Time Travel Movies|
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
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Not every time travel story is so cut-and-dried. Sometimes characters get to like the idea of time traveling itself rather than reaching any particular destination. Of course, these well-traveled jumpers have a higher chance of wrecking the very delicate time continuum and changing history as we know it.
One example is Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys (1995), in which our hero James Cole (Bruce Willis) lives one year in the future, in 1996, where a horrible plague has hit mankind. He travels back to the year 1990 looking for ways to help the remaining humans survive, but stumbles upon a plan to actually prevent the outbreak. Unfortunately, he's been mistaken for a lunatic and thrown in an asylum. Brad Pitt received an Oscar nomination for his performance as a crazed inmate, and Madeleine Stowe plays Willis's love interest, meeting him in 1990 and again in 1996.
Gilliam's film was inspired by Chris Marker's great short film La Jetée (1962), which was comprised entirely of photographs and narration. In it, a man undergoes a chemical-induced time travel and travels into the past to try and find some way to save mankind after a nuclear war. In an utterly bizarre and unforgettable ending, a memory from his childhood comes back to haunt him.
Gilliam was already familiar with time jumping, having made the wonderful Time Bandits (1981), about a bunch of little people who work for the Supreme Being, building the universe and all its parts. Out of greed, they steal a map charting all the holes in time, hoping they can make a fortune by stealing things and escaping through time. They wind up in the bedroom of little Kevin (Craig Warnock) and take him along for the ride, journeying to the times of Napoleon (Ian Holm), Robin Hood (John Cleese), King Agamemnon (Sean Connery) and into a mythical land of ogres. An Evil Genius (David Warner), as well as the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson), try to stop them. Many of the little people (including Kenny Baker) had played various roles in the Star Wars films. Michael Palin (who co-wrote the script) and Shelley Duvall play unfortunate lovers who re-appear in each time zone. The film's special effects have dated a bit, but its unfettered energy, Monty Python-ish humor and imagination still have the power to enchant.
There must have been something about the 1980s that inspired such escapism. Later in the decade, time travel was placed in the hands of a couple of brain-dead California rockers in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989). Given a phone booth time machine, they travel all over history, collecting major figures for their high school report. Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter made the characters likable and, "whoa," popularized all kinds of "bogus" surf-speak. In an equally funny sequel, Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991), a futuristic villain sends evil Bill and Ted robots back to the present to destroy them and re-route future events.
On television that same year, Scott Bakula starred in "Quantum Leap" (1989), a time travel series that still has a strong cult following to this day. In each episode, Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) enters a different body in a different time period and must solve some puzzle, set some event right, before he can move on. Each time his goal is to get back home. Dean Stockwell co-stars as his "spiritual guide," an observer who can appear in phantom form to give Sam helpful advice.
By this time, there were enough time travelers to make necessary a Timecop (1994). Jean-Claude Van Damme stars as the Time Enforcement member who must stop a crooked politician (Ron Silver) from altering history and gaining power. It's pretty typical Van Damme nonsense, but okay if you turn off your brain.
BBC comedian Rowan Atkinson even got into the act, reviving his wonderfully loathesome character Blackadder for Blackadder Back & Forth (1999). In it, he and his pathetic sidekick Baldrick (Tony Robinson) bounce around from time to time with no regard to the space-time continuum, blatantly changing history whenever they see fit.
That same year, San Francisco underground filmmaker Craig Baldwin made the unusual, fascinating Spectres of the Spectrum, a complicated tale comprised of found as well as new footage. Set in 2007, a man named Yogi and his daughter Boo Boo must travel back in time to save the world from being erased... sort of.
Time Travel Today
In the 21st century, time travel has become far more subtle and creative than merely entering a time machine and punching a button.
Richard Kelly's cult phenomenon Donnie Darko [or the alternative Director's Cut] (2001) features one of the most complex time-travel/alternate reality plots ever conceived, and yet to try and explain it would ruin the thrust of the movie. Even without it, this mysterious, engaging story of an outcast high-schooler (Jake Gyllenhaal) who sleepwalks and has visions of a demonic rabbit is one of the most remarkable debuts of recent years.
Speaking of outcast teens, don't think Harry Potter gets away without some time traveling. In Alfonso Cuaron's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) -- still the best of the series -- Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) is able to attend two classes simultaneously by using a time-travel device and going back just one hour. Who better than the fastidious, studious Hermione to be careful about breaking the time continuum? Later in the film, she and Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) use the device together to save the day.
In The Butterfly Effect (2004), Evan Treborn (Ashton Kutcher) suffers weird blackouts as a child. Later, he's able to revisit the blank spots and even change the events that happen within. Unfortunately, every time he does, he wakes up in a new reality. Sadly, this great idea quickly fills up with logic holes and dives toward an increasingly stupid, action-oriented ending.
Shane Carruth's indie Primer (2004) is far superior on less than a fraction of the budget. The plot involves a couple of young brainiac inventors whose talk is so complicated that they can really only understand each other. Their work on a new kind of refrigeration system has inadvertently uncovered the secret of time travel. By building a coffin-like box, the duo can trip forward 24 or 48 hours and snatch some stock market readings or other handy tidbits. The catch is that they must check into a hotel for the down time so as not to run into their doubles and change the course of history. Of course, the more jumps they make the more complicated things get. It can be difficult to comprehend the highly technical dialogue, but the 78-minute running time and the film's lethal intelligence welcome and encourage multiple viewings.
John Maybury's interesting The Jacket (2005) tries to follow on these recent examples, but only partially succeeds. Adrien Brody stars as a Gulf War vet who is shot by a young boy when he hesitates to shoot first. A year later, he has physically healed, but his memory hasn't. Staying in a barbaric asylum, doctors occasionally lock him in a drawer as an extreme form of psychotherapy. While inside, he finds he can transport into the future, to 2007, where he learns that he died later in 1993. He must find out how, so as to prevent his own death. Fortunately, he meets a future girl, Jackie (Keira Knightley), who believes him and helps him. (Ryan Phillippe starred in a very similar film, The I Inside, two years earlier.)
File under "J" for The Jacket
More Time (Travelers):
Adapted from Kurt Vonnegut's novel, Slaughterhouse-Five (1972), "Billie Pilgrim has come unstuck in time," living different lives in different time periods simultaneously. In Ivan Vasilevich: Back to the Future (1973), two modern-day bunglers are transported to the 16th century, swapping places with Ivan the Terrible. In My Science Project (1985), a failing teenager discovers a glowing crystal at a missile base and inadvertently unlocks a weird time tunnel; dinosaurs, gladiators and other creatures suddenly walk the earth again. In the horror sequel Waxwork II: Lost in Time (1992) characters travel through various points in history, interacting with famous fictional characters.
Finally, in the charming made-for-TV movie, The Love Letter (1998), Scotty Corrigan (Campbell Scott) finds an old letter in a Civil War-era desk. He writes back and receives a reply from Elizabeth Whitcomb (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a woman long dead. Despite their obvious issues, the two begin falling in love.
And coming in the summer of 2006 is the very similar The Lake House, which is based on a 2000 Korean film, Il Mare. In both films, a woman writes a letter to a man staying in a house by a lake. When the man replies, his letter is dated two years earlier, well before she ever contacted him.
Hey, anything's possible if you have enough time.
Jeffrey M. Anderson has written for the San Francisco Examiner, the Las Vegas Weekly and several other publications, though he's surely best known for his own site, Combustible Celluloid, currently featuring over 2,000 of his reviews.