Is there any sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy film that sucks as bad as time travel? What is it about the concept of going backward or forward in time that seems to bleed all the intelligence and any semblance of good sense out of filmmakers? And yes, while there are plenty of shitty space operas and dystopian message films out there, the per capita shittiness of time-travel films simply can't be beat. It doesn't have to be that way, though. There are some good films that deal with the knotty problems of time travel in ways that make sense, or at least are entertaining enough that you don't mind that some parts don't quite click. Several of these films will be screening here in June: Both of Terry Gilliam's time-travel classics (Time Bandits and 12 Monkeys) are showing at the Alamo Drafthouse, and Back to the Future is making an appearance at Esquire's Midnight Madness this weekend. In honor of this month of time-travel goodness, here are my five favorite, trend-bucking tales of cinematic time travel.
5) Back to the Future
Let's get one thing out of the way right out front: The time travel in Back to the Future makes no goddamn sense at all. It's right up there with any D-list time-travel film hokum in the way that it deals with paradox, causality and other topics relevant to the genre. It gets away with it by being so tremendously entertaining that none of that shit really matters. Michael J. Fox is at the height of his powers, displaying enough charm and charisma to let him coast through a dozen cornball paradoxes. Christopher Lloyd is almost too good as an eccentric scientist, and Crispin Glover is perfect as the uber awkward nerd/dad. Throw in a couple of sweet action sequences, a car full of horseshit and jokes about Reagan, and who gives a fuck that the paradox at the heart of the film is both creepy and nonsensical in its execution? No one, obviously, since BttF was a mega-hit in its day and is still beloved by most anyone who sees it.
4) Donnie Darko
Speaking of things that don't necessarily make a lot of sense ... opinions differ on whether Donnie Darko made a lick of sense, but there's enough there that you can infer a lot more underneath, especially if you're really, really high. Personally, I found the weird blend of quasi mysticism, quantum physics and quiet, understated super-hero tropes to be hypnotic and delightful, even on repeated viewings. The best part about it is the way it barely explains anything, leaving your imagination to fill in the details as you try to make sense out of what the fuck you just saw. (Skip the Director's Cut, though — it over-explains things and ends up making all a lot worse.) The killer '80s soundtrack didn't hurt, either.
Some time-travel films run from the paradoxes and time loops that the very possibility of time travel imply. Others, like Nacho Vigalondo's excellent Timecrimes, realize that those are the most interesting things about the genre and embrace them full on. A weird whodunit expressed through the medium of time travel, Timecrimes is gripping from its opening scene to the final moments, offering up plenty of shocking reveals and cool touches along the way. It's a small, personal time-travel story — no one is trying to stop the JFK assassination or anything silly like that — that shows what you can accomplish with an interesting take on an oft-overlooked and misused trope central to the genre. It's hard to say more without spoiling the whole thing, but it's a hell of a fun ride.
As with most time-travel films, some of the paradoxes in Looper are a little questionable. Director Rian Johnson tries to address that, in a scene where the elder, future-shifted version of the protagonist simply says, "I don't want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we're going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws." Seriously, that's a better way to address some of the crazier implications of time travel than 90 percent of the bullshit most films come up with. What really sets this movie apart, though, is the amazingly well-built and believable future it offers. Like other classic sci-fi films such as Blade Runner and Alien, there's something about the future on screen that seems just as real as our own world, just more futuristic. It's also pretty entertaining watching Joseph Gordon-Levitt pretend to be young Bruce Willis.
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For nearly every one of the prior entries I have to acknowledge that, yeah, the time travel is a little wonky. Not so in Primer. Not only is the time travel here scientifically accurate (based on current theories of time travel, anyway), but the film never shies away from all the weird shit that time travel implies. Hell, it relies on it for the entire plot, really, and that's the genius of the film. That means, of course, that this movie will take you days, if not years, to puzzle out after you see it (there are websites dedicated to merely mapping out all the overlapping trips through time!) but oh, man, is that fun. If you like movies that make you think — and I really, really do — Primer will keep you busy and happy for a long time to come.
Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.