Time travel is the ultimate imaginative concept. Everyone has thought about traveling through time—to the past, to the future—and imagined what it’d be like to experience a time that isn’t our own.
The possibilities are endless for those who wield the ability to shift through time, and they’re the envy of anybody who has ever said or done something they regret and wish they could take back. It’s partly why the concept makes for such compelling stories in cinema.
When it comes to films, only a select few are usually able to travel through time, to years that haven’t happened yet or have happened far in the past. And it’s always better when those select characters are unique and able to elicit a strong response from the audience.
Here are our picks for the best time traveler characters in movies, who elevated their respective films and became memorable.
8. Tim Lake (About Time)
The everyman of time travel. Tim Lake’s entire paternal family has the ability to travel through their own past to change things as they want—and he learns about it on New Year’s Day from his father, after a disastrous party of which Tim gets caught in the middle.
As a young man, Tim uses his power to help him in social situations and ensure that his life takes the turns he wants it to take. That’s evident when he goes back and re-meets his future wife on three different occasions because he knows she’s the person of his dreams.
Tim is all of us living our lives, using his ability to enhance his own existence and to benefit those whom he cares for. However, he finds out that you have to live life—and not constantly rewrite it—to be happy.
7. Nyles and Sarah (Palm Springs)
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Nyles and Sarah make up the chaotic duo who meet at a wedding and end up stuck in a time loop, meaning they’re unable to escape the hell of being doomed to relive the same exact day for eternity.
The two of them see eye-to-eye on so much when it comes to the darkness of life, with Sarah being an emotionally vulnerable woman who needs time to overcome her fears and Nyles existing as a distant guy who wants to drink away eternity.
They form a strange bond when they both realize that they’re trapped in the same time loop, and through that bond comes a wholesomeness that makes life worth living—if only they could escape eternity.
6. Bill and Ted (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure)
Fun-loving, excitable, and wholly unaware of their surroundings most of the time, Bill and Ted are the kind of time travelers you’d want to meet on their journey through the infinite expanse.
Neither of them takes anything seriously—even when the fate of their world is on the line—and their enjoyment infects everybody who watches them bumble their way through their classic adventures.
Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter’s performances as Bill and Ted have become a part of pop culture through the decades, with the time-traveling slackers becoming more popular over time.
And it was that popularity that gave them a third film in 2020—a full 29 years after the second—which met with adulation from fans and critics alike, proving that Bill and Ted are indeed infinite.
5. Taki and Mitsuha (Your Name)
The tale of Taki and Mitsuha—who continually body switch for no apparent reason—is made complex when neither of them is able to contact the other to discuss their shared predicament. So, Taki goes and attempts to find Mitsuha.
After a relentless search, Taki finds Mitsuha’s village and discovers that it was destroyed by a meteor that fell to Earth and killed everybody in the town (including Mitsuha) two years earlier.
Meaning, Taki and Mitsuha aren’t just swapping bodies but traveling in time while doing so, with Taki going into the past and Mitsuha the future. The pair are bound by time, and they eventually fall in love while desperately trying to find one another.
4. Joe (Looper)
What do you do when your future self is sent back in time to kill a child before that child can commit crimes in the future? That’s the question that a young Joe must wrestle with when his older self appears.
Looper showcases Joe as a man with a dark future that’s made better by the right woman’s love for him—but that future is brought crashing down by a ruthless murderer. So, older Joe heads back in time to stop the killer before he can grow up.
What makes Joe’s story so compelling is that neither versions of himself are wrong. They have genuine reasons for holding their perspectives, and neither wants to give up a life that can make them happy. In the end, Joe understands the price of the future yet to come.
3. Phil Connors (Groundhog Day)
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Of all the people in cinema to be caught in an endless time loop and left to experience the hell of purgatory’s ceaseless repeat, the weatherman Phil Connors is the one who does it best.
Bill Murray’s character ends up trapped in Punxsutawney on Groundhog Day and relives the same day over and over. But Groundhog Day isn’t just a repetitive comedy in which we experience that loop with him—it’s an almost profound look at the meaning of existence.
Phil’s attempts to kill himself are to no avail. His moral compass becomes skewed by his lack of consequences. His cynical nature dissipates over the decades spent reliving the same day over again, as he eventually learns humility in the face of eternity.
All of that shows how endless time can change even the worst of people under the right conditions.
2. T-800 (The Terminator)
The machine sent back from the future to kill—and later protect—John Connor at all costs has become one of Hollywood’s greatest heroes and most formidable villains.
On both occasions, the merciless T-800 struck audiences with his robotic demeanor and qualities. However, our view of Schwarzenegger’s machine drastically changed as it became the protector.
During the first film, it was a terrifying killer cyborg whom we wanted to see destroyed. In the second film, it didn’t just become a guardian of the boy—it became his best friend, who always stood by his side.
1. Doc Brown and Marty McFly (Back to the Future)
Of all the characters who have traveled in time over the last 100 years of cinema, it’s Doc Brown and Marty McFly we’d most want turning up and offering us the chance to ride aboard the incredible DeLorean.
They complement one another perfectly, as Marty’s headstrong impulsiveness is tempered by Doc’s overly analytical mind, and they share a bond that will echo throughout pop culture forever.
No time travelers are cooler, funnier, or have better adventures than the iconic mad scientist and his rockstar-aspiring young friend. They deal with the repercussions of time travel’s butterfly effect and try to be responsible despite their imperfect attempts.