This week will see the release of The Time Travelerâ€™s Wife, a movie about a man with a genetic disorder that causes him to time travel involuntarily, and the problems that causes for his marriage. I say, if your genes are turning you into a time traveler, your marriage is the least of your problems. Iâ€™d be worried about what other genes I had wandering around in there, and whether any of them might cause me to turn into a dinosaur or a walking nuclear reactor, which seems equally feasible. No matter what happened, Iâ€™d blame exposure to cleaning products.
Regardless, it joins a fine tradition of time travel movies, which all share one remarkable characteristic: If you think about them too much, your brain will explode. (Which is not necessarily unique to time travel films â€“ I find I have the same problem with Meg Ryan movies.) Still, it’s a worthy genre; if you donâ€™t believe me, go back in time and review these classic examples.
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Willis had quite a trifecta in 1994-â€™95 with Pulp Fiction, Nobodyâ€™s Fool, and then this film, which strikes just the right note of off-kilter paranoia and impending, unchangeable doom that marks more than a few sci-fi classics. I mean, itâ€™s nice that Marty McFly winds up rich with better-looking parents, but wouldnâ€™t that movie have been even better if heâ€™d caused the whole planet to be wiped out by a killer virus? Wait, scratch that — then we wouldnâ€™t have had the sequels.
Regardless, Terry Gilliamâ€™s 12 Monkeys features Willis as James Cole, a man sent back in time looking for clues about the deadly virus that will wipe out most of humanity. Itâ€™s a fine, understated performance by Willis, whose character seems to realize that no matter what he does, heâ€™s not going to be able to change the course of time â€“ making it all the more heartbreaking when his reserve does start to crack. Iâ€™d bet there isnâ€™t anything quite as effective in Disneyâ€™s The Kid, another time-travel movie in which Willis meets his younger self, but I canâ€™t say for sure because it struck me as a movie I should only watch if someone is holding me in front of the TV, forcing my eyelids open.
12 Monkeys is also the movie wherein Brad Pitt showed that, despite being preternaturally attractive, he could convincingly play a mentally unstable leftist protester with a lazy eye. I wonder if he ever breaks that shtick out for Angelina and their 47 kids.
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Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971): I guess all the Planet of the Apes films are technically time travel movies, although I never really got whether Charlton Heston had traveled into the future, or was just frozen in his spaceship for hundreds of years, a la Austin Powers. (And if Mike Meyers isnâ€™t currently developing Austin Powers on the Planet of the Apes, Lord knows he should be.)
But this one, in which apes Cornelius and Zira travel back to 1973 and find that theyâ€™re more civilized than anyone else on the planet, is definitely the most time-travely of the bunch. Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter were always the best part of these movies â€“ with apologies to â€œDamn You All To Hell!â€ Heston â€“ and their characters are particularly effective in contrast to all the inhumane humans they encounter when they get to the â€™70s. (Well, it was the Nixon era.)
The best part, though, is how they become instant celebrities; this is of course exactly what would happen if intelligent talking apes showed up here today, except now at least one of them would wind up sleeping with Bret Michaels. And as always, I give bonus points to any movie featuring Ricardo Montalban, who I believe in a later installment used the intelligent apes to take over the world. Or if he didnâ€™t, Lord knows he should have.
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Time Bandits (1981): I’ll concede that Time Bandits is not a very good movie â€“ first of all, any film featuring that many Monty Python members should be much funnier, but most of their scenes wind up playing like outtakes from The Holy Grail that got left out for a reason. Plus, itâ€™s probably just one shade too creepy, as evidenced by the scenes where the dog and the boy heroâ€™s parents are turned to fiery cinders. Mostly the dog.
Still, as someone who actually owned the comic book adaptation (what? I was a lonely child) I have a soft spot for Terry Gilliamâ€™s twisted fantasy realm and its often imperfect inhabitants â€“ chief among them the titular dwarf sextet, the insufferable Vincent and Pansy (Michael Palin and Shelly Duval) and Sean Conneryâ€™s noble father figure Agamemnon. Plus, the idea of time travel being possible because the universe was a â€œbotch jobâ€ with a lot of holes in it seems pretty reasonable to me.
And yes, I realize Iâ€™ve picked two Gilliam movies â€“ I guess heâ€™s sort of the unofficial king of cinematic time travel. Quick, somebody assign him a Terminator movie! He certainly couldnâ€™t do any worse than McG.
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Star Trek: First Contact (1996): I know the sentimental favorite when it comes to Star Trek time travel movies is Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, mainly because itâ€™s essentially a Star Trek parody featuring the actual cast. And between Chekovâ€™s search for â€œnuclear wessels,â€ Scotty talking into the mouse and all of Kirk and Spockâ€™s dialogue, which is basically a sci-fi Abbott and Costello routine, weâ€™re talking high hilarity.
But I prefer to go with the far nerdlier First Contact â€“ directed by Number One himself, Jonathan Frakes â€“ the second feature film with the Next Generation cast and the first to live up to the promise of the legendary â€œBest of Both Worldsâ€ episodes from 1990. (And yes, I realize I probably should have been dating more at the time.) The best part is how the crew of the Enterprise goes back in time, and yet theyâ€™re still in the future â€“ our future, I mean. Thatâ€™s hardcore.
There they meet the farmer from Babe, Picard and Alfre Woodard make goo-goo eyes at each other, Data confronts his humanity and many photon torpedoes are fired. Iâ€™m simplifying a bit. But regardless, watch the clip above and tell me that Picard doesnâ€™t mop up the floor with Kirk on the Starfleet Captain-o-Meter. Ow â€¦ Just got a major nerd cramp. Must move on.
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Unidentified Flying Oddball (1979): Full disclosure: I have not seen this Disney flick since I watched it in the theater when I was 10. Basically all I remember is that it featured an astronaut and his look-alike robot traveling back in time to meet King Arthur, the astronaut was played by a guy whoâ€™d been in every TV show ever made (although wisely didnâ€™t use his real name in the credits to this movie), and that if smartphones had been invented in 1979, I would have probably spent the entire movie texting â€œWTF???â€ to everyone I knew.
Interestingly enough, the entire movie â€“ known alternately as A Spaceman in King Arthurâ€™s Court and, presumably for those who might find the Twain reference too cerebral, The Spaceman and King Arthur â€“ is up on YouTube. Watching it again, it struck me that it may actually be funnier than Time Bandits, albeit not on purpose.
A few Unidentified Flying Oddball facts Iâ€™ve since discovered: star Dennis Dugan now seems to make a living directing Adam Sandler movies; Ron Moody (of Oliver! fame) reprised his role as Merlin in A Kid in King Arthurâ€™s Court, a later Disney movie with the same plot; and one of the villains was played by Jim Dale, who a year later won a Tony for Barnum and has since become the voice of the Harry Potter audio books. There, arenâ€™t you glad you know all that?
(Dis)honorable mention: time-travel love stories. Time travel in movies should exist for only a select handful of reasons, such as wiping out mankind, keeping mankind from being wiped out, or inventing rock â€™nâ€™ roll. Introduce romance into the picture and you have Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves trading love letters across the time-space continuum, and nobody wants that. As for Somewhere in Time, I know every woman in the world thinks itâ€™s the most romantic movie ever made, but I say if you could stop time travel with a penny, God wouldnâ€™t have invented Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Maybe The Time Travelerâ€™s Wife will dissuade me of that notion. But frankly, Iâ€™d feel a lot more confident if Terry Gilliam had directed it.
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