18. Star Trek
Director: J.J. Abrams
With Leonard Nimoy dearly departed—he the epitome of living long and prospering—there seems no better time to celebrate the brazen way in which J.J. Abrams both blew up the Star Trek universe and paid homage to all the ground it broke before. Old Spock (Nimoy) serves as the lynchpin upon which this re-boot hinges, wherein New and Old literally communicate with one another to birth an alternate timeline, providing a new generation of potential fans with an Enterprise crew all its own. Although time travel isn’t new to the Trekkie mythos (see: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home or First Contact), Abrams treats such space-time hopping as one of many technologically speculative ideas to hone within his lens-flaring future, celebrating the frontier-bursting spirit of Roddenberry’s original vision. Check the upcoming Terminator Genisys to see what kind of precedent Abrams set—time travel is pretty much every franchise’s key to a sexy mulligan.
Director: Nacho Vigalondo
Nacho Vigalondo’s low-budget thriller is probably the final proof anyone would need to accept that time travel may be the easiest sci-fi technology to film on a shoestring budget. Like many such films, Timecrimes plays fast and loose with the paradoxes inherent in time travel. Audiences at festivals such as Fantastic Fest, where it won Best Picture, didn’t seem to mind too much.
16. Donnie Darko
Director: Richard Kelly
Apparently, at some point in its burgeoning cult ascendency, director Richard Kelly admitted that even he didn’t totally get what’s going on in Donnie Darko—going so far as to release a “Director’s Cut” in 2005 that supposedly cleared up some of the film’s more unwieldy stuff. Yet another example of a small budget wringed of its every dime, Kelly’s debut crams love, weird science, jet engines, superhero mythology, wormholes, armchair philosophy, giant bunny rabbits and Patrick Swayze (as a child molester, no less) into a film that should be celebrated for its audacity more than its coherency. It also helps that Jake Gyllenhaal leads a stellar cast, all totally game. In Donnie Darko, the only thing that’s clear is Kelly’s attitude: that at its core cinema is the art of manifesting the unbelievable, of doing what one wants to do when one wants to do it.
15. Time After Time
Director: Nicholas Meyer
No list of time travel films would be complete without at least one featuring the father of time travel fiction himself, H.G. Wells. In Time After Time, Wells (Malcolm McDowell) himself is the inventor of the machine he will later write about, a contraption that is hijacked by—get this—none other than Jack the Ripper (David Warner), who is also Wells’s friend, because of course he is. Hopped up on adventure sauce, Wells follows Mr. The Ripper to 1979, where he’s dismayed that society isn’t the socialist haven he imagined. While director Nicholas Meyer is in a little over his head here, his sense of invention and glee with the subject matter is infectious. Plus, we can thank this film for preparing him to later direct the only Star Trek masterpiece, The Wrath of Khan. That he also went on to write the screenplay for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, another little time travel ditty, means today there’s still hope for him to kick that habit of writing Philip Roth adaptations and get back to his sci-fi bread and butter.
Directors: The Spierig Brothers
Whole galaxies away from their vampire flick Daybreakers, the Spierig Brothers’ Predestination seems like the work of an entirely different group of people. If you haven’t read the Robert Heinlein story upon which this is based, then describing the intricacies of this exquisite headfuck runs the risk of giving too much away. Needless to say, were we to compile this list in a few years, this film might jump easily into the Top 10, but for now, it’s best to admire Sarah Snook’s performance as the beleaguered Jane, time traveling cop protégé to Ethan Hawke’s elder officer. For nearly half of the film, Jane’s journey is a science-fiction-less account of a transgendered person coming to grips with the secrets her/his body has held for so long. It’s something truly special: the Spierig Brothers were able to take such an archetypal idea as time travel and ground it in the heartrending story of someone who’s born feeling forever out of place.
13. X-Men: Days of Future Past
Director: Bryan Singer
Has time travel ever been put toward a nobler purpose? We’re not talking about the prevention of a future dystopia—that’s standard time traveling fare. No, Bryan Singer’s merging of X-Men old and new served a much greater role: eliminating the events of X-Men: The Last Stand from the collective timeline. It just never happened. Thank you, time travel. Thank you.
12. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Director: Stephen Herek
Not Neo, not Johnny Utah, not John Wick—there will never be a more perfect role for Keanu Reeves than kind-hearted time traveling slacker “Ted” Theodore Logan. Joined by his intrepid best friend Bill (Alex Winter—wearing a surprisingly acceptable muscle shirt sans mid-riff), the two peruse the whole of Western Civilization in their time-skipping phone booth to kidnap historical figures, use them to keep from flunking History and ensure—yaddah yaddah yaddah—the safety of the human race. For many of us, this was a formative film: a conflation of pop culture and History for Dummies; a reason to pay attention in class; the first time we ever tried to figure out what “69” meant. Technical rules don’t much apply here; instead, the message is clear: a good friend will stick with you until the end of time.
11. Midnight in Paris
Director: Woody Allen
Woody Allen isn’t the type to lean into sci-fi, let alone time travel—that is, until one really begins to dissect his work. In Zelig (1983), Allen plays an Everyman who, through his ability to transform himself—physically and mentally—into anyone around him, ends up paying witness, without responsibility, to a number of key historic moments. Further back, in Sleeper (1973), Allen’s Miles is cryogenically frozen, only to awake 200 years in the future when the world is under the control of a police state and human sexuality is an anachronism. Together, and in light of Allen’s enormous filmography, it’s no surprise the director spars with the deep-seated urge to escape: to run away from commitment, failure, rejection or practically anything that tests his neurotically balanced norm. So, when it comes to Midnight In Paris, in which Gil (Owen Wilson), a struggling writer visiting Paris with his fiancée (Rachel Mcadams), enters a mysterious car at midnight and is taken back in time to the 1920s to hang with such literary idols F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), the films reads as yet another vehicle for Woody Allen to find escape. Time travel just so happens to be an excellent way to do so.