Making a movie that revolves around time travel instantly creates paradoxes and often plot holes, but managed intelligently, the onscreen logic can make for fun and dangerous storytelling. This is a list is of the highest grossing movies and franchises that use time travel as a main story element (an example of a movie with time travel not as a main story element is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which would have been #4 had it qualified).
I've cheated a bit by grouping franchises together, allowing me to write about more movies. Out of the 18 movies on the list I’ve seen 17, which might mean I really like movies with time travel. All numbers are worldwide box office grosses adjusted for inflation. Box office revenue numbers are from Box Office Mojo and The Numbers. Bits of trivia are from IMDb and Wikipedia. Inflation data comes via the US Department of Labor.
Back to The Future (Franchise)
Back to the Future $842 Million
Back to the Future Part II $636 Million
Back to the Future Part III $445 Million
The Back to The Future trilogy is a must see classic with heart, humor, and paradoxical time travel. It’s a story that feels fresh no matter how many times you watch it.
The iconic time machine made out of a Delorean is so very '80s, but you might be surprised to learn that it almost was a kitchen appliance. Details on that here.
Three characters were recast during production on the trilogy including Marty McFly. Details on that here.
Part II and Part III were shot back-to-back and made for only $40 million each.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day $909 Million
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines $573 Million
The Terminator $179 Million
A desolate and dark future that can only be saved by keeping one man / woman alive in the past. The time travel element of the Terminator franchise is shown but never explained in technical detail. It’s a template that's been followed by many films since.
Terminator Salvation is the only movie in the franchise that does not contain time travel.
James Cameron sold the rights for The Terminator for only $1 in a deal to direct his screenplay.
During the shooting of the biker bar scene in Terminator 2 a female passerby wandered onto set. Despite the lights, trucks, and cameras, she thought it was a real bar. Upon seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger in the middle of the bar dressed only in boxer shorts, she asked what was going on. Schwarzenegger replied that it was male stripper night.
Star Trek (Franchise)
Star Trek $428 Million
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home $289 Million
Star Trek: First Contact $221 Million
Star Trek: Generations $189 Million
Star Trek is no stranger to time travel. Among its various TV shows, time travel has been in 50 episodes, so it's not surprising that Star Trek has the most number of movies with time travel of any franchise.
The 4 Star Trek movies with time travel feature three different generations of actors that crew the Enterprise.
William Shatner stated that the hardest line he has ever had to deliver was in Star Trek: Generations. "Who am I to argue with the Captain of the Enterprise?" (speaking to Captain Picard).
Simon Pegg didn’t audition for the part of Scotty, J.J. Abrams just emailed him an offer for the role.
Austin Powers (Franchise)
Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me $445 Million
Austin Powers in Goldmember $392 Million
A cheeky take on old spy films, the Austin Powers movies had people for years saying “Yeah, Baby! Yeah!”, “Do I make you horny?”, and “Shagadelic.” But it wasn’t until the second film that time travel was introduced, which I think resulted in much funnier films.
The Norwegian title for The Spy Who Shagged Me is Spionen Som Spermet Meg, which is a dirtier way of saying, "The spy who ejaculated on me.”
Rob Lowe dated one of Robert Wagner's daughters, and Lowe's impression of Wagner was developed years before its appearance in The Spy Who Shagged Me.
Sean Connery was considered to play Nigel Powers, but the role ultimately went to Michael Caine.
X-Men: Days of Future Past
X-Men: Days of Future Past united and fixed all previous X-Men movies, thanks to time travel and a very clever script. It’s arguably the best film in the series and has hopefully opened up the possibility of a larger X-Men film universe.
Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart were both utterly shocked when Bryan Singer approached the actors about reprising their roles. They had figured that those roles had been passed to Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy. McKellen and Stewart were delighted to return and work with actors playing the same characters.
Ellen Page is the first actress to play the role of Kitty Pryde more than once. Two different actresses played the character in X-Men and X2.
Men in Black 3
Whats better than Agent K? How about two of them via time travel. Josh Brolin’s impression of Tommy Lee Jones is spot on and really elevates the jokes in the movie. I’d love to see the '70s-'80s era M.I.B. with Brolin as Agent K.
"We'll take it from here" is the first line said by both Agent K actors — Jones and Brolin.
The Apollo launchpad really did have a zip-line escape system. Astronauts practiced using them in the event of some pre-launch emergency.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman
The only movie I haven’t seen on this list. I have nothing to say about it (because I haven't see it). I’m just surprised it made enough money to make this list. If you've seen it, chime in in the comments. Is this a movie I should watch?
Looper is a movie that layers time travel paradoxes on top of each other in a brilliant way. The makeup and performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt who is channeling Bruce Willis is a must watch. This is likely the film that got Rian Johnson the directing gig for two Star Wars films.
The character of Joe was originally going to move to Paris when he got older. But the budget prohibited that from happening. The Chinese distributor offered to pay to have those sequences shot in Shanghai, which ultimately fit the futuristic setting better.
The film has a recurring visual motif of clouds, including clouds in the sky, cigarette smoke, a dust cloud Joe uses in an action sequence, and creamer poured into black coffee. There are others, but those would be spoilers.
Meet the Robinsons
Meet the Robinsons is a story about family, purpose, and misusing time travel. The story gets pretty deep, which is kind of surprising in a film aimed at kids.
On the walls in Lewis' room in the orphanage are pictures of Nikola Tesla and Walt Disney.
It’s based on the book A Day With Wilbur Robinson and was originally going to be a live-action adaptation.
Twelve Monkeys is a mind trip, and Terry Gilliam was the madman to make it. It has a rare performance by Bruce Willis as his character is mentally fragile, not fearlessly heroic, and not funny. It also features a mostly unattractive Brad Pitt. The film takes every expectation and flips them on their heads.
Gilliam gave Willis a list of "Willis acting clichés" not to be used in the film. One item on the list was "steely blue eyes look."
Johnny Depp was considered for the role of Jeffrey Goines, which ended up being played by Pitt.