Total Recall

15 Must-See Time Travel Movies

With Mr. Peabody & Sherman hitting theaters, we run down some of the most memorable journeys across time and space.

by | March 5, 2014 | Comments

Time TravelThis weekend, Rocky & Bullwinkle fans get a blast from the past with Mr. Peabody & Sherman, which sends the animated duo (voiced by Ty Burrell and Max Charles) on an epic adventure through time. To celebrate the return of the smartest talking dog in ‘toondom and his precocious ward, we decided to honor our stars by rounding up a list of some other noteworthy time-travel movies — and while none of them feature canine inventors, we think you’ll find more than a few favorites. It’s time for Total Recall!

Back to the Future


Great Scott! On one hand, Back to the Future is quintessentially 1980s — you’ve got Huey Lewis on the soundtrack, Michael J. Fox in the lead, and a DeLorean for a time machine — but on the other, it’s a charmingly old-fashioned comedy that sends its hero back in time as much to save his own father from growing up to be a schmuck as it does to laugh along with the audience at the many ways in which American pop culture changed between 1955 and 1985. The sequels had their moments, but it’s the original that still really hits the spot; as Adam Smith wrote for Empire Magazine, “To put it bluntly: if you don’t like Back to the Future, it’s difficult to believe that you like films at all.”

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure


Two teenage idiots, George Carlin, and a magic phone booth. They don’t sound like the most likely ingredients for cinematic glory, but then there’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, starring Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves as our two non-intrepid heroes, a pair of high school buddies destined for greatness — but only if they can pass an upcoming history test. They get a little extra help courtesy of Rufus (Carlin), a citizen of the future utopian society inspired by the music Bill & Ted go on to record, who travels back in time to help them study by giving them some most excellent face time with historical figures like Napoleon, Socrates, Billy the Kid, and Abraham Lincoln. Not the most serious fare ever spun from the time-travel premise, but it works; as Larry Carroll wrote for Counting Down, “This is the rare kind of movie that you could watch along with your kids and actually feel like you’re teaching them something.”

Donnie Darko


Time travel, a falling jet engine, and a dude in a bunny suit: From these disparate ingredients, writer-director Richard Kelly wove the tale of Donnie Darko, a suburban teenager (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) charged with repairing a rift in the fabric of our dimension. Or something. To call Darko “open to interpretation” would be understating the case a bit — it’s been alternately confounding and delighting audiences since it was released in 2001 — but its dense, ambiguous plot found stronger purchase with critics, who cared less about what it all meant than about simply having the chance to see an American movie that took some substantial risks. Though a few reviewers were confused and/or unimpressed (Staci Lynne Wilson of Fantastica Daily called it “derivative,” and Joe Leydon dismissed it as “a discombobulating muddle” in his write-up for the San Francisco Examiner), overall critical opinion proved a harbinger of the cult status the film would eventually enjoy on the home video market; as Thomas Delapa wrote for the Boulder Weekly, “If the sum total of Donnie Darko is hard to figure, there’s no questioning that its separate scenes add up to breathtaking filmmaking.” Despite a paltry $4.1 million gross during its original limited run, Darko returned to theaters in 2004 with a director’s cut — one whose 91 percent Tomatometer actually improved upon the original’s.

Groundhog Day


Under the right circumstances, time travel sounds like quite a bit of fun. Finding yourself trapped in a time loop in Punxsutawney, PA, on the other hand, is a living nightmare — at least for Phil Connors (Bill Murray), the obnoxious newscaster at the heart of director Harold Ramis’ classic 1993 comedy Groundhog Day. But for the audience, Connors’ torment is an invitation to cinematic bliss — first courtesy of Murray’s perfectly deadpan depiction of the callous Connors, then through his progressively more unhinged reaction to the discovery that he’s doomed to repeat the same 24 hours of his life seemingly forever, and then finally in his expected (but no less sweet) moments of self-discovery in the final act. “Groundhog Day may not be the funniest collaboration between Bill Murray and director Harold Ramis,” admitted the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan. “Yet this gentle, small-scale effort is easily the most endearing film of both men’s careers, a sweet and amusing surprise package.”

Hot Tub Time Machine


The 1980s got kind of a bum rap at the time, but that hasn’t stopped those of us who grew up during the decade from giving in to nostalgia during the 21st century, or from fetishizing the era’s best films — which is why it was such a winkingly self-referential treat to see 1980s hero John Cusack lead an ensemble cast through Hot Tub Time Machine, director Steve Pink’s ribald comedy about a group of schlubby friends given a surprise chance (via magic hot tub, natch) to revisit the best years of their lives. It’s an unabashedly goofy premise, but screenwriter Josh Heald manages to leave the whimsy with a few dashes of surprising poignancy; as Laremy Legel wrote for, “Well played, Hot Tub Time Machine, well played. You defied expectations, in a good way, and managed to evolve from ‘potentially silly concept’ to ‘fairly funny film.'”



Plenty of people would love to take the opportunity to travel back in time and see our younger selves, but Rian Johnson’s Looper takes this premise and adds a nasty twist. When a hit man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) realizes his latest quarry is his older self (Bruce Willis) — an event known among his peers as “closing the loop” — he muffs the job, allowing him(self) to escape and setting in motion a high-stakes pursuit that puts a widening circle of people in danger. Tense, funny, and surprisingly heartfelt, Looper may suffer from some of the same scientific story flaws as other time travel movies, but it also manages to turn its by-now-familiar basic ingredients into an uncommonly affecting and thought-provoking sci-fi drama. “Looper imagines a world just near enough to look familiar,” mused Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum, “and just futuristic enough to be chillingly askew.”



Like any genre, science fiction has its share of clichés — and anything relating to time travel probably belongs on that list. But few films have ever dealt with time travel — or the many personal and ethical questions that could arise from ownership of the technology — with the level of intelligence that Shane Carruth’s ultra low-budget Primer brought to the table. The story of two garage scientists who accidentally build a time machine, Primer eschews whiz-bang special effects for a nuts-and-bolts look at the science behind the device, and a cold, hard look at how quickly and easily a friendship can be torn asunder by unchecked power and bottomless greed. It certainly isn’t for everyone — the reams of technical dialogue prompted critics such as the BBC’s Matthew Leyland to dismiss it as “one of the most willfully obscure sci-fi movies ever made” — but if you can absorb the material, it’s uncommonly gripping. Time Out’s Jessica Winter was appreciative, saying “this film imagines its viewers to be smart, possessed of a decent attention span and game for a challenge. It doesn’t happen all that often.”

Somewhere in Time


Time travel has been used as a plot device to set up all kinds of stories, but rarely has it been employed with the sort of three-handkerchief weepie abandon brought to bear on 1980’s Somewhere in Time. Starring Christopher Reeve as a starry-eyed playwright accosted by a mysterious older woman who pleads with him to “come back to me” before pressing a locket into his hand and disappearing, Time slowly morphs into a fantastical tale about coming unmoored in time via self-hypnosis in order to be with the one you love — even if that love is inspired by a portrait of someone you don’t remember ever knowing. A divisive cult classic, Time has always been dismissed by less patient or romantically inclined viewers, but for others, it’s well worth watching. “Above all,” argued Apollo Guide’s Ryan Cracknell, “this film captures a romantic part of the imagination that is often left unexplored.”

Star Trek IV – The Voyage Home


Having explored the outer limits of space, Star Trek spent much of its fourth cinematic installment in decidedly more familiar environs — namely, the America (specifically the San Francisco bay area) of 1986, thanks to a storyline, conceived by returning director Nimoy, that had the crew of the Enterprise traveling 600 years back in time to retrieve a humpback whale in order to… Well, it isn’t important, really; what mattered — at least to the folks who helped Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home to a $133 million worldwide gross — was that it lived up to Nimoy’s goal of showing audiences “a great time” with a feature that played up the lighter side of a franchise whose humor was often overshadowed by its big ideas. Weathering a number of pre-production storms — including William Shatner’s refusal to come back without a raise and the chance to direct the next sequel — Voyage triumphantly emerged as what Roger Ebert referred to as “easily the most absurd of the Star Trek stories — and yet, oddly enough… also the best, the funniest and the most enjoyable in simple human terms.”

The Terminator


It was made with a fraction of the mega-budget gloss that enveloped its sequels, but for many, 1984’s The Terminator remains the pinnacle of the franchise — not to mention one of the most purely enjoyable movies of the last 30 years. Subsequent entries would get a little hard to follow, but the original’s premise was simple enough: A scary-looking cyborg (Schwarzenegger) travels back in time to kill a woman (Linda Hamilton) before she can give birth to the child who will grow up to lead the human resistance against an evil network of sentient machines. Tech noir at its most accessible, Terminator earned universal praise from critics such as Sean Axmaker of Turner Classic Movies, who wrote, “Gritty, clever, breathlessly paced, and dynamic despite the dark shadow of doom cast over the story, this sci-fi thriller remains one of the defining American films of the 1980s.”


Time After Time


What if H.G. Wells really built a time machine — and what if Jack the Ripper used it to flee into the future? That’s the intriguing premise behind Nicholas Meyer’s Time After Time, starring Malcolm McDowell as Wells and David Warner as the killer. After Jack travels to 1979, Wells pursues him, setting in motion a cat-and-mouse thriller, culture-clash comedy, and love story all in one, with a dash of sharp social commentary thrown in for good measure. “Time After Time is still a fun fish-out-of-water flick that deserves more attention than it has received in the thirty years following its release,” wrote Simon Miraudo for Quickflix. “But there’s still plenty of time for that.”

Time Bandits


Terry Gilliam and time travel: A match made in cinematic heaven. Years before he proved it for a second time with the much darker 12 Monkeys, Gilliam directed a far sillier — and visually dazzling — venture into the genre with 1981’s Time Bandits, uniting a stellar cast (including Shelley Duvall, John Cleese, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, and Sean Connery) in service of a deceptively thought-provoking caper about an 11-year-old history buff (Craig Warnock) on a journey through time with a group of dwarves. A solid critical and commercial hit, Bandits proved a favorite for writers like Roger Ebert, who pronounced it “amazingly well-produced” and applauded, “The historic locations are jammed with character and detail. This is the only live-action movie I’ve seen that literally looks like pages out of Heavy Metal magazine.”



In a career dotted with cult classics, 1994’s Timecop manages to stand out as one of the cultiest. And okay, so it’s hard to call a movie that raked in more than $100 million worldwide a “cult” picture — but if you’ve seen the way Timecop takes a cool premise (time travel, natch) and renders it both impenetrably complicated and irrelevant to the action, you know it’s essentially the very definition of the term. (Also, it stars Ron Silver.) The plot is full of holes, but as the filmmakers knew, once you accept the notion of Jean-Claude Van Damme as an officer of the Time Enforcement Commission, you can buy into pretty much anything, and by the time you get to Timecop‘s final act — in which past and future versions of Van Damme battle past and future versions of Silver — you’ve reached that wonderful place where the laws of logic no longer exist. The highest-grossing movie of Van Damme’s career, Timecop spun off a sequel, a short-lived television show, and even a series of books. Not bad for a movie that Roger Ebert described as “the kind of movie that is best not thought about at all, for that way madness lies.”


The Time Machine


This isn’t the only time Hollywood’s tried adapting H.G. Wells’ classic story, but it’s definitely the best. Starring Rod Taylor as the Victorian time-traveling scientist George and featuring Oscar-winning special effects from Gene Warren and Tim Baar, director George Pal’s version of The Time Machine might seem somewhat quaint by today’s standards; still, whatever it lacks in modern-day visual pizzazz, it more than makes up in the stuff that matters — right down to Wells’ vision of a distant post-human future populated by docile creatures and the monstrous Morlocks who use them for food. It’s “Somewhat dated, and not quite up to the source material,” admitted Luke Y. Thompson of New Times, “but still some good retro fun.”

12 Monkeys


Any time director Terry Gilliam manages to wrangle one of his films through the studio system, it’s a cause for celebration — and that goes double for a picture like 12 Monkeys, which almost seamlessly weds Gilliam’s signature flights of fancy with good old-fashioned commercialism to produce a knotty time travel story starring a pair of matinee idols (Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt) in an apocalyptic thriller that never stops asking questions — or forcing the audience to answer their own as they hustle to keep up with the unfolding drama. “There’s always overripe method to his madness,” observed Janet Maslin for the New York Times, “but in the new 12 Monkeys Mr. Gilliam’s methods are uncommonly wrenching and strong.”

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out Mr. Peabody & Sherman.

Finally, here’s what happened when Peabody and Sherman met Ludwig Van Beethoven:

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