Tom Jolliffe offers up a second round of essential time travel movies…
Having already established that cinema has a longstanding fascination with time travel with my previous ten essentials, it’s high time to add another ten to the mix. As a starting point for so many films it goes without saying that there have been a whole slew of enjoyable films in the genre, or indeed films which incorporate some element of time travel that is secondary to a wider story. So here are ten more essential time travel films…
The epitome of the cult hit. Donnie Darko came out of nowhere and slowly tightened its grip on audiences in the early part of the century. That appeal has dimmed slightly, but still burns bright with plenty of fans still analysing the film in depth. Richard Kelly’s complex end of the world coming of age drama was heady and complex but not alienating and his theory of time travel and wormholes went as far as having a complimentary website devoted to explaining the ins and outs of it. Donnie, a teen on medication and in constant dialogue with a shrink, is clearly troubled, so a fragile grip on reality isn’t new to him. This is pushed, seemingly further than ever when he begins encountering Frank the bunny who tells Donnie has days to save the world from disaster. Complete with excellent soundtrack, Donnie Darko is essential viewing. The directors cut made things a little easier, but in truth I prefer the added ambiguity of the theatrical version.
Safety Not Guaranteed
Colin Trevorrow’s quirky indie comedy sees a trio of reporters (one intern) sent out to interview a man (Mark Duplass) who placed a classified ad looking for a partner to travel back in time with. He’s obviously a crackpot right? Whilst the idea is to paint a picture of an oddball for the mirth of readers, the intern (Aubrey Plaza) becomes increasingly enamoured by this mans seemingly doomed quest and unshakable belief. It’s a lot of fun and very engaging with an excellent cast. More so it makes good use of Plaza whose own character is injected with her trademark quirk. She deserves films this good every time.
A group of unruly workers for God himself, abscond with a map of time to pilfer treasures through the ages. Along the way they end up in the room of a disaffected and intelligent young boy and take him along for the adventure of a lifetime. Terry Gilliam’s endlessly imaginative and quirky adventure is timeless and visually dazzling. It’s also oodles of fun with a number of great actors dropping in to play historical figures, or mythical beings. John Cleese (as Robin Hood), Ian Holm (as Napoleon), Sean Connery (Agamemnon) and David Warner (as Evil) and the rest, all have a blast, whilst the intrepid band of little people (including Kenny Baker) are great.
Why have just one Terry Gilliam film when you can have two? Gilliam revisits time travel for 12 Monkeys. A grim dystopian and post apocalyptic future has a ravaged Earth long suffering from a viral outbreak (umm…yeah). Bruce Willis is sent back through time to stop the virus being unleashed, leading him to capture and encountering Brad Pitt (in great form) in a psychiatric hospital. It’s engaging and clever and arguably the most mainstream thing Gilliam ever did (without losing his penchant for quirk and meticulous design). Willis, Pitt and Madeleine Stowe are excellent and the film remains an essential entry into the time travel sub-genre.
Back to the Future
When this baby hits 88MPH you’re gonna see some serious shit. Boy, was that true. Back to the Future was/is a veritable rite of passage. It’s an absolute must watch, but more so as a franchise it’s a brilliant journey through the past and into the future, often treading back over itself brilliantly, before taking us back to the wild west. As three films there has rarely been a trilogy as fun, even if the latter two aren’t as tightly constructed as the first, as the ideas inevitably become so sprawling. The idea of a time travelling car offers a lot of visual delight and the cast is pitch perfect all around. In Marty McFly we had an engaging and likeable hero thrust into a bizarre situation that goes from traversing time to Oedipus and a constant journey of self discovery. The films never get old.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Okay dudes (and dudettes) over 30, answer me this…Did you ever step into a phone booth and pretend you were about to travel through time as a kid? Just me? Come on, admit it! Bill and Ted do indeed take us on a most excellent adventure. To hell with logic or worrying about upsetting quantum physicists or time travel nerds, this is all about the fun and logic need not apply. Slacker doofus comedies were always popular but in an era that brought Bill and Ted and then Wayne’s World, it seemed to launch a spate of followers. This high concept pioneer though, remains perhaps the most enjoyable slacker duo of all and Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves are cast perfectly as the dim but eternally optimistic wannabe rockers. The fact we had a third film recently, a silly slice of much needed and positive escapism during a grim 2020, tells you all about the legacy of Bill and Ted. Forget any depth, just have fun.
A little on track with Source Code, we have our hero able to look into the past to try and uncover the origins of an explosion (in this case a ferry explosion). With the kind of glossy style you’d expect from the late Tony Scott, Deja Vu teamed him once again with Denzel Washington in a high concept action thriller well packed with set pieces, drama and some romance, but with not so much room left for logic. Still, with time travel films it’s often best not to overthink, because it’s almost impossible not to start seeing frays in any time travel script, no matter how intricately weaved it might be. Deja Vu was high powered blockbuster at a time Denzel was firmly established as a box office draw. Is he better than films like this? Of course, he’s Denzel, but he never lets it show (some actors can’t hide their contempt for dumb material they’re doing for the money). It’s not the best example you’ll see but it’s great escapism and surprisingly gripping. Much of course resting on the stylistic flourish of Scott and gravitas of Denzel, but there’s fine support too from Val Kilmer and Paula Patton.
America may well have just stepped out of living this film for the last 4 years, but Idiocracy remains an engaging cult film which sees Luke Wilson waking in the distant future to a world dumbed down beyond all measure with a President who borders on cartoon character. Though he’s decidedly middle road in his own time, he’s now the smartest man on the planet. It’s biting satire with plenty of quotable humour, which you’d expect from Mike Judge. Idiocracy is a lot of fun but maybe it should act as a warning too.
Denis Villeneuve’s ponderous and philosophical Sci-fi burns slowly but always keeps human ideas at heart ahead of complex Sci-Fi (of which there is still plenty). It’s not overtly a time travel film but there are definite dives into time theory here with the Aliens seemingly able to traverse time which plays directly into visions/flashbacks that Amy Adams’ character has. The film is typically enthralling from Villeneuve, showing his adept touch on sci-fi that would later be utilised in Blade Runner 2049 and in the upcoming Dune. The added dash of time theory here is one aspect that invites repeat viewings, aside from the overall aesthetics of the film (courtesy in part to Bradford Young’s exceptional photography) and excellent performances (Adams in particular).
Flight of the Navigator
An 80’s staple. Flight of the Navigator features a young boy who falls into a ditch in 1978 and wakes up in 1986. He hasn’t aged but his family have. Perhaps it’s something to do with the UFO he happens upon, which houses a playful alien inside (voiced by Paul Reubens). It’s an enjoyable Disney film that still manages to be entertaining and (of course) heartfelt. It features Sarah Jessica Parker before she became a huge star. There are some decent visual effects too from Fantasy II.
What are your favourite time travel films? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.