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Future Tense: The 20 Best Time-Travel Movies

Fire up your flux capacitor: we’re flashing back to the greatest movies ever to skip through the space-time continuum

MCA/Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

“Time travel hasn’t been invented yet. But it will be,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt says at the beginning of Looper. That’s the thing about time travel: Once you invent a time machine, you just have to use it to travel back to the U.S. Patent Office on the first day it opened, so you can register your invention and serve as inspiration for an endless stream of movies. For decades, Hollywood has been treating the space-time continuum like it’s just the daily rushes for editors to cut together.

Over the past few summers, for example, X-Men: Days of Future Past sends Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine back in time 50 years, while Edge of Tomorrow puts Tom Cruise in a temporal loop, letting him relive the same battle over and over. So crank up your flux capacitor and check out 20 of the best time-travel movies.

[Editor’s Note: A version of this list was originally published in 2014]

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‘The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey’ (1988)

Trying to escape the Black Plague in 1348, English villagers dig a tunnel and end up in 20th-century New Zealand, switching from black-and-white to color like Dorothy traveling to Oz. (If you object to the notion of 14th-century villagers finding a way to travel forward in time 600 years…well, in the present day, we haven’t invented time machines either.) Suffused with surrealism and religious faith, the movie succeeds in making clear how strange our modern world actually is.

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‘Peggy Sue Got Married’ (1986)

This Francis Ford Coppola movie, dismissed by some as a rehash of Back to the Future (both feature a protagonist traveling back to the doo-wop era) is actually a small gem, rueful and thoughtful. Kathleen Turner finds herself transported back to 1960, her senior year of high school, trying to figure out how her choices as a teenager helped form her identity as an adult — and hoping she can turn “She Loves You” into a hit before Lennon and McCartney get around to writing it.

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‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’ (1989)

There are many other goofy time-machine journeys through the past, from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to Mr. Peabody & Sherman; none of those, however, have brilliantly slack-jawed performances by Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves. The premise: Two SoCal teens need to locate famous figures of Western civilization so they won’t fail history and their band, the Wyld Stallyns, can stay together and become the musical foundation of a future utopia. The most inspirational moment comes when Ted (Reeves) philosophizes with Socrates by quoting Kansas: “All we are is dust in the wind, dude.”

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‘Safety Not Guaranteed’ (2012)

Mark Duplass plays the grocery clerk who’s invented a time machine and places a classified ad looking for somebody to travel back in time with him; Aubrey Plaza plays the magazine intern who shows up on an assignment to investigate that ad. Guess who forges an unlikely connection? This indie movie explores the enduring fantasy of time travel: you get to live your life again, only better. What gives the film life — aside from great performances by Duplass and Plaza — is that it’s not clear until the end whether they’re indulging that fantasy, or whether his time machine actually works.

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‘Galaxy Quest’ (1999)

You may remember Galaxy Quest as a genius Star Trek parody featuring the cast of a cheesy outer-space TV show (Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman) thrust into a real interstellar adventure — and not as a time-travel movie. But one of the central pieces of technology in the film is the Omega 13 device, which turns out to be a time machine, albeit not a particularly flexible one: It sends its user 13 seconds into the past. That may be the smallest increment of time travel in any movie, but it turns out to be just enough time to save the day.

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‘Planet of the Apes’ (1968)

If you need a spoiler alert for a 45-year-old movie with one of the most famous plot twists in history, you may want to build your own time machine and head back to an era before this movie was released. (Remember to bring your copy of Grays Sports Almanac.) Everyone else knows that the brilliance of the Statue of Liberty scene is the revelation that yes, this Charlton Heston sci-fi classic is actually a time-travel movie: Charlton Heston’s astronaut has not journeyed to a galaxy far, far away, but only two millennia into Earth’s future. (The time-travel elements of the franchise became even more pronounced in the sequels: in 1971’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes, three future apes travel back to 1973 and end up testifying at a presidential commission.)

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‘Time Bandits’ (1981)

Terry Gilliam’s relentlessly inventive time-travel caper stars a young boy and six dwarfs who have swiped a map of the universe and are using it to steal everything they can. Best cameos: Sean Connery as Agamemnon and John Cleese as a daffily aristocratic Robin Hood. God was played by the distinguished British actor Ralph Richardson, who got so into the role that he rejected some of his dialogue, telling Gilliam, “God wouldn’t say that.”

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‘Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home’ (1986)

The Star Trek franchise, both on TV and on the big screen, has featured so many time-travel stories, working every possible angle, that eventually the Deep Space Nine show had to introduce a Department of Temporal Investigations just to keep everything straight. This romp was one of Starfleet’s best journeys through time: Kirk and the Enterprise crew head to 1980s San Francisco to bring a humpback whale to the future, and are befuddled by 20th-century concepts such as punk rock, computer keyboards, and exact change.

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‘Run Lola Run’ (1998)

The crimson-haired Lola (Franka Potente) gets a phone call from her boyfriend: He’s lost a bag with 100,000 deutschemarks, and if he doesn’t find it or replace it in the next 20 minutes, his criminal boss will kill him. So Lola runs through Berlin, dodging bicyclists, causing car accidents, provoking flash-forward sequences of the destiny of various pedestrians, trying to find a way out. Each time she fails, the 20-minute time loop starts again — it seems to be powered by love and the absence of cash.

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‘Hot Tub Time Machine’ (2010)

Probably the funniest time-travel movie ever made: John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, and Clark Duke head back to the 1980s while at a ski resort, revisiting a time when hair was big, outerwear was neon, and Poison was a big headlining band. (It’s also a time when Cusack was a much bigger movie star; the movie sidesteps that.) Best scene: Robinson having sex in a bathtub so he won’t disrupt the timeline, weeping because he feels guilty about cheating on his wife, even though she’s only nine years old in 1986.

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‘Looper’ (2012)

“I’m a sucker for the time-travel genre,” director Rian Johnson told Rolling Stone. “If you’re a nerd like I am, it’s really fun to work out the map of how everything is going to work.” But he made sure this movie, about contract killers snuffing people sent back in time 30 years, didn’t feel like “algebra homework”;  instead, Looper has an aging hitman (Bruce Willis) confronting his younger self (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). For all its sci-fi inventiveness and thrills, the best scene is the two leads meeting at a diner: a young man looking his older self in the eye, determined not to turn into him.

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‘Primer’ (2004)

A rigorous, graduate-level time-travel movie, full of confusing plot twists, technical jargon, and duplicate versions of characters trying to outfox each other. But it’s also a thrilling mind-bender, and as soon as you’re done watching it, you want to see the whole thing again to see if it actually makes sense. (It does). Made for an astonishingly low $7,000, director Shane Carruth’s debut is also one of the best movies ever about a tech start-up: When some engineer friends make a working time machine, they skip right over the ethical consequences in favor of the financial rewards.

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‘Back to the Future’ (1985)

Funny, thrilling, unbelievably Oedipal: When Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) travels to 1955 and accidentally prevents his parents from getting together, his mother transfers her affections to him instead. Fortunately, Fox doesn’t have to pluck out his eyes — instead, he labors to make his parents fall in love, so that he will actually be born. Best subtle joke: McFly knocks down a tree in 1955; back in 1985, a shopping center has changed its name from the Twin Pines Mall to the Lone Pine Mall.

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‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’ (1991)

The original Terminator (1984) had a great premise: Arnold Schwarzenegger is a killer cyborg (just the way you like him) coming from the future to kill waitress Linda Hamilton so she can’t give birth to the eventual leader of the human resistance. But seven years later, director James Cameron upped the stakes with this sequel — not just blowing out retinas with bigger explosions and more CGI, but wrestling with the philosophical paradox of whether knowing the future removes humanity’s free will.

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‘La Jetée’ (1962)

A gorgeous 28-minute film, told in a montage of black-and-white still photographs and narrated in French, about a man sent back in time to avert an apocalyptic war. He’s obsessed with his childhood memories of a beautiful woman and seeing a man die — inevitably, he gets tangled in the silken cords of time travel. This novella of a movie is pretty much perfect, which didn’t stop Hollywood from making a big-budget feature-length version: 12 Monkeys (1995), directed by Terry Gilliam, and starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt.

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‘Groundhog Day’ (1993)

Time travel doesn’t have to span hundreds of years to be a significant plot element in a movie, of course: it can be hours, or a handful of seconds. Characters can be caught in a loop, or spawn alternate universes, or even kill their grandfathers, depending on the rules the filmmakers set up: at press time, actual time travel was still fictional. The time travel in this Bill Murray comedy, while limited to a single day, still plays into one of the most fundamental reasons for its persistence: the notion that if we had a chance to do our lives over, we could do it better the second time. The movie’s great subversion of that fantasy is the lesson that you could begin your do-over right now, in the present tense, on February 3rd and beyond.