Time travel has been used in a variety of ways down the years, be it in light-hearted adventures, mind-bending sci-fi indies or explosive action movies. Each time the rules of the game are slightly different. Sometimes the time traveller can go back and forth as often as they please, sometimes they can make just the one trip back in time and sometimes, in the case of a certain Bill Murray movie, they are forced to experience the same day over and over again.
Regardless of the exact method of time travel used in a film, it taps in to our desire to alter moments of our past and take control of shaping our own future.
So, without further ado, here’s our guide to the best time travel movies ever made...
10: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
A fair number number of the Star Trek movies dabble with time travel. Generations used it to bring the original and TNG casts together, First Contact used it to send Piccard and crew back to the first warp test and the recent Star Trek reboot saw villainous Nero travel back in time to threaten the federation’s very existence. However, the king of the Trek time travel offerings has to be 1986’s The Voyage Home, which sees Kirk, Spock et al travel back to 1980s Earth in order to rescue a whale and take it back to the 23rd century so it can interact with a space probe, which is destroying everything in its path and communicates in whale song. Ok, when you write it down it sounds a bit mental, but it’s one of the bestTrek movies and its great fun seeing the Enterprise’s finest trying to make sense of 1980s living.
9: Groundhog Day (1993)
As the irritable curmudgeon Phil Connors, Bill Murray is on typical hangdog, world-weary form. Even despite having Andie Macdowell involved, Groundhog Day remains a definite classic. However, at its heart the film is still a time travel movie. Phil Connors goes to bed after a rotten February 2nd and wakes up to find out he is reliving the same day all over again. He is caught in a time loop and appears doomed to endlessly relive that same twenty four hours and be forever unable to truly convince the women he loves to love him back. Incidentally, an early draft of the script answered two oft debated topics regarding the movie, namely that Phil spends 10000 years (!) stuck in the loop, which seems a bit excessive, and also that his curse was actually caused by a pissed off ex girlfriend casting a spell on him. Whatever the reason, it’s put to good use in Murray’s hands as he masters ice-sculpting, playing the piano and French. On the downside, it will get ‘I Got You Babe’ stuck in your head for hours afterwards.
8: Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
For an example of time travel being utilised by a film purely in the name of a fun adventure, you need look no further than the story of two dudes and their flying telephone booth. In the future, the music of Wyld Stallyns has become integral to creating an age of peace and prosperity. To ensure that the band comes into being, the mysterious Rufus is sent back in time in order to ensure that they don’t flunk High School history and that Ted Theodore Logan doesn’t get packed off to military school. Cue Ted and Bill S. Preston esquire using Rufus’ time travelling phone booth to zip back and forth through the ages to interact with various historical figures. They even bring some back to perform at their end of year presentation. Clearly, in Bill and Ted’s universe, paradoxes aren’t much of a problem as they alter history like nobody’s business. Doc Brown would have a fit if he found out.
7: Time Bandits (1981)
Directed by Terry Gilliam, who also co-wrote the script with fellow Python Michael Palin, Time Bandits is one of those childhood adventure movies you can go for ages without seeing and then suddenly, one drizzly bank holiday Monday, you watch it again and it's still as fun and bizarre as ever. Our young hero, Kevin, finds himself travelling back and forth through time with a band of mischievous dwarfs. The dwarfs are able to skip across the ages thanks to a map they possess detailing where various holes in the space-time fabric are located. Cue visits to ancient Greece, Napoleonic France and even the Titanic. Throughout the film they are chased by The Supreme Being, who wants his map back, and an evil sorcerer called Evil (obviously) who wants it for his own nefarious reasons. Much like in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, time travel’s complex paradoxes are not really important here and Gilliam delivers an irreverent comedy with plenty of typically dark humour.
6: Donnie Darko (2001)
Richard Kelly’s cult classic has whole portions of the internet dedicated to trying to explain its various complexities, so I’m not even going to try and do that here. In short, the majority of the film takes place in an alternate universe and, while this isn’t the same thing as time travel, the film does then go on to deal with how events occurring in one universe can directly alter the course of history in another. See, only a few lines in and my head already hurts a little bit. One thing that’s for sure, Kelly produced an atmospheric, creepy and refreshingly original sci-fi movie which prompted umpteen discussions and countless explanations. Like everyone else, it took me a bit of internet research before I fully understood what was going on, but I think I get it now... I think.
5: The Time Machine (1960)
A bona fide classic and one which was undoubtedly a profound influence on countless time travel movies which followed it. Based on H.G. Wells novella of the same name, the story begins with one H. George Wells staggering into a dinner party at his own home on January 5th, 1900. A week earlier he informed his friends that he had invented a time machine and planned to explore the past and future. His friends are understandably sceptical, but Wells is unperturbed and sets off on a grand adventure. Wells visits 1917, 1940, a strangely futuristic 1966 and, after a nuclear apocalypse encases his machine in lava, the year 802701, when the lava has eroded away. The distant future is an unwelcoming and violent place and George narrowly escapes alive before showing up dishevelled and tired at his dinner party in 1900. The Time Machine really is a breathlessly entertaining sci-fi movie and, despite the effects looking a little dated now, it has lost none of its appeal.
4: 12 Monkeys (1995)
Terry Gilliam’s movie, like many others on this list, utilises time travel in a unique way and the result is a smart and well crafted film with a superb closing twist. Our central time traveller is Bruce Willis’ James Cole, a convict living in a post-apocalyptic world where mankind has been forced to live underground. He is tasked with going back in time in order to gather information on a virus that will eventually all but wipe out life on Earth and the mysterious ‘Army of the 12 Monkeys’ that future scientists believe are responsible for the virus being released. Cole makes several missions back to the past and each time unravels a little bit more of the mystery. The dangers of a paradox are made abundantly clear in Gilliam’s movie as it slowly becomes evident that Cole’s trips back to the past may themselves be connected to causing the virus’s outbreak. Expertly put together and visually striking, Gilliam’s movie combines thrilling entertainment with twisting questions of causality.
3: Primer (2004)
Shane Carruth’s phenomenal debut feature film was made for just $7,000 and yet is one of the most complex and mind-bending time travel movies you will ever see. It is proof, if ever proof were needed, that special effects and CGI are no substitute for a truly unique and compelling plot.
The story revolves around two friends, Aaron and Abe, engineers who do a little inventing in their spare time and accidentally stumble upon the secret of time travel. After developing a method of sending themselves back into the past, the two begin playing the stock market and looping back six hours every day to keep on accumulating money. From here on it gets a little bit tricky and if anybody says they understood what was going on the first time, they are lying. Carruth deliberately made it complex and didn’t both with any exposition. He also has his two leads talk in dense, scientific jargon throughout the movie as they would in real life. Soon there are a number of parallel universes, alternate timelines and multiple characters involved. You’re never even quite sure which version of Aaron and Abe are on screen. Primer’s time travel is stripped down, unglamorous and a strangely realistic portrayal of how the technology may first be happened upon.
2: Terminator & Terminator 2 (1984 & 1991)
The first two Terminator movies are undeniably very different beasts. James Cameron’s first outing was a relatively low-budget B-movie, while his second was a more expensive action film which upped the FX quota considerably. However, both movies share the same mode of time travel, so I think we’re on safe ground treating them as one entity in this list. In both cases, it’s a one trip only affair. Someone can be sent back from the future once, but then there’s no returning. In Terminator, after the machines take over the world in the near future, they send back a cyborg assassin to kill Sarah Connor, the mother of the future human rebel leader John Connor, meaning that he will never be born. The human resistance manages to send back a soldier of their own to protect Sarah, only for him to get her pregnant and turn out to be John’s father. This hurts my head a little. How can John exist and be able to send Kyle Reese back if Kyle Reese has not yet been back and got his mum up the duff? Let’s let that go for now.
In Terminator 2, the machines try again, this time sending back a more developed cyborg to kill John directly as a boy. As before, the resistance send back a protector of their own, only this time it’s a cyborg they have programmed to protect John at all costs. The dystopian future and apocalyptic images really make a big impact and the sense of danger and the enormity of the task at hand are what make bothTerminator movies so engrossing.
1: Back to the Future Trilogy (1985-1990)
The pinnacle of time travel movies has to be Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future trilogy. I know it’s cheating slightly to stick a whole trilogy in there, but with Back to the Future the three movies mesh together so seamlessly it seems churlish to neglect one over the others. In BTTF, the method of time travel is an old Delorean car, powered by plutonium and, of course, a flux capacitor. Across the trilogy Marty McFly and/or Doc Brown gun it up to 88mph and travel back to the 1950s, back to 1985, ahead to 2015, back to an alternative 1985, back again to the 1950s, back even further to 1885 and then finally back to a far rosier and less Bifftacular (not a word) 1985.
Naturally, as is the way with time travel, Marty and Doc do their best to avoid paradoxes, but within about ten minute of being in the past Marty stops his parents meeting and all that goes out of the window. The ongoing narrative that runs through the trilogy regarding changing the past and affecting the future is pieced together brilliantly by Zemeckis and the blend of action, humour and Huey Lewis and the News proved a winning combination.
Seriously though, why don’t his own parents recognise that Marty looked just like Calvin Klein?