One of the most beautiful things about the movies is how they can act as a vessel to relive a memory — almost like traveling through time. The subject of time travel itself has been a long-running trend in Hollywood and the focus of some of the greatest sci-fi movies ever made.
Now, to be clear, I am only referring to movies in which at least one character actually travels through time. So, as great as films like Frequency and Arrival are, and as much as we love a good time loop story (Edge of Tomorrow, Groundhog Day, etc.), we aimed for more traditional time travel stories for this one.
These are just some of the best time travel movies of all time, along with a tip of where to find them on streaming. Boy, this is heavy…
Time Bandits (1981)
Imagine if Monty Python made a time travel movie and you would have Time Bandits, mainly because it is a time travel movie made by some of the members of Monty Python, including director Terry Gilliam, his co-writer Michael Palin, and Palin’s co-star John Cleese. This zany and inventive fantasy-comedy also stars the legendary Sean Connery as part of a group of thieves trekking through various eras of history in search for treasure.
Stream Time Bandits on HBO Max (opens in new tab).
After exploring the concept of time loops with The Endless in 2017, directorial duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead followed that up with their own version of a more straight-forward time travel story called Synchronic. The clever and often heartwrenching thriller stars Anthony Mackie as an EMT who discovers the key to finding his best friend’s (Jamie Dornan) missing teenage daughter lies in a new club drug that takes the user on a truly mind bending (and extremely dangerous) trip.
Stream Synchronic on Netflix (opens in new tab).
Rent or buy Synchronic on Amazon (opens in new tab).
X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014)
While the X-Men movies have often been criticized for fiddling with the franchises’ continuity, this installment gets a pass because changing the timeline is literally the point of it. Also known for a breathtaking jailbreak sequence featuring Evan Peters’ Quicksilver, X-Men: Days of Future Past sees Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) sent back to the early 1970s to prevent a dystopian future overrun by mutant-hunting robots.
Stream X-Men: Days Of Future Past on Disney+ (opens in new tab).
Rent or buy X-Men: Days Of Future Past on Amazon (opens in new tab).
Back To The Future (1985)
No list of movies about time travel could ever or will ever be complete without the inclusion of this masterful, exciting pop culture juggernaut. From executive producer Steven Spielberg and director Robert Zemeckis, Back to the Future stars Michael J. Fox as ’80s teen Marty McFly, who takes a DeLorean modified with time travel technology by his physicist friend Emmet “Doc” Brown (Christopher Lloyd) to 1955 where an encounter with his young parents threatens to erase his own existence. It is impossible to watch another time travel film today without involuntarily referencing this timeless adventure, which spawned two sequels and never fails to make you call out “Great Scott!”
Stream Back to the Future on Peacock Premium (opens in new tab).
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Before he turned the whodunnit genre and the Star Wars franchise on their heads, Rian Johnson dazzled audiences with this futuristic instant classic that fuses time travel adventure with film noir. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is an assassin hired to take out and dispose targets sent from the future to his time, but he discovers that his career will soon be over when his next assignment turns out to his older self (Bruce Willis). Looper already has a clever enough concept to hook you in, but its phenomenal execution will have you pondering its brilliance long after it is over.
Stream Looper on Hulu (opens in new tab).
Rent or buy Looper on Amazon (opens in new tab).
The Terminator (1984)
Sometimes it is easy to forget that director James Cameron’s breakout hit is a time travel film since that element is quickly forgotten once the bullets fly. Yet, throwing out its action/horror elements, the basic premise for the first of the Terminator movies follows a soldier (Michael Biehn) sent back from a 21st century ruled by machines to protect the future mother of a resistance leader (Linda Hamilton) from an unstoppable human-looking cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in 1984 Los Angeles. The intense cat and mouse game of The Terminator later envelopes into one of the most mind-blowing, paradoxical final reveals of any time travel film.
Stream The Terminator on Paramount+ (opens in new tab).
Rent or buy The Terminator on Amazon (opens in new tab).
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
As any other time travel movie will show you, such an ability is far too delicate to indiscriminately put into the hands of just anyone. However, dim-witted California slackers Ted Theodore Logan (Keanu Reeves) and Bill S. Preston Esquire (Alex Winter) are given a time-traveling phone booth so they can put together an A-worthy history project and their rock band can eventually inspire world peace. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a joyful and truly excellent crossbreed of science fiction and comedy that spawned two equally non-non-non-heinous sequels.
Stream Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure on Showtime.
Rent or buy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure on Amazon (opens in new tab).
Donnie Darko (2001)
Even the films of John Hughes do not hold a candle to the severity of high school in the 1980s as depicted in writer/director Richard Kelly’s cult classic. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as the titular character – a troubled teen whose life and the lives of those around him start to unravel when he begins to see visions of a man in a creepy-ass rabbit suit professing an imminent armageddon. While time travel is a more comparatively minor element to the storyline that only receives its grand pay off at the resolution, Donnie Darko is too unique, complex, and beloved to be left off of any list even remotely associated with its various themes.
Stream Donnie Darko on HBO Max (opens in new tab).
Rent or buy Donnie Darko on Amazon (opens in new tab).
About Time (2013)
Just about every person has had an encounter with their crush (or even significant other) that they wish they could go back and change. When Tim (Domnhall Gleeson) discovers that the ability to go back in time runs in his family, he decides to use it to finally improve his luck with the ladies, but not without making a few easily repairable mistakes. From Richard Curtis, the writer and director of Love Actually, About Time is an irresistible, fantasy-twist on the romantic-comedy genre also starring Rachel McAdams, which, believe it or not, is not her first time playing the love interest of a time traveler, but more on that later.
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Rent or buy About Time on Amazon (opens in new tab).
While the theme of time travel is most commonly associated with the science-fiction genre, it often tends to veer toward fantasy due to the lack of any genuinely thoughtful scientific explanation. I suppose software-engineer-turned-filmmaker Shane Carruth got fed up with that recurring trend and decided to make a time travel film that treats the laws of theoretical physics as a priority, even if its high concept subject matter was at risk of going in one ear and out of the other for more average audiences. For that reason, the low-budget Primer – about a pair of engineers whose earth-shattering invention proves to be more of a burden than a blessing – is still cited as one of the brainiest sci-fi films of all time.
Rent or buy Primer on Amazon (opens in new tab).
Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
When Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale first crafted the script for the aforementioned Back to the Future, the idea came from imagining what it would be like to meet your own parents in the prime of their youth. This crass, yet endearing, comedy from Accepted director Steve Pink embraces a similar concept but from the perspective of three aging pals (John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson), joined by the nephew of one (Clark Duke) who get to relive the prime of their youth thanks to the titular device, which they find at a popular ski resort. Hot Tub Time Machine is a blisteringly hilarious throwback to ’80s time travel movies by literally being a time travel movie set in the ’80s.
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The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009)
I said before that time travel is a privilege that should not be taken lightly, but what if you had no choice in how you used it? Such is the case for Henry (Eric Bana), whose ability to travel through time is involuntary, never knowing what time he will leap to next or when, which creates a strain on his marriage to Clare, played by Rachel McAdams in her second appearance on this list. The Time Traveler’s Wife is a cleverly imaginative, aspiringly romantic, and heartbreaking drama that convinces you that time travel is not all it is cracked up to be.
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The Butterfly Effect (2004)
With a few exceptions I have already mentioned, Hollywood tends to make time travel look pretty fun, but if there was ever a movie that would officially make you fear such a power, it would be this one. In one of Ashton Kutcher’s first lead roles in a drama, the former That ’70s Show cast member plays a man whose attempts to improve his and his friends’ lives with his newfound ability to travel to the past results in increasingly horrific circumstances each time. Inspired by chaos theory, The Butterfly Effect posits the idea that changing just one element of your past will affect everything about your future, so you better choose wisely.
Stream The Butterfly Effect on HBO Max (opens in new tab).
Rent or buy The Butterfly Effect on Amazon (opens in new tab).
Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Remember earlier when I said that no time travel movie can avoid comparisons to Back to the Future? Well, this epic comic book movie blockbuster (and one of the best superhero movies ever) is just about the most potent example of that as it is just as much a tribute to the pop culture influence of that film, with the Avengers using time travel to reverse the cataclysmic effects of Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) snap, as it is a celebration of the 21 MCU films to come before it. Not to mention, Avengers: Endgame does stand out among other time travel films by positing a unique theory on the matter.
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So, did we cover all of your favorite time travel movies, or should we go back and try again?