Some day, people from the distant future will travel back to our era and inform us that science has conclusively identified the best movies about time travel. Until then, though, we're forced to make our own judgements. Luckily, there are a few time-travel movies that have rocked our space/time continuums more than any others.
In honor of the upcoming time-travel films Men in Black III and Looper, here are our picks for the 10 greatest time travel films ever made.
Top image: Nathan Stapley.
Jean-Claude Van Damme keeps the timeline in line... with his fists and his feet. This is one of those great underrated action movies, in which there's actually a reasonably solid plot and a fun approach to changing history. It's just what it says on the tin — Van Damme is a time cop — except that Ron Silver is a sleazy Senator who wants to use time travel to take power, and and Van Damme's jurisdiction is about to be... revoked. Plus there are time sleds! We still want to see Timecop Vs. Robocop.
9. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Star Trek has featured a lot of time travel over the decades, but this might be our favorite instance. Even apart from being good Trek, this is a great example of the "people from an advanced future wander around our barbaric era and get confused" story. Including Spock trying to learn to cuss and Kirk trying to work his old-school charm on a woman who's used to even older-school charm. Oh, and Scotty trying to talk to an Apple Mac Plus.
8. Time After Time
Star Trek II director Nicholas Meyer adapted a novel about H.G. Wells chasing Jack the Ripper to 1979, where the Ripper attempts to recommence his life of crime in a more violent era. A classic of steampunk design — as well as a great spin on the "fish out of water" trope that comes with a lot of time travel, from the past or future to our own era. Malcolm McDowell is perfectly earnest as Wells, and every great time travel movie should feature David Warner as a ruthless villain. (See below.)
7. Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure
It's probably not surprising there are a fair number of comedies on this list — given the inherent silliness in time paradoxes, and bringing historical figures forward in time, or future people backwards in time. This film is one of the most joyfully silly science fiction comedies of all time, anchored by the truly excellent performance of George Carlin as the visitor from the future, Rufus. The titular Bill and Ted are a pair of slackers who discover they inspire a whole future society with their band's music and their philosophies... and given access to a time machine, they wreak the best havoc. Including Jane Wiedelin as Joan of Arc.
6. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
There are a number of time-travel romances on film, including the disappointing adaptation of The Time Traveler's Wife from a couple years ago. But this anime film might well be the best — a young girl accidentally gains the ability to travel through time and uses it to try and fix things in her life, only to fall for a boy who has a secret of his own. It's a really beautiful coming-of-age story, full of wistfulness and the kind of yearning and forboding for the future that a lot of the best time-travel stories have.
5. Twelve Monkeys
Terry Gilliam manages to approach the dystopian brilliance of his Brazil, with this movie in which Bruce Willis gets sent back from a plague-blighted future to investigate the plague's origins. He winds up getting entangled with a lunatic Brad Pitt, only to discover both the secrets of the virus and the meaning of his fragmented childhood memories. It's the rare time-travel story that strictly maintains a single timeline, so Willis' character is never able to alter the past in any way. (Similar to Nacho Vigalondo's Timecrimes.) And it will leave you with weird, unsettling dreams.
4. Back to the Future
And then there's the grand-daddy of all time-travel comedies, in which Marty McFly accidentally gets zapped back in time 30 years, where he prevents his parents getting together and risks wiping himself from existence. Among "time travel changes the past" stories, this is one of the best, and the "hip 1980s kid looks at the square 1950s" humor is irresistible, especially given the 1980s' obsession with the Eisenhower era. Plus Christopher Lloyd is note-perfect as "Doc" Brown, the archetypal crazy inventor. And a DeLorean is probably the best time machine ever.
3. The Terminator
James Cameron brought together a few great staples: a visitor from a post-apocalyptic future, a murderous robot disguised as a human, and an artificial intelligence that wants to wipe out humanity. The result is one of the richest pieces of time-travel mythos ever created. Arnold Schwarzenegger's struggles to make his way through the world of 1984 are fascinating and endearing, and then you get to watch the unstoppable future killing machine destroy everything in sight. Terminator toys with huge questions of predestination and the weight of the future, but then burns the mother down with a crazy robot rampage.
A lot of time-travel stories go for the "puzzle box" approach — but few pull it off with a tenth the panache of Shane Carruth's acclaimed debut, in which two friends invent a method of time travel that's actually quite logical and consistent. They can only travel back the same amount of time they spend inside their tube, and they can't travel back to a time before the machine was invented. The cris-crossing time trips and temporal shenanigans get more and more bewildering, to the point where you need to watch the film a few times to pick up everything that happens — or you can consult one of the ridiculously detailed charts that people have uploaded to the internet.
1. Time Bandits
This is one of the greatest movies of all time, period — let alone the best time-travel movie. A young boy escapes from his grindingly awful parents with a group of tiny renegades, who use a map of holes in time to plunder history. But Kevin's loss of innocence isn't just limited to witnessing the consequences of the Bandits' carefree crime spree — he comes face to face with the embodiment of Evil (David Warner again), who shows Kevin a distorted reflection of Kevin's own life. In the end, the light-hearted romp through all of time and space turns out to have a very dark heart, and Kevin's innocence is destroyed in ways you never expect. The secret of time travel is that when you can visit any era, the people you meet are all minor and limited, from the time traveler's lofty vantage-point — and in the end, Kevin discovers what it's like to be one of the people who's stepped on by history. If Primer is a film you have to see three times to understand the complex plotting, then Time Bandits is a film you have to watch multiple times just to see how cleverly it's all set up — and to feel the full shivering emotional impact.