On October 21, 2015, ’80s high-schooler Marty McFly arrived from the past in his slick silver DeLorean time machine, finding a world filled with hoverboards and self-lacing sneakers. At least, that’s what happened in the 1989 film “Back to the Future Part II,” the sequel to one of the ’80s most beloved movies.
But since real-life has caught up to fictional time-hopping shenanigans (minus those rad hoverboards), October 21 has been Back to the Future Day: a time to celebrate both the sequel and its far superior 1985 predecessor. More generally, it’s a time to celebrate all time travel films, whether they’re comedies like “Back to the Future” or darker, more serious dramas that head from B.C. to A.D. and back again.
Time travel has its roots in ancient myths and folk tales, but in terms of modern fiction, the concept can be traced to Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” An 1889 novel that used its premise of a normal American man bonking his head and ending up in Camelot to satirize feudalism and the monarchy, “Connecticut Yankee” made its way to cinemas in 1949 as a considerably more chipper Bing Crosby jukebox musical romance.
From that film, time travel started showing up earnestly in all kinds of different movies, mainly sci-fi adaptations like influential H.G. Wells flick “The Time Machine.” The concept practically exploded onscreen in the ’80s, being used for comedies like “Back to the Future” and “Peggy Sue Got Married” and more intense action films like “The Terminator.” The appeal of the concept is obvious; adding an everyman from our time is an easy way to make an exotic and unfamiliar landscape suddenly familiar. Furthermore, time travel at its core explores the very human anxiety of change and the passage of time. It forces heroes to confront who they were and what they’ll become, and whether their fates are pre-determined or can be rewritten. Sure, we love time travel because it’s cool, but not just because it’s cool.
For the purposes of this list, we defined time travel movies as films where characters are transported years or decades into the past and/or future. So time loop films — including “Groundhog Day,” “Edge of Tomorrow,” “Palm Springs,” and “Happy Death Day” — don’t quite cut the criteria for inclusion on this list. That still left us with a surplus of films worthy of an honorable mention, including: “Army of Darkness,” “Planet of the Apes,” “Safety Not Guaranteed,” “Timecrimes,” “Totally Killer,” “Somewhere in Time,” “Kate & Leopold,” “About Time,” “Avengers: Endgame,” “Tenet,” “See You Yesterday,” “The Final Countdown,” and “Where Do We Go From Here.”
With that said, read on for IndieWire’s list of the 13 best time travel movies of all time. And meet back up with us in the future where you’ve read the list.
With editorial contributions by Alison Foreman.
“A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (1949)
Method of travel: The prototypical time travel story, Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was adapted into a swinging Bing Crosby musical in 1949, bringing the story of an ordinary American in medieval times to the big screen. Crosby’s Hank sets the template for many a future time traveler by journeying to the land of King Arthur through the foolproof method of bumping his head and getting knocked out. Now in an unfamiliar setting, he wins favor in court by introducing jazz and modern comforts to the land, while romancing the maiden Alisande (Rhonda Fleming).
End destination: During a rescue mission to save Alisande from Merlin (Murvyn Vye), who has gone rogue after his magic was rendered useless by the new technology, Hank gets shot and wakes up back in his own time. Devastated to lose Alisande, he goes to a British castle for vacation, where he meets a woman with a striking resemblance to his lost beloved. —WC
“The Time Machine” (1960)
Method of travel: A time machine, of course. Specifically, “The Time Machine” is a steampunk contraption, operated by a lever, that allows genius inventor H. George Wells (Rod Taylor, in a role clearly named after the writer behind the novella the film is based on) to travel forward in time. Although he first travels slowly through time, an accident ends up flinging him far into the future, to a land where mankind has descended into two primative feuding tribes.
End destination: In the farflung future, George falls for the beautiful Eloi woman Weena (Yvette Mimieux) and defends her against the monstrous Morlocks. George is ultimately able to get back to his machine and head to the future. But he doesn’t stay there long, instead choosing to take a few books with him back to Weena and the Eloi with the hopes of restarting civilization. —WC
“La Jetee” (1962)
Method of travel: Chris Marker’s beguiling “La Jetee” is a short film that takes the viewer on a trip through the decades, all told through still photographs that somehow feel incredibly cinematic. In a post-apocalyptic Paris, a prisoner is chosen as a guinea pig for a time travel experiment intended to save humanity. Our protagonist (Davos Hanich) can handle the shock of time travel thanks to one key memory that grounds him: witnessing a woman (Hélène Châtelain) as a child on an observation platform, where a man mysteriously died.
End destination: In the past, the man seeks out the woman of his memory, and the two fall in love. Meanwhile, he goes to the future, where he receives a power unit capable of regenerating technology and saving humanity. His mission accomplished, the man is set to be executed, but he escapes to the past to be with the woman he loves. But in a devastating twist ending, he is killed by an agent from his time, and realizes in his dying moments that the man he saw die as a child was in fact himself. —WC
“Time After Time” (1979)
Method of travel: Nicholas Mayer’s quirky 1979 film (which came five years before the iconic Cyndi Lauper single, thank you very much) stars Malcolm McDowell as “The Time Machine” author H.G. Wells himself. Imagining a world where Wells actually invented time travel instead of just writing about it, the movie pits the author against his old friend John Leslie Stevenson (David Warner, delightfully menacing), who turns out to be the notorious Jack the Ripper. Stevenson escapes to the future and Wells follows, with both landing in 1979 San Francisco. There, the cat-and-mouse games begin, although Wells makes detours to marvel at the technology of the period and romance cute bank receptionist Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen).
End destination: To convince Amy he’s really from the past, Wells uses his machine to take her three days into the future, where they discover that she’s one of the victims of Stevenson’s killing spree. Wells is able to defeat his friend by sending him traveling endlessly in time without the machine, and reasons he must return to his own time and destroy his creation. Amy begs him to bring her along, and the two head back to Victorian times for good, where they marry and remain together until death. —WC
“The Terminator” (1984)
Method of travel: James Cameron’s breakout film “The Terminator” begins with two men arriving in 1984 Los Angeles from the future world of 2029, through the use of “Time Displacement Equipment.” One man is actually not a man but an android called The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), sent back in time to assassinate shy young woman Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who will give birth to John Connor, the leader of the future resistance against evil A.I. defense network Skynet. The second is Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), John’s right-hand man, who arrives in the past to protect Sarah against The Terminator and ensure John will be born.
End destination: Although “The Terminator” initially looks like the type of time travel story where the past can be changed, that turns out not to be the case. Kyle and Sarah fall in love during their mission together, and when the two consummate the connection, it turns out Kyle is actually John’s father. He unfortunately dies fending off The Terminator, but Sarah survives, and from the experience, turns into a stone-cold badass prepared to fight off many more Terminators in the sequels to come. —WC
“Back to the Future” (1985)
Method of travel: The DeLorean, of course! Robert Zemeckis’ beloved classic “Back to the Future” stars Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly, an ordinary suburban kid frustrated with his parents George and Lorraine (Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson), who have been stuck in a rut for years. Marty spends his time with his girlfriend, his skateboard, his band, and his eccentric mad scientist family friend Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), who creates a car with the ability to travel through time. An accident involving the experiment lands Marty back in the ’50s, where he inadvertently spoils his parents meet-cute and ends up getting his mom sweet for him instead. So before he can go back home, he has to make sure the two fall in love so he doesn’t erase himself from existence.
End destination: At the school dance, Marty attempts to stage a hero moment for his dad George to sweep Lorraine off her feet, only for George to get a true and genuine hero moment when he rescues Lorraine from his bully Biff (Thomas F. Wilson). That ends up having a huge impact on the future Marty returns to, as George grows into a successful businessman and his marriage with Lorraine remains in tact, happier than ever. As for Marty, he ends up getting pulled into another adventure with Doc, and ends up going to the future future (2015) for the film’s sequel. —WC
“Peggy Sue Got Married” (1986)
Method of travel: One of Francis Ford Coppola’s most underrated films, the soulful and joyful “Peggy Sue Got Married” forces its main character (Kathleen Turner) to live everybody’s absolute worst nightmare: heading back to high school. Peggy Sue is a bitter, unhappy housewife separated from her philandering high school sweetheart Charlie (Coppola’s nephew Nicolas Cage), who collapses at her 25th high-school reunion and awakens in 1960 as a high school senior. Now reliving her youth, Peggy reconsiders what she really wants and if the choices she made as a teen are the ones she would make again.
End destination: She would make them again, it turns out; although Peggy Sue attempts to break up with Charlie, she realizes that she truly loves him no matter what and the two make love before she awakens back in 1985. The experience, which may or may not have been a dream, gives both a new lease on life, and she decides to take a second chance with Charlie again — this time in the modern day. —WC
“Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (1989)
Method of travel: Move over “Doctor Who,” your police box has nothing on the telephone booth that takes the dopey Bill and Ted (Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves) through time. Slackers with brains made of rocks but hearts made of gold, the two teenagers are on the verge of failing their history class. It’s a typical high school problem, but one that has massive consequences for the future, as the music and philosophy the two will create could be responsible for a utopian society in the year 2688. In order to keep the two in school, a visitor from the future, Rufus (George Carlin), arrives in a phone booth and whisks the hapless pair on a literal crash course through history.
End destination: After rubbing shoulders with Napoleon Bonaparte, traveling to the Wild West, learning philosophy with Socrates, falling for English princesses, and abducting Sigmund Freud, Ludwig van Beethoven, Joan of Arc, Genghis Khan, and Abraham Lincoln, Bill and Ted end their excellent adventure back in their modern day. All of the historical figures get imprisoned for their troubles, but Bill and Ted bust them out, and in return, they show up to their history class to help them present. The pair pass with flying colors, ensuring that the future they created will remain excellent no matter what. —WC
“Donnie Darko” (2001)
Method of travel: Chronicling the tragic teenagehood of the titular Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), this 2001 Sundance sci-fi gem introduces the concept of time travel through a mysterious old woman nicknamed Grandma Death (Patience Cleveland), and further explains its spin on the idea through private school teacher Kenneth Monnitoff (Noah Wyle). Struggling with what his therapist tells him are only hallucinations, Donnie encounters Frank (James Duval), a terrifying man in a rabbit suit, who prophesies the end of the world in just 28 days. Frank teaches Donnie about wormholes, saying they connect an alternate reality Tangent Universe with our Primary Universe. The terrified 16-year-old seeks help from Monnitoff, only to be turned away with the agnostic teacher at a religious school saying, “I’m not going to be able to continue this conversation… I could lose my job.”
End destination: “Donnie Darko? What the hell kind of name is that? It’s like some sort of superhero or something.” “What makes you think I’m not?” A mysterious jet engine crashing through Donnie’s room in the film’s second act sets the main conflict in motion and the film resolves with Donnie’s realization that he needs to travel back in time and die in the accident for a series of terrible events in his town to be avoided. It’s a punishing conclusion that, as a matter of philosophy and physics, remains a bit of a head-scratcher. But we’ll always remember Donnie’s strangely accepting laugh as he meets his fate — and the look on his mom’s face as she mourns his death. —AF
“13 Going on 30” (2004)
Method of travel: A sparkly, pink, homemade Barbie Dreamhouse covered in surprisingly potent novelty store wishing dust. Similar to the Tom Hanks-starring “Big” but with a time travel twist, “13 Going on 30” sees wannabe ’80s teenager Jenna Rink (Christa B. Allen) suddenly thrust forward into her 30-year-old body (Jennifer Garner) in 2004. She’s living life as a vapid beauty magazine editor, frenemies with her junior high rival (Judy Greer), and completely out of touch her childhood best friend (Mark Ruffalo). She’s also somehow completely unimpressed with the past decade-and-a-half of technological advancements, but whatever.
End destination: This rom-com focuses less on how time changes the world and more on how it changes us. Throughout the movie, Jenna wrestles with the decisions she unwittingly made in her teens and twenties: an allegorical embodiment of young adulthood gone in a blink. Thankfully, she turns it around and manages a do-over that turns out much better the second time with her and her hunky husband (Who is he? Watch and find out!), spending their days eating Razzles in a real-life Jenna Dreamhouse. —AF
“Hot Tub Time Machine” (2010)
Method of travel: A freakin’ hot tub, my dudes! In this stupidly funny “Back to the Future” UNO reverse card, a gaggle of problematic friends (John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson) and a random nephew (Clark Duke) head out for a ski weekend in hopes of reconnecting at a resort they used to love. The place isn’t what it used to be, but that’s fixed when a can of mysterious foreign energy drink Chernobly is spilled on a hot tub’s control panels. The pals are soon yanked back to 1986: an individual and collective heyday from their past lives as avid partiers.
End destination: What goes up must come down and the dudes manage to use the hot tub to create a vortex that will take them back to the present day. Back in 2010, they discover only the positive impacts of the typically terrible Butterfly Effect — with one becoming wildly rich and closer to his family, another ending up with the girl of his dreams, and the last living out his ideal career. —AF
Method of travel: Rian Johnson’s thrilling sci-fi action film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as the same man, Joe. In 2044, Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is a 25-year-old man who works as a “looper,” a contract killer that kills hits sent back in time from 30 years later. The catch is that, in order to prevent the crime syndicate from getting detected, loopers who survive to 2074 are sent back in time and killed by their younger selves. That task ends up on Joe’s plate, but his older self (Willis) doesn’t take kindly to the idea, and escapes, with plans to save his wife (Summer Qing) from murder.
End destination: To save his wife, old Joe needs to kill the Rainmaker, a mysterious figure who will grow to take control of the syndicate, and plans to murder him as a child. The future Rainmaker turns out to be Cid (Pierce Gagnon), the son of a woman, Sara (Emily Blunt), that Young Joe is sweet on. Desperate to keep both safe, Young Joe ends up committing a sacrifice by killing himself — erasing his older self from existence and keeping Sara and Cid from their tragic fates, bringing the complicated sci-fi film to a closed loop. —WC
Method of travel: During its first two acts, “Interstellar” is more about traveling across space than it is about traveling through time, but there’s definitely a lot of wobbly time shenanigans happening anyway. Our hero is NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), who is recruited to go on a secret mission to find a new habitable planet where humanity can flourish as Earth grows increasingly inhospitable. During the mission, Cooper and scientist Amelia (Anne Hathaway) end up briefly stranded on the ocean world Gargantua. When they return to their ship, they discover that, due to differences in gravity between the planet and Earth, 22 years passed where hours went by for them. For Cooper, this is particularly disastrous, as it means his kids (Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck) have grown up without him.
End destination: After some further adventures involving a murderous Matt Damon, Cooper ends up falling into a five-dimensional black hole. For reasons involving too much math to explain coherently, Cooper discovers that the hole is a construct from future humans able to interact in five dimensions with the power to see time physically, and uses the tesseract to send messages to his daughter Murphy (Chastain) from when she was a child. As an adult, Murphy eventually pieces together the strange knockings and movements she witnessed in her bedroom two decades ago as morse code, and uses it to solve a gravity equation needed to mass transport humanity off of Earth. Once rescued from the tesseract, Cooper finds himself now in the very distant future, where a now elderly Murphy has set up a satellite colony in Earth’s orbit that has saved civilization. The reunion is emotional but brief, as Murphy passes shortly afterwards, and Cooper leaves to find the now lost Amelia. —WC