Any fan of science fiction films will agree that time travel ranks pretty high in the annals of sci-fi plot lines. There's something about being able to go forward into the future, or backward into the past, that's intriguing for us stuck-in-the-present folks. For futurists, it gives them a chance to see what the world might be like hundreds of years from now, whether it's positive or downright terrifying. Lovers of the past get a chance to go back in time to experience a bygone era or right some wrongs, despite the largely held belief that changing something from the past can have pretty drastic effects on the present and future. Hello, McFly! While compiling a top 20 list like this is a matter of pure subjectivity, it must be done. If you don't agree with the picks, then there's only one choice: You must go back in time and thwart this effort. Or it might just be easier to send us feedback via our Facebook page.
22: Timecop (Yes, Timecop)
The announcer in the movie trailer declares that, "In the year 2004, time travel is a reality … and a crime." Cut to this guy saying, "It turns out going back in time is a pretty easy way to make money." You don't say?! As trailers go, it's not so bad, which is likely why the film grossed $12,064,625 during its opening weekend in the U.S. [source: IMDB]. And as plots go -- the general premise isn't so terrible, either. Unfortunately, the same can't exactly be said of the movie Timecop.
Nefarious politician, played by Ron Silver, uses time travel to gain political and economic advantage, destroying lives in his path. Wronged police officer -- timecop Max Walker played by Jean-Claude Van Damme -- works to stop the baddie and save his wife from being murdered. So right, the plot's not too awful, but sadly, the movie's full of inconsistencies, so much so that it's not even a matter of viewers struggling with suspension of disbelief but more a matter of trying not to get caught up in all the conflicting bits and pieces.
So if this is quite possibly, at least according to some, the worst time travel movie of all time, why include it? Well, that's pretty much why we had to include it. While it doesn't quite fall into the "it's so bad, it's good" category, it is a Van Damme movie, and one of his better ones at that. And it sets you up for watching all the other time travel flicks; things definitely get better from here.
Next up, let's look at the real reason for time travel … romance, of course.
21: Somewhere in Time
In the song Grenade, Bruno Mars sings of all he'll do for his love -- he'll catch a grenade, throw his hand on a blade, jump in front of a train and pretty much do anything. But would he travel through time? In the 1980 film Somewhere in Time, Christopher Reeve's character Richard does just that for the affections of Elise, Jane Seymour's character. Richard, a playwright, falls in love with Elise, an actress, and must travel back in time to 1912 to be with her. Christopher Plummer, Elise's manager, tries to thwart the budding romance but doesn't succeed. Interestingly, 16 years later, Plummer would again appear in a love story dealing with time-challenged, star-crossed lovers -- The Lake House, which we're not officially including in the list since the characters in that film don't technically travel through time.
But there is real time hopping in a few other romantic time traveling movies. Next up, we look at when Peggy Sue Got Married.
20: Peggy Sue Got Married
Peggy Sue Got Married is a Francis Ford Coppola film starring Kathleen Turner and Nicholas Cage … need we say more? OK, to sum up -- Peggy (Kathleen Turner), who is recently separated from her husband Charlie (played by Nicholas Cage), passes out at her 25-year high school reunion. Moments later, Peggy is revived but she's not at the reunion. She's traveled back in time to her senior year of high school -- the same year she got pregnant and married Charlie. Before you write it off as a silly rom-com, note that the film was nominated for three Academy Awards.
If a light-hearted romantic comedy is what you're hoping for, click ahead to the next page.
19: Kate & Leopold and The Time Traveler's Wife
If a light-hearted rom-com is what you're hoping for, Kate & Leopold fits the bill nicely. Rather than traveling back in time like Peggy, Leopold, the leading man (played by Hugh Jackman), travels to the future where he finds his love interest, Kate (played by Meg Ryan). And if you're after a more somber note, cue up The Time Traveler's Wife. Unlike these other love-struck time travelers, whose journeys seem to be relatively fixed, Henry De Tamble (played by Eric Bana) has no control over when, where and for how long he goes. While this is certainly interesting for viewers, it proves difficult for his love interest who, like Bruno Mars, does seem to be inclined to do anything for love.
The ideal segue here would be if our next entry had something to do with space of the final frontier sort. Why you ask? Because the man behind our favorite science officer (and Vulcan), Leonard Nimoy, happens to be starring in an alternate version of Bruno Mars' video of The Lazy Song. But alas, we can't make it so. But keep reading to meet an international man of mystery. Yeah, baby, yeah.
18: Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
Time travel: check. Mike Myers playing three kitschy characters: check. Nods to a bevy of Bond-film goodness: check. Seth Green: check. Yup, that's all we need to put this one on the list. Oh, and the tagline, "If you see only one movie this summer, see Star Wars. But if you see two movies this summer, see Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" helps, too.
In a nutshell, Dr. Evil (played by Mike Myers) uses a time machine to go back to 1969 to steal Austin Powers' (also Mike Myers) mojo. Powers gets wind of Evil's plan and using his own time machine -- a psychedelic-looking, modern model Volkswagen Beetle -- travels back in time where, with help from CIA agent Felicity Shagwell (played by Heather Graham), he battles a series of Evil's henchmen and eventually saves the day and recovers his mojo.
Now, we go from a movie taking its cues from the father of Bond, James Bond (Ian Fleming), to a film inspired by the kid in us.
17: Disney's "The Kid"
OK -- some suggested we put The Butterfly Effect here. But, for a few reasons -- especially Dave Kehr's review in the New York Times, Disney's "The Kid" rings in at number 17. And before you work yourself into a frenzy wondering if another Bruce Willis flick made the list -- yes, it did. You'll just have to keep clicking to find out where 12 Monkeys landed.
Now, as for this 2000 Willis film, the plot is straightforward and, as expected for a Disney production, wisdom and charm come by way of the youngest star -- a then 8-year-old Spencer Breslin. Essentially, Russ Duritz, Willis' character, is a well-off image consultant living in Los Angeles, who "surprisingly" isn't all that happy. He's single, cynical and mostly friendless because he's pretty much a jerk. Enter young Rusty, Russ' 8-year-old self, to save the day by showing him the error of his ways. A heads up to what's got to happen is nicely packaged in this quote, " So, I'm 40, I'm not married, I don't fly jets, and I don't have a dog? I grow up to be a loser." Luckily for Russ/Rusty, there's still time to make some changes.
Next, find out how a 20th-century guy trapped in the Middle Ages fares.
16: Army of Darkness
In an age of darkness, at a time of evil, when the world needed a hero, what it got was -- Bruce Campbell…
"This is my BOOMSTICK!" says time traveling hero Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) of his shotgun in the third and final installment of the director Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy. The first two Evil Dead films didn't actually have anything to do with time travel, instead focusing on Ash's battles against the evil Book of the Dead, The Necronomicon. At the end of the second installment, Ash casts the book back to its origins, sending himself and his Cadillac along with it, to the year 1300. This is where Army of Darkness picks up, with Ash both praised and persecuted throughout the film as the odd man from the future. Fans of the series generally consider part two to be the strongest film, but Army of Darkness scores points for its humor and art direction. Seeing Ash do battle with an army of stop-motion skeletons is one of the highlights, along with a running series of put-downs Ash has for his primitive new friends.
In a six-degrees-of-separation note, the film's writer and director Sam Raimi (also of Xena and Hercules fame) was a producer for … wait for it … Timecop.
Next up, time travel meets the wonderful world of wizardry.
15: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
If you've seen Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, then you know why the movie made the list. Although it doesn't appear as a major plot point of the film at first, time travel is integral to certain action later in the movie. For much of the story, Hermione uses a "time-turner" she acquired from Professor McGonagall as a time-management tool. She has a particularly hectic class schedule and the time-turner basically enables her to attend more classes than she'd normally be able to without the aid of the special necklace. For those of you who have not read the book or seen the movie, we won't spoil things by relaying any more of the plot. Suffice it to say, though, that Hermione and a friend put the hourglass-esque talisman to good use.
Now we leave Hogwarts for … a hot tub.
14: Hot Tub Time Machine
One of the newer time travel films, Hot Tub Time Machine is by no means perfect, but it has a few things going for it. The cast includes John Cusack, Craig Robinson, Rob Corddry, Chevy Chase and Crispin Glover. For a story that revolves around a group of male friends traveling back in time -- via a malfunctioning hot tub -- to 1986, you can see the beauty in having Lloyd Dobler and George McFly -- urm, I mean John Cusack and Crispin Glover in the film.
The story begins by showing us three not-so-happy men who have reached middle age without achieving certain goals and dreams. In an attempt to cheer up their potentially suicidal pal, two of the friends make plans to visit the Kodiak Valley Ski Resort -- a place that has become synonymous with good times and epic in their memories. The group is rounded out to four with the addition of Cusack's character Adam's nephew. Sadly, upon arriving at the legendary resort, the men find an aging, gloomy place that essentially mirrors the way the older friends feel. After a night in the hot tub, though, the fellows wake up to find themselves in 1986. Yes, even though Jacob, Adam's nephew, would not have been born yet, there he is looking exactly the same as he did in 2010. The others, however, appear as their youthful 1986 selves (except to each other and Jacob). Immediately thereafter, as expected, a series of we've-traveled-back-in-time hijinks ensue.
Next up, space: the final frontier.
13: Star Trek Movies
Several of the Star Trek films involve some form of time travel, including:
- Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
- Star Trek Generations (1994)
- Star Trek First Contact (1996)
- Star Trek (2009)
In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which was directed by Leonard Nimoy, Admiral Kirk and crew travel back in time to 1986 to save the whales. Yes, that's right -- they need to find whales to take back to the 23rd century, where they've become extinct. Why do they need the whales? A space probe back in the 23rd century is trying to communicate with Earthlings. However, they can't respond because the communication from the probe is that of the humpback whale.
Through some time travel magic, Star Trek Generations brings two crews together -- that of Kirk and Picard -- to save, well, lots of people. And Star Trek First Contact finds Picard and crew traveling back in time in hot pursuit of the Borg to, you guessed it, save planet Earth.
What would happen if you created a time machine only to discover a friend is using it to flee criminal charges? Keep reading to find out.
12: Time After Time
So far we've had time travel coupled with revenge, romance, humor, redemption and spaceflight. Now it's time for a touch of historical fiction and a dash of suspense.
This 1979 film puts a nice spin on the time travel subgenre thanks to its clever historical fiction twist. In the movie, the real-life author of The Time Machine, H.G. Wells, is actually a character who creates a functional time machine in London in 1893. After a visit from the cops, Wells learns that his friend Stevenson is a suspect in the Jack the Ripper murders. Stevenson uses Wells' time machine to escape into the future, present day 1979. The rest of the movie is a cat-and-mouse game, mixed with some romance and an interesting point of view of the future, as a result of Wells' take on 1979. The great Malcolm McDowell and noted character actor David Warner play Wells and Stevenson, while a young Mary Steenburgen shows up as Wells' modern-day love interest. What's not to like about Jack the Ripper in a time machine pursued by a legendary author?
Next up -- from murder mystery to musical, see what happens when a 20th-century mechanic travels back in time to King Arthur's court.
11: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
Filmed in 1949, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court stars Bing Crosby as Hank Martin and Rhonda Fleming as Alisande La Carteloise. Hank, a mechanic living in 1912, gets a serious knock in the noggin and is transported 13 centuries back in time to King Arthur's court. There, he relies on his knowledge of science (eclipses in particular) and 19th-century technology to gain favor with the King. The flick then goes the way of the buddy road trip as Bing takes the king on a tour of his kingdom to show him how it's not such a wonderful life, after all, for his subjects. Oh, and did we mention that it's a musical?
10: Time Bandits
No time travel movie listing would be complete without this film. If you're a Monty Python fan, this should be right up your alley; it was written by Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin and directed by Gilliam. And if you're unfamiliar with Monty Python (on the off-off-off chance), well then, this would be an interesting way of introduction. Although, maybe not the very best place to start -- perhaps a season of Monty Python's Flying Circus might be better.
For Time Bandits, Palin and Gilliam are joined by fellow Monty Python-er John Cleese, as well as Sean Connery, Ian Holm, Ralph Richardson, Katherine Helmond and Shelley Duvall. The story is a fantastical journey where a young boy joins a band of time-traveling, treasure-hunting little people. And although it was intended to be suitable for parents and kids alike, you might want to think twice before sharing this with your younger ones because it can be a bit creepy in spots. The original movie trailer ends with this apt tagline: "It's all the dreams you've ever had and not just the good ones."
And now for something completely different …
9: Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure
Strange things are most definitely afoot at the Circle K. And by strange, we mean time-traveling telephone booths taking two history-challenged teens on an adventure that spans 7,000 years. Bill and Ted are in danger of flunking their history class, which as Bill puts it, would be most heinous. A failing grade would ensure the dissolution of their band, Wyld Stallyns, and even worse, military school for Ted.
Rufus, played by George Carlin, travels back in time via the phone booth to help Bill and Ted. Why? In the future, the duo's music is an integral element to, well, everything. So Bill and Ted embark on their most excellent adventure and gather up key historical figures along the way including Napoleon, Billy the Kid, Joan of Arc, Sigmund Freud, Genghis Khan, Socrates, Beethoven and Abraham Lincoln. Party on, dudes.
8: Donnie Darko
Where does one start with a description of filmmaker Richard Kelly's cult masterpiece Donnie Darko? Is it a movie about time travel? Not exactly, although time travel is a central theme. Is it a thriller, horror movie or science fiction film? It's kind of none of these, and kind of all of them. The movie was a critical success, but went largely unseen in theaters, thanks in part to its release shortly after 9/11. It gained traction as a DVD cult hit and even gained limited theatrical re-release for the director's cut. The plot is too convoluted to summarize here, but it has to do with a jet engine landing on a house, waking hallucinations, a character named "Grandma Death," a pederast motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze), and an evil, human-sized, stainless-steel rabbit named Frank who lives in Donnie's nightmares. And yes, time travel is indeed a large part of the movie. It stars sibling actors Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and look for small roles from producer Drew Barrymore and a young Seth Rogan. The low budget but well-done special effects and 1980s soundtrack help to land this one in the top 10.
Next up, another time-travel tale that puts Bruce Willis front and center.
7: 12 Monkeys
To stay on track with including interesting six-degrees-tips, this film was directed by Terry Gilliam, who also directed our #10 entry, Time Bandits, and its cast includes one Christopher Plummer, who we've already established has a penchant for romantic time-travel flicks.
It would be 14 more years before Gilliam would turn the genre on its ear with the time-bending sci-fi thriller 12 Monkeys. Gilliam weaves a very complex and smart story involving Bruce Willis' character, Cole, and a struggle to save the future from a virus created in the past. Along the way he falls in love, meets up with a revolutionary in an insane asylum, and witnesses his own future death as a 7-year-old child. Brad Pitt earned an Academy Award nomination and Golden Globe win as mental patient/revolutionary Jeffrey Goines, and Gilliam's typical visual feast is fully on display. A final warning -- the complexities of the plot can lead to multiple viewings.
Next, find out what sort of time-travel film $7,000 will produce.
Not since reading (and re-reading) Foucault's Pendulum, have we witnessed such complexity in a plot or story line, which is likely why many reviewers of Primer have suggested multiple viewings. Shane Carruth shot the story on 16-millimeter film for a reported budget of approximately $7,000 -- or, as Carruth put it, "about the price of a used car" [source: Mohr].The basic premise of the movie follows Aaron (played by Carruth) and three friends who unwittingly create a time travel device --a magnificent creation with endless possibilities. Initially, they use the machine to make money from the stock market. Things kind of go sideways from there, spiraling into parallel universes, multiple versions of the same character and concurrent time lines. If it sounds heady and tough to follow, that's because it is, but it was a big cult hit.
Things did not go sideways in real-life, however, for Carruth and his pals -- Primer took the Sundance Grand Jury Prize over several highly considered contenders, including Garden State, The Woodsman and We Don't Live Here Anymore.
Now, we go from a group of men trying to realize their dreams to one man living what seems like a nightmare over and over and over again.
5: Groundhog Day
Imagine a particularly trying day at work. Let's say you're a TV meteorologist on assignment in early February in Punxsutawney, Pa., eagerly (OK, maybe not so eagerly) awaiting the appearance of Punxsutawney Phil, the Groundhog. An unexpected blizzard hits leaving you stranded in the small town. You retire to your room at the local inn hoping to head home the next day. Only you don't get to go home because when you wake up, you realize you're stuck in an endless time loop and are reliving the same day over and over and over again. If you can clearly picture this, then you've got a perfect idea of what the movie Groundhog Day is all about. Of course, lots of stuff happens as the main character relives February 2nd, and, as you would expect, there is a happy ending.
If you think being a slave to the calendar and waiting days on end for a little groundhog to appear sounds scary, keep reading to see what life on a planet run by apes is like.
4: Planet of the Apes
The original Planet of the Apes was released in 1968. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, it stars Charlton Heston as Colonel George Taylor, Linda Harrison as Nova, Kim Hunter as Dr. Zira, Roddy McDowall as Cornelius, Maurice Evans as Dr. Zaius and Lou Wagner as Lucius.
The story begins with Colonel Taylor, an astronaut from the year 1972, and his small team of astronauts, crash landing on an unfamiliar planet. Upon disembarking from what's left of the spacecraft, Taylor realizes the year is 3978! And things start to unravel from there. He's eventually captured by a group of talking apes who have developed a civilized society on the planet. Taylor plots to escape with his beautiful and mute new friend, Nova, as he learns more about the apes, gaining insight into their militaristic methods and curious class system, thanks in part to sympathetic chimpanzee researchers, Dr. Zira and Cornelius.
We won't spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that Taylor's eventual journey to "The Forbidden Zone" reveals one of the most memorable and satisfying denouements in film history.
3: The Terminator Series
"Are you Sarah Connor?" This question was asked several times by Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator. If the answer was "yes," then the character ended up dead. That pretty much sums up the plot of James Cameron's 1984 sci-fi action film. But it's a little more complicated than that. Turns out the Terminator is a cyborg sent from the future to kill the mother of the eventual resistance leader against the artificial intelligence outfit that built the Terminator series. And the father of that son is also a resistance fighter, sent from the future to protect Sarah Connor from the Terminator. Cameron's film was a modest hit in 1984, but its legacy cannot be overstated.
In the next two installments, Schwarzenegger reprises his role as a cyborg, but this time his goal is to protect the Connors rather than do away with them. James Cameron took a big risk in making the bad guy the good guy, but it paid off as audiences shelled out more than a half a billion dollars to watch Arnold do battle with the more advanced T-1000 cyborg.
The films made Schwarzenegger a star and launched James Cameron's career into full swing. In addition to enhancing a few Hollywood careers, the film has also popularized some pretty memorable catch phrases, including:
- "I'll be back" -- just be sure to extend the "aaah" sound in "back" and make it sound like Aaaahnuld does.
- Hasta la vista, baby.
- I'm back.
- Talk to the hand.
And unlike many 1980s films, most sci-fi fans contend that The Terminator holds up despite the synth-heavy score.
2: Back to the Future (1, 2 and 3)
Most lists of best time travel movies feature Back to the Future near the top. This is for a good reason. Even if you haven't seen all of the Back to the Future films, it's likely the mere mention of the series name conjures images of a gull-wing DeLorean, a young Michael J. Fox (Marty McFly) sporting a puffy vest and jeans, possibly carrying a skateboard or hoverboard, and a wild-haired Christopher Lloyd (Doc Brown) laden with all sorts of technological gizmos. And even if you're a Coke person, you could be craving a Pepsi. All of this is because these films are more than entertainment; they're forever entrenched in our pop-culture vernacular.
Seriously, ask anyone between the ages of 10 and 40 years old what a "flux capacitor" is, and you'll likely hear "It's what makes time travel possible." Ask how many gigawatts are needed and how fast the DeLorean must be going and you'll hear "1.21 gigawatts and 88 miles per hour."
By wrapping humor, action and some light science fiction into a neatly trimmed, family-friendly package, Back to the Future ensured its immediate success -- it was the top-grossing movie of 1985 -- as well as a healthy set of "legs," upon which the series still stands.
If you don't know the story, it involves a teenager named Marty McFly, who's sent back in time by accident and then must ensure that his future parents fall in love so he can be born. And for a final piece of Back to the Future trivia, the movie originally starred Eric Stoltz, but he was replaced by Michael J. Fox after five weeks of shooting.
Keep reading to see what landed in our #1 spot.
1: The Time Machine
Although this film is not as well known as the previous two series, and even several other titles on this list, it has influenced many time-travel and sci-fi films, which is why it finds itself in the #1 spot. The story, which opens in 1899, is pretty simple and is wholly concerned with time travel, centered on an inventor, H. George Wells, played by Rod Taylor. Wells invites several friends to his home to see what he's been working on for two years -- a device to be used for traveling in the fourth dimension: time. His friends scoff at the idea, with only one person almost believing him. Over a span of time, Wells travels into the future and back -- going as far as 1966. An atomic blast hits while he's in his time machine and he's propelled incredibly far into the very distant future: 802,701, where he finds that society has changed immensely, and not for the better. Wells eventually finds himself returning to his home, in "his time" of Jan. 5, 1900, at which time he tries to prove his journey to his friends. Again, most do not believe his fantastical tale.
By today's standards, the special effects would not be impressive, but The Time Machine actually won the Academy Award for Best Special Effects in 1961.
To satisfy your curiosity with some other interesting articles, peruse the links on the next page.
Lots More Information
- 10 Items that Went Down With the Titanic
- Is This a Parallel Universe? Take the Quiz!
- Top 10 Cosmological Achievements
- Cosmological Achievements Pictures
- Quiz: Who said it? Darth Vader or Obi-Wan Kenobi
- 9 Stars Who Turned Down Memorable Roles
- How Paparazzi Work
- The Ultimate Movies Quiz
- Curiosity Project: Time Measurement Quiz
- Army of Darkness (1992), Release dates, IMDB (accessed 8-30-2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0106308/releaseinfo#akas
- "Donnie Darko." Boxofficemojo.com. 2010. http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=donniedarko.htm
- Mohr, Ian. "'Primer' surprise grand winner at Sundance: Tiny budget film about 'price of used car' gets Jury Prize." 1-26-2004. Today Movies (accessed 8-30-2011) http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/4063055/ns/today-entertainment/t/primer-surprise-grand-winner-sundance/
- "The Terminator." Boxofficemojo.com. 2010. http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=terminator.htm
- "Terminator 2: Judgement Day." Boxofficemojo.com. 2010. http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=terminator2.htm
- Timecop (1994), Box office/business info, IMDB (accessed 8-30-2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0111438/business
- Turner Movie Classics, The Time Machine (1960), (accessed 8-30-2011) http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/93370/The-Time-Machine/awards.html