Time travel is a regular theme in films and television series. Which ones are worth watching? Which ones aren’t? It’s all a matter of taste and it’s difficult to make a truly comprehensive list. Still, it’s worth a try, right? Here are some of the best films and TV shows about various forms of time travel. This includes time machines, quirky time loops and suspended animation.
1. The Time Machine (1960)
Time travel sometimes requires a machine, obviously. Based on the H. G. Wells novel, George Pal’s “The Time Machine” was an innovative feature for its time. In fact, it won an Oscar for its time-lapse photo effects and no doubt inspired countless time travel films since. Still, how is it as a standalone movie? It may have some outdated special effects (especially the way the Morlocks look), but Rod Taylor has a commanding screen presence as H. George Wells, the inventor of the titular machine. Basically, his performance is the main reason to keep watching.
In this fantastical film, time travel is rather straightforward. Wells can miraculously control which minute, day, hour and year he visits from his little machine. How convenient! At certain points, he almost seems addicted traveling further ahead — like he can’t resist the temptation of this godlike ability. Who could blame him? If you’re having an extended marathon of time travel-themed shows, this one seems obligatory.
2. Planet of the Apes (1968)
We’ve all heard it before: “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” That’s the frustrated cry of George Taylor (Charlton Heston), an astronaut who crashed into an ape-dominated future he cannot possibly understand. Yes, this film suggests we can time travel if we get travel at nearly the speed of light. Interesting premise, right? Also, the bizarre, apocalyptic tone of Franklin J. Schaffner’s “Planet of the Apes” is instantly unforgettable, even if it’s sometimes drowned out by Heston’s infamous overacting.
It’s the sort of film that’s hard to describe, outside of seeing it for one’s self. However, there’s a sense of being on an alien planet, even though the conflicts are some of the familiar ones. “Planet of the Apes” also has one of the best, most melodramatic endings of any sci-fi movie ever. It also stars Roddy McDowall as Cornelius, Kim Hunter as Zira, Maurice Evans as Dr. Zaius, and Linda Harrison as Taylor’s silent human companion, Nova.
3. Back to the Future (1985)
Who hasn’t seen Robert Zemeckis’s “Back to the Future”? It’s only one of the greatest science fiction films of all time! We all know the story of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and his mad scientist pal, Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown (Christopher Lloyd), and how they made kids of the 1980s nostalgic for 1955. We remember the Libyans, the incredible the flux capacitor, 1.21 gigawatts, and how Marty almost irreparably screws up the space-time continuum! Also, who can deny the sexiness of the DeLorean time machine? It’s just awesome!
Story-wise, we cringe as Marty’s mom (Lea Thompson) develops a crush on him, and we all know a jerk like Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson). Finally, most of us look past Crispin Glover’s eventual lawsuit drama and remember the sci-fi nerd who took a stand on prom night. Of course, this film ties together well with its own sequels, and another most excellent film created in 1989….
4. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
For the record, the character of Wayne Campbell technically existed before Bill & Ted. However, B&T have the advantage of a time traveling phone booth, a cool dude named Rufus (George Carlin) and a living gallery of important historical figures! The joke is that Theodore “Ted” Logan (Keanu Reeves) and William ‘’Bill’’ S. Preston Esquire (Alex Winter) must pass their history test, or mankind itself won’t be inspired by their band Wyld Stallyns to create utopia! In other words, the outcome of this film is rather predetermined, as without their eventual success, Rufus literally wouldn’t have been able to travel back in time to tell them about all this…or something like that.
Like many time travel films, it may be best to not dwell on the details, lest one’s head explodes. In any case, “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” has memorable scenes between the two dudes and figures like Napoleon Bonaparte (Terry Camilleri), Socrates (Tony Steedman), Genghis Khan (Al Leong) and Abraham Lincoln (Robert V. Barron). Although many don’t care for the sequel, “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey,” it’s still a decent followup. On top of that, a 3rd installment, “Bill and Ted Face the Music” will be released in summer 2020. In any case, be excellent to each other!
5. Quantum Leap (1989)
NBC’s “Quantum Leap” offered a unique twist on the time travel premise. Its main character, Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula), “leaps” from body to body throughout space-time, occupying different people’s lives in order to fix historical mistakes. He’s helped in the process by his buddy Al (Dean Stockwell) and an artificially intelligent guide, Ziggy (voiced by Deborah Pratt). Pretty neat idea, right? It was neat enough to last for 5 seasons, and the show won numerous awards, including some Emmys.
It’s a unique idea, too, in that Sam is actually tasked with changing events, whereas most time travel stories involve deliberately avoiding doing so — for fear that they’re change the future in harmful, irreparable ways, or even create universe-destroying paradoxes). Could you imagine this level of burden, especially on a regular basis? As Sam often says: “Oh, boy!”
6. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Although originals are usually better, James Cameron’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” outperforms its previous model in many key ways. Not only does the sequel seem like more of an epic, but the action is ramped up, the villain seems more powerful, and it even deals more with the philosophy of time travel! Rather than cheaply “piggyback” off the original, “T2” comes closer to masterpiece status than a mere guilty pleasure action flick. While one could cite the star power of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the T-800 “Model 101,” he by no means overpowers his counterparts.
In fact, it’s really the characters who make this movie what it is. John Connor (Edward Furlong) starts off as a rebellious wastrel but ends up being a hero. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) seems like a frightened psych ward patient, but ends up being almost as forceful as Mr, T-800. Then of course you have the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), one of the most original villains out of any sci-fi universe. With all these elements making such a great movie, it almost reminds us there’s a future worth saving. It’s not the greatest film ever, but how many action movies are this successfully artistic? Not many!
7. Groundhog Day (1993)
Without a doubt, Harold Ramis’s “Groundhog Day” is the ultimate time loop-themed sci-fi romantic comedy. One hardly needs to say any more, but just consider the difficulty of making this film work. You have a wry, comedic weatherman, Phil Connors (Bill Murray), living the same day over and over in a small town. In the process, he’s using his accumulated knowledge to make his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) fall in love with him. It could potentially be the most boring rom-com ever, right? Wrong!
As his day repeats, we get to see Phil’s cynicism, manipulative nature, feelings of depression, and his being driven over the edge (literally and figuratively). “Groundhog Day” is more than a mere romantic comedy, but a memorable reminder that sometimes love really can save us from…well, repeating the same humdrum routine life over and over again. In the process of bettering himself, Phil ultimately can be freed from his previously minuscule worldview. There’s a world out there much bigger than any of us, and there are good things we can do with it while we’re here. Hey may not use a DeLorean or a phone booth, but this is most definitely a variation on time travel.
8. 12 Monkeys (1995)
Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys” is a phenomenal film, somehow managing to make sense while being blatantly crazy. Quite simply, there’s no film quite like it, even among weirder science fiction offerings. In it, prisoner James Cole (Bruce Willis) is tasked with traveling back in time to collect samples of a virus, hoping to cure it and thwart the so-called “Army of the Twelve Monkeys.” That potentially sounds puzzling, but it oddly sort of isn’t. Gilliam has a remarkable ability to take strange concepts and make them work, even if we don’t fully know what’s happening. Add impressive performances by Madeleine Stowe and Brad Pitt and you have a quintessential, crazy 1990s time travel flick!
9. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)
Some characters are simply iconic, and there’s an element of genius to how instantly memorable they are. Austin Powers (Mike Myers) is just such a character. Directed by Jay Roach, “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” had everyone and their dog saying things like, “Yeah baby, yeah!,” and awkwardly asking others if they make them horny. Such was the power of Powers. However, let’s not forget that “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” was essentially also a sci-fi movie, including a certain variety of time travel — that is, being frozen in a cryogenic time capsule. Of course, his nemesis Dr. Evil was similarly frozen in time, but evil always seems a bit more timeless.
Anyway, one of the main jokes of the film is that Austin is a living relic of a bygone era, where everything was groovy yet life was brimming with international intrigue. The sequel, “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” dealt more with stereotypical time travel, but the original is still superior to that one (although Mini-Me and Fat Bastard are classic characters). Ironically, by now many people are reminiscing about the ’90s. They wish they could go back to the olden days of Nirvana, Beavis and Butthead, and good old Austin Powers. Let’s add another “Yeah baby, yeah!” for good measure.
10. Futurama (1999)
Before Philip J. Fry ( Billy West) was an overused internet meme, he was merely the central character to one of the greatest cartoons ever — Matt Groening’s “Futurama.” After falling into a cryogenic pod, Fry wakes up in the year 2999, which is perhaps more advanced than any world should be. Through more quirky circumstances, Fry ends up as a delivery boy for Planet Express, run by his distant and aged nephew, Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth (Billy West). He also develops a “will they/won’t-they?” friendship with Turanga Leela (Katey Sagal), the cycloptic captain of their ship, and regularly pals around with Bender (John DiMaggio), a bad-ass robot with chip for brains.
They join other characters to travel the universe here and there, meeting aliens, experiencing classic sci-fi dilemmas and extraneous interpersonal dramas along the way. The show is definitely a favorite among sci-fi fans, and there are so many quotable moments that it’s ridiculous — especially when it comes to Bender, one of the most lovable and intentionally hate-able characters ever devised.
11. Idiocracy (2006)
Want another time capsule movie? Well, you’re in luck, because Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy” is just that! Over the years, it’s become common for people to compare current events to “Idiocracy,” and it’s understandable why. In this film’s predicted future, a man with average intelligence (Luke Wilson) ends up being the smartest known human alive, after awaking from a time capsule to see just how stupid humanity has become. Corporations have consumed virtually every aspect of culture, anti-intellectualism runs rampant, nearly everything is automated and there’s no respect for human rights and dignity! Of course, part of the joke is that Wilson’s character is named Joe, as in “average Joe.”
People have debated the central premise of “Idiocracy,” or even laughably accused it of supporting eugenics. However, the film is more funny than it is anything else, and functions as a possible warning against people not thinking for themselves. Rather than advancing some scary worldview, “Idiocracy” encourages us to look at the fallacy of where we could be headed, if we don’t get smarter. It’s arguable that pseudo-intellectualism is more common that willful ignorance. However, we can put the debate aside to some degree and just laugh at ourselves. Also, some have compared a certain reality star politician to “Idiocracy’s” wrestler-President, Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (Terry Crews). Finally, who doesn’t laugh at the ‘Welcome to CostCo, we love you” bit?
12. Timecrimes/ Los Cronocrímenes (2007)
Written, directed and starring Nacho Vigalondo, “Timecrimes” is a unique horror film about a man, Héctor (Karra Elejalde), inexplicably caught in a time loop wherein he seemingly must commit a crime. This isn’t the easiest movie to sum up, but suffice it to say that it works. You may be confused by the central concepts, which is almost the point. There is an element of mystery here, like a cosmic trick has been played on the central character, who seems manipulated by the universe itself into randomly doing harm (though would it be random at that point?). “Timecrimes” could very well be a cult classic already, as it becomes deeper with each re-watch. It also stars Candela Fernández as Clara and Barbara Goenaga as the woman in the forest.
13. Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
Intentionally crass and drowning in 1980s nostalgia, Steve Pink’s “Hot Tub Time Machine” is anything but a thought-provoking look at time travel. Nevertheless, it’s a good flashback for people who can still laugh at unenlightened characters traveling through time. Rob Corddry dimly shines as Lou “Violator” Dorchen, a human train wreck, whose botched suicide attempt brings his buddies to visit him in the hospital. In an attempt to re-live their glory days, they all decide to head to a ski resort. Somehow, some way, they venture into a hot tub time machine, taking them back to their younger days where they dominated life. Interestingly, they actually inhabit the bodies of their former selves, making one less paradox.
There’s one little problem, though: If they change events in the past, will it destroy life in the future? Much of the plot cycles around this concern, and each character must decide whether they’re willing to gamble as they interact with their past. Perhaps the funniest part of the movie is Crispin Glover’s character, a bellhop who is missing an arm in the future but not in the past. The 4 main characters keep anticipating the loss of his arm, knowing it’s bound to happen, but not quite when. They also can’t warn him, or else they might screw with the space-time continuum. In other words, it’s a way to rationalize their staying on the sidelines and just watching. It’s both funny and morbid, and Glover totally nails the performance. ” Hot Tub Time Machine” also stars John Cusack, Craig Robinson, Clark Duke and Chevy Chase.
14. Happy Death Day (2017)
Christopher Landon’s “Happy Death Day” has been called “Groundhog Day meets Scream.” In fact, virtually every review of it says that. Is that enough to make it good? Yeah, kind of. The premise is simple: A college student (Jessica Rothe) gets trapped in a time loop where she continuously gets murdered. Somehow, through each cycle, the killer seems to always have the upper hand, which means she has a harder time getting clues to identify the miscreant and prevent her own death.
Essentially, the character of Theresa “Tree” Gelbman has to solve her own murder. How easy could it be? It’s not a bad premise, and movie audiences responded quite positively to it. Basically, this is a worthwhile companion to all of these other films. It also stars Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine and Rob Mello.
15. Russian Doll (2019)
Tired of time loops? Well, too bad, because there’s one more! “Russian Doll” features Natasha Lyonne as Nadia Vulvokov, going through a time loop in which she repeatedly dies. Some of you may be thinking: “Wait a minute, didn’t we just see a movie about that on this list?” Kind of. However, in “Russian Doll” there is no slasher villain, and Nadia is more interested in solving the mystery of the time loop. Sure, Bill Murray’s character did some of that in “Groundhog Day,” but he seemed more resigned to it. Not Nadia, though! “Russian Doll” is a critically acclaimed Netflix series that’s worth checking out. You may just find it binge-worthy. It also stars Greta Lee, Yul Vazquez and Charlie Barnett.
What are your thoughts on these time-warping films/TV shows? Let us know in the comments!