Disclaimer: I hate spoilers as much as the next guy, so I’m very careful about revealing them. That being said, just knowing that a movie involves time travel can sometimes be a spoiler when time travel is introduced late in the narrative.
These films are so good that they’re enjoyable even if “time travel is the twist” has been spoiled for you, but if you really don’t want to be spoiled, tread through this article with care and watch any trailers at your own risk!
Time travel is one of the most interesting plot mechanics available to storytellers. You can do so much with it — introduce time loops, change the past, prevent the future, etc. — and each take is different depending on which time travel paradigm is used.
I’m not saying that time travel instantly makes a movie good. In order for it to be effective, it has to explore a new angle on the concept or deliver a satisfying emotional experience — and when executed properly, the mind-bending nature of time travel delivers an experience that few other plot mechanics can match.
Sifting through the crap can be tough, so we’ve done it for you. Here are 10 of the best time travel movies out there, all of which have successfully distinguished themselves from other run-of-the-mill time travel movies.
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 84%
The life of a time-traveling Temporal Agent. On his final assignment, he must pursue the one criminal that has eluded him throughout time.
Although it starts off a bit slow, no other movie has bent my mind quite as much as Predestination. The plot twists and turns more wildly than someone trying to outrun a swarm of wasps, yet when you reach the ending and look back on the entire journey, it all makes sense in a satisfying way.
Honestly, some of the twists are predictable and you’ll see them coming, but I’m convinced that those twists are meant to be foreseen. You think you’ve figured things out, but the movie is already three steps ahead of you.
But more importantly, I implore you to just watch the film rather than trying to outsmart it. The journey is simply brilliant and you owe it to yourself not to spoil it.
Time Lapse (2014)
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 77%
Three friends discover a mysterious machine that takes pictures 24hrs into the future and conspire to use it for personal gain, until disturbing and dangerous images begin to develop.
I have just finished watching Time Lapse and it left me speechless. Don’t take that to mean that I’d consider it to be one of my favorite films of all time — because I wouldn’t — but I have to admit that this movie exceeded my expectations in wonderful ways.
It starts out slow and predictable, but it isn’t until the very end that it pummels you with multiple plot twists. However, the real beauty of this film is that it takes the idea of “seeing into the future” and executes it very well, resulting in a suspenseful film that takes off at the midpoint and never relents.
Be warned that this film does feel like an indie film in some parts, and the acting is obviously far from flawless, but these issues aren’t so great as to make the movie unwatchable.
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 72%
Four engineers accidentally invent a time machine.
We can’t talk about time travel films without mentioning Primer. Despite the short 77-minute runtime, Primer is so densely plotted that many consider it to be the ultimate time travel film. It’s almost a rite of passage at this point.
Just how dense is it? According to a few fan theories, there are two separate stories going on the background of the film, neither of which show on the screen yet still influence and dictate the narrative of the main story. That’s how deep the rabbit hole goes.
Which is to say, Primer is more of a cerebral exercise than a traditional film, but what an exercise it is! Give it a watch. No other movie is as intricately complex as this one.
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 88%
A man accidentally gets into a time machine and travels back in time nearly an hour. Finding himself will be the first of a series of disasters of unforeseeable consequences.
Timecrimes is actually a Spanish film, Los cronocrímenes, so you’ll need to watch it with subtitles if you don’t speak the language. But wow, what a film.
What I like most about Timecrimes is that it doesn’t try to outsmart you. It takes a particular stance on time travel mechanics, lays them out for you as soon as the narrative allows, and then lets the story play out as it should.
No weird plot twists, no strange plotholes. Just an honest look at traveling back through time and how things might realistically unfold given consistent rules. It’s a fun, fun ride.
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 82%
The passengers of a yachting trip in the Bermuda Triangle are struck by mysterious weather and must jump to another ship only to experience greater havoc.
As far as “time travel thrillers” go, Triangle is one of the best. It’s atmospheric, suspenseful, and in some parts downright creepy, and it all hinges on a kind of time loop brought on by the legendary Bermuda Triangle.
I won’t say much more out of fear of spoilage, but Triangle is a strong film with an ending that packs a surprisingly emotional punch. You might catch a plothole or two, but the film’s main purpose is to thrill, and it accomplishes that quite well.
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 93%
In 2074, when the mob wants to get rid of someone, the target is sent into the past, where a hired gun awaits — someone like Joe — who one day learns the mob wants to “close the loop” by sending back Joe’s future self for assassination.
After Inception rocked the public with its inventive exploration of dreams and reality, many people — including myself — became overly hyped for the debut of Looper, which promised a similar kind of mind-bending experience.
Inception is the better film by far, and I think Looper‘s inability to live up to its hype caused disappointment in a lot of viewers. In retrospect, however, when you divorce it from presupposed expectations, Looper is actually a solid film.
The time travel in this film is more of a backdrop for the characters’ interactions, but that’s what I like about it: the “looping” premise wasn’t anything special, so it was the characters that carried the movie into satisfying territory.
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 72%
A team of explorers travel through a wormhole in space in an attempt to ensure humanity’s survival.
Interstellar is one of the finest films of the past decade, and perhaps even the history of cinema (depending on who you ask). The special effects are phenomenal, the world-building is fantastical yet rooted in real physics, and the emotional journey of the character of Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is expertly told.
The time travel in this film isn’t what you’d expect when you hear the term “time travel,” but that’s fine because what makes this film great are the characters, the acting, the music, and the special effects. In fact, pretty much everything but the plot. The plot is just there so that everything else has a canvas on which to shine.
Interstellar is the kind of movie that can make you reconsider your life. It’s not preachy, but it so resonates with the human condition that it’s almost impossible not to be affected by this movie, and that’s why it’s one of the greatest achievements in cinema in a long, long time.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 90%
A military officer is brought into an alien war against an extraterrestrial enemy who can reset the day and know the future. When this officer is enabled with the same power, he teams up with a Special Forces warrior to try and end the war.
Edge of Tomorrow is another film that falls into the “time loop” category of time travel, but it brings several new things to the table, like its exploration of the mental and emotional stresses imposed on someone forced to repeat the same day again and again thousands of times.
It’s like Groundhog Day if Bill Murray had to fight off an alien invasion.
Despite the time travel premise, Edge of Tomorrow doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a serious film, of course, but it has a healthy dose of comedy and romance, but not so much that it kills the tension or detracts from the plot. Both are integral in order to explore the effects time travel has on the main character.
My only complaint is the ending, but even so, I like the film and do recommend it. If you want more like this, check out Source Code, too.
12 Monkeys (1995)
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 88%
In a future world devastated by disease, a convict is sent back in time to gather information about the man-made virus that wiped out most of the human population on the planet.
12 Monkeys is a landmark film that was the first popular film to deliver mind-bending plot twists that were directly related to time travel. It’s a shame that the film carries such a strange title, which undoubtedly causes many to overlook it.
It’s a dark film with a noir-esque style that’s reminiscent of Blade Runner, which made our list of the best futuristic action movies. The story is engrossing, the performances are top-notch, and the ending redeems the somewhat confusing plot.
On a side note, 12 Monkeys was recently adapted for television and isn’t too bad of a watch once you get past the initial few episodes.
Back to the Future (1985)
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 96%
A young man is accidentally sent 30 years into the past in a time-traveling DeLorean invented by his friend, Dr. Emmett Brown, and must make sure his high-school-age parents unite in order to save his own existence.
Is there anyone alive today who hasn’t seen Back to the Future by now? The film is so popular that the terms “Marty McFly”, “Doc Brown”, and “DeLorean” are known even by those who haven’t seen it. In a lot of ways, this film is the mascot of time travel cinema.
So, if you haven’t seen it, just watch it. Now.
One honorable mention goes out to The Day of the Doctor, a special episode of Doctor Who that aired for the 50th anniversary of the series. With a runtime of 85 minutes, it’s pretty much a feature film, but not really. If you’re a Doctor Who fan, however, you can’t miss it.
And one last note: movie theaters are dying. It’s hard to pinpoint who’s responsible for cinema’s death, but it’s an undeniable inevitability. So, as comfortable and convenient as it might be to build a home theater system, don’t forget to visit your local theater from time to time.
What’s Your Favorite Time Travel Movie?
What is your favorite time travel movie? Is it one we have already mentioned? If so, tell us why you love it so much. If not, make a case for why it belongs on this list.
And if you know of any hidden gems, we would love to hear about them so we too can give them a watch. Share your thoughts in the comments below!