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Scott Larson

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Who’s who in time travel

To celebrate the long overdue return of Doctor Who to our television screens this weekend, I have resolved to come up with my own list of essential time travel movies.

But before I go any further though, I should mention that lots of people have already put together great lists of great time travel movies. Two of the better ones are Total Film’s 50 Best Time Travel Movies and the indispensable io9 website’s 10 Best Time Travel Movies of All Timelines.

When I started trying to compile my own list, I found things quickly becoming complicated. Just what the heck is a time travel movie anyway? This isn’t really a very clearly defined genre. In fact, the element of time travel shows up in lots of different genres of movies. So before I get around to my own list, I want to put some order on all of this. Here then is my list of subgenres for flicks that deal with time travel.

  • Not Really Time Travel: Some films get lumped in with actual time travel movies but don’t, strictly speaking, really belong in that category. This would include Franklin J. Schaffner’s original Planet of the Apes (Charlton Heston winds up in the future but it’s more due to Einsteinian physics than to jumping out of his natural time line), Gary Ross’s Pleasantville (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon travel to some kind of 1950s TV land, not the actual 1950s) and Duncan Jones’s excellent Source Code (Jake Gyllenhaal travels through reconstructed computer memories, not back in time in his own reality).

  • Unstuck in Time As a Narrative Device or Psychological Dissection: This group includes movies where a character moves around in time, but it’s more an expression of his or her state of mind or memory and where his/her head is at. While these may (or may not) be considered legitimate time travel movies, the time travel is mainly about the author using characters as chess pieces. These would include George Roy Hill’s adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko and Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run.

  • Time Travel as Deus ex Machina for a Lesson Learning Exercise: In these movies, time travel is a supernatural manifestation by some angel or deity or unknown force with a purpose of teaching the protagonist some important lesson. The granddaddies of this subgenre, of course, are all the different adaptations of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and its close relative, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Other examples would be Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Let’s throw in here for good measure Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married.

  • Time Travel as Spoof Gimmick: Sometimes characters in comedies travel in time as a way to set up a series of jokes. Sometimes it’s to make fun of another decade, as in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me or in Hot Tub Time Machine. Sometimes it’s to derive humor from a major culture clash, as in the French comedy Les Visiteurs, which brought medieval characters into modern age, or in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which took clueless teenagers back into history.

  • Time Travel as Romantic Plot Point: Some movies concoct a love story in which two lovers have to overcome (or not) the fact that they live in two different time periods. This may overlap with other time travel subgenres, but in these cases a main issue to be resolved (or not) is the separation of the two lovers. Films that could be included in this category are the 1949 adaptation of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (starring Bing Crosby), Nicholas Meyer’s Time After Time and Robert Schwentke’s adaptation of The Time Traveler’s Wife. The prime example, however, would be Jeannot Szwarc’s Somewhere in Time, with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour.

  • Time Travel as an Element in Science Fiction or Fantasy: Here we get to what I consider the truly proper time travel movies. Sometimes the entire plot depends on a trip through time. Sometimes it is a minor, but usually significant, occurrence that may just solve some sticky problem at the end of the story. Anyway, here’s several examples of what I am talking about: Escape from the Planet of the Apes (which involves true time travel unlike its predecessor listed above), Richard Donner’s Superman (wherein Supes turns back time to save Lois), The Final Countdown, The Philadelphia Experiment, Disney’s Flight of the Navigator, the similarly named Australian/New Zealand production The Navigator: A Mediaeval Odyssey, Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness, Timecop, Galaxy Quest, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and no fewer than three Star Trek movies: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Star Trek: First Contact and J.J. Abrams’s reboot Star Trek.

  • Time Travel Presenting a Paradox or Logic Puzzle: This is a sub-subgenre of the subgenre above, in which the point of the story is to twist the narrative in on itself and generally do the viewer’s head in with the conundrums presented by time travel. Or in which the changing of history (or the failure to do so) leads to a twist ending. In this sub-category, I have thrust Gregory Hoblit’s Frequency, Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber’s The Butterfly Effect, Shane Carruth’s Primer, John Maybury’s The Jacket, the late Tony Scott’s Deja Vu and Christopher Smith’s Triangle.

    So that’s my survey of the different types of time travel movies. So now I can present my own list of the ones I consider essential. But maybe you have already figured out which ones those are. (Hint: none of them are actually mentioned on this page.)

    To see my list, just set the destination coordinates on your own time travel device to random and you will arrive at its moment of completion. Or wait until this link here becomes active and click.

    -S.L., 31 August 2012

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