TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE
Top 10 Time Travel Movies
By Jedd Jong
X-Men: Days of Future Past sees our favourite mutants flung into an epic time travel odyssey, uniting the cast of the X-Men film trilogy with their younger counterparts from X-Men: First Class. Edge of Tomorrow, opening in June, has Tom Cruise continually relive a fatal battle with alien invaders. These are but the latest movies with a theme that’s always been fascinating: time travel. Whether it’s a voyage to an unfamiliar future, going back in time to repair a mistake or holding a tête-à-tête with one’s favourite historical figures, time travel stories offer up wondrous possibilities and mind-boggling consequences. F*** takes a look at ten such flicks, so hop into the DeLorean and let’s go!
This micro-budget ($7000!) indie film produced by, written by, directed by and starring Shane Carruth has become a cult curiosity and is often touted as “the most realistic time travel movie ever made”. It is also notorious for its elaborate plot, the unconventional structure in which the story unfolds causing a good deal of bewilderment. It’s the kind of movie where several infographics might be required to make sense of it all, but the authenticity of the thoroughly-researched technical dialogue and the sheer amount of thought and consideration put into devising the film is downright impressive. Primer has also been praised for the moral conundrum that is at its centre and bagged the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. “It does seem like there's the aesthetic of science fiction, with the aliens and chrome and neon and explosions in space, and then there's science fiction that's used as a literary device. That's the kind I'm interested in,” Carruth said in an interview with the A.V. Club.
In the recent viral video commercial for Volvo Trucks, the Muscles from Brussels performed “the most epic of splits”. In Timecop, Jean-Claude Van Damme performed his signature splits and spin-kicks in a memorable kitchen fight scene and later on, a villain tells him “the only way to make anything of all that fancy kicking is on Broadway.” As agent Max Walker of the Time Enforcement Commission, set up by the U.S. government to prevent the abuse of time travel technology, Van Damme delivered what is considered to be one of his most enjoyable performances. Timecop is pretty much the epitome of 90s sci-fi action flicks, filled with its share of cheesy moments, plot holes and featuring a protagonist sporting a glorious mullet. It was spun-off into a TV series that lasted nine episodes, as well as a straight-to-DVD sequel sans Van Damme named Timecop 2: The Berlin Decision (of course it’s about killing Hitler). A remake is in the works, and we hope whoever replaces Van Damme gets to do a split or two of his own.
THE FINAL COUNTDOWN
We’ve gotten that song by Europe back into your head, haven’t we? This (unrelated) film is beloved by military hardware fans for its main star: The USS Nimitz supercarrier, which the filmmakers were granted access to. Kirk Douglas played the vessel’s captain with Martin Sheen as a civilian observer, who are aboard the ship with its full crew when the Nimitz enters a time vortex, crossing from 1980 to 1941. They find themselves in Pearl Harbour on the eve of the fateful attack, debating whether or not they should interfere with history or let events take their course. The film’s signature sequence is probably a dogfight in which F-14 Tomcats take on Mitsubishi Zeroes. The premise for The Final Countdown may sound goofy and jingoistic, but there are some interesting science fiction and military history ideas at play. While it’s unlikely to happen, we’d be game for a remake starring Charlie Sheen and Michael Douglas.
BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE
It’s every history buff’s fantasy: in order to pass their history presentation, two slackers hurtle through time, whisking historical figures from Socrates to Abraham Lincoln from their native time periods to San Dimas, California of 1988. Who are those two guys? Why, they’re none other than Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan; their band Wyld Stallyns forming the basis of a future utopian society. This cult classic comedy offered up such images as Napoleon on a water slide, Joan of Arc instructing an aerobics class, Beethoven rocking out on a multiple synthesiser set-up and Sigmund Freud snacking on a corn dog (get it?) Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves starred in the title roles – this is where the “Conspiracy Keanu” image macro comes from. The public perception of Keanu Reeves today is that of a stoic, sullen actor, so there’s a novelty in seeing him as dim-witted metal-head Ted. The chemistry that Reeves and Winter shared, in addition to the joy of seeing Billy the Kid and Socrates as best buds with legendary comedian George Carlin as mentor Rufus ensured this would become a comedy favourite. It was followed with Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey in 1994 and talk of a third film has swirled for years. While we wait to see where that heads, be excellent to each other and party on, dudes!
STARK TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME
Time travel has figured heavily in the Star Trek canon over the years, but the most memorable use of this trope was probably in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Leonard Nimoy directed the third film The Search for Spock and followed it up with this comedic tale that sees the Enterprise crew journey from 2286 to San Francisco in 1986. Their mission was to acquire, of all things, a pair of humpback whales, after it was discovered that a mysterious starship-crippling signal being emitted by a probe matched whale songs. A much lighter affair than the preceding three films, The Voyage Home offered such gems as McCoy miraculously curing an old lady’s kidney disease with futuristic medicine, Chekhov searching for “nuclear wessels” as the Cold War raged on and Spock performing the Vulcan nerve pinch on a bratty punk on the bus. The only use of a phaser in this film was to shoot open a lock. The Voyage Home has the distinction of being the first Star Trek film screened in the Soviet Union, at a showing organised by the World Wildlife Fund to commemorate a ban on whaling.
Ever done something so stupid it made you go “boy, I should kick my own ass”? A Looper named Joe gets to do just that. In Rian Johnsons’ sci-fi thriller, “Loopers” are specialised assassins who execute those sent back in time by the criminal syndicates of the future for a clean, untraceable disposal. Eventually, all Loopers must “close the loop” by killing the older version of themselves sent back in time – but old Joe won’t go out without a fight. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt in prosthetic makeup as the younger Joe and Bruce Willis as the older version, Looper gained a good deal of critical acclaim even if the makeup wasn’t wholly convincing. If casting Bruce Willis as an older Joseph Gordon-Levitt wasn’t weird enough, Looper throws in Emily Blunt as a shotgun-toting, redneck single mom – and she was great at it. Commenting on the technical aspects of time travel in movies, Johnson commented that he found it liberating to view time travel as a “fantasy element” in a similar light as “unicorns or dragons.” In an interview with Rope of Silicon, he conceded that “there's no possible way for a two hour movie to create a logical matrix that makes time travel impenetrably grounded in real world logic.”
This one also starred Bruce Willis as a time-traveller, this time playing a convict from 2035 forced to travel back in time to find out more about “The Army of the Twelve Monkeys”, a mysterious terrorist organisation that allegedly released a virus resulting in the near-annihilation of the human race. Director Terry Gilliam, known for his work with the Monty Python troupe and the outlandish, imaginative visuals in his films, had previously touched on time travel in his comedy Time Bandits, but 12 Monkeys was a totally different animal, containing musings on the subjectivity of memory and the role of technology in society. Co-starring Madeleine Stowe as a psychiatrist and Brad Pitt as a fanatical mental patient, the film earned Pitt a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. “Brad was very keen to do the part, because it was so unlike anything he'd ever tried to do before: a fast-talking, wild, crazed person,” Gilliam said. “I was intrigued by the idea and I always try to cast against type,” he continued, noting that Pitt was eager to break away from the perception of him as “the sexiest man alive”.
Starring Bill Murray and directed by the late Harold Ramis, this comedy has been called “the most philosophical movie of all time”. Sent to cover the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, arrogant, mean TV weatherman Phil Connors (Murray) finds himself living February 2nd over and over again, unable to break through to a “tomorrow”. A complex, profound morality tale wrapped in a very funny outer covering, Groundhog Day has become a significant movie for many. Ramis’ mother-in-law, who lived for 35 years in a Zen Buddhist meditation centre, told him that the abbots and senior monks there loved the movie and thought “it expresses a fundamental Buddhist concept”. Upon realising that he can live the same day repeatedly with no consequences, Phil starts out indulging his desires by robbing an armoured car, seducing women and driving recklessly. Over time however, he begins to improve himself, taking piano lessons, practising ice carving and just becoming less of a jerk, leading his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) to warm up to him. While Phil doesn’t traverse time and space like some of the other protagonists on this list, his journey is no less incredible. In 2006, Groundhog Day was deservedly selected for preservation in the Library of Congress by the National Film Registry.
A large franchise has sprouted up around the central figure of the Austrian-accented cyborg, so sometimes it’s easy to forget just what an achievement the original Terminator film was. The Terminator had its origins in a fever dream James Cameron had of a metallic skeleton emerging from a fireball armed with kitchen knives and the idea grew from there. Lots of well-documented stories have sprung up around the making of the film, including that O.J. Simpson was considered for the title role but Cameron did not think he would make a convincing cold-blooded killer. The Terminator features a fun time paradox: a resistance fighter is sent back in time to save one Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) from a robotic killing machine also sent back in time, as her child will grow into a resistance leader and saviour of mankind. Of course, said resistance fighter Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) ends up fathering the child, John Connor. While the excellent sequel Terminator 2: Judgement Day had a much larger budget and more spectacular action set pieces, The Terminator was a smart, lean and effective sci-fi horror-thriller that put on full display the potential within its director. Given what a classic this one is, it’s with trepidation that we await the reboot Terminator: Genesis. Arnold Schwarzenegger has explained that he’ll be back in that one because the T-800 is “living tissue over a metal endoskeleton”, and living tissue can age. We’ll buy that.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
You knew this was going to top the list, and even if it means we’re predictable, Back to the Future deserves the #1 spot. The DeLorean DMC-12 ties with the TARDIS for “most iconic time machine ever” and the paradox-fuelled plot in which a teenager must ensure his parents meet and get together during their high school prom so he can eventually be born is entertaining and nostalgic. Michael J. Fox played Marty McFly, and though he was the first choice for the part, he was tied up with shooting the sitcom Family Ties and Eric Stoltz was cast instead. Stoltz’s performance was eventually deemed too dramatic and serious, by which time Fox was available. As the loveable mad scientist Doc Brown, Christopher Lloyd delivered a hilarious wild-eyed, crazy-haired performance and the unlikely duo of Doc and Marty carried the film as much its sci-fi premise and awkward family hijinks did. Back to the Future spawned two more films, the second famous for its scenes set in the far-flung future of 2015 (science, you’ve got one year to give us self-lacing Nikes. One year!) and the third a rip-roaring Western. Co-writer Bob Gale was inspired by flipping through his dad’s high school yearbook and wondering what it would be like if he was schoolmates with his father. When asked what he thought made the film work so well, director Robert Zemeckis said “every line of dialogue, every beat, every cut, every shot is doing what movies are supposed to do, which is propelling the plot or establishing character. There’s not a single extraneous frame.”