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Traveling Through Time

If you ever want to be reminded of your own mortality, I suggest watching, oh, around a dozen or so time-travel films in rapid succession. You’ll likely start to feel acutely conscious over the choices you’ve made over the years — whether they involve college majors, occupational decisions, or simply all those hours spent mastering the finer points of Mortal Kombat. Our existence is fleeting, and even folks who accomplish Important Things are nothing more than mere names a short while after they’ve departed, great works of art and science notwithstanding.

Yeesh, I sound rather melancholy, don’t I? It’s the cumulative effect of the repeated demands for introspection. [A few years ago, I endured a battering array of war movies in preparation for a radio discussion about the genre. By the time I’d finished, I was perilously close to joining a hippie commune and roaming the country in search of no-nuke rallies.] But the reason that time-travel works so well as a narrative staple is that it’s the ultimate "fish out of water" device — it’s practically manna from heaven for pencil-chewing scriptwriters. Even if the protagonist isn’t trying to return to their original time (which they often are), you’ll still have a inherent behavioral/cultural clash between Your Hero and the denizens of their new environment ... which can be played for comedy, horror, or pretty much any cinematic genre in between. Hell, if your movie pitch begins with “Martin Lawrence in 14th century England,” do you really have to go on? It sells itself! (And yes, that kernel did become the much-pilloried film Black Knight.) Most folks think of time-travel adventures as being primarily a science-fiction subgenre — after all, legendary sci-fi scribe H.G. Wells basically kickstarted the entire concept with the novel The Time Machine back in 1895. But in many films, the only tech elements involve the contraptions that are used to slingshot the protagonists back and forth — whether they be souped-up De Loreans (Back to the Future) or displacement devices that are far less calibrated (12 Monkeys, in which poor Bruce Willis’ Convict of the Future arrives in 1990s America after an unfortunate detour through World War I). Many time-travel films don't even need fancy gadgets — Kathleen Turner’s Peggy Sue (Peggy Sue Got Married) finds herself back in her senior year of high school after conking her head at her class reunion, while Ashton Kutcher’s Evan Treborn (The Butterfly Effect) can will himself back to pivotal moments in his past simply by reading his childhood journals and scrunching his eyes very, very tightly. More importantly, time-travel themes work for pretty much the entire gamut of story archetypes, from teen comedies (Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) to straightforward action yarns (The Terminator), to ... well, for lack of a better descriptor, feature-length non-sequiturs (Time Bandits). Take the concept of a man forced to relive the same day, over and over, as he struggles for a solution that will enable him to exit the time-loop prison. In the hands of Bill Murray, it’s a dark comedy about a dour weatherman who comes to shed his narcissistic outlook while winning the heart of colleague Andie McDowell (Groundhog Day); when narrated by Rod Serling, you’ve got a grim, slow-burn horror tale about a man on death row who repeatedly argues for a stay of execution that only comes too late — again and again (The Twilight Zone, episode Shadow Play).


Most Notable: The Back to the Future trilogy

Honorary Mention: Peggy Sue Got Married, Groundhog Day

This film was a hit but probably hasn’t aged very well: Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

This film probably requires the assistance of hallucinogenic substances: Time Bandits

Almost everyone in the free world knows the story of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), a high-school kid who heads 30 years in the past, inadvertenly foils the courtship between his parents, and has to figure out a way to bring them together before returning "to the future" in Doc Brown’s (Christopher Lloyd) De Lorean. Back to the Future made superstars out of not only Fox but also director Robert Zemeckis (who later went on to make Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Forrest Gump) and also Huey Lewis & The News, who scored their first #1 hit with “Power of Love.”

Zemeckis, Fox, and Lloyd teamed up for two additional (and less-impressive) installments, but the original still holds up mighty well today, nearly 25 years later. That’s another added benefit to time-travel films — when they’re set in eras other than the one in which they’re released, they don’t become dated nearly as quickly as their peers, because they’re essentially period pieces. 1950s America will be depicted much the same way on film regardless of whether the movie is made in 1985 or 2005, but a vintage ’80s cop show like Miami Vice looks dramatically different than one produced today — so much so that it’s too jarring to watch with a straight face. (After Six formal wear actually released a line of Miami Vice dinner jackets — !!! — at the height of the show’s popularity.)

Since Peggy Sue Got Married was released shortly after BttF, you might think that the former ripped off its more-popular counterpart to a large extent — Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner) returns to basically the same period in time (1960), and a high-school romance that’s “destined” to blossom into a marriage is again the focal point of the story. However, in this scenario, the relationship in question is her own, and Peggy Sue (who is separated from her husband at the outset of the film) is trying to change her destiny rather than ensure it.

You can’t really blame her, seeing as how her beau is played by none other than Nicholas Cage. While it was a bit of a stretch for Turner to play a high-school student at age 32, it required a much larger suspension of disbelief to buy 22-year-old Cage as her classmate. (I just double-checked his birthdate, and I can't quite believe it. He seems to have graduated from the Greg Oden School of Hard-Livin’.) Cage’s credibility might not have been such an issue if he didn’t speak all his lines with a voice like — well, he described it as sounding like Pokey from The Gumby Show. Um ... yeah. In any case, Peggy Sue was actually conceived before BttF, but the production ran into so many delays that Steven Spielberg (one of the names associated with the project) became frustrated and departed to make his own time-travel film.

As for Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits ... well, I remember watching this film in the theaters when I was 7, and it seemed to make perfect sense back then. Of course, so did TV shows like Manimal and Automan, the latter of which involved a computer programmer who coded a superhero who could be summoned from a PC (causing massive power outages along the way) to fight crime. [Hollywood was right smack in the middle of the “Gee Whiz!” era of using computers as storytelling props, as displayed by films such as Tron, Wargames, and Weird Science.) After recently re-visiting Time Bandits, I can safely say that the film — which involves a boy and a band of dwarves who bounce around time via a stolen map — isn’t for everyone. And by that, I mean everyone who appreciates narrative storytelling.

One final Michael J. Fox note that I would be remiss to ignore: Months before Back to the Future hit the theaters in 1985, Fox’s Alex P. Keaton traveled back in time to 1776 America in a Family Ties dream sequence. Playing a stableboy, he helps his modern-day father (now Thomas Jefferson) write the Declaration of Independence, directly suggesting a few of the document’s key turns of phrase when “Tom” becomes frustrated and wants to opt for statements like “We hold these truths to be pretty darn clear” for the sake of expediency. Good times.


Most Notable: The Terminator

Honorary Mention: 12 Monkeys, Star Trek IV

I acknowledge its popularity but it never made a lick of sense to me: Doctor Who

Most shameless use of time-travel as a Deus Ex Machina in an otherwise commendable film: Superman

Wouldn’t it make more sense if you were only able to forward in time, not back? Shouldn’t the act of meeting our younger selves, not to menton any forebears, create all sorts of unrectifiable paradoxes? In The Terminator, sentient computers (dubbed Skynet) of the future have engulfed the planet in nuclear war in an attempt to eradicate mankind, but human resistance forces led by one John Connor have vanquished their robotic foes and declared victory. Not so fast, says Skynet, as it sends a one-man wrecking crew (Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a role that made him *the* action superstar of his era) back to 1980s Los Angeles to have him assassinate John’s mom Sarah, thereby wiping out the resistance movement before it emerges. (A psychologist in the film terms the ploy “retroactive abortion.”) Connor sends a bodyguard by the name of Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) to defend Sarah in response, and the two sides duke it out for the future of humanity. Of course, along the way, Reese impregnates Sarah ... meaning that he’s the father of the person who sent him back in time. Let the head-scratching commence.

The Terminator still ranks as one of the finest action movies of all time, as Schwartzenegger’s near-indestructible cyborg obliterates everything in its path (including an entire LAPD station in one memorable sequence) in pursuit of its target. As for the whole casuality loop involving Sarah Connor/John Connor/Kyle Reese, well ... various scientists have theorized whether such cycles (also called predestination paradoxes) could be feasible. Whatever. I can suspend disbelief and accept this premise, but it’s much tougher for me to swallow Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

Reese reveals in the original film that the time machine was supposed to have been smashed after he went through, to ensure that nobody else followed him. But in the sequel, we learn that Skynet also sent back an even more advanced Terminator to kill John Connor as an adolescent, while the resistance movement reprogrammed an Ahnold Bot to serve as his protector. (Despite not having any sort of formal education or even reliable shelter, the soldiers of the future are whizzes at C++?) And if that didn’t work, Skynet sent back an even MORE advanced Terminator to hunt down John as an adult. Sense a pattern here?

In his excellent essay “F/X Porn,” David Foster Wallace commented on how T2, while chock-full of impressive visuals and stunts, disappointed him from a narrative perspective — particuarly how Schwarzenegger’s uber-assassin had been converted into a hero to maintain the actor’s Good Guy image. But I was more flummoxed from a logic perspective: if Skynet has the ability to send back multiple Terminators, why wouldn’t it send them to the same time? Or an army of Terminators, for that matter? Of course, wouldn’t the act of conceiving the entire mission be pointless, since the very fact that it was necessary to assassinate Connor meant that he’d already survived all previous attempts on his life? If you’re like me, this is the stage at which your head begins to hurt.

Time-travel stories are also surefire panaceas for any franchise threatening to become stagnant. Who knew that Star Trek’s motto “to boldy go where no man has gone before” would eventually come to mean “San Francisco, circa 1984?” That’s where the crew of the Enterprise headed in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, when the universe of the future needed a then-extinct humpback whale to stave off armageddon. While the film delivered a preachy environmental message about endangered species (not to mention a subtle endorsement of Marxism ’ the Trekkers are shocked to find that they need cash in San Fran because the Federation no longer uses currency in the future!), it was much more satisfying for the audience to see Spock administering his trademark Vulcan Nerve Pinch to some unlucky hooligan who had unwisely flipped the bird to James T. Kirk.

I can’t really comment too much about Doctor Who because I’ve only seen more than a handful of episodes. My two main conclusions are that:

A) Whenever I’ve watched an episode, I’ve always felt as though I was missing about an encyclopedia’s worth of backstory. Even on Wikipedia, it’s tough for me to make out a clear sense of who The Doctor is, why he’s hopping all over the galaxy, and how he always manages to be accompanied by attractive young ladyfriends.

B) I’ve seen enough to know that I don’t wish to see any more. While the recently-relaunched Who series on Sci-Fi certainly has production values vastly superior to its predecessors, it’s hokey in the way that two-headed aliens and living tree creatures are hokey to me. Yes, the universe that Battlestar Galactica exists in (with sentient robots who can reproduce) is no more feasible, but its world doesn’t have to cut through quite such a thick air of incredulity. Just one man’s opinion.


Most notable: Planet of the Apes

Honorary Mention: Primer, Quantum Leap, Time After Time, Butterfly Effect

Film that seemed 10x more intriguing when I originally saw it five years ago: Donnie Darko

Another cinematic landmark that needs little exposition, Planet of the Apes is a bit of an unusual film from a narrative standpoint. The main character, Taylor (Charlton Heston), doesn’t proceed through any character arc or learn any “lessons” throughout the story, and ultimately his fact-finding mission (to discover why those damned dirty apes are running the show on his new world) isn’t a search that culminates in any particular achievement or dispensing of justice. In that sense, it plays more like a Twilight Zone episode where the main protagonist ends up drifting through a dystopian society through no fault of his own (and as such pays for the sins of his people). Of course, your average Twilight Zone tale was rife with social commentary, and Planet of the Apes was the most famous of a number of films released in the 60s and 70s that shouted warnings about the possible repercussions of the excesses of modern society. Soylent Green (also starring Heston) foresaw a future ravaged by environmental catastrophe, while the Mad Max trilogy showed how bickering over oil degenerated into nuclear war and the unraveling of civilization.

[Naturally, the popularity of Planet of the Apes ensured that a series of sequels would be produced — and in the fourth such installment, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, we’re treated to another good ol’ predestination paradox (see Terminator, The) as the apes from the future wind up returning to a near-present Earth and inciting the ape rebellion that doomed human existence.]

In Primer, a couple of engineers accidentally invent a machine that enable the user to move backwards in time — so naturally, one of the first orders of business involves using the device to make a killing at the stock market. [Perhaps the lottery was too obvious? And the idea of sports betting had already been used by Back To The Future 2.). However, the nature of the contraption means that temporary doubles of the engineers are also created ... and when they start engaging in activity that your local law enforcement agency would likely frown on (in addition to creating copies of themselves), things go haywire in a hurry. While the labythrine plot can be extremely difficult to follow even after multiple viewings, it’s an engaging indie film (made for just $7000 in 2004) that seeks to tell a time-travel tale that’s stripped of “fantastical” origins.

Time After Time, released in 1979, is a nod to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, with Malcolm McDowell playing the famous author who, as it turns out, has actually invented one of the blasted machines. After his former colleague (David Warner) is outed as Jack the Ripper, Jack decides to elude the London constables by traveling forward to 1979 San Francisco, while Wells follows in hot pursuit after the machine automatically returns home. [Imagine if they had journeyed just five years futher, they might’ve bumped into the crew of the Enterprise! Apparently, San Fran was a hotspot for your burgeoning time-traveler.] Here, the “fish out of water” device is played once again to great effect, as Wells is shocked when he realizes that the future offers no utopia ... while Jack the Ripper finds that he’s not as much of an anomaly in what he finds is a much more brutal society.

And finally, Donnie Darko tells the story of the title character (Jake Gyllenhaal) who experiences a sequence of bizarre events: his sleepwalking escapades leave him awaking at the local golf course, he acquires an imaginary friend who’s a giant bunny named Frank, and his home is torpedoed by a falling aircraft engine that doesn’t seem to be missed by any plane reporting to the FAA. Not long afterward, Donnie discovers that his reclusive neighbor down the block actually was quite the expert on time travel in her day. What a coincidence! While the film contains a number of interesting scenes depicting the banality of high-school life — Patrick Swayze makes a notable appearance as a self-help guru on steroids — the vignettes don’t work nearly as well as a narrative, as large sections of the movie (including Drew Barrymore’s turn as a rebellious young English teacher) seemed entirely superfluous. In the last of the film’s dubious stretches, Donnie ulitmately decides to sacrifice himself to save a classmate-turned-girlfriend whom he’s known a whole whopping month. Of course, he may have simply decided that a lifetime of being stalked by a six-foot rabbit didn’t much appeal to him.