It’s a new year and a new decade, so it’s the perfect time to hop into the DeLorean, as we take a look at the Hollywood sub-genre of time travel. Late last year, the second-highest-grossing time travel franchise came back to the big screen, but with a tepid critical response and even worse box office (barely over $60 million in the US), the producers of Terminator: Dark Fate may wish they could go back and do it all over again differently. The #1 time travel franchise, Back To The Future, did it right – they did a trilogy (that still holds up) and left it alone – no making a fourth one years later, or remaking, or prequeling, or spin-offing. Thank you to Robert Zemekis for allowing one successful Hollywood property to stay as it is and keep its enduring identity and appeal. Anyway, let’s take a look at some of our favorite films that use time travel as a major plot element.
Rationally I know it’s foolish, but something about the time travel concept is fascinating and often highly entertaining for me. Personally, I have no desire to go back and revisit any high school glory days, and looking into the future seems like a scary prospect at this point. As someone who enjoys history, though, it would be pretty incredible to go back to historical moments and see what that was like. You would lump such an adventure into those time travel films that hop around different points in time, such as Time Bandits and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure [By the way the new sequel Bill and Ted Face The Music, drops this year on August 21]. Then you have the romantic “one that got away” films (13 Going on 30, Peggy Sue Got Married) and the ever-popular – “apocalypse prevention/reversal” (Terminator, 12 Monkeys, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and now (I think it’s safe to say) Avengers: Endgame. Here are three films that use time travel in different ways to drive their plot.
This was the rare film I enjoyed as much on the second viewing as the first, even if extended thinking about the time-travel “loop” can give you an ice-cream headache. Because of this film, I was so excited when Rian Johnson was chosen to direct Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but boy was I let down – painfully. Anyway, with Looper, Johnson crafts a modern noir classic, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as mob hitman “young Joe”, in my favorite performances of Levitt’s so far. Bruce Willis plays his counterpart, “old Joe”, who, in a time-traveling twist, becomes the hit target for the younger version of himself. This is one of those films that is best left unspoiled, so with the hopes, this post might inspire others to check it out, I’ll spare the key plot developments. You almost need two viewings, or even more, to fully vet out all the plot twists, parallel storylines, and time-travel-altering implications. Johnson does incorporate a nod to The Terminator, with making a singular child the key to society’s future. The film also has another great performance in a sci-fi film by Emily Blunt, who is so great at taking a routine protective mother role and elevating it into something more. (she was also fantastic in another time-travel film, Edge of Tomorrow, which I wrote about in Summer Blockbusters Part III: Sci-Fi’s Revenge). The buzz has been great with Johnson’s new film Knives Out, even earning several Golden Globe nominations, so let’s hope The Last Jedi was an anomaly and he has more great films like Looper in his future.
DJ: I really loved this film. This could be Bruce Willis’s last great film. I loved Emily Blunt in it, she is so good in most everything she does, I actually almost used The Edge Of Tomorrow. I didn’t even know that was her when I saw it. It’s an interesting film, that should be seen by a wider audience.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
We are nearly two years into writing about pop culture and have yet to mention Star Trek (the horror!). Almost every iteration of Star Trek has had a time travel plotline, whether it be through a nexus, portal, energy ribbon or a black hole. It was a mechanism to get the Next Generation cast to be in the same film as the original cast, and also get some of the original cast into JJ Abrams 2009 reboot. In Voyage Home they time travel via a slingshot-around-the-sun method and have to go back in time to capture extinct humpback wales to chase away an alien probe (that only speaks humpback whale). This was the first Trek film/show that got me into the series. I had liked Wrath of Kahn in 1982, but Star Wars was still underway and I would not be deterred. By 1986 Star Wars was all done (or so we thought), and I was open to a new sci-fi franchise. Star Trek IV was light-hearted and mildly comedic, featuring some fish-out-of-water moments that are a mainstay of time-traveling stories. It was nice to see the cast shrug off some of the stuffy earnestness of prior Trek shows/films, particularly William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy (who also directed). The environmentally conscious plot might have been a little thin, but Nimoy was able to keep the pace going at a good clip so one didn’t notice. The fact that the crew was without The Enterprise, wanted for a criminal trial by Starfleet and had to fly a captured Klingon Bird Of Prey (and the fact that there was no real heavy villain) all helped to set a more fun action/adventure tone for the franchise. Ironically, the critical/commercial success of this film led to two more sequels, but Shatner and Nimoy’s salary demands also prompted the studio executives at Paramount to create the new TV version in 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation.
DJ: My favorite will always be Wrath of Khan but this film is ok. It’s the even ones that are good right? Shatner at his peak, he was still doing TJ Hooker on TV too, which for some reason I loved. Since this movie had cheese in it, the importance of the mechanism to travel through time is not that important, just go with it.
Deja Vu (2006)
Yes, you forgot Denzel Washington did a time travel movie didn’t you? I just watched this again last month, and although it wouldn’t make Denzel’s top 10 films, directed by the late Tony Scott, it’s an entertaining thriller that holds up pretty well. For a good portion of the film, it plays like a standard detective thriller/mystery, as the time travel element doesn’t come into play until the third act. Initially, the sci-fi element is presented as a top-secret new ultra-spying program that uses satellites to give the FBI a detailed look at a certain point a few days prior. (if you haven’t seen the film and are interested in it, stop reading here). Then, a piece of paper with a warning note is sent back in time, and in short order, Denzel himself is making the trip. Like many time travel set-ups, it’s best not to think about the “how” too much. We do get treated to the main nerd/techie character giving the classic time-portal explanation, featuring a folded piece of paper and a pen being poked through it. The real drama plays out when both Denzel’s character and the viewer won’t know if they are actually able to stop a terrorist bombing from happening, or if everything he’s doing back in time already happened and led to, if not incidentally caused, the bombing to occur. Denzel is great as always, and the supporting cast is strong – I forgot that Val Kilmer was in this, although he plays a rather inconsequential role. I liked the mixing of genres in this, and could actually see this being the basis of a TV series (maybe it already has – who can keep up?)
DJ: I have to say sorry for what I am about to say, I really disliked this film. Maybe it needs another viewing but I couldn’t even find it cheesy. I felt they wanted you to take this movie seriously but there is a lot of nonsense in it. Denzel is good as always he almost always is. It could be Tony Scott I have a problem with, not a fan of a good chunk of his films.
I love and hate the time-traveling concept. I would love to go back in time and “right the wrongs” but I also believe at times to let sleeping dogs lie. Films are the same way. Time-traveling is a foolish concept. Most of the time it makes no sense. Build a machine, take a pill, run or fly really fast backward, a hot tub, or in a lot of cases no explanation. Done right it can be used to really blow your mind (Arrival) in others it can confuse your mind. (In the Shadow of the Moon). I don’t mind it in comedies because it’s just a device for the comedy. If it’s in a Sci-Fi film or a serious film, I like some logic to be there and some logic on the Time-Traveling Rules. Can I see my self in the past? Can I fix things in the past to make the future better (Quantum Leap)? Go back and kill Baby Hitler? The Butterfly Effect? At the end of the day, I rarely like a time-travel movie. I was worried when I heard a rumor that Rise of Skywalker may pull a time-travel move, now that I think about it, I wish it would of, maybe make it not exist. Here are my three, not necessarily the standard ones.
12 Monkeys (1995)
Terry Gilliam of Monty Python and Time Bandits directed this beautifully captured film. Bruce Willis plays the main character, James Cole who is sent back in time to stop a deadly virus from wiping out 99% of humanity. There is multiple time travel as he doesn’t get sent back to the right time frame. The question is, of course, can someone stop what is to happen? The climax will explain this to the viewer, at least from the writer’s perspective. The imagery in the film is stark, monkeys and time travel Easter eggs are hidden all over the film. Bruce Willis at his peak delivers a great performance trying to convince Madelaine Stowe’s doctor and others that he knows of the apocalypse that is heading their way. Brad Pitt gets his first Oscar nomination as Jeffery Goines an institutionalized man who may have something to do with the future. He is excellent coming off Seven in the same year, this is where Brad Pitt’s excellence begins. It’s a scary film when you realized that a deadly virus could wipe out humanity. This movie goes even deeper displaying the Cassandra Complex and commenting on dreams and the concept of times. It’s a complex film and the time travel is just used as a device not so much as the plot. It was good enough for a spin-off TV series on Sci-Fy.
MG: This is a film I loved when I saw it – might be one of my favorites from the 90’s. Having said that, I have a hard time remembering the plot, outside of what you describe, so I really should check it out again. Bruce Willis got a lot of heat for junk like Hudson Hawk in the 90’s, but he also had some decent roles in some good films. I liked this era of Brad Pitt, because he still had some rawness to him and wasn’t a permanent A-list celebrity yet. I wonder why Gilliam basically stopped making films? It’s time for Time Bandits 2.
Let me start out by saying in no way in any logical world of cinema is this a good film. But as pure schlock, it’s a fun, quotable, and ridiculous film. Back when I had a less critical eye for picking films and I had more time to waste Freejack came into my life. It includes an Oscar winner, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, and the less famous of the Sheen family. My draw was seeing Mick Jagger in a hammy role as a bounty hunter like character called a “bone jerker” who goes back in time to save people at the instant before they die so they can use substitute bodies for the wealthy who are dying. In this case, Emilio Estevez (Furlong) is an auto racer about to die in a crash in 1991, Jagger snatches him into the future to be a new body for the rich Anthony Hopkins. Rene Russo plays the love interest of Estevez. Estevez and Russo escape and he becomes a “Freejack”, one who escapes being a substitute body. Jagger then pursues him. The concept is ridiculous, the bone jerkers have machines that allow them to pick up these people from the past. A lot of phony science in this film but just sick back, relax and enjoy the nonsense. No themes to explore, the acting is not good, but the ending may leave you guessing. Everything Jagger says is gold. the supporting cast of Buster Poindexter and the great Jonathan Banks adds to the cheese. This story could be used for a well-done Netflix series though.
MG: This film would be perfect fodder for a Mystery Science Theater episode. Crack open a six-pack and this film is funnier than most comedies. I love that this was Hopkins’ follow-up to his Oscar-winning turn in Silence of the Lambs. It wouldn’t be his last questionable film, that’s for sure. Kudos to the screenwriter for including a conversation on the best ways to eat river rat. Mick Jagger’s best line: “Get the meat!”.
Time After Time (1979)
So what if H.G. Wells and Jack the Ripper faced off in modern-day San Francisco. This is the concept of Time After Time, directed by Nicholas Meyer, starring Malcolm McDowell, Mary Steenburgen, and David Warner. Malcolm McDowell finally plays a normal character in H.G. Wells, the famous author and in this film the creator of a time machine. The trick is the time machine has a special key that if you take off in the machine without it, the machine will drop you off but then go back to its original time. So at a dinner party at Wells’ house, police suspect, rightfully so, one of the guests Mr. Stevenson is Jack the Ripper, so he gets in the machine and takes off for San Francisco in the roaring 1970s. He, of course, does not take the key and the machine comes back so Wells can go after him. Then hilarity ensues, fish out of water tale commences. Originally Meyer wanted Mick Jagger in the role of Jack the Ripper, how cool would that have been? Jack the Ripper, now after killing people is called the San Francisco Ripper, is excited that in modern times he turns out to be an amateur. The world is filled with violence (he should travel to 2020) and nastiness. Wells also expected to find a Utopia but it’s not to be, life is messy, complicated, and busy in 1979. The ending is what you would expect. Steenburgen who I don’t enjoy in this film plays the love interest and potential victim. It’s a fun, cheesy, interesting film that is an easy watch. I have a friend that swears by it, not sure I would go that far but an interesting take on what someone from the 1890s would think about the future.
MG: I have not seen this one, but your write-up of it makes me want to check it out. I like the plot device of an historic criminal using the time machine to terrorize a future world. It is funny how for a long time people assumed the future would be better – until around the time Blade Runner came out and we started to realize it was more likely going to be worse. Kind of sad when you think about it.