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Time Travel Movies You Shouldn't Skip

Time travel is the spice of science fiction, capable of enhancing otherwise ordinary stories. Unfortunately, a whole lot of them end up over-seasoned. Many films involving time travel end up being hopelessly complicated, totally confusing, and altogether exhausting to experience. As a result, many sci-fi fans are wary of anything involving time travel at all. This isn't unreasonable: There are plenty of films like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3 that don't use time travel to its fullest potential, as well as movies like Assassin 33 A.D. which take the trope to ridiculous extremes. Striking a balance between cleverness and convolution is difficult — and, as a result, rare.

But that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of sci-fi movies utilizing time travel in clever, believable ways. Iconic films like Back to the FutureThe Time Machine, and Terminator 2 live in the hearts of many for being entertaining, fun, and brilliant in their use of time travel. Put the bad experiences you've had with timeline-jumping plots aside for a moment, and give this selection of time travel-oriented movies a chance. No flow-charts, bulletin boards, or fandom wikis required.

The Butterfly Effect

The Butterfly Effect follows Evan Treborn, a young man who's been plagued by blackouts his entire life. When he revisits his adolescent journals, however, he discovers a special ability: He is able to travel back in time and redo moments of his childhood. This power is the source of his mysterious blackouts — during those moments, his adult consciousness was occupying his young body. Exploring this power helps Evan find answers, but not without making a mess of his life.

The film doesn't explain much about how Evan is able to travel through time, but The Butterfly Effect does emphasize the consequences of changing the natural order of things. This a dark film that marked Ashton Kutcher's first major departure from comedy: Certain scenes, namely one of heinous exploitation during Evan's childhood, are particularly intense. The script is clever, playing with alternate timelines and exploring concepts in chaos theory. Though The Butterfly Effect does not conclude happily, this is appropriate  — the movie is entirely about time travel not being able to fix everything. But if you'd like another take on the story, alternate endings exist, which explore time travel as both blessing and curse.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

The Star Trek franchise is no stranger to time travel. Many of its episodes and movies use the device to tell stories that comment on history, oppression, and culture, while others are simply nostalgic. But one of the franchise's biggest trips to the past is an outright comedy. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home marks a departure from previous outings of the Enterprise — it's a funny film lacking a central villain. This was, as it turns out, a great choice: It is widely considered to be one of the best films in the series.

In this excursion, our heroes venture back in time to 1986. A mysterious alien probe threatens to destroy Earth if the answer to its indecipherable signal isn't provided. The crew of the Enterprise determine the signal to be the call of the humpback whale — an animal that, unfortunately, has been extinct for centuries. Thus, the crew journeys into the past, in search of a whale capable of answering the alien ship's call. The Voyage Home is a lighthearted adventure boosted by a stellar cast, that succeeds by treating time travel simply. The crew even gets to be a little cavalier with how they change history, which works because time travel isn't the point of the story. Rather, it's the means of telling it — and that makes all the difference.


Primer is a low budget indie film that takes a grounded approach to the genre, setting it apart from other time travel-centric movies. Engineers Aaron and Abe accidentally discover time travel, and decide to test the limits of the loop they create. Things quickly go awry — but not in the way you might expect.

Primer's creative concept piques the audience's interest while its character-driven nature keeps said interest engaged. Primer feels practical and possible, even when it's most full of scientific jargon. Sure, most people will require multiple viewings to fully understand the plot, but Primer makes the process worthwhile with a strong script and entertaining performances.

Several deep-dives offer extended explanations of the film, for those who'd like a bit of help. There's no shame in needing it — Primer has become infamous for its refusal to dumb anything down. Its triumph is in blending all that technicality with true artistry, resulting in a film as challenging as it is enjoyable. If you're in the mood for a time travel story made with scrupulous attention to detail, make Primer a priority.

Hot Tub Time Machine

Time machines come in many different forms, but the fact that the protagonists of this story use a hot tub to time travel should make it clear that Hot Tub Time Machine is a comedy. A trio of friends (and one errant nephew) dealing with mid-life problems gather together at a vacation spot of their youth. After a night of drinking, they wake to discover themselves transported back in time to 1986. Presented with this second chance, the group vacillates between striving to change nothing about their past and attempting to change everything. 

Hot Tub Time Machine offers non-stop comedy, but also contains meaningful truths about middle-aged regret. Crucially, the three older protagonists must realize that the past wasn't actually as great as they remember. Sure, their trip through the 1980s is fun, wild, and nostalgic — but touchstones from the past are venerated as often as they're mocked in this film. Hot Tub Time Machine is a whole lot of fun, but it never sacrifices emotional honesty for laughs — and that's why it's worth watching.


Looper blends time travel with director Rian Johnson's trademark tension to tremendous effect. Joe, our protagonist, is a hitman known as a looper, who kills hooded people dropped from the future into the past. A looper's final kill is himself, which closes his own personal loop, keeping things neat — according to the crime syndicate Joe works for, anyway. When Joe encounters his older self, however, things quickly get messy. Looper combines romance, action, and telekinesis — that's right, this movie features telekinesis and time travel –  and ends up with a wild and engaging story.

Through skillful storytelling and extended montages, Looper explores both Joes' stories with sympathy and insight. As the second half of the film adds further dimension and conflict to their story, Looper does indeed become a bit confusing, but never in a way that overwhelms. Looper is an ambitious, inventive film worth investing time in, boasting two killer lead performances from Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

About Time

One of the few time travel movies that can be called a legit tear-jerker, About Time is a quintessentially English romantic comedy. Upon turning 21, Cornwall resident Tim Lake is told that all the men in his family can travel through time if they think about it hard enough. Thus empowered, Tim sets out to use his gift to perfect his love life. 

Naturally, things become complicated. Tim fumbles through the awkwardness of living and loving until he gets things right — for the most part, anyway. Directed by Richard Curtis, the man behind Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually, and the Bridget Jones movies, About Time is another warm-hearted hit, uniquely enhanced by its sci-fi twist. The cast is solid, with Bill Nighy in particular stealing every scene he's in. About Time's sense of humor combines marvelously with its genuine emotion — the time travel plot is the cherry on the sundae.

12 Monkeys

Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys tells a story about living in the present, despite knowledge of dire possibilities that may be set in stone. James Cole, played by Bruce Willis, is a prisoner from a bleak future who is sent back in time to discover the origins of a world-threatening virus. Things don't go according to plan, with Cole ending up in a mental hospital in the wrong year. Add in an interesting cast of characters ranging from Brad Pitt's Jeffrey Goines, a radical environmentalist, to Madeleine Stowe's skeptical Dr. Kathryn Railly, and 12 Monkeys becomes a rip-roaring journey through time.

12 Monkeys features a uniquely dirty aesthetic that has aged tremendously well. Moreover, the film's cast handles the tense, twisty story with confident skill, guiding the audience through complex storylines by the light of their impassioned performances. 12 Monkeys is simultaneously grounded and ambitious, as fearlessly strange as it is truly emotional. No wonder it's considered a sci-fi classic.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

The Girl who Leapt Through Time follows Mokoto Konno, a young girl whose life is almost cut short by a train. At the moment of impact, however, she is thrown back in time. Like most teenagers would, she decides to use her newfound abilities frivolously, avoiding awkward conversations about dating, reliving a karaoke session for hours, and getting flawless grades. These fixes don't come without consequence, however, as Mokoto soon realizes.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time doesn't force its moral upon the audience. Rather, its points are left to sink in, and never overstay their welcome. This is most apparent in the movie's central romance, which is subtle and bittersweet — and all the more powerful for it. Visually, this award-winning anime bursts with lush background art and fluid, expressive character movement. Altogether, this is a charming, melancholy movie about friendship, adolescence, and moving forward. And hey, if you love it, there's a manga that takes the story even further.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

The X-Men are no strangers to time travel. Days of Future Past sends them on that journey once more, led by a crop of new actors playing younger versions of the mutants we know and love. Wolverine, played by the inimitable Hugh Jackman, is let loose in 1973, tasked with pulling together a team that desperately doesn't want to work together. Even after the key players are assembled, Professor Xavier and Magneto are still not on the same page, each fighting to guide Mystique down a different path. But hey, it's the X-Men. What are they going to do — get along?

Days of Future Past explores generational clash to great effect. Comic fans will find plenty to enjoy as well: The iconic Sentinels are here, as well as beloved characters like Blink, the villainous Bolivar Trask, and Quicksilver, who nearly steals the movie with one spectacular scene. All in all, Days of Future Past is viewed by many as one of the best films in the X-Men series for very good reason.

Safety Not Guaranteed

Safety Not Guaranteed subverts expectations of a time travel movie, presenting a heartfelt story that flirts with its own strange premise before diving in. Three journalists set off to investigate an ad in the paper (based on an actual ad in a magazine that reached momentary internet fame) from a man seeking someone to go back in time with him. It sounds like a joke, but as each character discovers, it isn't. What follows is a deeply emotional journey that highlights the importance of living in the moment, savoring time with loved ones, and seizing off-the-wall opportunities. 

The movie's biggest draw is Aubrey Plaza, who minimizes her trademark snark and delivers one of her best performances as a result. Though the majority of the movie keeps things light-hearted, the ending has divided many viewers. Some believe that it seems unearned, but others feel like the conclusion offers a true payoff that blends the movie's meaning with sci-fi appeal. What side will you fall on? You'll have to watch to find out.