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The 8 Ball 09.25.12: The Top 8 Time Travel Films
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 09.25.2012

Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!

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Top 8 Time Travel Movies

This Friday, Looper hits theaters. The science fiction movie, which stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, revolves around a society in which the Mafia controls time travel and employs assassins, or "Loopers," to kill and dispose of people. Time travel is an oft-used convention in cinema, allowing film-makers to explore some fascinating philosophical discussions or just throw the audience for an absolute loop. There are some truly great time travel movies and some very poor ones as well. This week I decided to stay positive and so we're gonna take a look at the best that time travel has to offer in the movies.

Caveat: For this list I chose to focus only on the films that really revolved around time travel, as opposed to just using time travel as a device. So while time travel is integral to the plot of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban for example, it is not a "time travel film" as it does not focus on time travel itself. Similarly, Groundhog Day is not really a film about time travel; it's more about time stopping. Galaxy Quest, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Star Trek and Superman--all contain time travel elements but are not entirely about the time travel. So there you have it.

Just Missing The Cut

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

#8: Army of Darkness (1992)

"This...is my BOOMSTICK!" Really, do I need to say anything more? Okay, probably. Building off the events of Evil Dead II, Army of Darkness sees the hero of Sam Raimi's most beloved franchise, Ash Williams, sent back into the medieval period along with his Cadillac, his chainsaw hand and his shotgun, where he finds himself a stranger in a strange land. A lot of time travel films find themselves exploring the ramifications of time travel, paradox, the repercussions of moving through the time stream and such. Not this one; this one is just focused on having fun, which is exactly what we want from it. Poor Bruce Campbell once again finds himself subjected to whatever devious torments that Raimi can find for him and we gleefully follow along as Ash is persecuted by the people of the year 1300 and then eventually held up as a hero by them, which of course involves him being pulled into their war and setting off an even bigger war between Deadites and humans. The juxtaposition of Ash and his modern ways in the anachronistic setting makes for a lot of fun. Campbell gets a lot of choice moments and lines in, including all of his insults for his medieval pals and enemies. It's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court with less Arthur and more zombie makeup. What's not to love?

#7: Frequency (2000)

Frequency is one of those movies that invariably catches people by surprise in a good way. When you mention it, you will likely get one of two responses: either "what movie?" or "Oh yeah, that was really good." And it is really good, a film that passed well under the radar but has since developed a following. The film James Caviezel as John Sullivan, a homicide detective whose firefighter father Frank (Dennis Quaid) died when he was six. One night after he breaks up with his girlfriend, John finds his father's old ham radio and begins transmitting. To his shock, he makes contact with his father on the day before he died and is able to warn him about a fire he will die in the next day. When he tries to get the benefit of all of this though, he learns that Frank eventually dies of lung cancer and his mother was murdered by a serial killer. John then teams with Frank via the ham radio in order to prevent his mother's death. This film, directed by Gregory Hoblit (Fallen, Fracture), doesn't get too much into the science of time travel--a strange aurora borealis is the explanation for the communication through time--but it is structured in a way that it doesn't need to and it handles the ramifications of changing the past well. Caviezel and Quaid have a wonderful chemistry despite not appearing together for nearly all of the film; just their voices complement each other well and the thrills are handled nicely. If you haven't seen this one, do yourself a favor and check it out. You won't be disappointed.

#6: Midnight In Paris (2011)

There are some who may balk at this film being on this list. Not because it's so new or because it's not a great movie, but there are some who would debate whether this film is a time travel film in the same manner as most of the other movies on this list. In some ways, I think this film is actually more about moving through time than many films given the "time travel" category. Take a look at the protagonist in this film, Owen Wilson's Gil Pender. Gil is a man who truly and honestly believes that he's stuck in the wrong timeframe. He would be happier in the Bohemian era of Paris, and with Michael Sheen's obnoxiously pretentious Paul showing disdain for the idea, we're clearly meant to agree with Gil. So when he discovers that there is a certain corner in the City of Light where he can travel back to the 1920s at the stroke of midnight, he enthusiastically goes for it and discovers love, life and some surprising life lessons. Woody Allen has done some amazing work with magical situations; in The Purple Rose of Cairo he explored a similar concept of romanticizing movies. Here the lesson that Gil learns--the moral of the story, if you will--is that everyone wishes they lived in another time or another place. The grass is always greener on the other side of the street, and we all have to learn to be happy with what we have. It's all done with typical Allen excellence and gives us Wilson's best performance to date along with great supporting turns by Sheen, Rachel McAdams, Tom Hiddleston, Corey Stoll, Kathy Bates and of course Marion Cotillard as the woman who Gil loves, but herself wishes for the "simpler time" of the 1890s.

#5: Timecrimes (2007)

An English-language remake of Timecrimes is in the works, with Steve Zaillian (Moneyball, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) attached to write and produce. Please, dear gods, do yourself a favor and see the original. Yes, I know it's in another language. Watch it dubbed if you must. While Zaillian may be the best choice to write a remake, it doesn't mean I have any more confidence that it will be done right. The original is written, directed by and stars Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo in which a man realizes that his house is being stalked. When he investigates he is stabbed by a man with pink bandages wrapped around his head, who he learns is...well, him. It's a big time-twisty plot but it follows its own rules remarkably well and is pulled off with an incredible amount of style and suspense. The budget for this one is quite low but Vigalondo does amazing things with what he has and makes good use of his cast. I know I'm not saying a lot about this, and that's because I'm trying not to spoil too much. Go, see the movie for yourself and I'm willing to bet it'll earn a spot on your list, too.

#4: The Terminator (1984)

There are two franchises that are absolutely iconic when it comes to time travel; film series that everyone thinks of when it comes to time travel films. One of those is The Terminator. People on the internet like to bust on James Cameron these days, but few people would argue that his 1984 film about a cyborg sent back in time to kill the mother of the man who will become the savior of humanity in the face of robotic annihilation is anything but great. Cameron has a gift for mixing action, science fiction and a touch of horror to create great films. This is the film which, more than any other within the franchise, touches on the idea of time travel and its ramifications. Certainly there is paradox here; how exactly would John Connor able to send Michael Biehn's Kyle Reese travel back in time if Kyle hadn't done so in the first place, thus fathering John? The film toys with that notion a little bit but never focuses entirely on the question, which was really the right way to go. Ultimately this is an action film and not a drama, where those questions would be a bit more appropriate. This is the film that kicked off what is one of the most impressive time travel mythos in cinema. The sequel, of course, is also good but this one really set the bar and established the boundaries of the science fiction, where Judgment Day stayed within already-set parameters. That's what puts this on the list and leaves T2 in the honorable mention.

#3: Primer (2004)

You wanna blow your mind? Give this one a shot. Primer is one of the most impossible films to wrap your mind around, largely because writer/director/producer/star Shane Carruth refused to simplify his film for audiences. Carruth has a degree in mathematics and is a former engineer, which he applies to this film. The plot involves Aaron (Carruth) and three friends who create a time machine. The time machine has limits to what it can do, and Carruth never once cheats. The rules of Carruth's time travel are extremely logical and consistent. One would think that these limitations would hurt the film but like any filmmaker with limitations, Carruth allows the limits to force him to be more creative. The film is extremely low-budget, coming in at just $7,000. You can't cater most Hollywood films for that much. This is a film that you have to watch many times to understand what happens, unless you want to watch while following one of the incredibly, insanely detailed charts that have been made by people and put online. (Personally, my favorite is this one.) Primer won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize over the likes of Garden State and people--myself included--are anxiously awaiting his next film, A Topiary.

#2: 12 Monkeys (1995)

Terry Gilliam is possibly the master of the time travel movie. His first time travel film was Time Bandits, a really fun film that it pained me to cut from the list. But Gilliam fans can take consolation in the fact that there was never any doubt in my mind that his second, 12 Monkeys, would not only be on the list but near the top. Gilliam's 1995 film is nearly as brilliant as the batshit-crazy Brazil and is one of the few films about time travel (along with Timecrimes) that firmly establishes the rules: the past will not be changed. Instead, Bruce Willis' criminal James Cole is sent back to observe and learn about the virus that has decimated the world--specifically, to try and get a pure sample for scientists to work with in order to find a cure. Of course, it's not that simple and Cole ends up learning about the virus' origins, an important part of his own past and more. Gilliam's film includes a brilliant performance by Brad Pitt, who shattered people's expectations by playing the madcap fanatical animal rights activist Jeffrey Goines. Madeleine Stowe is fantastic as the doctor who Cole gets involved with and Gilliam keeps things more or less grounded despite the high sci-fi concepts flying about. Inspired by Chris Marker's 1962 short film La jetée, this is one of those science fiction films you can watch over and over again and not only find something new each time, but never find an a narrative flaw in. That's nearly impossible when it comes to time travel and makes the movie that much more impressive.

#1: Back to the Future (1985)

Oh, don't look so shocked. Really, was there any other choice other than Robert Zemeckis' story of a dorky teenager whose friendship with a crazy inventor gets him sent thirty years into the past, where he gets the moves put on him by his own mother and almost erases his own existence in the process? This film has some of the most famous moments in the history of time travel stories: the DeLorean, the plutonium, the high school dance, the use of a radiation suit and a Walkman in the guise of being an alien and many more. Michael J. Fox secured his spot in the pop culture consciousness with this role and Christopher Lloyd created what is his most memorable character in a veritable pantheon of unforgettable roles. This film plays with the idea of time travel, paradox and the various ramifications of such perhaps the most effectively of any film; it never gets too cerebral with it but neither does it skim over the whole thing either. In the mean time it has some great lines. Just say "1.21 gigawatts" or "88 miles per hour" and you'll immediately get people replying with "Great Scott!" or "This is heavy, Doc!" In terms of films dealing with movement through time, there really isn't anything that comes close to hitting the heights that this one did.

Current Doctor

Note: Now that I am caught up to current, I have gone back to watch the episodes that have become available in the US since I started watching and thus were previously unavailable to me (thus why I have episodes remaining despite being caught up).

Current Series/Season: Season Three (1965 - 1966)
Episodes Watched: 568
Last Serial Completed: The Gunfighters - The Doctor, Steven and Dodo head back to the Old West and arrive in Tombstone, Arizona. But Dodo and Steven's joy at being in the time of cowboys is dampened when a toothache sends the Doctor on a path that involves Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, the Clanton boys and the OK Corral.
Surviving Episodes Remaining: 61

And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.


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