Time travel and film: Examining a science fiction sub-genre

Primer - time travelDespite the popularity of time travel as a narrative device, it’s amazing just how few truly great films there are in this science fiction sub-genre. The concept of time travel has played a pivotal role in science fiction since the late nineteenth century, when it was most frequently used as a mode for exploring either utopian or dystopian societal alternatives. H. G. Wells’ seems to have been the primary initiator of this technique with The Time Machine (1895), a novel involving a time traveller who encounters a nightmarish dystopian future world positioned as the consequence of Well’s contemporaneous societal circumstances. Edward Bellamy, who wrote Looking Backward (1888), and William Morris, who wrote News from Nowhere (1890), inverted proceedings by sending their respective protagonists into perfect future worlds, thereby making the fallibility of their own worlds more apparent. The sub-genre has developed significantly from these early beginnings (most successfully within literature), but within the cinematic form, it has never really lived up to the standards set by these early works.

On one level, this isn’t surprising. The difficulties in dealing with the complexities of causality and temporal loops make sophisticated film examinations of this theoretical phenomenon very complicated (but rewarding when they work). In terms of dystopian social satire, the task of creating a convincing alternate world that mirrors and interrogates our own within the space of a feature film can be incredibly difficult (especially without a single insightful auteur). And on the comedic front, the possibilities of bringing two temporal worlds together may offer an abundance of opportunities for satire and wit, but more often than not this opportunity is lazily squandered.

However, there are exceptions, and I’ve attempted to pull together ten of my personal favourites below. I’m aware that there are a few notable absences here, and can only point out that this is the list that best reflects my own tastes. Enjoy.

The Terminator (1984)

Why not start with the obvious? James Cameron’s tech-noir masterpiece may not be the flashiest film in the series, but it is the best. An incredible neon-lit grungy aesthetic, lack of sentimentality, and gritty narrative go a long way, but it is the film’s ingenious use of the time travel concept – especially it’s intriguing use of a mind-bending temporal loop – that makes this the most conceptually loaded film of the series.

The Time Machine (1960)

George Pal’s gorgeous adaptation of the H. G. Wells novel of the same name stars Australia’s own Rod Taylor. Here the time machine is used primarily as a device to transport the protagonist and viewer to an alternate world where a kind of dystopian social commentary can be played out. When a scientist builds a time machine, an accident results in him becoming stranded 800,000 years into the future. Civilisation has long since gone to dust, and in its place are two species of human ancestry bound together by a violently unbalanced codependence. This one still stands up today.

La Jetee (1962)

Chris Marker’s science fiction masterpiece may come in at under thirty minutes, but any aficionado of the time travel sub-genre will surely stand behind this as one of the all time greats. Comprised entirely of black and white photography (with one exception) accompanied by bleak French narration, this is a tale of a devastated future world. The central protagonist must travel back in time to find answers that will help sustain humanity in the future. But in one shocking moment, he finds the answer to a mystery that has haunted him his entire life. Stunning cinema.

Time after Time (1979)

Nicholas Meyer helms this under-appreciated time travelling comedy classic. When Jack the Ripper get his hands on H.G. Wells’ time machine (apparently, The Time Machine is a true story) and travels to the twentieth century, Wells is forced to pursue him. As can be expected, an array of comedic culture clashes ensue, along with some light social commentary. Jack the Ripper says it best: “Ninety years ago I was a freak. Today I’m an amateur.”

Planet of the Apes (1968)

Franklin J Schaffner’s film adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s novel, La Planète des singes, is now firmly a part of the science fiction canon. But it is easy to forget that this film and its sequels, much like The Time Machine, function principally as a set of analogical (and/or allegorical) social critiques of contemporary social mores. The story? When a man finds himself cast into a new world where men are treated as little more than wild beasts, he is forced to adapt to his sudden shift in position on the food-chain. And then of course, there’s that ending… 

Twelve Monkeys (1995)

Terry Gilliam’s finest film (in my opinion) is one of the seminal achievements of the time travel genre. It is, depending on one’s perspective, either a remake of La Jetee or heavily inspired by it. The narrative is similar to La Jetee in the broadest sense, but as one might expect it introduces a far larger range of narrative complications, including the Gilliamesque possibility that the protagonist (Bruce Willis) might simply be insane.

Primer (2004)

Operating on a minuscule $7k budget, Shane Carruth went out and made an almost entirely impenetrable little film whose narrative complexities are designed to mirror the infinitely complex nature of theoretical time-travel physics. The premise? Two guys build a machine that does something incredible – it interferes with the nature of time. As they start to explore the possibilities that the machine affords, keeping track of things becomes more and more difficult.

Les Visiteurs (1993)

There is no denying that this is pure diversionary entertainment and contributes very little to the time travel genre as a whole (in fact, the task here is accomplished via magic rather than science). But this French comedy classic from Jean-Marie Poiré is a must. The story is simple enough; a medieval knight and his squire find themselves the victims of a magical incident that sends them catapulting into the 20th century. Beware the American remake, starring many of the same people… except they’re slightly older, speaking english and less funny.

Slaughterhouse-Five (1972)

George Roy Hill achieved the impossible dream in 1972 when Kurt Vonnegut proclaimed his satisfaction with the cinema adaptation of his challenging science fiction novel: ”I drool and cackle every time I watch that film, because it is so harmonious with what I felt when I wrote the book.”

Indeed, Vonnegut is entirely right. While this gem has been mistakenly relegated to the dusty storeroom of cinematic history, it truly is a stunning work of art. The film follows Billy Pilgrim, a man who has become disconnected from time, resulting in his experiencing the events of his life in random order. This is a piece of cinema that beautifully questions the reality of the most basic human concepts – including the nature of freedom and the concept of sequential time itself. Definitely worth viewing.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949)

This very light musical adaptation of the Mark Twain novel abandons much of the subtext found within the source material, but is by far the best version that I’ve ever seen (I suspect that Twain’s novel is second only to Dicken’s A Christmas Carol in having been the victim of lazy film and television adaptations). Most will know the story: When an American mechanic bumps his head, he finds himself suddenly transported to King Arthur’s court. Musical numbers, political intrigue and (much like a couple of other selections in this list) cultural clashes ensue.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

31 thoughts on “Time travel and film: Examining a science fiction sub-genre

  1. Pingback: Time travel and film: Examining a science fiction sub-genre - #nerdalert

  2. This is actually one of my least favorite sub-genres because of the amount of failures it has had. You have pointed out some good examples of when it does succeed, and I really think I should look into them. Welcome to Yesterday, the newest of the bunch, does not look all that appealing.

  3. Superb list. There is plenty new here for me to revisit along with some new choices. I really hated Primer when I watched it but enough people whose opinions I respect liked it for me to give it another go. In my quest to get around this genre, I came across The Atomic Man (1955) which, though a little wonky, has a magnificent time travel mechanism.

  4. Timecrimes is a stunner. I absolutely second that recommendation.

    I agree with you on 12 Monkeys by the way, La Jetee is my favourite on that list but 12 Monkeys is very good.

    Another one to consider – The Sound of Her Voice. Cult leader in modern day claims to have come from the future, sceptics infiltrate the cult to expose her, but could she be telling the truth? For that matter, if she is does that make it any the less a cult? Interesting low budget film.

  5. I’ve recently been getting more into this sub-genre and just saw La Jetee for the first time this week… as you might imagine, it’s been haunting me since! I look forward to watching more time travel films. Thank you for your suggestions!

  6. I wondered if one of the blogs I follow might do a list like this considering we have a couple time travel films coming up in 2014. Good list. 12 Monkeys in itself is a proof to your point that it is an incredibly complex sub-genre to take on.

  7. Wow, so exciting to see ‘Time After Time’ on this list. It’s such a fun movie and, to this day, I’ve not physically met anyone who’s seen it!

    I’m also 100% with you on ‘The Terminator’, it’s definitely the best of the series and one of the great sci-fi’s.

    I’ve gotta ask, though… why no ‘Back to the Future’? Did I just open a can of worms there?

  8. Thank you for the list– a couple of these films I’ve never seen, and which are now on my to-see list.

    Of course, now you have to a worst list. For a start I nominate Michael Crichton’s (although I don’t blame him) “Timeline”. Blech.

  9. Great idea James, and I have seen them all, except ‘La Jetee’ which I must try to remedy.
    I had to watch ‘Primer’ twice, to get my head around it, and I am not a huge fan of ‘The Time Machine’, but I can appreciate the inclusion. My personal favourite time-travel brain twister is the Spanish film ‘Timecrimes’ (2007) (Los cronocrimenes). Here is a link to a review.
    Regards as always, Pete.

  10. fine list, james. i might add The girl who leapt through time, time after time, il mare, the iceman cometh, midnight in paris, terror from the year 2000 (not that good but a sentimental favorite from my youth), and source code (not exactly time travel but close)

    • Thanks, Bill. Some good additions! I haven’t seen all of these so I’ll check them out.

      I’ve actually got ‘Time After Time on the list’, but ‘Midnight in Paris’ definitely made my shortlist.

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