science fiction Tag

6 Classic Time Travel Films

6 Classic Time Travel Films

Humans are fascinated by the idea of traveling in time, either to observe what happened in the past or to learn about future civilizations. Ever since H.G. Wells published The Time Machine in 1895, the concept has captivated both creative artists and audiences. It’s no surprise that vaulting across the decades or centuries is a recurring theme in movies. What is less expected is the different approaches filmmakers have taken, both in terms of how the time travel is achieved and what motivates the experiment. Among the following six movies, no two have the same purpose.

6 Classic Time Travel Films

THE TIME MACHINE (1960)

This is the granddaddy of all time-travel films, the first theatrical release to use Wells’ book as source material. It’s directed and produced by George Pal. Screenwriter David Duncan stayed true to the novelist’s two lofty reasons to explore time: Knowledge for its own sake and the wish to believe human society will improve in the future. The dashing Rod Taylor plays Wells, and Alan Young is his best friend, Filby, showing up later as his own son. Yvette Mimieux is Weena, a cringe-worthily vapid blonde many thousands of years in the future, when pretty, empty-brained Aryan types live a perfect existence, except for the pesky fact that they’re controlled by a horrible humanoid species called the Morlocks.

 

Pal’s Time Machine is rightfully cherished for its Oscar-winning special effects, mostly achieved with stop-motion animation. Some scenes are reminiscent of Ray Harryhausen’s horror and humor—keep an eye out for an atomic lava flow that buries a London neighborhood!—while some are charming or beautiful. As Wells tentatively tries out his machine for the first time, we see what he sees: Flowers blooming and dying within seconds, a candle 

melting in a heartbeat, the seasons passing before our eyes. It seems the representation of time as a tunnel is not yet in the film lexicon, so this made sense as the best way to show time passing at different speeds. The visuals are enhanced by the rich Metrocolor hues.     A / G / I / KV / Y 

 

 

THE TIME MACHINE (2002)

Knowledge for its own sake doesn’t really fly as entertainment in the 21st century. So, for this Simon Wells-directed remake starring Guy Pearce, a new impetus was needed. If you’re familiar with the Penny Dreadful Showtime series, you’ll know that writer John Logan is devoted to love and destiny as underlying themes.

 

At the start of this screenplay, Logan has Pearce’s Alex (no longer named Wells) witness the death of his fiancée, prompting him to devise a way to go back and try to save her. It doesn’t work, so he decides to explore the future instead, eventually 

losing control and ending up beyond the next Ice Age. The Morlocks still hold power in this version, but now the terrified surviving humans finally have some agency and pride (not to mention melanin in their skin). Samantha Mumba is intelligent and sympathetic as Mara, the far-future woman who befriends the temporally and emotionally lost Alex.
AC G / I  / V / Y

 

 

TIME AFTER TIME (1979)

And speaking of self-actualized female characters, writer/ director Nicholas Meyer made a point of baffling Wells (Malcolm McDowell) with the “women’s lib” movement when the inventor shows up in 1979 San Francisco. No Morlocks are needed in this story. Wells is on the trail of another

How to Do Some Time Travel

All six of the films here are readily available on non-subscription streaming services. If you’re looking for the best possible picture and sound, Kaleidescape has everything but the 2002 Time Machine remake (which is free on Crackle).

 

A = Amazon Prime / C = Crackle
G = Google Play / I = iTunes
K = Kaleidescape / V = Vudu
Y = YouTube

kind of monster, Jack the Ripper, who turns out to be a friend in 1893 London (David Warner), fast-thinking enough to borrow the time machine to escape police. In 1979, Wells enlists the help of a bank official (Mary Steenburgen) to find the serial killer.

 

The cutting-edge visual effects are by Richard F. Taylor, who would later design Tron, and you’ll notice early versions of some ideas that show up in that later movie. While Meyer doesn’t really follow through with the feminism angle—this was 1979 Hollywood, after all—his primary motivation is to show that, while there are horrible people in every age, kindness is also a constant.     A / G / I / KV / Y 

 

 

PROJECT ALMANAC (2015)

The previous films make overarching claims about the human species, yet they skate over the challenge of getting a time machine to work. Focus on that process makes director Dan Israelite’s Project Almanac one of the most satisfying in terms

6 Classic Time Travel Films

of hard science fiction. This is even more surprising given that it’s a YA story about nerdy teens. The choice to shoot the whole thing as if through the characters’ phone cameras is distracting at first, but eventually pays off.

 

Instead of letting teen energy derail the story, writers Jason Pagan and Andrew Deutschman capitalize on common traits of the adolescent psyche. No deep philosophy here. 

David (Jonny Weston) wants to complete the time machine he finds in his late father’s lab so he and his brainy friends can have fun. He misuses it because he has a crush on a girl (Sofia Black-D’Elia). And rather than dreaming of traveling a thousand years to find Utopia, these kids want to go back to yesterday to do better on a test at school. No villain is needed; teens are their own worst enemy.      A / G / I / KV / Y 

 

 

THE FOUNTAIN (2006)

If there’s a villain in Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, it’s cancer. Tommy, played by Hugh Jackman, becomes obsessed with cheating death when his wife Izzy (Rachael Weisz) develops an inoperable brain tumor. Maybe this isn’t a time-travel movie at all; there’s no time machine. But whether it’s Tommy’s conviction to live until the end of the universe to find a cure, or Izzy’s tumor-induced vision of herself as a queen in Renaissance Spain with Tommy as her conquistador seeking the Fountain of Youth, the characters certainly experience many aspects of time.

 

This film is also astonishingly beautiful. The meditative score by Clint Mansell supports James Chinlund and Isabelle Guay’s breathtaking designs inspired by Mayan art and ancient Indian mandalas. Don’t expect a linear story; just let the temporal shards wash over you, and the pieces will come together.     A / G / I / KV / Y 

6 Classic Time Travel Films

12 MONKEYS (1995)

In the era of COVID-19, movies about pandemics are more popular than ever. Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys doesn’t show one moment of the disease itself, but instead jumps between its aftermath a generation later, when surviving humans must live underground, and the years leading up to the 1996 outbreak. Written by David and Janet Peoples, the screenplay is an expansion of Chris Marker’s 1962 short, La Jetée.

 

James Cole (Bruce Willis) is sent from the future to trace the origins of a virus that kills five billion people. He shows up too early, landing him in a mental institution, where he’s treated by Dr. Railly (Madeleine Stowe) and encouraged to escape by the manic Jeffrey Goins (Brad Pitt, in a career-altering role), who happens to be the son of a famous virologist (Christopher Plummer). The top-notch plot twist tells us that studying history is just a long game of Telephone; even the best scholars’ conclusions about the past may be hilariously and tragically wrong. No one can show the slime and grunge of disintegrating society quite like Gilliam, who makes a point of conflating the post-viral dystopia with the nightmare always lived by the world’s homeless and unwanted.     A / G / KV / Y

Anne E. Johnson

Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer in Brooklyn. Her music journalism appears
regularly in
Copper Magazine, Classical Voice North America, and Stereophile. She’s
also the author of several novels and over 100 short stories, mostly science fiction
and fantasy. Learn more on AnneEJohnson.com.

5 Classic Offbeat Sci-Fi Films

5 Classic Offbeat Sci-Fi Films

Gattaca

Science fiction is a genre almost as vast as space itself, and even its sub-genres can be approached in wildly varying ways by filmmakers. Stepping away from Hollywood’s beaten path to indies and smaller releases can uncover astonishing imagination and daring. The following movies, all dealing with space travel and/or aliens, demonstrate this range. From energetic heroes tearing past the stars to exhausted travelers who never asked for such a strange life, these movies represent a bit of all of us.

 

 

THE LAST STARFIGHTER (1984)

Thanks to the original Star Wars in 1977, space became a cinematic backdrop for both individual heroism and humor. Like many movies of the ’80s, The Last Starfighter, directed by Nick Castle and written by Jonathan Betuel, tends toward a particular flavor of sweet goofiness. And while it hardly qualifies as lofty art, it’s a fun family movie with excellent alien 

5 Classic Offbeat Sci-fi Films

makeup that looks ahead to the creative wackiness of the Men in Black films.

 

A young man named Alex (Lance Guest) longs to escape from the trailer park where he grew up. He keeps his sanity by obsessively playing Starfighter, a video game. When he reaches the top 

level, he’s visited by an alien named Centauri (Robert Preston, resurrecting his Music Man slickness), who recruits Alex as a gunner for a real intergalactic war. Call it Tron meets War Games. In space.

 

Castle wisely had the spaceships and battle stations animated rather than photographed from models. This not only avoided the inevitable problems of making viable effects for a movie without a Star Wars-level budget, but it also fits thematically with the video game Alex pictures as he fights. Dan O’Herlihy turns in a touching performance as Grig, the turtle-faced alien who pilots Alex’s ship.     A / G / I / K / V / Y

 

 

GATTACA (1997)

The longing to escape also underpins the much more serious Gattaca, but the focus here is on the longing, not the escape itself. Ethan Hawke, as a man born without the genetic preselection that has become commonplace, must take on another identity in order to reach his lifelong dream of flying in space. The underlying theme here is defiance of societal prejudice.

Writer and director Andrew Niccol employs the trope of a future society that looks perfect and ordered until one scratches the surface to reveal its rotten foundation.

 

Visually and aurally, it’s a film of great beauty. Michael Nyman’s powerful score is the ideal match for the costumes and Oscar-nominated art direction, together evoking a sepia-toned Art Deco future world. The intriguing story, if a bit too reliant on narration, is given life by a fine cast: Jude Law as the man who sells his identity to Hawke on the black market and Uma Thurman as Hawke’s co-worker at the space-travel corporation, along with appearances by Tony Shalhoub, Ernest Borgnine, and Gore Vidal.
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Where to See Some Sci-Fi

The letters after each movie description link to the major non-subscription streaming and download services that offer the title. Kaleidescape has all 5 films available for download in the best available quality. Gattaca is free on Crackle and Tubi, as is Midnight Special on Amazon Prime.

 

A = Amazon Prime / C = Crackle
G = Google Play / I = iTunes
K = Kaleidescape / T = Tubi
V = Vudu /
Y = YouTube

5 Classic Offbeat Sci-Fi Films

MOON (2009)

Not everyone in space wants to be there, as quickly becomes obvious in Moon. Laboring alone on a lunar energy-mining base, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is nearing the end of his three-year contract and can hardly wait to get home to his wife and daughter. GERTY, the computer and its robotic extensions (voiced with HAL-like eeriness by Kevin Spacey), keeps asking Sam if he feels all right. We watch Sam struggle with sudden physical and mental problems until they quickly become extreme, and we wonder with him whether any or all of this is in his imagination. It eventually becomes clear that the movie’s theme is not solitude, but corporate exploitation of workers.

 

Director Duncan Jones won a BAFTA for this film debut. Gary Shaw’s cinematography is gritty and gray to evoke the lunar atmosphere as well as Sam’s emotional state, while the base interior glows threateningly through orange filters. While the visual illusions are very different from those usually needed in science fiction—I can’t explain without spoilers—they are integral to the plot and well enough executed that they don’t become an annoyance. After Sam’s battle to learn the truth of his own existence, the film’s final moments are psychologically satisfying if physically nonsensical.     A / G / I / K / V / Y     

 

 

HIGH LIFE (2018)

Solitude in space has a different context for Monte (Robert Pattinson) in High Life, directed by Claire Denis, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jean-Pol Fargeau. Monte started his voyage with a dozen fellow violent convicts as part of an

experimental space-survival program, acommpanied by a supervising doctor (Juliette Binoche). For him, space is just another version of prison.

 

At the movie’s opening, Monte is the only one still alive, with the exception of a baby girl. We learn his backstory through the rapid intersection of his

5 Classic Offbeat Sci-Fi Films

memories, both from his early life on Earth and the more recent time on his current voyage when his co-travelers were still alive. This is a violent tale of blood and sex, society’s outcasts reduced to their most primal urges. In that sense, it’s a horror movie.

 

The sound engineering is raw and thrilling. Occasionally Stuart A. Staples and his band, Tindersticks, supply spooky electronic atmospherics, but Denis is not afraid of long stretches without music, letting the aging ship’s creaks and groans be the score.     A / G / K / V / Y

5 Classic Offbeat Sci-fi Films

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2016)

One might argue that this film is not about space or aliens. But there are many definitions of being not of this world, and while the child Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) was born of humans on Earth in our own time, he has powers that connect him with something beyond humanity.

 

In a feat of highly skilled storytelling, writer/director Jeff Nichols starts near the end of Alton’s story, yet explains what led to that point piecemeal throughout the movie without resorting to either flashbacks or the “info-dump” exposition so common in less well-crafted science fiction.

 

Michael Shannon is Alton’s father and a member of a cult called The Ranch, led by a pastor (Sam Shepard) whose sermons are interpretations of the mysterious phrases and numbers Alton speaks during his “fits.” Among those numbers are coordinates for satellites, which alerts the FBI to Alton’s existence. Alton’s father and a friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), are trying to bring Alton to a certain place at a certain time, without knowing why; the cult leadership pursues them, wanting Alton back; the Feds chase both parties, thinking a terrorist attack is in the offing.

 

Despite this complex, high-stakes plot, the hallmark of this film is its underlying calm. Nichols hints at violence without showing it, thus maximizing the impact of the violent onscreen episode that starts Act Three. Throughout, the small-mindedness and greed of those in power is muted by acts of love—the father’s sacrifices for his son, Lucas learning to reopen his heart to a friend he lost to a cult, a social scientist (Adam Driver) who really listens, and a mother (Kirsten Dunst, in the best work of her career) who understands that someone can belong to this world and another at the same time.
A / G / I / K / V / Y

Anne E. Johnson

Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer in Brooklyn. Her music journalism appears
regularly in
Copper Magazine, Classical Voice North America, and Stereophile. She’s
also the author of several novels and over 100 short stories, mostly science fiction
and fantasy. Learn more on AnneEJohnson.com.