In Netflix’s “The Adam Project,” a fighter pilot from the future named Adam (Ryan Reynolds) accidentally crash lands in 2022, and has to team up with his 12-year-old former self (Walker Scobell) in order to have a chance at a future victory. But while Adam physically journeys to his own past, other time travel movies have seen objects, communication, and even consciousness skip back and forth along the timeline to affect their stories.
Below, we look at 15 of the very best movies centered around time travel, each putting its own unique spin on the concept of characters who, in some way, manage to traverse time.
“Time After Time” (1979)
While none of the cinematic adaptations of the prolific works of 19th century science-fiction writer HG Wells are on this list, the writer himself is (or at least a fictionalized version of him) in the time hopping murder mystery “Time After Time.” Malcolm McDowell plays Wells, who takes to his newly invented time machine after realizing that notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper (David Warner) is not only someone he considered a friend, but has also used his machine to travel to the future. Feeling partially responsible for the harm Jack will inflict, Wells follows him to the late 1970s, where both men set their sights on bank teller Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen, who also appears later on this list in “Back to the Future III”), although for very different reasons. While viewers may come to “Time After Time” for the time-hopping cat and mouse chase, as Wells races to stop Jack from killing again, they’ll stay for the sweet romance that blooms between Wells and Amy along the way.
“Terminator” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1984, 1991)
After the second (and arguably superior) film, the “Terminator” franchise gets a bit uneven, but James Cameron’s first two installments still hold up, with one of the coolest premises in the time travel genre. In a war-torn future where humans are locked in a battle with intelligent machines, a cyborg assassin called a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is sent back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the woman fated to give birth to the eventual hero of mankind. Meanwhile, humans also send back one of their own to protect her. The result is a tense and action-packed adventure that capitalizes on its paradoxical premise by delivering some truly jaw-dropping twists. The sequel, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” sees Sarah’s son, now a teenager, still in danger from time-traveling machines, but this time protected by a reprogrammed Terminator sent back to save him.
“Back to the Future” trilogy (1985, 1989, 1990)
Still the gold standard for time travel movies nearly four decades later, the “Back to the Future” trilogy has been the entry point to concepts like temporal paradoxes, causal loops, and the space-time continuum for multiple generations of viewers. While the first movie is commonly considered the best, all three are a ton of fun, due in large part to knockout comedic performances from Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox as Doc, the man who invents time travel, and Marty, the high school student who accidentally uses it to break his own timeline, respectively. “Back to the Future II” sees Marty catastrophically changing his own present by getting greedy to the future, while “Back to the Future III” finds Doc and Marty stranded in the Old West and pressed to figure out a way to escape before Doc’s time runs out.
“Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” (1986)
The Star Trek franchise is no stranger to time travel stories, and there are numerous Star Trek films that would make solid additions to this list. But for our money, “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” is the best of them. After an alien probe starts vacuuming up all of Earth’s oceans in 2286 in an attempt to make contact with a then-extinct species, it’s up to Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and the crew of the starship Enterprise to travel back in time to retrieve a pair of humpback whales from 1986 and save the future. Is the premise a little silly when you spell it out? Yes. But it’s also a ton of fun, giving the original Star Trek cast a chance to stretch their comedic muscles after a few much more dramatic outings, while still delivering the type of earnest, optimistic storytelling that has always defined Star Trek at its best. “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” also stars Catherine Hicks as the 20th century scientist who aids Kirk on his mission, who you may also remember from the other big time travel film of 1986, “Peggy Sue Got Married.”
“Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (1989)
There are some time travel movies that challenge everything you thought you knew about reality, and then there are movies like “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” We’ll never pretend that this ridiculous romp through history to save the GPAs of a couple high school goofballs (Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter) destined to write a song that will save the world is exactly what you’d call smart. Its premise alone would be bound to give Doc Brown a migraine. But there’s something undeniably joyous about watching these two kindhearted and enthusiastic doofuses get to interact with some of the most notable figures from history. Just don’t think too hard about it (Bill and Ted certainly don’t) and enjoy the ride.
“Groundhog Day” (1993)
One of the most fascinating sub genres of time travel is the time loop story, in which a character gets stuck repeating the same stretch of time over and over. But while many movies have come along to play with this idea, the reigning champion continues to be “Groundhog Day,” which sees Bill Murray as a cantankerous weatherman destined to cover the same Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania Groundhog Day festival every day ad infinitum, unless he can figure out a way to stop it. “Groundhog Day” hilariously takes every approach imaginable to the idea of repeating the same day for all eternity, from the macabre to the benevolent and everything in between. It’s a romcom, it’s a drama, it’s a fantasy, and it’s some of Bill Murray‘s best work that will leave you and stitches no matter how many times you watch it.
“12 Monkeys” (1995)
Sometimes time travel movies have a bit of a wacky idea of what the future might look like, which is definitely the case with “12 Monkeys,” which sees humanity driven underground in the wake of a civilization-ending virus. Bruce Willis plays a low level criminal named James Cole who is presented with the opportunity to wipe his record clean in exchange for traveling to the past and gathering information about the virus. But of course, you can’t just show up in the mid-’90s ranting about being from the future without consequences, and Cole quickly finds himself committed to a mental institution, where he crosses paths with a good-natured psychiatrist (Madeleine Stow) and a fellow patient (Brad Pitt), who finds Cole’s ideas of the future very intriguing. The tone of “12 Monkeys” starts off feeling a little bizarre and off kilter (thanks to director Terry Gilliam), which only increases as the film progresses, helping put the viewer in Cole’s shoes as he begins to question his sense of reality. Like several others on this list, “12 Monkeys” enjoys challenging our perceptions of linear cause-and-effect, having a lot of fun as it tosses Bruce Willis back and forth between a bizarre future and a doomed past, daring us to guess where it’s going.
“Donnie Darko” (2001)
“Do you believe in time travel?“ That’s asked early on in brooding high school drama “Donnie Darko,” although it takes a while for viewers to fully understand why that question is so central to the story. The film follows Donnie, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, a moody high schooler who begins seeing visions of a man in a nightmarish bunny costume with warnings about the imminent end of the world. Soon, Donnie starts experiencing premonitions that he uses to guide his actions, kicking off a series of events that invites questions of predetermination, free will, and inevitability. “Donnie Darko” doesn’t feel like a typical time travel film, forgoing the typical tropes of the genre in lieu of an unconventional coming-of-age tale focused far more on teen angst, mental health, and social dynamics than questions of temporal causality and metaphysics. Still, the film is predicated on fascinating ideas about the malleability of time, and although it doesn’t provide all the answers, the questions alone are worth it.
No film has ever been less interested in interpreting its scientific jargon for lay people than Shane Carruth’s “Primer,” a film which focuses on a pair of engineers who accidentally invent a time machine in their garage. After initially being overjoyed with their groundbreaking discovery, the pair finds themselves at odds over implications of their invention. Unlike many films about scientific innovation, “Primer” makes zero effort to translate the technical and scientific vernacular used by its characters for the audience; Unless you have PhDs in mechanical engineering and theoretical physics, you’ll just just have to pay attention to context clues and hope for the best. (And if you have to watch the film more than once to figure out what’s going on, that’s okay, too. Most people do.) But whether or not you can fully follow the intricate mechanics of the film’s time travel, the intriguing conflict between the two central characters — one of whom sees time travel as a shortcut to prosperity, while the other views it as a Pandora’s box of potentially disastrous consequences — should be more than enough to keep you invested.
“About Time” (2013)
While many time travel movies tend to deal with world-threatening stakes or adrenaline-fueling adventures, “About Time” is a quieter entry into the genre that simply asks what you might do if you had the ability to revisit any moment in your life. Domhnall Gleeson plays Tim, who finds out on his 21st birthday that the men in his family have the ability to travel back to points in their own past. From then on, Tim uses his ability to undo embarrassing moments, relive fond memories, and find true love with Mary (Rachel McAdams). Although Tim experiences his fair share of thrilling moments in his non-linear life, his journeys through time are much more about learning what gives life meaning, what moments matter, and accepting that there are some types of pain that even time travel can’t circumvent. Bring tissues for this tear-jerker from Richard Curtis, the filmmaker behind “Love, Actually” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral.”
“Edge of Tomorrow” (2014)
While “Groundhog Day” trapped Bill Murray in a humdrum small town holiday, “Edge of Tomorrow” finds Tom Cruise stuck in a far more precarious loop when an alien infection gives him the ability to reset back to 24 hours before that infection every time he dies. And he dies a lot, since unfortunately he got infected in the midst of a doomed battle with massive insect-like aliens invading London. Fortunately, along for the ride is Emily Blunt, whose character Rita Vrataski has experienced the same ability, and has some ideas about what to do with it. Featuring awesome creature design, impressive visual effects, and an action-packed storyline that makes great use of its premise, “Edge of Tomorrow” delivers a thrilling blend of sci-fi action and time bending twistyness that, despite having seen the same day dozens of times by the time the movie ends, leaves us yearning for more.
It takes a while before Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” truly reveals itself as a time travel movie, but the pieces are there from the beginning. After learning that the Earth is dying, former pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) gets recruited on a mission to travel to another star system in the hopes of finding a planet to which humanity can flee. The journey takes Cooper and his crew to uncharted regions of space and fascinating new worlds, and along the way, the astronauts are faced with questions of relativity, our perception of time, and faith in the unknown. But it’s not until the final act of the film that it fully addresses the idea of sending something through time, although the seed of that idea is planted much earlier. The film’s approach to time travel is more philosophical than scientific, asking what sorts of things transcend the limits of time, and what they might give us the power to do.
If the age old question of the chicken in the egg were a time travel movie, it would be “Predestination, a mind-scrambling exploration of cause-and-effect that will make your brain feel like it just ran a marathon. Sometime in the future, a time agent played by Ethan Hawke is on the hunt for a temporal terrorist responsible for killing hundreds of people throughout the timeline. His investigation leads him to cross paths with a person with their own interesting story to tell, and the way their story intersects with Hawke’s will leave your head spinning. It’s impossible to say much more about “Predestination” without spoiling some of the film’s many surprising twists, but suffice it to say that if you like your time travel challenging and accompanied by a hefty helping of existential wrestling, this is the film for you.
“Your Name” (2016)
Many animated films have delved into the world of time travel, but the Japanese film “Your Name” is perhaps one of the most impressive of the bunch. The story follows a rural teen girl named Mitsuha, who lives in a remote village and yearns for a more exciting life in the city, and Taki, a teenage boy from Tokyo, after the two inexplicably begin waking up some mornings in each other’s bodies. For the first half of the film, the two teens work to navigate their bizarre situation so that their daily lives are disrupted as little as possible, before it eventually becomes clear that not only are they swapping bodies; they’re also swapping times. From there, it becomes a race against the clock as they hurtle towards a cataclysmic event that is in the past for one, and the future for the other. Yet despite the compelling time travel element, it’s Mitsuha’s and Taki’s unlikely relationship with each other that gives the film its heart, and lingers with viewers afterwards.
“Avengers: Endgame” (2019)
After the snap heard round the universe at the end of “Avengers: Infinity War,” there was really no place for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to go other than back in time. Once the Avengers figure out that the only way to save the day is to retrieve the all-powerful Infinity Stones from various points in their past, “Avengers: Endgame” becomes a delightful tour through the Marvel Cinematic Universe, revisiting plots and places from over a decade’s worth of films in a way that pays off years of careful and expansive world building. It’s a plot that could only work within a long-running franchise, but in addition to being an excellent capper for the first three phases of the MCU, it’s also a satisfying time travel adventure in its own right, nodding to the many time travel films that have come before while also presenting its own unique spin on the genre.