Movies about time travel can be a lot of fun. They allow characters to travel to places they’ve never seen before, experience alternate or parallel versions of reality, and even change the future. Ultimately most are about loss of control and the attempts to reestablish equilibrium between past, present, and future. The very best time travel films are also great because their plots are twisting and complicated in nature, allowing for a high re-watch value.
Compiled here is a list of eight of those types of time travel movies that will make you sit back and think once the movie is over. Don’t worry about spoilers. The whole point of the movie is the experience, so this list is just to inform and entice. Besides, the plots of some of these movies are still confusing fans years later and couldn’t begin to be described in a brief paragraph.
As a final note, these movies aren’t just complicated, but they are actually good movies and worth watching over and over again to try and figure out. Enjoy!
- 12 Monkeys (1995). Directed by the Monty Python member Terry Gilliam, this film is a far cry from the silliness of Flying Circus and Quest for the Holy Grail. 12 Monkeys is dark, somber, grimy, and best of all intelligent. Bruce Willis stars as James Cole, a prisoner in 2035 where most of the earth’s population has been wiped out by a mysterious plague. Cole is promised parole if he will go back in time and figure out how the plague started. But instead of going back to 1996, he accidentally goes back to 1990 and is committed to an insane asylum for his lunatic ravings. Cole travels back and forth through the three different time periods as he delves deeper into the mystery of the plague and his own unraveling mind. A highlight of the film is Brad Pitt’s manic, hyperactive character from the insane asylum who may hold the key to the whole mess.
- Frequency (2000). Director Gregory Hoblit is known mostly for his dark crime thrillers, but with Frequency he tries something new and delivers. John Sullivan (James Caviezel) is a police detective whose father Frank (Dennis Quaid) died when John was a boy. One night while experimenting with his dad’s ham radio, John discovers that he is able to speak to his father who is in the past. He warns his father and saves him from ever dying, but this causes his mother (from the past) to be murdered by a serial killer and now she is dead in the present. It is up to John in the present and Frank in the past to work together to identify the killer and try and change the time line again. This film does a good job mixing action, suspense, and fascinating twists with a well-acted cast.
- Donnie Darko (2001). This is one of those movies that most people still haven’t figured out yet, even twelve years later. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the character of Donnie, a dark and eccentric teenager who is visited by a terrifying giant rabbit named Frank that only he can see. Frank mostly tells him to commit destructive pranks, but at one point he tells Donnie that the world is going to end in one month. The engine of a jet crashes down on Donnie’s bedroom and things only get weirder from there. Frank continues to appear with his warning prophecies, Donnie’s unconscious acts become more and more dangerous, and everything spirals out of control into a climax that will leave you stunned. None of this might sound like time travel, but once you watch the movie you will understand. Or will you?
- The Fountain (2006). Ok, so this film isn’t exactly about time travel, but it involves two characters who exist in three different time periods as three different representations of themselves. Confused? Me too. Darren Aronofsky creates a film that is more about symbols and artistic, avant-garde expression than plot-drive science fiction. The result is visually astounding but textually mind-boggling. To make matters even more confusing, the film is told in a non-chronological sequence, jumping from the story of a modern day scientist, to a 16th century Spaniard, to a man in a floating sphere traveling through space. Huge Jackman and Rachel Weisz give pretty good performances, and the film is a delight to experience if you can allow your mind to follow its seemingly pointless and abstract scenes.
- The Jacket (2005). Adrian Brody does a superb job playing the troubled war veteran Jack Starks, who is suffering psychological problems due to a bullet he received to the head in battle. Jack becomes involved with a woman, her daughter, and a criminal on the run, which ends in a standoff with a policeman. Starks memory goes blank and when he comes to he is told that he killed the policeman and that the other people never existed. He is sent to an insane asylum where he is subjected to various forms of torture. While there he experiences a form of time travel that allows him to converse with the girl who was “killed”. A film of time travel and alternate realities all jumbled together, The Jacket is creepy and incoherent, but enjoyably complex.
- Primer (2003). The film is more confusing than Donnie Darko and may possibly be the most complicated movie of all time. Intrigued? A cerebral challenge of the highest proportions, Primer is about four tech entrepreneurs who toil away in their garage. Two of them believe that they have accidentally created a time machine of sorts. The machine multiples the time-space continuum of anything that enters it, and the two men try to manipulate time for their own financial gain. There’s not much more to say about the film and it is definitely one of those that you have to see for yourself. I believe that there are as many as seven different timelines going on at once. Bottom-line is that it’s a wonderful mind-bending puzzle that defies sense and sanity.
- Looper (2012). Stylish, smart, and thrilling, Looper is one of my favorite entries on the list. Time travel has been invented, but it only exists illegally with mobs on the black market. When people in the future need to “disappear”, they are sent back into the past where a hired gun is waiting to kill them. Joe (Joseph-Gordon Levitt) is one of these hired killers and he has a good life until his future self (played by Bruce Willis) is sent to be assassinated. Face to face with his future self, Joe is unable to kill himself and the character escapes. The rest of the movie is about Joe working with and against his future self to discover who is trying to kill them/him. A blend of old-fashion action and gritty camera work, this film is a pleasure to ponder over.
- Back to the Future (1985). I know, this film isn’t all that complex. In fact it is fairly straight forward and the time traveling DeLorean is more of a prop than a fleshed out idea. But I had to put it on this list because it is one of the most famous, and most fun, movies about time travel ever made. Michael J. Fox plays teenager Marty McFly who is accidentally zapped from the 1980s back in time to the 1950s by his scientist friend Doc (Christopher Lloyd). His future parents are now teenagers only just becoming romantically involved, and Marty must do everything he can to make sure they stay together so he will eventually be born and exist in the future. The film features special effects that were quite good for its time, and Michael J. Fox does a great job as the teenager who must survive the ‘50s with an ‘80s mindset. Well written, great acting, and a whole lot of fun, Back to the Future remains a classic of the genre.