Looper, which opened at an over $20 million box office take on its opening weekend, is already being hailed as one of the great time travel movies of all time. Time – pun intended – will tell.
What about time travel? The time travel film genre is quite broad, often involving travel to the past and sometimes, especially in action films, involving jumping forward into the future. In both instances, films under the influence of time travel almost always exhibit over-the-top art direction buttressed with convoluted storylines involving conundrums of the time-space continuum. Time travel films are a wonderful excuse to be bombastic and smart to the point of confusing at the same time. Here is my short list for fantastic time travel films:
1. The Terminator
Talk about convoluted storylines! The Terminator involves both the past and the future — futuristic technology, to be exact, leaping backwards in time. James Cameron defined the bombastic and smart combination in this time travel film, heavy on action, but with a script interesting enough to attract people who are into well-written movies. And Arnold – pre- (and, evidently, post) 60 Minutes revelations – embodied every bit the unfeeling cyborg assassin. The original film launched three sequels, a brief television series and the career of James Cameron. The film also significantly raised the expectations forever afterwards for big box office action films.
2. Army of Darkness
Army of Darkness, one of the greatest of cult films, is the final installment of the ingenious Evil Dead trilogy. Written and directed by the great Sam Raimi, Army of Darkness works primarily because of the complicated story, equally, at times, funny and suspenseful, as well as the innovative art direction. The film travels backwards – to 1300 AD – but it is an unrecognizable, thoroughly dark magical Raimi-ish look into the past. The story, quite innovative for its time, is at the forefront of this unforgettable film.
3. 12 Monkeys
Terry Gilliam, like Sam Raimi, can do no wrong. The most important element of a time travel movie is the story and, after that, the direction. In both of these, Terry Gilliam excels. Acting, in many ways, is secondary to the special effects in this genre. How the director conveys the time shift (the art direction) – as well the story are what make a great time travel film. In this film, however, the performances of Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis as they dance around the question of possible madness, is as important an ingredient to the success of this film as the special effects and the story. The great special effects, in this case, are lagniappe.
4. Donnie Darko
This DVD cult hit may just be the strangest movie ever made. Donnie Darko makes Army of Darkness look like a traditional Hollywood film. And yet … it is impossible to look away. To call Donnie Darko just a time travel movie is like calling The Terminator just a romance. But time travel is certainly the central theme running throughout the whole film holding it together. It is a time travel film that doesn’t really involve time travel. Netflix it if you haven’t already.
5. Groundhog Day
Is there any time travel movie that is only just a time travel movie? It seems to me that the time travel genre is the ground-of-being for other, more established genres – action, romance, suspense, comedy and/or thriller. And Groundhog Day, heavy on the romance and comedy angles, is, hands down my favorite time travel movie. Groundhog Day contains Bill Murray – and isn’t that really enough reason to love it? – trying to solve one of the oddest time continuum problems of them all. How does one move forward when one cannot? Murray, literally, keeps repeating February the second. Murray, metaphorically in this film, is timeless.
Honorable Mention: Time After Time
This 1979 film is a must-see of fans of the time travel genre. The special effects, by today’s Looper standards, are here thin. But the story is razor sharp. This film involves a jump into the future – Jack the Ripper’s jump into the future, to be precise, after stealing HG Wells’ Time Machine. The suspenseful film involves a century-long chase between HG Wells and Jack-the-Ripper (played, with icy precision, by A Clockwork Orange’s Malcolm McDowell) over a beautiful young woman. More Honorable Mentions: The Time Machine (1960), Back to the Future and Planet of the Apes.