Thursday, August 20, 2009

Weekly Top Ten: Best Time Travel Movies

I love time travel movies. The mystery of travelling into the past or future, the consequences it can have the paradoxes it creates. Time Travel movies come in all shapes, sizes and really genres (although sci-fi does dominate this list, it is not exclusively of that genre). The movie that inspired this list was the thoroughly mediocre The Time Traveler’s Wife, which was great as a book, but not great as a movie. But these 10 movies are. I expect most people will call me a pretentious twat for my number 1 choice, but so be it. It is a masterpiece.

10. The Time Bandits (Terry Gilliam, 1981)
Terry Gilliam is one very strange man, and The Time Bandits is one very strange movie. It opens with Kevin, a young boy, being pulled into the void of space by six dwarves, who work for the Supreme Being building trees and bushes, but are in a labor dispute and are currently on strike. They have found a map that allows them to open up holes in space and time, and travel freely among them, stealing valuable treasures for different eras. Throughout their travels, Kevin and the Dwarves meet Napoleon, Robin Hood, Agamemnon and board the Titanic, among other things, all ending up in a showdown with the villain – appropriately named Evil. The sense of humor on display in The Time Bandits shares much with the work on Monty Python (after all, Gilliam was involved with them and co-stars Michael Palin and John Cleese were among their most famous stars), and while the film is hilarious, it is also extremely dark. After all, the movie ends with Kevin’s parents being exploded when they touch a piece of evil, and the kid being left all alone. The Time Bandits is one of Gilliam’s best films, one from the period before he went off the deep end.

9. Peggy Sue Got Married (Francis Ford Coppola, 1986)
There have been a lot of movies about adults either becoming their teenage selves again, or teenagers become their adults selves, but none of them come close to being as good as Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married. In the film, Kathleen Turner gives a great performance as Peggy Sue, who in 1985 is getting a divorce from her husband (Nicolas Cage) who cheated on, but decides to attend her 25th High School Reunion anyway. At the reunion, she passes out, and wakes up back in 1960, her senior year of high school, before Charlie knocked her up, and forever changed her life. She is determined to change things in her life however, and is not nearly as timid as she was in 1960. She works on improving her relationship with her estranged sister, sleeps with the guy she always had a crush on in high school and delights in telling her algebra teacher that she now knows for a fact she will never need to know algebra in her everyday life. But she also finds, she cannot really change the past. Her relationship with Charlie is fate, and even if in 1985 she hates him, in 1960, she cannot help falling for him all over again. The film ends on a note of hope – maybe Peggy Sue and Charlie can reconcile after all. Coppola does an amazing job with the visuals, capturing 1960 wonderfully well, and is aided greatly by one of Kathleen Turner’s very best performances (her debut in Body Heat is still the best, but this is a close second). One of the best films Coppola made after the 1970s, and a fine film all around.

8. Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968)
By now, almost everyone has either seen or at the very least knows about the twist ending of the Planet of the Apes, so I am not really spoiling anything by listing it in this list. The movie is about four astronauts who are in a cryogenic sleep when they crash land on a planet they do not know. One is killed on impact, but the other set off onto the beach, gradually moving further inland. There, they are attacked by a group of monkey’s on horseback. One astronaut is killed, another captured, but our hero (Charlton Heston) merely gets shot in the throat, rendering him mute for a while. Heston discovers that the whole planet is run by apes, and that they have a strict class system, and the mute, stupid humans are at the bottom. When it becomes clear that Heston has intelligence, he is a threat to the way things are done, and his is threatened first with castration, then with a lobotomy, but is finally able to go free to find his destiny. It is only then, on the beach, that he discovers the Statute of Liberty, and he figures out that he has been on earth all along – he is just now in some distant future where everything has gone wrong.

7. Army of Darkness (Sam Raimi, 1993)
At the end of Evil Dead II, Ash (Bruce Campbell) is transported through space and time, and ends up in Arthurian England. Army of Darkness, explains what happens next. He wants to get sent back to his own time, and in order to do so, he needs to find the Necronomicon, the book that sent him back in the first place. He does indeed find the book, but forgets the words he is supposed to use, and ends up unleashing an army of the undead instead. Oops. Lead by his evil clone, the Army of Darkness attacks, and it is up to Ash to save the day. Raimi’s Evil Dead series got more absurd as they went along, but they also got more entertaining. Evil Dead II remains the masterpiece of the series, but Army of Darkness is easily the funniest and most entertaining. Bruce Campbell may not be a great actor, but in the role of Ash he is perfect – no one else could get away with saying lines like “This is my boomstick” (referring to his shotgun, not his penis, but come to think of it, perhaps he means both) or “Hail to the king, baby”, his closing line right as he grabs a female employee at S-Mart (“Shop Smart. Shop S-Mart”) and kisses her. Army of Darkness is dark, demented and just pure cinematic fun.

6. Primer (Shane Carruth, 2004)
Primer is low budget science fiction at its very best. It is a film with almost no special effects, because it does not need them. It takes the concept of time travel seriously, and considers the consequences of what a real life time machine would mean. Aaron and Abe are two engineers working for a company they hate, and trying to come up with inventions in their spare time to make them money. They inadvertently invent a time machine. The science in the movie to explain the time machine is obviously phony (since, as far as I know, no one has come up with a real one yet), but is sounds very convincing – much more so than I think any other film on this list. At first, the pair simply use the time machine to make money on the stock market, but gradually, they start to differ about what they should be using the machine for – what is right, and what is moral. I would be here all day describing the ins and outs of the plot, but needless to say that Primer is intelligent science fiction in the extreme. One of the best this decade has to offer.

5. 12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995)
Gilliam’s second time travel movie on this list is far and away the better one. While Time Bandits was a warped, dark, children’s fantasy, 12 Monkeys is a nightmare come to life on screen. In the future, James Cole (Bruce Willis) is a convicted criminal, who agrees to let scientists perform tests on him. In 1996, a deadly virus was released, killing most of the human population, and driving the rest underground. Cole’s mission is to return to the past, and figure out what happened, and if possible get a pure copy of the virus, so a cure can be found. Cole bounces back and forth through time, meeting Dr. Railly (Madeline Stowe), each time and eventually falling in love. The prime suspect in the virus outbreak is Goines (Brad Pitt, in an amazing performance), a mental patient and animal rights activist. Cole is haunted by a dream from his childhood where he watches a man gunned down in the airport. The movie spins its web of deceit, gradually tightening its plot threads until we are forced into the final showdown. This is perhaps Gilliam’s best film – his most complete, most visually stunning, most layered. It is a masterpiece of paranoid science fiction. (Note: 12 Monkeys is actually a remake of my number 1 film on this list. Although the two differ wildly, their underlying message is the same, and 12 Monkeys deserves comparison to that masterwork).

4. The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984)
So a couple of weeks ago, I caught some flak for putting Terminator 2: Judgment Day on my list of computer movies, and not the original Terminator. While I stand by my opinion that T2 is the better movie – and far and away the better computer movie – I will admit that as a time travel movie, the original film is better – with fewer loose ends in its time travel plot. In the future, John Connor will lead the resistance against the machines of Skynet. Nervous they will lose, Skynet sends a killing machine (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back in time to kill Connor’s mother Sarah (Linda Hamilton) before John can be born. In turn, John sends back Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn, who I am sorry, I still think cannot act) to protect her. Is the movie tighter than the sequel? Yes. Is the concept of time travel better handled and explained in the original? Yes. Is the original a masterpiece of sci-fi/action filmmaking? Yes. Is it better than the sequel? Finally, no, but its close enough that I have no problems putting it on this list.

3. Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985)
This is probably the film most people thought would be number 1 – with good reason, it is undoubtedly the most popular time travel movie of all time (and its two sequels are pretty damn good too, especially the third movie). Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is a high school kid living in 1980s LA. He is friends with a weird older scientist named Doc (Christopher Lloyd), and one night Doc, tells Marty to come to the parking lot so he can show off his latest invention – a DeLoren that he has supped up into a time machine. Because of complications with Libyan terrorists, Doc is murdered, and McFly ends up in the time machine and travels back to 1955, where McFly ends up causing changes in the past, which jeopardize the future – most notably he prevents his father (Crispin Glover) from meeting his mother (Lea Thompson), this putting his own existence into jeopardy (and creepier still, is when he mother falls for him, and tries to seduce him). Back to the Future is an expertly crafted movie – both in terms of its screenplay which never steps wrong, and the direction by Robert Zemeckis. The performances in the movie are also pitch perfect. Back to the Future is one of the most enduring classics from the 1980s for a reason – it’s brilliant. So why is it not number 1? Simply put, I like the other two films more.

2. Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001)
Donnie Darko is a strange, maddening, brilliant mixture of science fiction, religion, philosophy, incestuous drama and teenage melodrama, coming together to make one of the most original films of the decade. Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a brilliant teenager, who is also a paranoid schizophrenic who has just stopped taking his medication. On October 2, Donnie sleepwalks out of the house, and meets Frank, who tells him that the world will end in just over 28 days. While he is out, a jet engine crashes through Donnie’s bedroom ceiling and crushes his bed. Over the next 28 days, Donnie starts to see stranger and stranger things – a rabbit who tells him to flood the school, or burn down a local celebrity’s house revealing a child porn dungeon. But what it all leads back to is this – the universe has splintered off from itself, creating an tangent universe, which will end in 28 days and take the real universe with it, unless Donnie sets things right. I will not attempt to explain much more of the plot than that – it is even more complicated than Primer was – but I will say that Donnie Darko is a brilliant, dark time travel movie, one that continues to get better the more times you see it. Note: I prefer the original cut of the film as compared to the director’s cut, in which I think writer/director Kelly explains too much, removing much of the mystery, which is one of the primary reasons why the film worked as well as it did in the first place. Kelly’s follow-up film, Southland Tales, is also a wonderfully twisted time travel movie of a sort, but it is nowhere near as good as Donnie Darko is. But if you liked this one, than do yourself a favor and track down that one. It is still quite good.

1. La Jetee (Chris Marker, 1962)
Okay, so this is where 99% of the people reading this start to think that I have ever lost my mind by putting a film they have never heard of at number, or think that I am a pretentious price for putting a 28 minute art film in the number one spot. I can deal with both reactions. Film, to me anyway, is an art form, but so few films can actually qualify as a genuine work of art. Chris Marker’s brilliant La Jetee is one of those films. The film told almost entirely through still photos, narration and music. There is only one shot in the film – and it is a haunting one – shot with a movie camera. They rest are just images, which flash by the audience at varying speeds, as the narrator explains what happens. After World War III, the survivors of Paris all live underground. Scientists are experimenting with time travel – sending people into the past and the future to try and rescue the present. But the effects of time travel usually either kills or drives insane the people who go through it. But one man is able to go. Haunted by a dream for his past, he is somehow able to go back and forth throughout time and try to save the present. He meets the woman who is a part of his dream for childhood, and falls in love with her. When he is next sent to the future, he gets what he needs to save the present, and when he returns, his mission complete, his discovers that the scientists plan to kill him. The people from the future offer to bring them to their time, but instead he asks to be sent back into the past so he can reconnect with the woman. They agree, but it turns out that the violent memory that has morphed into a dream from his childhood obsessed him for a reason – he was witnessing his own death. La Jetee is a haunting film – the images both beautiful and disturbing, the score melancholy and probing, the narration perfect – the whispered German dialogue heard in some scenes, but not understand, creepy beyond belief. So call me a pretentious ass if you want to. But for me, La Jetee is the only choice for the top spot on this list.

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