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Time Travel Movies
By Jeffrey M. Anderson

<< Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 >>

Past Man in Present

We're all moving forward in time at every moment. All you have to do is find some way to pass safely through the years. People sometimes bury "time capsules," full of inanimate objects so that future people can see what we were thinking at any given moment. One of the most common time-travel methods for Past Man in Present is being frozen. In comic books, WWII superhero Captain America was frozen so that he could re-emerge and fight again in the present day. But perhaps the most obvious example in movies is Fred Schepisi's Iceman (1984), in which a frozen Neanderthal man comes back to life in the 20th century.

Easily the best Past Man in Present movie is Nicholas Meyer's Time After Time (1979), an immensely clever tale in which Jack the Ripper (David Warner) steals H.G. Wells' (Malcolm McDowell) real-life time machine and voyages to 1979 San Francisco. What's unique about this story is the psychology behind Jack's decision; if he had gone to the past, he could have used his knowledge to gain riches and power, but instead he goes to the future, where violence is more prevalent. In one striking scene, Jack merely turns on a television set, demonstrating to his nemesis the extent to which violence has permeated world culture. Mary Steenburgen stars once again as the love interest for a time-traveling man. (Look fast for young Corey Feldman as a kid in a museum.)

Do you want fries with that, Mr. Wells?
Time After Time

A more popular Past Man in Present film is Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) and its sequels [complete series box set]. Originally designed to spoof James Bond, Flint and other 1960s spy movies, Austin Powers (Mike Myers) is a relic from that era transplanted to the 1990s in order to catch his arch-nemesis, Dr. Evil (also Myers). (Like our Iceman, he wakes up from a deep freeze.) The twist in these films is that Austin remains true to his 1960s roots and forces the 1990s culture to catch up with him. He retains his awesome confidence level, and his ability to woo women, despite his obvious cultural deficiencies.

The first Austin Powers film did modest box office, but quickly became a cult phenomenon on home video, leading to a big-budget sequel, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999). This time, Dr. Evil uses a time machine to travel back to the 1960s to steal Austin Powers's "mojo" (i.e. his sexual drive). Finding himself suddenly "impotent" in the 1990s, Austin must likewise travel back to set things right. Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002), the third, and least interesting film, features even more characters and a trip to the 1970s.

Roughly the same plot had been used just a few years earlier, in a "serious" action film, Demolition Man (1993). A criminal (Wesley Snipes), who has been cryogenically frozen since 1996 suddenly wakes up in the non-violent 21st century and begins a new crime spree. Officials must wake up hero Sylvester Stallone - frozen in the same year - as their only hope of catching him. This ridiculous, but infectious film has a great deal of fun skewering the future with its dull, pacifist ways and its overwhelming product placement.

The best example of the "frozen" time jumper is Woody Allen's early, funny slapstick effort Sleeper (1973), in which a health food store owner, Miles Monroe, goes in for an ulcer operation and wakes up 200 years later, where bacon and junk food is considered healthy, where an old VW Bug still runs, and where the Orgasmatron has all but replaced sex. ("It's hard to believe that you haven't had sex for 200 years." "204, if you count my marriage.") In one great scene, Miles is called upon to comment upon certain 20th century artifacts whose purposes are unknown.

Former indie superstar James Mangold's Past Man in Present film Kate & Leopold (2001) was a bit of a snoozer. Hugh Jackman stars as a duke living comfortably in 1876. He spies a stranger (Liev Schreiber), follows him, and winds up in present-day New York. It turns out that the stranger is actually an inventor who has discovered a time-hole, and before he can return the Duke to his rightful time, he falls down an elevator shaft. So the Duke politely crashes with neighbor Kate (Meg Ryan), and, while he tries to become accustomed to a world without manners, an awkward romance begins. This is fairly likable, but ultimately forgettable, fluff. Mangold originally planned a twisted ending in which Kate and Leopold turn out to be of the same bloodline, but Miramax changed it to a more innocuous ending. (Mangold got his cut restored on DVD.)

Vincent Ward's nearly forgotten The Navigator: A Mediaeval Odyssey (1988) takes place in 1348, when the Black Plague threatens to engulf a small village. One resident, Griffin, has a vision that if he places a cross atop a certain temple, the plague will be averted. Led by Griffin, a group of villagers tunnel into the center of the earth and emerge in 1988 New Zealand. This is a dense, slow-moving film that can easily baffle its viewers, but it still has its fans.

Two more Past Man in Present films appearing in the 1980s of note: Flight of the Navigator (1986) doesn't quite live up to its intriguing premise, in which a 12 year-old boy falls into a ravine in 1978 and steps out in 1986. Scientists begin to probe his brain to find out what happened, and his only clue comes in the form of strange dreams. And in The Philadelphia Experiment (1984), the Navy, circa 1943, is experimenting with a new kind of invisible radar, when it accidentally sends two men into the future, to 1984.

Les Visiteurs (The Visitors)

Finally, by far the most successful Past Man in Present movie hails from France, where it held the all-time box office record until bested by Titanic. In Les Visiteurs (The Visitors) (1993), a senile sorcerer accidentally sends a 12th-century knight (Jean Reno) and his squire (Christian Clavier) to the present. They enlist the aid of a descendant to get back home. A weaker sequel, Les Couloirs du temps: Les visiteurs 2 (Corridors of Time: The Visitors II) (1998) followed, as did the inevitable, lackadaisical American remake, Just Visiting (2001), in which Reno and Clavier reprised their roles.

Future Man in Present

This category finds us at a distinct disadvantage. Since we know nothing of the future, we never know if these time travelers are here for our benefit or to harm us. The best example of this comes in James Cameron's Terminator films. In Cameron's story, people can travel through time in a giant globe, but they lose their clothes during the trip. In the first film, two figures arrive in the present day of 1984, one a big, monosyllabic man-mountain (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and the second the handsome, spry Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). They're both looking for Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). The former wants to kill her and the latter wants to save her. In the future, machines have taken over, and Connor's son leads the human rebellion against them, so the machines have devised a clever, if unorthodox, method of wiping him out before he's even born.

Terminator 2

If it's not giving away too much, the machines fail, and so they try again several years later in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) [Extreme Edition]. Now Sarah's son John (Edward Furlong) is ten years old. The terminator (Schwarzenegger) appears again, but this time he's on our side, having been captured and re-programmed by the humans. The bad guy is an even deadlier thing, a shape-shifter called the T-1000 (played by Robert Patrick), and made of a kind of malleable liquid metal.

Cameron directed both films with a huge amount of style and personality, effortlessly jumping from the $6.4 million original to the $88 million sequel. Both are superbly written with plenty of great ideas and clever twists. Unfortunately, that didn't last when it came time for the lazy 2003 sequel, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Of the original cast and crew, only Schwarzenegger could be persuaded to return. Jonathan Mostow (U-571) took over the direction and Nick Stahl took over the role of the older John Connor (though Furlong was also the appropriate age). Blond babe Kristanna Loken plays the new villainess, though her powers are slightly unclear this time. It was overall a hugely disappointing and obligatory conclusion to an otherwise lively trilogy.

Future Man in the Present (and Whales).

Another very good example of the future man visiting the present comes in Brad Anderson's unusual romance, Happy Accidents (2000). New Yorker Ruby Weaver (Marisa Tomei) has trouble meeting the right guy until Sam Deed (Vincent D'Onofrio) walks into her life. He's a little odd, but they get along swell - until he reveals to her that he's really a time traveler from the year 2470. The movie's catch is that we never know whether to really believe him or not. He could be telling the truth or he could be crazy - either scenario is possible. Anderson, who also directed the romantic comedy Next Stop Wonderland and the horror film Session 9, has a knack for mixing genres, in a refreshing combination of grit and sweetness. The only catch is that D'Onofrio, who has padded his resume with an impressive collection of psychos and weirdos, doesn't particularly fit the role of romantic lead; we constantly worry that he's suddenly going to flip and murder poor Tomei in cold blood.

Star Trek IV

The Future Man in Present strain doesn't have to be scary and mysterious, if we start on the future end and follow the characters backwards on their journey. This is exactly what happens in two of the best Star Trek films. In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) - a.k.a. "the one with the whales" -- the crew of the Enterprise (traveling on board an abandoned Klingon ship per the end of Part III) arrive back at earth to find a new menace. A weird cloud is making whale sounds, but there aren't any whales left on earth to respond. So the crew must time-travel back to 1986, pick up a couple of whales, and return to save the Earth. Most of the pleasure of this enjoyable film, directed by Leonard Nimoy, comes from seeing our old favorite characters Kirk (William Shatner), Spock (Nimoy), Bones (DeForrest Kelley) and the rest making their way around 1986 San Francisco, trying to figure out how us primitive folks get by. In one scene, Scotty (James Doohan) tries to get a computer to work by talking into the mouse. And dig Spock on Muni!

Four films later, the Next Generation crew had taken over the series. Star Trek: First Contact (1996) pits Picard (Patrick Stewart), Riker (Jonathan Frakes, who directed), Data (Brent Spiner) and the crew against the Borg. The evil collective has figured out a way to travel back in time and prevent the "first contact," i.e. the moment at which the Vulcans met earthlings for the first time - when Dr. Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell) discovered warp speed. So our crew must make sure this event happens on schedule, preferably without letting anyone know what's going on and thus changing the course of time.

A slight anomaly comes in Lucas (son of Carl) Reiner's low-budget comedy The Spirit of '76 (1990), in which future beings, living in 2176, wish to obtain copies of the long-destroyed Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The time travelers Adam-11 (David Cassidy), Heinz-57 (Geoff Hoyle) and Chanel-6 (Olivia d'Abo) attempt to reach 1776, but accidentally wind up in 1976, where be-ins, disco, gas-lines, potheads and "the Hustle" are the norm. It's not exactly "future man in present," but close enough for some of us.

Finally, there is the even lower-budget Trancers (1985), a sort of Terminator knock-off in which time travelers do not materialize as themselves; they occupy the bodies of members of their own bloodline. Trancers is notable for giving an early role to future Oscar-winner Helen Hunt, playing a 1985 punk rock girl who lends the hero a hand.

Present Man in Future

Our fourth time phase offers all kinds of mystery as we leave everything familiar behind and join the protagonist on a voyage into the future, where anything can happen. Traveling into the past, we at least have some idea what to expect. Not so anymore. As discussed before, one of the easiest ways to get to the future is by being frozen, or sent into a state of "suspended animation," as happens to Buck Rogers in the ultra-cheesy Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979).

Oddly most of the films made in this strain are either low-budget efforts or camp classics. The key entry is, of course, Planet of the Apes (1968) and its sequels, though further explanation would ruin that film for newcomers. Viewers of all ages and backgrounds are encouraged to avoid Tim Burton's 2001 remake, a disaster by any standards. Many of the best futuristic stories, like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, start in the future and stay there, with no time travel involved.

But there's Edgar G. Ulmer's ultra-cheap Beyond the Time Barrier (1960), the story of a test pilot who accidentally flies a new rocket into the future, where he is treated as a spy and a prisoner. Since the men of the future are sterile, he is made to procreate with the royal daughters. Ulmer, the famous "B"-movie auteur, filmed this one back-to-back with a sci-fi film called The Amazing Transparent Man.

Freejack (1992) was a serious dud, and, strangely, Anthony Hopkins' first film after his big Oscar win for The Silence of the Lambs. Emilio Estevez plays an auto racer who is transported by a bounty hunter (Mick Jagger!) into the future a nanosecond before he crashes. An evil corporation wishes to sell his body to an ailing, wealthy customer, but he escapes. He encounters his fiancée (Rene Russo) now fifteen years older and working for the bad guys. Continued >>

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