“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in“. – Always good to start and end with a Henry David Thoreau quotation…
For all intents and purposes, we can say that the modern time travel story began with H.G. Wells‘ The Time Machine (1895). Modern is another word for science – as opposed to magic – and thus, I guess, I’m speaking of science fiction. For stories about sudden movement in time to qualify as a modern time travel story, there must be, then, a speculative idea about time with some sort of connection to science, no matter how strenuous.
The concept of moving back and forth in time is not a new one. (Yes, we all move forth in time, but you know what I mean…) In the Nihongi, a Japanese collection of early myths and tales up until 697 AD, we find the story Urashimo Taro, about a fisherman moving hundreds of years through time. Washington Irving’s famous story Rip Van Winkle (written in 1819), is about a man falling asleep to wake up a hundred years after. And everyone knows Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843), in which Ebenezer Scrooge is taken back and forth in time to witness his own past and future. There are many more examples, with perhaps the Norwegian/Danish Johan Herman Wessel’s play Anno 7603 (written 1781) the most extreme in length of the journey through time. What all these stories have in common is that there is little to none scientific explanation for the chronistic anomalies. Mostly people just fall asleep and wake up in another time than their own. In Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the protagonist is transferred in time by being hit on the head. In Anno 7603, the young couple is transported through time by a fairy; neither a very scientifically sound means of transport…
Well’s The Time Machine is a science fiction novel that has stood the test of time better than many of the author’s other novels. His The Sleeper Awakes can be tough going at times, and as alluded to by the title, is yet another time travel book in which the means of transportation is a long, long sleep. (I think one could do interesting work interpreting the role of sleep in pre 20th century novels and stories). Anyhow, as I thought I should dedicate this post to time travel in films, The Time Machine serves a double purpose, as it is also the first (to my knowledge) mainstream film about time travel (1960). There were examples of time travel films in the silent era and in the 1930s, but these also lacked a certain science in their fiction, so to speak.
Without really having reflected too much on this, I think time travel can serve as a narrative device in almost any kind of stories: The Adventure story, The Comedy, The Thriller, The Drama. Of course, when time travel is introduced, these genres will often be overlapping, and perhaps it is typical of a pulp genre, as science fiction really is, to be gregarious, shall we say, in its handling of narrative strictness. Almost apart from these genres is the pure science fiction story, in which the concept of time is more than a narrative device to get a character to go from B to A, or from D to R. This is what I am tempted to call the hard science story, in which the time travel phenomenon is at least attempted to be explained as something more than the effect of a flux capacitor, and in which the consequences of temporal travel is given its due.
The Back to the Future trilogy contains a bit of all the genres, for example, but falls mainly into the adventure category. Still, there is probably no film that has done more to explain time paradoxes to generations of movie goers. The Terminator films also span a bit of all categories, but are first and foremost thrillers, while Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is, in spite of its title, pure comedy. Of the hard science films dealing with time travel, I can’t think of more than Primer, with perhaps Donnie Darko and 12 Monkeys close behind as what I’ll call serious entertainments.
“I’ve been on a calendar but I have never been on time.”
(- One of a number of Marilyn Monroe quotes I hope really belonged to her and not to some publicist…)
Characters on film can time travel for a number of reasons, they can travel far or very, very short. In Galaxy Quest, 13 seconds back in time is sufficient to avert catastrophe. Often one chooses to go to historically significant years, or periods easily reproduced on film. In Peggy Sue Got Married, it’s back to the 1950s, same in Pleasantville and Back to the Future. Perhaps because of the already mythological familiarity we have with this seemingly more innocent (American) time.
Often, it’s humans from/in the future who travel back to our time; perhaps to comment on contemporary mores from a pseudo-futuristic viewpoint, but not least to save a dollar or two in set design. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, is an example, 12 Monkeys another. In the various TV series incarnations of Star Trek, time travel has occurred quite often, beginning already in the fabulous original series (1966-69). By the way, The Voyage Home is jolly entertaining, at least if you are an Original Series fan!
Another possibility is people from the past travelling to our time, usually because of some freak accident of nature, as the technology is less likely to be available in the past. Two examples and decidedly mediocre films are Kate & Leopold and the French Les Visiteurs. I would instead rather recommend the highly entertaining Time After Time, in which H.G.Wells (played by Malcolm McDowell in one of his few sympathetic portrayals) actually invents a time machine, but unfortunately brings Jack the Ripper with him to present day.
Unfortunately, films about time travel are generally seen as lowbrow entertainment by many critics who should know better, but what can you do? It’s not like they are educated to be critics; no school for that… I still remember an article by the leader of the Norwegian film critics’ society, in which she gave the excellent Donnie Darko 1 of 6 stars, calling it “a terrible film about a rabbit and some time travel nonsense“. It still makes me angry to see that kind of ignorance being spouted by someone whose opinions are actually paid work. (As an aside, she similarly rewarded David Fincher’s Se7en with the solitary star…)
“Time flies like the wind. Fruit flies like bananas.” A bit by Groucho Marx serves to chase my bad temper…
A reason for the low esteem many so called critics – serious or not – hold of time travel films, is of course, that a number of these are very bad films indeed, and make few attempts to elevate themselves from the worst of their pulp origins. However, I do think that the percentage of good vs. bad films in a given genre is rather high when it comes to our current topic.
A couple of reasonably budgeted failures: The One, Déjà Vu and Timecop. While I like Jet Li very much, his English-speaking films have generally been more miss than hit. The perceptive reader will, perhaps, object that The One is more of parallel realities than Time Travelling, but I feel that the two concepts almost always overlap, so I’ll allow it here…The One is under no circumstances among the proudest entries in Li’s filmography. For a better film about parallel realities, see the Korean 2009:Lost Memories… Or, perhaps, the uneven The Butterfly Effect.
While Timecop is far from the worst entry that Jean-Claude Van Damme has blessed the silver screen with, it is indubitably a bad film and brings little of value to the genre. Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu, on the same hand, is so bland that it is forgotten the moment the credits start rolling; the opposite of what one wants from speculative fiction concerning time travel and paradoxes.
“Clocks slay time… time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life“. – William Faulkner.
One subgenre of time travel is where the protagonists don’t travel through time at all, but are, by some almost magical object, able to communicate with the past. In Frequency, it is an old radio that unites father and son, in The Lake House, it is a mailbox that can send letters from the would be lovers back and forth in time. I’ll also mention the romantic cult favourite Somewhere in Time, where Christopher Reeve hypnotises himself back in time by surrounding himself with old clothes and furniture. This mystical aspect can bring this kind of film closer to the fantasy-genre, than to SF. I don’t quite know, for example, where to place Darren Aronofsky’s ambitious but not perfect The Fountain. Some films are sufficiently complicated – or arty – that we can’t even be sure whether time travel actually is supposed to take place – suffice to mention 2001 – A Space Odyssey.
What, then, are the good time travel films? I’ve tentatively written a list of 10 and then some films, as lists of this type always go to 10. I have cheated, though, by including some sequels. These are a mix of entertaining and cerebral, with 12 Monkeys and Donnie Darko best combining the two traits, with Primer being cerebral, and the rest at the very least jolly entertaining. I guess some would have liked me to include yet another Terry Gilliam film, Time Bandits, but I’ve never managed to really like this, hard as I’ve tried. Note that two of my choices deal with monkeys – or apes. Hmmm. Don’t tell Sun Wukong…
Back to the Future (really all 3 of them)
Time After Time
Planet of the Apes (original 1969 version, of course)
“As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”
Henry David Thoreau, “Economy“, Walden (1854).