Mankind has been fascinated by the possibility of travelling to a different age for over a century. This hypothetical activity, now widely recognized in philosophy and fiction, was popularized by H.G. Wells’ 1895 novel The Time Machine. But it was cinema that made it a recurring science fiction premise in mainstream works. Such movies have kept evolving and taking time travel in wildly different directions, so we have ventured across time and space to bring you our ranked list of the best time travel movies of all time.
A good time travel movie doesn’t need to try too hard to take the subject seriously, as the core concept itself and the mechanics surrounding it remain a mystery and purely hypothetical. Of course, there are stories that leave massive plot holes throughout, but even time travel movies which go for more “realistic” approaches have to make up their own sets of rules. As a result, our list covers both movies that are steeped in the science of the genre and those which simply use time travel as a vehicle for shenanigans. One-way trips through black holes? Parallel timelines? Mind-bending paradoxes? It’s got a bit of everything.
For other great sci-fi genres, check out our guides to the best alien invasion movies, the best zombie movies, the best disaster movies, and the best giant monster movies of all time. If you’re in the mood for hands-on time travel fun, our list of the best time travel video games you can play right now is a must-read too.
15. The Time Traveler’s Wife
- Release date: August 14, 2009
- Cast: Eric Bana, Rachel McAdams, Ron Livingston
The original marketing of The Time Traveler’s Wife, based on the novel of the same name, was billed as a sappy romance movie akin to anything from Nicholas Sparks. While it does have its romantic moments, the movie’s commitment to a deep, compelling story of a man who cannot control his own movements through time is a well thought out original take on the concept. Think of it more as a romantic sci-fi drama.
As Henry DeTamble (Bana) travels through time, he cannot control when or where he appears. Luckily, at least, he often is among the same people, specifically, his future/present wife, Clare Abshire (McAdams). Their relationship develops and is bruised by his time shifts, which creates strain as well as successes for both of them throughout the movie.
The Time Traveler’s Wife takes its premise seriously. It allows for the concepts of paradoxes by only ensuring that he directly affects what would, in theory, already occur. Henry is more enacting a prescribed timeline, rather than trying to fight it. It works, and it’s great.
- Release date: October 8, 2004
- Cast: Shane Carruth, David Sullivan, Casey Gooden
Primer is the quintessential movie for any fan of time travel. With a low budget of only $7,000, it grossed over $800,000 at the box office, making it one of the most successful independent movies of all time. It deserves its success as well, as it brings hard science to audiences in a way that, at first, seems impenetrable, but worms its way into our minds and keeps us analyzing the movie long after it’s over.
When two engineers accidentally create a time travel apparatus during their own experiments, they begin using it for personal gain. As their ideologies on the preservation of time begin to diverge, however, their relationship is pushed to its limits alongside the fraying timeline they alter.
Primer demands multiple viewings, each one illuminating hidden moments throughout the movie that hint at its own finale. Audiences looking for a dense, no-frills look at what time travel would mean if given to an average (albeit genius) Joe, will find it in Primer.
13. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
- Release date: February 17, 1989
- Cast: Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, George Carlin
The Bill and Ted franchise are considered family hits for a reason. With the charm of two goofy leads that bumble their way through major historical moments, the movies rely on the time travel conceit to build out and support their silly sense of humor. While the historical moments are considered overly cliché by some, and it’s true that they often misrepresent the moments they are based on, the point of the movie is not to relish in accuracy, but to parody those that try to stick to history all too closely.
In order to ensure a future utopian society created by the titular characters, Rufus travels back in time to the 1980s to help Bill and Ted pass a history class. In order to understand the perspective of the historic figures they are supposed to be researching, the trio travel through time to meet each of them.
Without going into spoilers, decisions made by the pair of heroes as well as Rufus would, if not for the movie completely ignoring them, destroy history as it is known. While this is frustrating for anyone looking for a movie that takes paradoxes seriously, that doesn’t keep Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure from being a fun, engaging flick that should be watched with brains mostly turned off.
12. Deadpool 2
- Release date: May 18, 2018
- Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Morena Baccarin
While many movies are poorly received due to their failure to properly respect their own laws of time, Deadpool 2 was given generally positive reviews from critics for intentionally doing the same. In true fashion of the character, Deadpool 2 pokes fun at time travel clichés and tropes, finding ways to both incorporate as well as deride them.
After Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool joins the X-Men they take a young mutant, Russell, under their care. However, his actions in the future lead the mutant cyborg Cable to travel back in time in order to kill Russell and prevent his own tragedy from occurring.
Multiple fourth-wall breaking jokes are made about the villains striking similarities to a certain futuristic machine that is mentioned later in this list. And also similarly, the movie strikes a balance in approaching the anti-hero trope that is often associated with these androids from the future. We’re looking at you Dragon Ball Z.
11. Source Code
- Release date: April 1, 2011
- Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga
Source Code is an exciting sci-fi thriller which shows a lot of restraint despite the sheer audacity of its premise: Army Captain Colter Stevens finds himself in someone else’s body and quickly discovers he’s part of an experimental US government program that wants him to find the person behind the bombing of the train where he wakes up. The catch is that he can only be there for the last 8 minutes before the bomb goes off, being stuck in that loop until he can catch the bomber.
Director Duncan Jones had already wowed sci-fi aficionados with the remarkable Moon (2009), so expectations surrounding Source Code were quite high. While the final result might not be a masterpiece, it ranks easily among the most interesting time travel flicks in recent times. It’s also relatively easy to follow despite its kooky premise thanks to its limited scale.
10. 12 Monkeys
- Release date: January 5, 1996
- Cast: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt
Let’s be honest, if someone were to run up to you on the street and say they were from the future and had come back to stop a society-destroying virus, would you believe them? Well, at this point, we probably would too. But, that certainly wasn’t the case when 12 Monkeys came out in the 90s.
When James Cole (Willis) is sent back in time from 2030 to stop a devastating virus from ever being spread, he is immediately captured and committed to an insane asylum, because that’s what would realistically probably happen. There he meets Brad Pitt’s Jeffery Goines, who is a staunch anti-corporate activist and an environmentalist. You can see where this is probably going.
With plenty of back and forth time travel for Cole, and a sincerely harrowing story about the dangers of trying to intervene in the development of a horrific future, 12 Monkeys creates a narrative that looks at the actual implications of time travel. It’s a must see for any action-thriller science-fiction fan.
9. Groundhog Day
- Release date: February 12, 1993
- Cast: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliott
There’s always been discussion surrounding Groundhog Day and whether it’s really a time travel movie, but you know what? It doesn’t really matter. A simple time loop can be more interesting than a straight-up time-travelling odyssey. In fact, this movie is more of a fantasy comedy that poses the question of what would a regular person do if trapped inside a time loop they cannot explain nor fix.
It's an endearing movie that, despite many creative differences behind the scenes, ended up resonating with audiences thanks to its smaller scale and impeccable comedic timing, all built around a script which is undoubtedly clever, but lacks pretension. Many movies in this list are downbeat or serve as cautionary tales, so we thought it’d be great to inject a healthy dose of optimism.
- Release date: August 28, 2014
- Cast: Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor
Predestination might be one of the most overlooked sci-fi movies in recent years, mainly because it didn’t get a very wide international release following its global premiere at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas. Fanatics of time travel movies and loopy sci-fi thrillers made sure as many people as possible heard about it though.
The movie is based on the 1959 short story “All You Zombies” by Robert A. Heinlen, and follows a temporal agent as he pursues one criminal that has eluded him throughout time. The chase quickly turns into a mind-bending exploration of love, fate, and identity that questions the very foundations of time travel as explained in-universe. This one’s a big head-scratcher that requires your full attention, but it’s also far from a slog due to its (mostly successful) action thriller ambitions.
- Release date: August 26, 2020
- Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki
We’re still trying to wrap our heads around some of the wilder mechanics featured in Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi thriller, so that alone gives Tenet some weight among the genre’s best. It’s true that some of the character arcs aren’t as fleshed out as they could’ve been, plus its spy-movie villain – played by Kenneth Branagh – can often be unintentionally funny, but it’s hard to find a bolder big-budget action thriller in recent times.
The story follows a former CIA agent who must learn to master “time inversion” and prevent a renegade Russian oligarch from starting World War III. The problem is the attack will come from the future. As the plot unfolds, weirder concepts come into play, and everything isn’t what it seems at first glance. This is a time travel movie unlike anything we had seen before, mainly because it takes a while to adjust to the mind-bending mechanics of its universe and how they play out in parallel to regular action.
6. Edge of Tomorrow
- Release date: June 6, 2014
- Cast: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton
Edge of Tomorrow was one of the biggest surprises of 2014 thanks to a tight, action-packed script which masterfully mixed the alien invasion subgenre with time-travel shenanigans, so you’re killing two birds with one stone if you choose to watch this banger for the first time.
Based on Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel All You Need Is Kill, Edge of Tomorrow presents a near future in which most of Europe has been taken over by a hostile and unstoppable alien species. Major William Cage, a PR officer, is forced to join an operation against the aliens, only to end up experiencing a time loop that could be the key to defeating the invaders if he can convince the right people. Edge of Tomorrow is both funny and dark, but above all, a true rollercoaster ride.
- Release date: November 7, 2014
- Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, the man behind other “I lost my wife” movies such as Inception, The Prestige, and the more recent Tenet, Interstellar is a time travel movie that uses theoretical laws of physics to alter the perception of time for its protagonists. While Tenet may be a more direct time travel movie, Interstellar surpasses it in its writing, emotional character beats, and the spectacle of its space travel.
After food sources on Earth have been depleted, Cooper (McConaughey) and a team of astronauts go out in search of a habitable planet beyond the solar system. During their journey, time shifts with them depending on the planets they are on, or how close they are to the black hole at the center of their travels.
While none of the characters go back in time, they do experience time travel by how fast or slow their own perception of time is compared to the characters back home. And a particularly interesting point using the black hole does allow information and communication to be sent backwards, which we think totally counts.
- Release date: September 28, 2012
- Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt
Bruce Willis’ most recent foray into time travel, Looper is a mind-bending movie that attempts to tackle the grandfather paradox. Although it falls a bit short of this lofty goal, it still maintains a good narrative that builds to an intense climax that uses the universe’s rules against the main villain in unique ways.
Time travel is ubiquitous in the world of Looper. Unfortunately, a crime syndicate has figured out a way to use this to “lose bodies” by sending their victims back in time to be killed by employees working in the past (or present, if you’re the employee). When Joe, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is hired to kill his older self, played by Bruce Willis, he fails to do so, setting off an intense chase for JGL to correct his mistake.
Ultimately, the movie sets out its own rules for time travel. When young Joe gets a cut, a scar appears on old Joe. This concept progresses through the movie to an ending that may not be temporally possible, but that works to bring closure to the loop.
3. Avengers: Endgame
- Release date: April 26, 2019
- Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo
As the culmination of a storyline spanning over 20 movies, Avengers: Endgame had a serious amount of great moments to look back on in its finale of the Avengers’ stories. After having gone through far-flung cosmic adventures, as well as into subatomic realms, there was only one novel place the Avengers could go: Back in time.
After Thanos wipes out half of all life in the universe with the Snap (or the Blip) in Infinity War, he destroys the Infinity Stones before being killed by a vengeful Thor. With the stones destroyed, the remaining Avengers travel back in time to collect them from various points in the timeline, so that they may restore the universe to what it once was.
During their travels, the Avengers are met with spectacular fight scenes, heart-wrenching deaths, and great callback moments that reward long-time fans of the series. While it can be viewed just alongside Infinity War as a sequel, it needs to be seen after having watched all of the MCU in order to appreciate just how far the Avengers have come.
2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
- Release date: July 3, 1991
- Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong
When it comes to famous time travel action movies, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is the best of them all. With cutting-edge effects for the time that still hold up today, James Cameron’s sequel took what made the original great and expanded on it in ways that only few other sequels have ever managed to do.
When a new Terminator, the T-1000, is sent back in time to kill John Connor, the one person responsible for protecting humanity’s future, the futuristic resistance also sends back Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator to protect him. Now there’s a great premise.
Schwarzenegger was able to bring humanity and empathy to the cruel, menacing robot that he had characterized in the first movie. Plus, Robert Patrick’s T-1000 became a villain that, to this day, is synonymous with the idea of unrelenting pursuit. The movie is pure blockbuster thrills bookended by a time travel story that could change the future of all humankind.
1. Back to the Future
- Release date: July 3, 1985
- Cast: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson
We gotta go back! Back to when time travel as a concept was still fresh in popular cinema. Back when it hadn’t yet become a TV and movie trope that is often used as a plot device when all other options have been exhausted. Back to when the concept was held with reverence as well as with glee.
Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 classic follows Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) as he travels back in time to the 1950s in order to rescue his mentor, Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd). After Marty is accidentally rescued by his own mother in her teenage years, he has to work to ensure that not only can he make it back to the present, but that his parents get together so he’ll even exist.
Back to the Future is full of time travel twists that wind their way into a viewer’s brain and beg to be dissected. This is a movie that’ll appeal to everyone – it has a nostalgic pull for older adults and it’s a great, fun way for a younger generation to connect to the sci-fi genre.