Nascent films were single takes of life scenes. With the first cut, time as a cinematic construct was compressed. This manipulation could be used to make cinema a magical realm where time found new meaning. Even as film sped through a projector, the world on screen could move backwards, giving viewers a representation of traveling through time. The cinematic world of sight (and eventually sound) could also be one of the mind. Viewers could experience the fourth dimension.
During cinema’s first century, time travel became a favorite subject. It’s outshone in science fiction perhaps only by space travel (though the two go together wellPlanet of the Apes, anyone?). The following is a list of the top ten time travel films: the most fun, the most memorable, and the most innovative.
10. Timecop (Peter Hyams, 1994)
Based on the Dark Horse comic book series by Mike Richardson and Mark Verheiden (who also penned the script), Peter Hyams’s Timecop stands out as one of the best films to star Jean-Claude Van Damme. As an officer of the Time Enforcement Commission (TEC), Max Walker (Van Damme) works to keep the sanctity of our timeline secure. Those who attempt manipulating the past for future benefit face Walker’s particular brand of butt-kicking justice. When Walker goes after politico Aaron McComb (Ron Silver) for some temporal treachery, he and his family are targeted for termination. Now it’s personal. Walker has to try repairing McComb’s chronological crimes, and, along the way, prevent his wife’s murder. Timecop spawned a short-lived TV series and a direct-to-video sequel.
9. Summer Time Machine Blues (Katsuyuki Motohiro, Japan, 2005)
A charming and complex little tale of cause and effect, this Japanese film is as self-effacing as it is self-reflexive. Five college friends are members of the "Sci-Fi Club" despite their communal disinterest in science fiction. They spend their time playing baseball (horribly) or Othello (a variation of Go). When the remote control to their air conditioner breaks ("We really should have put an on-switch on the unit") and a time machine shows up in their clubhouse (looking like it was right out of the George Pal Time Machine), a decision to go back in time and steal a working version of the remote sets off a flurry of events that threatens to erase all of human existence. With posters of Back to the Future up at the local multiplex (run by a guy who wears Jean-Luc Picard’s uniform shirt with shorts), the general cinematic attitude towards time travel comes to blows with the local know-it-all professor who just can’t accept that a time machine exists. Complete with video game sound effects that play when the guys complete a "mission," Summer Time Machine Blues is as clever as it is fun.
8. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (Stephen Herek, 1989)
Comparable to the British TV series "Doctor Who" with its time-traveling telephone booth, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure languished in limbo due to its distributor, the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, going bankrupt in 1987. It didn’t reach the silver screen until 1989, dumped into multiplexes in the dead zone of February. Upon release, Bill & Ted became something of a cultural phenomenon. Bill S. Preston (Alex Winter) and Ted Logan (Keanu Reeves) are the time traveling progenitors of Wayne and Garth of Wayne’s World or Jesse and Chester of Dude, Where’s My Car? Journeying through the past to fulfill their destiny, the dimwitted duo kidnaps a handful of historical figures to help with their history homework. Think of it as a less larcenous and taller version of Time Bandits. Capturing the "surfer dude" mentality and patois of Southern California, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was followed by video games, a comic book, television shows, and a sequel that has high points (thanks, no doubt, to Alex Winter), but was weak overall.
7. Primer (Shane Carruth, 2004)
One of the most elliptical films in recent memory, Primer is economical in both budget and plot line. The tale of young engineers Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), we first see the pair working on their off-hours to get ahead. While researching a new superconductor, they stumble upon technology to manipulate time. The clever script doesn’t pussyfoot around with scenes of safety-testing the equipment ("I can imagine no way in which this thing could be considered anywhere remotely close to safe.") or even building man-sized time travel machines (a "future self" does it for them). Instead, it plunges headlong into paradoxes, multiple incarnations of characters, and "reverse-engineering a perfect moment." While Primer can justifiably be criticized as being too convoluted, it’s the rare film that doesn’t dumb down its content for easy digestion.
6. Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001)
In something of a cross between Groundhog Day and Harvey (with a much more malevolent bunny), Jake Gyllenhaal plays the titular character with a brooding intensity. Oddly, no one necessarily travels through time in this art house favorite. Rather, it’s a jet engine that journeys through a temporal wormhole, creating an alternate universe that Darko vaguely works to make right. Despite being directed by an egomaniac who essentially ruined his own film with his "director’s cut," the theatrical version of Donnie Darko was a terrifically moody take on tangential universes, teen angst, and giant rabbits. Often obtuse but nevertheless rewarding, Donnie Darko is a labyrinthine and rewarding journey.
5. Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea (Jindrich Polak, Czechoslovakia, 1977)
With roots in Ray Bradbury’s "A Sound of Thunder," affluent tourists go on day trips back to the past. Rather than hunting dinosaurs, dastardly day-trippers hope to secret back the workings of the atomic bomb to Adolph Hitler. The plot to alter human history might have gone off without a hitch, save for the untimely death of pilot Jan Bures (Petr Kostka). Rather than scrubbing the trip, his twin brother Karel (also Petr Kostka) takes his place only to inadvertently ruin the intricate scheme. Normally this subject matter would be perfect for a chrono-thriller. However, director Jindrich Polak has created a laugh-filled romp. Co-written by the masterful Milos Macourek and based on a story by author Josef Nesvadba, the two worked together previously on another temporal comedy, Olrich Lipsky’s I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen.
4. The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984)
Predating Back to the Future by just a year, one may wonder what was in the zeitgeist to prompt such a strong reaction in American cinema to manipulate time. Perhaps it was that the U.S. was under the rule of American tyrant Ronald Reagan. Certainly, our future was in a precarious position. Reagan had shown his mania most vividly with his March 23, 1983 "Star Wars speech." The idea of an automated defense system that would "intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles" from outer space sounds suspiciously like the business plan for Cyberdyne Systems Corporation, the creators of Skynet: a network of supercomputers that took control of the world’s military systems. When Skynet senses imminent defeat by John Conner in the future, it sends back one of its best weapons to 1984. The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a cyborg-like killing machine, has the mission of killing Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and defeating the predestination paradox. An amalgamation of Harlan Ellison’s work on "The Outer Limits" and Philip K. Dick’s short story "Second Variety" (later made into Screamers), The Terminator makes the most of its miniscule budget and is rightfully one of the best known science fiction films ever made.
3. Twelve Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995)
Returning to the themes of temporal tomfoolery from Time Bandits and the tenuous nature of sanity from The Fisher King, director Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys took its story line from Chris Marker’s classic La Jetée. A mixture of post-apocalyptic gloom and paranoid doom, the film stars Bruce Willis (sans hairpiece, except for comic effect in one scene) as James Cole, a prisoner in a future world devastated by disease who’s sent back to 1990 with the mission to save the world. No pressure, right? Diagnosed with Cassandra Syndrome, he’s institutionalized. In the loony bin, Cole meets Jeffrey Goines (a standout performance by Brad Pitt), the cockeyed son of a virus expert. He escapes with the forced help of Dr. Kathryn Railly (MIA actress Madeleine Stowe) and strives to unravel the mystery of "The Army of the Twelve Monkeys," a prankster group that seems to be a precursor to Project Mayhem (Fight Club). Rather than monkeys, Cole is chasing a large red herring. Twelve Monkeys is a race against time and towards destiny in this dark journey into madness.
2. Time After Time (Nicholas Meyer, 1979)
Known for mixing historical figures with fictional characters, such as Sigmund Freud and Sherlock Holmes in The Seven Percent Solution, writer/director Nicholas Meyer is best remembered for creating the smartest Star Trek film of the series (Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan). A terrific steampunk tale, the main characters in Time After Time are Victorian contemporaries H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) and John Leslie Stevenson (David Warner). This Wells doesn’t simply write about time machines; he’s built one. This makes a good getaway device for Stevensonyou see, Stevenson is better known as Jack the Ripper. Wells gives saucy Jack chase through the ages, ending up in late-seventies San Francisco. This new age is a playground for the murderous Ripper. Meanwhile, fish-out-of-water Wells and his new friend, Amy (Mary Steenburgen), work together to stop the serial killer. Steenburgen would go on to play a very similar role as Clara Clayton in Back to the Future III.
1. Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985)
Written by the subversive team of Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis (Used Cars), Back to the Future is a family-friendly tale of incest and second chances. If you’re not familiar with the story of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and his trip back to 1950s Hill Valley, California via a plutonium-powered DeLorean time machine, then I’m not sure how they got internet access under the rock where you’ve been living all your life. Graduating from summer blockbuster to cultural phenomenon, Back to the Future still resonates today (Christopher Lloyd reprised his role as Doc Brown in a pair of DirectTV commercials in spring 2007).
Special thanks to Ali at TheShiznit.co.uk.