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.
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 / K / V / 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.
A / C / 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 / K / V / 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
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 / K / V / 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 / K / V / Y
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 / K / V / Y
—Anne E. Johnson