Top Ten Time Travel Films

Published: November 12, 2014

Here are my top 10 "best" time travel films of all time. I'll attempt to maintain some objectivity here by focusing on a specific criteria.

The criteria I use to judge a science fiction film in general, and time travel films in particular is first and foremost re-watchability. A good film will use time travel as a means to get to the great storytelling. Time travel should never just be a flashy gimmick. So, onto the list!

  1. Back to the Future (1985)

    In 1985 Robert Zemeckis' film was more of an event, nearly as big as the Star Wars phenomenon that preceded it. Drive-In theaters were still commonplace and for months the cars waiting to get into them would stretch for what seemed like miles. 

    A potentially icky storyline (enough so that Disney passed on it) about a mother falling in love with her time traveling son actually managed to turn out charming thanks to Zemeckis' direction and the performances of Michael J. Fox and Lea Thompson. Fox and Crispin Glover have even better scenes together, especially touching is the Dad-dad-daddy-o scene.

    As I mentioned in my criteria the time travel should be a plot device and not just a flashy gimmick. Doc Brown's DeLorean manages to do both here!

  2. Primer (2004)

    A relatively unknown Indie film that I consider the best film of 2004, full stop. The story is so gripping you will never notice it was created on less than a shoestring budget. It has the most complex time travel mythology of any film I have watched (that's saying quite a lot).

    Shane Carruth serves as director and star alongside David Sullivan, their performances are a big part of the success with this film. However you certainly won't get flashy time travel here, the device is little more than a box but never has this been less important than in this film.

    You will most likely be compelled to immediately re-watch this film as soon as the credits roll.

  3. Twelve Monkeys (1995)

    The first (but not last) Terry Gilliam directed film to make the list. Films like this (and Outbreak) are partly responsible for that sinking feeling you get when unpleasant real-world topics of this nature are in the news.

    Based on the 1962 French film La Jetée, Gilliam manages to create and preserve a uniquely haunting atmosphere through all of Bruce Willis' travels. The story keeps the viewer in the dark just the right amount, and for the right amount of time. The oft-foreshadowed ending is enough to make M. Night Shyamalan green with envy.

  4. Groundhog Day (1993)

    This film has become so iconic it coined a term for the phenomenon Bill Murray encounters in it. Repeating time loops/day episodes of scifi shows like Stargate SG-1 or Star Trek: The Next Generation are generally referred to as "Groundhog Day episodes" by fans now.

    This is another film where the time travel component is little more than an idea. An idea conveyed by the same alarm clock switching on during Sonny & Cher's "I Got You, Babe".

  5. The Time Machine (1960)

    No time travel list would be complete without George Pal's faithful interpretation of H.G. Well's literary classic. However I don't include because it's compulsory, it earns this spot on its on merit.

    It gets a bit of a pass because the time machine, and event itself, are presented as a bit of a spectacle. However the very idea was brand new (certainly during the writing, less so at the time of the film's release) and the audience would require it for the time being. There would be plenty of time to become jaded with gratuitous special effects in the coming decades.

  6. Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

    Arguably one of the best Star Trek films (and certainly the best the TNG crew had to offer) this also shapes up as one of the best all-around time travel films.

    It's a pretty simple premise but it's elevated to greatness thanks to the performances, directing and characters you actually care about. Particularly Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell) whom we are re-introduced to. Originally portrayed by Glenn Corbett in the original TV series episode Metamorphosis, Zefram is fully fleshed out and realized in this excellent origin story of warp drive and first contact.

  7. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

    After a long seven year delay Cameron's inevitble sequel finally arrived. Back with it was Arnold Schwarzennegar and Linda Hamilton. Hamilton actually made the bigger transformation, playing a now-frazzled and muscular harbinger future events.

    The cutting edge "liquid metal" CGI effects stole any thunder the brief time travel sequences may have had. However it was the fleshed-out backstory of the Terminatory mythology (along with flashback sequences of skull crushing Terminators run rampant) that really sets this apart as a great time travel story.

  8. The Butterfly Effect (2004)

    An extremely haunting examination of chaos theory, this is the emotional opposite of a film like Back to the Future. It has a rather unique take on the mechanics of time travel. Although not the first, for a similar mechanic see Somewhere in Time starring Christopher Reeve. However the comparison ends there, whereas Reeve may have found what he was looking for, Ashton Kutcher discovers the many perils of fooling with your own history.

    This film would be the exception that proves the rule in my criteria for re-watchability. While I certainly will sit through it more than once, there's no way I have the fortitude for annual screenings like I do with many of the others on this list.

  9. Time Bandits (1981)

    The promised second Terry Gilliam installment on this list. The all-star ensemble cast really deliver in what plays out more like a series of short vignettes than one continuous narrative. Fortunately for us the excellent talents of Kenny Baker, David Rappaport and the rest of the Dwarven crew are present throughout.

    The idea of a secret passage to another time or dimension that begins right in your own bedroom gripped the imaginations of many children, myself included. The film continues to pay off in a way only Terry Gilliam could achieve. He may not be the best scifi director of all time but he's the only one that made this list twice.

  10. The Planet of the Apes (1968)

    This was a close call for me, also up for consideration was The Final Countdown (1980) starring Martin Sheen and Kirk Douglas. It was a brief battle though, by all measurable criteria Planet of the Apes is a superior film. A film that works on several levels, as a scifi yarn, a what if? and as an allegory for racial tension.

    I find Charlton Heston's acting a bit too Shatnerian from time to time, and the effects are certainly dating, but the story is just so good it transcends these minor shortcomings. Ultimately that's what all good time travel films deliver: story.

That's my attempt at an objective list on what is easily a highly subjective matter. Very few time travel best of lists will be the same, and there are certainly dozens of other great films out there, but this list won't steer many time travel enthusiasts wrong.