Sam loves movies and enjoys science fiction, zombie movies, and pessimistic survival films.
Time Travel: A Way of Mending
The phrase "to err is human" is one of the most glorified palliatives of our flawed existence. We make decisions every day, forging a single life in the process and leaving thousands of other possibilities behind. It's normal to use that phrase as an inevitable reality, in order to shrug it off and move on.
Because what else can we do?
Well, we can fill our world with fiction where we can travel in time to correct mistakes, verify realities, save loved ones, or simply experience what it means to live in another era.
The destination vs. the free will. The possibility of experiencing multiverses vs. the immovable timeline. The butterfly effect vs. the written-in-stone facts. Temporary loops. We have discerned on time travel so much that we now have a large number of movies of different genres exploring one of the greatest concerns of human beings: the road not taken.
Here is our diverse list of the top fifteen best time travel movies.
15. The Man From the Future (2011)
This Brazilian film starring Wagner Moura (Narcos, Elysium) and Alinne Moraes is a surprisingly fun little comedy about accepting past mistakes and understanding those as an essential part of our personality.
An eccentric and bitter scientist dubbed “Zero" (Moura), who is about to lose funding, desperately decides to test his project with him in the middle, thus proving that his new source of sustainable energy is perfectly safe. In the midst of the tension of breaking so many rules, Zero thinks of his biggest traumatic experience, one that combined bullying and a devastating heartbreak in his college years.
The experiment accidentally generates a time travel to exactly that point in his life. Zero then decides to use the cool accident to change his life and prevent his young version from going through that horrible humiliation.
What follows is a movie with a frenetic—almost-slapstick—comedy rhythm, with a giant heart at the center of it all.
14. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
I will just reproduce one piece of dialogue on a key scene:
“BONES: - You’re proposing that we go backward in time, find humpback whales, then bring them forward in time, drop them off, and hope to hell they tell this probe what to go do with itself.
KIRK: - That’s the general idea.
BONES: - Well, that’s crazy.”
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No Bones, that's awesome. The crew of the Enterprise travels back in time to 1986 San Francisco, looking for whales in order to save future Earth for total annihilation. Also, Spock wears a Kung Fu bandana to cover his ears, Captain Kirk claims Spock is a hippie who consumed too much “LDS" and Chekov has a whole subplot about his thick accent, "nuclear wessels", and the cold war.
This movie is just a blast.
13. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
The stoner entry of the list. Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) are iconic characters because beneath their idiot humor there is an intelligent proposal of positive comedy that is just impossible to resist.
The premise by itself is a wonderful madness. In the future, the world is a beautiful utopia inspired by the musical creativity of the chosen ones—none other than Bill and Ted. But in the present, they are still two mediocre and lazy students who are about to fail their final history oral report.
Rufus (George Carlin) is sent back to 1989 to make sure Bill and Ted pass their final test and continue their correct course to greatness.
And what is Rufus' plan? It's to take them through time so that they know firsthand historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon Bonaparte, Socrates and Joan of Arc.
12. Predestination (2014)
Trying to explain Predestination's plot is futile. The number of twists, revelations, and temporal paradoxes is a wonderfully excessive experience in itself.
You should only know that, without doubt, this is the most complex puzzle based on the time travel ever displayed on film. And no, it doesn't leave loose ends.
And although it's more predictable of what the movie thinks of itself, the brothers Spierig direction and the performances of Ethan Hawke and the enigmatic Sarah Snook are reasons more than enough to experience it.
11. Time After Time (1979)
Writer H.G. Wells invents a time-machine which is used by his “frenemy”/chess rival John Stevenson when he is unmasked as Jack the Ripper. Jack escapes Scotland Yard and for some crazy reason decides to go forward in time to 1979. Of course, Wells goes behind him, unleashing a cat-and-mouse chase/chess game dynamic.
The only thing I can add to that awesome premise is that H.G. Wells is played by the excellent Malcolm McDowell, Jack the Ripper is played by a strong David Warner and the lovely Mary Steenburgen is the independent woman of the present who helps Wells adapt to the San Francisco of the last days of the disco era.
Everything is written and directed by Nicholas Meyer.
10. Midnight in Paris (2011)
Woody Allen makes OK movies full of interesting dialogue every now and then, but rarely does his creativity allow him to explore more complex themes and structures. But the few times he allows himself to explore, he has ended up creating superior works destined to become classics.
Midnight in Paris is, so far, his last great film. Besides being a tale of middle-age creative expectations, few movies have managed to capture the overwhelming nostalgia of not having lived in other emblematic periods.
Midnight in Paris is also surrounded by a deluxe cast playing interesting historical figures such as Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody), F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo), among others.
9. 12 Monkeys (1995)
Terry Gilliam teams up with one of the Blade Runner scriptwriters (David Peoples) to adapt Chris Marker's short film La Jetée.
The result? A wonderful essay about memories and their diffuse effect on our interpretation of reality, a structure full of temporal paradoxes, Cassandra syndrome and the Christ complex of the main character James Cole (Bruce Willis), who fights his own confusion while trying to prevent the end of the world.
In addition, 12 Monkeys has a great Madeleine Stowe, the more detailed-oriented Terry Gilliam ever existed and probably the best Brad Pitt performance of all time.
8. Primer (2004)
This Shane Carruth's cult gem is a demonstration of how inaccurate, complicated and non-glamorous science really is.
That realism extrapolated to the story is what makes the complicated puzzle of Primer, a unique experience. The viewer's effort to understand the science behind the experiment on this low-budget time-loop ends up completely engaging it in the suspension of disbelief. It's a great trick, which few authors have been able to successfully achieve.
Primer will leave you exhausted and probably not wanting to do an instant rewatch, but its structure will definitely keep you making mental calculations for several minutes.
7. The Butterfly Effect (2004)
Come at me one by one, because I'm going to defend the existence of an Ashton Kutcher movie on this list.
What Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) never managed to explain to me in Jurassic Park, I easily understood in this cruel drama written and directed by Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber.
There is no other film than in the psychological borderline-horror thriller realm, so clearly expose the devastating effects of trying to modify the past. This is chaos theory in full negative form, destroying all possible branches. What happens to Evan every time he tries to improve his present is a cruel algorithm that will inevitably and horribly harm his environment and loved ones.
P.S. The alternate ending, though absurd, is worth seeing. It adds an extra dark layer to the story.
6. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
A combat inexperienced officer (Tom Cruise) is trapped in a horrible time-loop which he decides to use in order to overcome his fears, save the life of who will also be his coach in this dynamic (Emily Blunt) and try to save humanity from an extraterrestrial race that has the ability to manipulate time.
Yes, it's Groundhog Day meets video-game-respawn-dynamics that combine blockbuster action, black humor, and a very well-designed sci-fi atmosphere.
It also has the charismatic side of Cruise, Blunt's wonderful feminine empowerment and the direction of Doug Liman.
Without a doubt, one of the best sci-fi films of this millennium.
5. Looper (2012)
Rian Johnson's breakthrough film is a neo-noir sci-fi thriller, which already tells us about the enormous merit of successfully carrying out this project.
The premise is wonderful. In 2044, is virtually impossible for a crime to go unpunished thanks to advanced tracking devices and full surveillance equipment. Time travel, created 30 years ago and immediately outlawed by its tremendous implications, is used by mafias, who use “loopers” in order to clean their messes. Loopers are agents of the past who receive victims from the future, with their faces covered, with the purpose of assassinating and disappearing them, eliminating all traces of the crime in the future.
Loopers receive silver bars for each body. To close the loop and the contract, the final victim of each looper (paid with distinctive gold bars instead of silver), is his own future self.
Of course, Joe (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis) decides not to follow the rules of the game. The implications, of course, will be lethal.
There's no more recent film that deals with time travel in such a creative way.
4. Idiocracy (2006)
At the time, 20th Century Fox virtually abandoned this comedy film, condemning it to a modest premiere and of course, little exposure.
But Mike Judge's (Beavis & Butt-Head, Office Space, Silicon Valley) best work ended up gaining its cult status thanks to its wonderful premise and corrosive black humor.
US Army librarian Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) is selected for a suspended animation experiment for being completely "average" in all departments. However, error and laziness end up reviving "Average Joe" 500 years in the future, where an America plagued by consumerism and cultural anti-intellectualism--plus the fact that more educated families stopped procreating while low class, uneducated families overpopulated the country-- is on the verge of total extinction.
Idiocracy takes the risk of being justly labeled as elitist, classist and even racist, but its argument is solid. That, plus the inherent nobility of its failed characters plus the scathing criticism towards practically all those involved, made it survive the condemnation of the political correctness.
3. Timecrimes (2007)
Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo has created a wonder with virtually a non-existent budget.
Timecrimes recounts the same nightfall hour three times, with three versions of the same man (Karra Elejalde) manipulating his own reality. Every man with a different experience and a different point of view about destiny.
The result? a satisfying puzzle where all the pieces fit together that undoubtedly motivates an instant rewatch. That rewatch, in addition, is both a new experience and an ideal complement to the first look.
This is a Spanish masterpiece of indie cinema and an absolute example of what a good script should be.
2. Groundhog Day (1993)
Bill Murray. Andie McDowell. Sonny & Cher's "I Got You Babe". Impossible not to recognize the movie.
Groundhog Day is the most iconic time loop in cinematic history. The story of the selfish and bitter weatherman Phil Connors repeating the same day over and over again in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania is one that we can all identify with.
Director/writer Harold Ramis is a crowdpleaser. Phil goes through many phases, trying to get the most out of this horrible situation. He learns to get easy money, pick up beautiful women, understand the dynamics of the whole people, including their weaknesses. He also learns to play the piano and speak French. He even has a brief delinquent phase. We all can relate to that.
As in everyday life itself, from the will to survive, Phil goes to wild hedonism and then sadness and depression. Phil gives into laziness and tries to commit suicide several times, only to end up repeating once more the same day.
And, like life itself, it's love that begins to make sense of his life. Phil recognizes his feelings for his producer Rita and begins to use the time loop in his favor until he decides to stop expecting something in return.
It's a romantic comedy with rather dark humor, which speaks of the universal feeling of being in a daily loop.
1. Back to the Future (1985)
The science behind the film is weak. The plot holes are plentiful. There are simply ridiculous and absurd moments that by today standards, would never be forgiven. But Robert Zemeckis' Back to the Future trilogy is undoubtedly the number one reference for time-travel movies.
Everything is iconic here. Michael J. Fox's Marty McFly, Christopher Lloyd's Emmett Brown, Lea Thompson's Lorraine McFly, Crispin Glover's George McFly and Thomas F. Wilson's Biff Tannen. Alan Silvestri's score. The Delorean. The different versions of Marty's skateboard sequences. The Johnny B. Goode culminating a-la-Van Halen. The horse manure.
It's a saga full of recurring jokes that not only work perfectly but end up tying all the knots. Its naive and overwhelmingly charismatic view of time manipulation has no comparison. This is entertainment in its pure form.
Back to the Future gave us Rick and Morty. It predicted the Donald Trump presidency. It innovated the industry with its special effects. It made us fantasize about the possibility of time travel.
And it did it with a massive, incredibly popular and legendary narrative, for all audiences.
As always, here are a few good time travel movies that could have been part of the final list and the quality would have been the same:
- Donnie Darko (2001)
- The Terminator Movies
- Time Bandits (1981)
- Safety not Guaranteed (2012)
- Source Code (2011)
- Men in Black 3 (2012)
- Interstellar (2014)
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
- Run Lola Run (1998)
- Frequency (2000)
- The Girl Who Leap Through Time (2006)
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2019 Sam Shepards
Sam Shepards (author) from Europe on May 12, 2019:
Thank you. Some movies could have been switched with my other options list below. I think Donnie Darko is a better movie than many, but I feel the time travel aspect is not that central or visible as with the others.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on May 11, 2019:
I've seen a few of these movies, but most of them are new to me. The idea of time travel is intriguing. Thanks for creating the list. It includes some movies that I very much want to see.