crashes reported and authorities have no idea where it came from.

This movie is one of those “cult classics”. Fans love to go down the rabbit hole and try to figure out exactly what happened.

I don’t want to give you any spoilers. But if you already know the plot and want a detailed explanation, try here.

What makes it great:

  • Dark, moody cinematography
  • Unique plot
  • An all-star cast including Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell, Katharine Ross, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle, Stu Stone, Daveigh Chase, and James Duval
  • Time travel

9. Army of Darkness

A supernatural Book of the Dead transports Ash (Bruce Campbell)through time to the middle ages. He manages to bring his chainsaw and shotgun with him, which is handy for fighting evil Deadites and the possessed.

You either love Army of Darkness or hate it. Don’t come in looking for serious content matter here.

This story, originally titled The Medieval Dead, is a sequel to Evil Dead 2. It’s an adventure slapstick comedy that breaks a lot of walls, rules, and sensibilities.

The main use of time travel is to get the character from the future into the middle ages. How else could we enjoy swords, arrows, a chainsaw, and a shotgun against zombies and demons, all at the same time?

“All right, you primitive screw-heads, listen up! See this? This… is my boomstick!” — Ash

The character Ash made his way into so much pop culture over the years. Bruce Campbell continued his role in Ash vs. Evil Dead, a television series that acted as a sequel to the Evil Dead movies.

What makes it great:

  • Directed by Sam Reimi and starring Bruce Cambell
  • Iconic chainsaw-for-a-hand shotgun Deadite killing combo
  • The evil Necronomicon is the time travel device

8. Edge of Tomorrow

This time loop movie shows William Cage, played by Tom Cruise, fighting aliens and dying over and over and over, until he becomes an unstoppable alien-killing machine.

This kind of time loop is reminiscent of Groundhog day. The character gets a chance to figure out new approaches and try whatever he wants. Everything just starts over again if it goes wrong.

“ What do we do now?”
“I don’t know. We’ve never gotten this far.”

When you’re caught in a battle with aliens with superior weapons, things go wrong a lot. Cage gets to advance through the movie a bit farther each time he restarts, with the help of Rita Vrataski, played by Emily Blunt.

What makes it great:

  • Nonstop action
  • Great special effects and fight scenes
  • Vicariously live through the hero as he gets to go back and win over defeats

7. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Bill (Keanu Reeves) and Ted (Alex Winter) travel through time in a tricked out phonebooth to help create a utopian society.

If Bill and Ted fail their presentation and History class, then Ted will get sent to military school. That means their band The Wyld Stallions won’t make it off the ground, and a future utopian society based on it will never exist.

“Be excellent to each other!” — Bill and Ted

Rufus, played by George Carlin, travels back from the future to give Bill and Ted a phone booth time machine. They use this to travel back in time and retrieve famous people from throughout history to use as show and tell props in their history presentation and save the world.

Let’s not get too far into the plot and overthink it.

What makes it great:

  • ridiculous, absurd, superficial, and fun
  • The pivotal early appearance of Keannu Reeves
  • Sums up a lot of late 80’s pop culture
  • Shows how you can go from “Be excellent to each other” to John Wick

6. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Hermione Granger got special permission to use time travel to double her course load while a busy student at Hogwart’s. Seems legit. What could go wrong with letting children use illegal time magic?

Later on in the story, she uses the Time-Turner with Harry Potter and Ron Weasley to try to avert disaster. The way events play out is a lot of fun to observe.

“ Shh! Listen! Someone’s coming! I think — I think it might be us! ”
J.K. Rowling , Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

It seems like using the Time-Turner doesn’t really change the past. The way the three use it, events turn out the way they did before. It’s just that the first time around you couldn’t see the whole picture. What actually caused the events was time traveling meddlers who nudged things here and there unseen.

What makes it great:

  • Events played through once turn out to be adjusted by time travel all along
  • Responsible adults hand time travel over to children who are in deep trouble and it actually turns out okay
  • Artful use of time travel enhances the story without overshadowing it

5. 12 Monkeys

This one takes place after an apocalypse where a plague wipes out the entire human race except for a few people hidden underground.

The surface of the earth is uninhabited and overrun with wild animals. The underground bunkers are cramped, dirty, and moist.

Cole, a convict played by Bruce Willis, gets sent back in time to 1990 and 1996 to try to get information and find a cure. His mission is never about stopping the tragedy.

“Wouldn’t it be great if I was crazy? Then the world would be okay.” — James Cole

Time travel creates paradoxes while it follows the insanity of more than one character caught in this movie.

What makes it great:

  • The gritty, grim apocalyptic vision of the future
  • Amazing performances by Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, and Brad Pitt
  • Unforgiving view of time travel and the unchangeability of reality
  • The subjective nature of memories and perceptions- what is reality?

4. Terminator 2: Judgement Day

A killer robot (Arnold Schwarzenegger) Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick, comes back in time to defend a boy, John Conner (Edward Furlong) from another, stronger killer robot (Robert Patrick). If the boy dies, humanity will be destroyed.

But either way, nuclear Armageddon is going to happen when the Skynet computer intelligence launches all the nukes on August 29, 1997. Civilization is destroyed.

“My mission is to protect you.”
“Yeah? Who sent you?”
“You did. Thirty-five years from now, you reprogrammed me to be your protector here, in this time.”

All that’s left are the Resistance, led by grown-up John Connor. If he dies, it’s game over for humans.

So many unforgettable moments in this movie.

What makes it great:

  • Liquid killer robots
  • Solid killer robots
  • Time paradoxes
  • One of the best big-rig small-truck chase scenes that will ever happen
  • Liquid nitrogen freezing scene
  • Molten steel melting scene

3. Back to The Future

Marty Mcfly (Michael J. Fox) goes back in time from 1985 to 1955 in a souped-up DeLorean time machine. Stranded, he accidentally changes the past. If he doesn’t fix it, he will cease to exist.

Also, his friend Emmett “Doc” Brown (Christopher Lloyd) was shot by terrorists right before he escaped to the past. Can he prevent it from happening?

“Wait a minute, Doc. Are you telling me that you built a time machine… out of a DeLorean?”
“The way I see it, if you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?”

The time twists and paradoxes can lead to some head-scratching.

It’s an underdog-beats-bully story where Marty Mcfly comes out on top, even with the lamest name for a hero ever.

What makes it great:

  • DeLorean for a time machine
  • Disappearing-from-the-photo time travel disaster scenario
  • Huey Lewis and The News soundtrack
  • A flux capacitor, 1.21 Gigawatts of electricity and 88 MPH is all you need

2. Doctor Strange

When you think of Marvel movies and time travel, most go straight to Endgame. But what about the fantastic time stunts in Dr. Strange?

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)is a surgeon who loses the use of his hands. He struggles to find a way to get healed and ends up learning sorcery instead.

Technically speaking, what actually happens in the Dr. Strange movie is just time manipulation. He doesn’t travel anywhere.

“Temporal manipulations can create branches in time. Unstable dimensional openings. Spatial paradoxes! Time loops! You wanna get stuck reliving the same moment over and over forever or never having existed at all?”
“They really should put the warnings before this spell.”

He turns time back and moves it ahead, in a straight line. But it still counts, because his time manipulation allows him to go back and change the outcome.

You can see this when he first discovers that he can move an apple ahead to watch it have bites taken out before the core rots, and then roll time back to the past where the bites “un-happen” and the apple becomes whole again.

Stephen Strange also creates the ultimate time loop (spoiler alert!) to save the day.

What makes it great:

  • Cool special effects that remind you of Inception
  • Marvel movie full of old comic book references and easter eggs
  • Most powerful sorcerer in existence
  • Ties in with the entire Marvel movie storyline

1. Groundhog Day

Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is an arrogant, unlikeable weatherman who gets trapped in an endless loop. The same day happens over and over. He keeps waking up to the same song and DJ’s on the radio in the bed and breakfast.

No matter what actions he takes, Phil wakes up on February 2.

This movie has inspired hundreds of stories, including my #4 pick, Edge of Tomorrow. It’s a timeless classic with a lot of great comedy moments.

“This is one time where television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather.” — Phil Connors

While we never find out what causes the time loop, we do find out that Phil becomes a different person through endless trial and error. Even though he can't escape, he ends up happy, likable, and loved by the entire town.

What makes it great:

  • actors Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, and Chris Elliott
  • a chase scene with a groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, behind the wheel with Bill Murray-Phil
  • Phil stepping in the same cold puddle off the same curb more than once — priceless

Concluding Our Stroll Through Time

Here’s my top ten list of time travel movies. I left out Avengers: Endgame because that’s an article in itself, although it could have been in there somewhere:

  • Donnie Darko
  • Army of Darkness
  • Edge of Tomorrow
  • Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
  • Harry Potter and the prisoner of Azkaban
  • 12 Monkeys
  • Terminator 2: Judgement Day
  • Back to The Future
  • Doctor Strange
  • Groundhog Day

Time travel in a movie isn’t about technology. In the end, it’s about what kind of story it lets a filmmaker create. These stories shaped my movie world and left me thinking about them years later.

What’s your favorite time travel movie? Leave me a comment!

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I'm an author, yoga enthusiast, and meditation instructor. I spend a lot of time outdoors with activities like running, hiking and camping. My writing is all about the humorous side of life and personal growth, habits ,mindfulness, and outdoor adventures.

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