It's officially "Back to the Future" Day, so turn on the flux capacitor, and take a trip back, forward, and elsewhere on the timeline with our handy list of the best time travel movies ever.
1Back to the Future
It's odd to think that "Back to the Future," which traveled 30 years into the past from 1985 to 1955, is now a movie that came out 35 years ago. Say what? Still, the timeless tale of teen adventurer Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and his lovable oddball scientist best pal Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) is as endearing now as it was when first released. And we still love that DeLorean.
2Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure
The original "Bill & Ted" movie, and its most excellent follow-ups "Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey" and 2020's "Bill & Ted Face the Music" are all great head-banging stupid fun, but the first installment is truly awesome. Our endearing heroes, Alex Winter's Bill S. Preston, Esquire, and Keanu Reeves' Ted Theodore Logan, somehow always retain their sunny disposition no matter the circumstance, and their motto throughout time always holds true - "Be excellent to each other. And...party on, dudes!"
Back in the good old days, Sean Connery was making movies, and had a nice change of pace as King Agamemnon, just one of the historical figures that young history buff Kevin (Craig Warnock) and his six dwarf time-traveling bandit buddies encounter on their adventures to grab treasures wherever and whenever they can find them. Brought to audiences by former Monty Python alum and supremely fantastical director Terry Gilliam.
4Safety Not Guaranteed
This eccentric and affable rom com from the director of "Jurassic World," Colin Trevorrow, has a crazy premise that finds an odd but intriguing young man (actor/filmmaker Mark Duplass) putting an ad out seeking a partner to join him on a trip through time, something he's only accomplished once before. A disaffected magazine intern (Aubrey Plaza) answers the call. The genius of the film is, you're never quite sure, is this guy for real?
5Hot Tub Time Machine
John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson and young buck Clark Duke star as party-hearty travelers who enter into a ski resort hot tub with alcohol, drugs and bubbles…and emerge right back in the '80s. What now? Keep the party going, and somehow locate the mystical energy drink "Chernobly" that can fix the tub and transport them back to the future. As an ode to all things motley, poison and otherwise poofy from the era of big music and big hair, this one's a non-stop riot, and includes great cameos from '80s staples Crispin Glover and Chevy Chase.
6Somewhere in Time
For those romantically inclined, it's hard to do better in the genre than "Somewhere in Time," which finds a modest Christopher Reeve (our favorite "Superman") fixated on a portrait of a beguiling Jane Seymour at the turn-of-the-20th-century. Somehow, through hypnosis, he actually does end up in her time, and begins a passionate courtship that could keep them together throughout eternity.
Nowadays, "12 Monkeys" seems particularly relevant, as it outlines a scenario where a world-wide virus devastates the planet and forces the few human survivors underground. Decades after the pandemic, Bruce Willis is recruited by future leaders and scientists to travel back before the virus was unleashed, and gather data that can help mankind return to the surface. Among those he meets in the '90s are Brad Pitt's whack-a-doodle would-be environmental activist/terrorist, and Madeline Stowe's intelligent and empathetic psychiatrist, who slowly begins to appreciate Willis' grave backstory.
8Peggy Sue Got Married
Nicolas Cage has taken on many out-there personas throughout his career, but it's safe to say, he's never adopted quite the same over-the-top accent he employs here as aspiring early '60s pinup/singer/teenager Charlie, whose future wife/current girlfriend Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner) has traveled back in time to revisit their high school romance. Peggy knows that one day Charlie will grow distant and cheat on her, but maybe there is something in the beginning that can help this couple come out the other side. The film's directed with sensitivity and lots of good humor by Cage's famous uncle filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola.
913 Going on 30
Sort of the female version of "Big" with an added time element, Jennifer Garner stars as a 13-year-old who'd very much prefer to get past the gawky stage of adolescence, and then wakes up as her 30-year-old self in 2004. Instead of moping about the predicament, she makes the most of it, and charms just about everyone in her path, showing that even grown-ups should take time-outs to lighten up and indulge their inner child-sides.
It's a little weird that we're closing in on the fictional time where John Connor, Sarah's warrior leader son in the post-apocalyptic future, will send back his trusty soldier Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) to the year 1984 to save his mom (Linda Hamilton) from the nearly indestructible Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger). James Cameron's breakthrough film is a sci-fi action/classic that sets a palpable mood of doom and tension where maybe humanity stands a chance if we're nimble and fleet enough to stay ahead of Schwarzenegger's cool killing machine.
Granted, "Avengers: Endgame" is much more than a time-traveling movie (it's also the number one movie of all time), but time-traveling is key to its plot to recover the Infinity Stones and undo the effects of the "snap" wherein half of all life in the universe was destroyed. As such, it includes a clever explicit acknowledgement and debt to previous time-travel epics such as "Back to the Future." And as far as truly larger-than-large spectacles which encapsulate all the ups and downs and emotions of movie life and real life, it's hard to beat.
Time repeats itself…over…and over…and over…in this one-of-a-kind day-repeating comedy from the brilliant minds of filmmaker Harold Ramis and star Bill Murray (trapped here in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania as a sarcastic weatherman living Groundhog Day on a loop). The film was a groundbreaking triumph whose premise has been copied but never quite perfected.
While most "Groundhog Day" successors are mere imitations, the recent release "Palm Springs" is both funny and affecting and has a unique twist on the G-Day premise. Here, wedding guests Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti are both stuck living that same wedding day over and over. However, there are a few secrets to be revealed…which of course we won't spoil since you should absolutely watch this one and discover.
Filmmaker Christopher Nolan always goes big, and this sci-fi/time-travel/ecological disaster film posits several fascinating ideas that make for compelling, interstellar drama. Matthew McConaughey's world-saving astronaut is torn between trying to save Earth and leaving his young children behind. But ultimately, he has no choice. To save them, he'll have to save the world, even if that means a few time paradoxes on the agenda. As much as this movie was a hit, it's still underrated in Nolan's filmography, and the ideas present are just as mind-blowing as anything in "2001: A Space Odyssey."
15Planet of the Apes
The cool thing about "Planet of the Apes" is the surprise element of its story's time travel aspect. For most of its running length, it's an absorbing space adventure about a group of astronauts who crash land on a world where apes are the intelligent species and humans are just cattle. The power struggle between some of the apes, and the humans, plays out as suspenseful action adventure, but the real kicker is yet to come, and casts an intriguing shadow on everything that preceded it.
16Edge of Tomorrow
Another one of the great "Groundhog Day" follow-ups, Tom Cruise's "Edge of Tomorrow" finds his military man of the future living his first and only time in action against aliens and subsequently being killed by them. Thankfully, Emily Blunt as a fellow commando is on hand to help him earn a leg (and other body parts) up and hopefully win the war.
As far as time loops go, this one from expert filmmaker Rian Johnson ("Knives Out") is a doozy. In the future, time travel does exist, but it's mainly for those operating on the black market to use as a weapon against their foes – sending targets they want to eliminate to the past to be killed by assassin "loopers" (e.g. – closing off the loop). All's well and bad for the mob until they send back Bruce Willis' criminal Joe back in time to be killed by his younger self, played by great Willis-impersonator Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Once more into "Groundhog Day" time step and repeat, this underrated gem directed by Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie) finds Jake Gyllenhaal as a helicopter pilot drafted into living the last few moments of a man who died along with hundreds of others in a commuter train explosion. Inserted into that man's reality, it's up to Gyllenhaal to find out who was behind the bombing – and possibly do something about it.
Filled with an intelligence to match the film's sci-fi action, this time-traveling suspense thriller stars Ethan Hawke as "temporal" who travels to 1975 New York to stop a madman known as the "Fizzle Bomber." He nearly succeeds but is injured in the process. Once he's recovered in the future, he's sent back again for one last mission in the 70s that will bring other important aspects of his role to light. For Hawke, this sci-fi cult classic is a great companion piece to his other landmark sci-fi film, "Gattaca."
"Primer" proves that you don't need a huge budget to create compelling, haunting time-travel science fiction. Two engineers work with their friends on error-checking technology. Accidentally, they develop what they think could be a time machine, and work to adapt it for human travel. As they go deeper down the rabbit hole, they begin to understand the dark implications of their creation.
About the Author
Chuck is an editor/writer who's worked for NCM, Fandango, Movies.com, MediaTrip, Hollywood.com and Newsweek. His favorite movie is "Jaws." He's definitely a dog guy.