Time and Time Again
According to some very reliable internet research, time travel wasn’t made popular in media until H.G. Wells wrote a little story about a fella with a time machine.
And based on how the last 100 years or so of entertainment have panned out, I’d say that we, as a species, latched onto the idea.
Maybe it’s just because time travel would be another way for each of us to find a new start. Maybe things were better in the past, or will be better 600 years from now. Maybe things will be less difficult and we’ll find a way to be happy.
On the scientific side of things, it’s an absolute pipe dream, at least for the foreseeable future.
But Hell, we can dream. We like making movies about time travel, maybe especially because they deal with the consequences of altering the past, the present, and the future.
There tends to be a lot to unravel in time travel narratives, and that’s certainly true for all the movies you’ll see listed below.
Even the movies that make a real effort to adhere to theoretical understandings of how time travel would work if we had the technology never quite make sense in the end.
There’s always a little bit of mystery, both in the story and in ourselves. We don’t really know how we would act in this situation. There are just too many factors at play.
So here’s our list of the best movies about time travel, ranked from most serious to the least serious.
Primer – 2004
This is a homemade movie about homemade time travel. Two technicians accidentally invent a device capable of time travel and subsequently can’t handle the power.
The movie plays out almost like a stylish documentary. Everything feels relatively realistic and the more dramatic elements of the movie never get in the way of the film’s emotional impact.
Since this is the most serious time travel movie on our list, it may go without saying that the movie won’t make you feel good. It will make you feel filthy and afraid for the future of our species.
But don’t let that get you down! It’s worth watching, and if you need a palette cleanser, then just go ahead and move further down the list.
Donnie Darko – 2001
If you haven’t watched this movie for a while, I highly recommend a rewatch. It feels like a completely different movie, at least to me.
A lot of this movie, from the dialogue to the acting to the setting, feels like a pretty typical high school drama with a little bit of romance thrown in.
Sure, we know up-front that there’s something weird going on with Donnie, but it switches gears so quickly.
The time travel elements don’t really come into play until maybe halfway through the movie. And first-time viewers probably won’t get a handle on the whole thing until the very end.
Generally speaking, I think that makes for a fun movie. You’re left guessing until the last moment and then your questions are mostly answered.
It’s satisfying but you still want to know more. So you watch it again and pay attention just a little more closely.
Sadly, the man behind the movie, Richard Kelly, went on to do … nothing, really.
Oh, by the way, there’s a sequel to Donnie Darko, titled S. Darko, released in 2009, starring Donnie’s kid sister who essentially has to make the same decision that Donnie had to make in Act III.
It’s not good, but if you’re a big fan of the original, it might be worth checking out, just for kicks.
Star Trek – 2009
It’s tough to talk about a Star Trek movie or show without talking about ALLLLLL of Star Trek. It’s this big monstrous thing that’s interesting, complex, kinda funny, and occasionally disappointing.
And we won’t talk about how this movie affected the property as a whole, or how it did or did not live up to expectations.
Instead, we’re just talking about the time travel, which in itself is a spoiler for the movie, so if you’re trying to save yourself for this one, buzz off.
So old Spock travels not only through time but to an alternate reality, all so that he can speak to young Kirk and tell him why Nero is so gosh darn angry at everybody.
Ok, so here’s the thing: once upon a time, Star Trek adhered very closely to scientific theory in relation to space travel and the many strange things that can happen out there.
But in this movie, time travel is mostly just a way to contribute to the movie’s overall tension and, more importantly, a way to get Leonard Nimoy in the movie.
It’s both crucial to the story and also not important at all. But the movie makes the list for showing audiences a relatively fun and interesting portrayal of time travel and its potential consequences.
Groundhog Day – 1993
Ok, so I really hate Andie MacDowell, but this movie is just too darn charming for me to let Andie ruin it all.
Bill Murray turns in one of his best pre-Wes Anderson performances, a performance that feels like it’s based on real-life fatigue with life in general.
After all, this is a guy who conquered the world when he was still a youngin. By 1993, he’d already had an incredible career. Everyone on Earth loved him.
Sure, it sounds like a dream come true, but there comes a point when you’d like to move on to a new dream.
In the real world, this lack of interest in daily life would probably be diagnosed as one of many mental disorders. But here in Groundhog Day, it’s a relatable, sympathetic situation.
A single man memorizes a day in the life of an entire town. He finds new opportunities to become a better person.
Best of all, the supernatural time travel element here is never explained. In fact, if Murray explained to someone what he’d just been through after he’s finally allowed to move forward in time, he would have been taken off to the nearest psych ward.
And that’s what makes this movie feel like an especially effective episode of The Twilight Zone. A regular schmuck finds himself in a strange situation, has to adjust to it, and find a way out.
It doesn’t waste your time and still finds plenty opportunities to tell you something meaningful. And despite Andie MacDowell’s best efforts to make the movie frustrating and painful to watch, it soars.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – 2004
Here it comes, the best Harry Potter movie ever made, even still to this day., even after the launch and continuation of the Fantastic Beasts “franchise”.
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban throws in some time travel during the third act like it’s nothing and just kinda goes about its day.
I’m not a big stickler for proper screenwriting technique, whatever that means nowadays. But I think I have a decent talent for sniffing out when something works and when it doesn’t.
The Time-Turner works. It makes for an exciting third act and puts Harry in a situation where he’s forced to grow, forced to progress and gain confidence.
It’s a playful understanding of time travel as well, allowing different versions of the characters to interact with each other in subtle, puzzle-piece ways.
It’s also a compelling way to illustrate the importance of viewing a given situation from multiple angles.
From your new angle, the villain may look more like a hero, and the hero may muster enough courage to earn the title.
Meet the Robinsons – 2007
Disney Animation Studios don’t typically create very interesting or impressive movies. Most of their work is an afterthought compared to whatever project Pixar has in the works at the moment.
But back in 2007, Disney Animation released Meet the Robinsons, a movie about a kid who doesn’t fit in because of how darn smart he is.
The smart kid is drug into the future by some other kid, and he meets the kid’s family. Ok, I’m just gonna just go ahead and include spoilers.
The family is actually the protagonist’s future family, and the strange future-kid is his future son.
The character designs are generally ugly and age the movie poorly, but the story is solid, kind of.
It’s a plot that moves fast enough for kids to stay interested while never teasing very high stakes.
We get a brief look at how the world would be if the bad guy wins, but it’s pretty standard enslavement of the human race stuff that we’ve already seen in Lord of the Rings and the SpongeBob Movie and Jimmy Neutron I think.
So what’s the lesson. In a nutshell: try to keep perspective. Keep moving forward and maybe, one day, things will get better.
It’s hard to knock such a universal and positive message, even if hard work doesn’t actually guarantee any kind of success or recognition or love, but hey, we didn’t really expect a Disney movie to go that far.