Thursday, April 14, 2011

An Excuse to Talk About Time Travel Movies!

In the past few days we've gotten several headlines proclaiming that China is banning depictions of time travel movies and television. The truth is a little more complicated. One of China's media monitoring agencies is issuing new guidelines for the portrayal of time travel in Chinese-produced media, in response to the rising popularity of a certain genre of fantasy television program where modern-day people go back in time. Time travel isn't being banned outright, but the guidelines will probably lead to a lot of hand-wringing and self-censorship. The stated reasoning here is that the historical inaccuracy of these programs is a cause for concern, but many aren't buying it. This is a totally idiotic decision, of course, so I'm just going to spend the rest of this post talking about my favorite time travel movies. And no, I haven't seen "Source Code" yet.

"La Jetée" (1962) - In English, "The Pier." This 28-minute French short by experimental filmmaker Chris Marker is one of the best time travel stories ever put to film. It's almost entirely composed of black-and-white still photographs, and tells the story of a man from a post-apocalyptic future who is sent back to the present day, to witness a moment of tragedy that has haunted him since childhood. The images in "La Jetée" are so simple, but incredibly indelible and resonant. It spawned a quasi-remake, Terry Gilliam's "Twelve Monkeys" (1995) with Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, that's also worth a watch.

"Scrooge" (1970) - This is my favorite live-action version of "A Christmas Carol," the boisterous musical with Albert Finney as Scrooge and Alec Guinness as Marley. (I confess it still comes in second to "Mickey's Christmas Carol" for me.) I can never seem to get through a holiday season without this movie, especially the big finale ending musical sequence. I include it here because the story of Ebenezer Scrooge is the perfect example of time travel as pure fantasy, as a concept that existed in fiction across many different cultures long before it became associated with science-fiction.

"Time After Time" (1979) - This film posits that H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell), who wrote "The Time Machine," not only built himself an actual time machine, but Jack the Ripper (David Warner) got his hands on it and traveled to present day San Francisco, forcing Wells to give chase. McDowell is excellent as Wells, who is a fish out of water in the modern world, of course, but resourceful and smart enough to quickly find his way - and then right into the arms of Mary Steenburgen. I always wondered if Steenburgen being cast in the third "Back to the Future" film might have been a nod to the ending of this one.

"Time Bandits" (1981) - A little boy and band of miscreant dwarves have adventures together, while traveling through time and space with the help of a map stolen from the universe's Supreme Being. They meet historical figures like Napoleon (Ian Holm) and Agamemnon (Sean Connery), tangle with a ogre with a back problem, take a cruise on the Titanic, and have a final showdown with Evil, who is naturally played by David Warner. "Time Bandits" remains one of Terry Gilliam's best films, a gleeful romp through history and mythology, jam-packed full of "Monty Python" humor with some wickedly dark touches.

The "Back to the Future" Trilogy (1985-1990) - Surely you didn't think we were going to get through this list without these movies, did you? Robert Zemeckis' time travel trilogy has aged wonderfully, even though we're fast approaching the date when it will be definitely proven that we will not have hoverboards and Mr. Fusions by 2015. These are such perfect popcorn pictures, full of energetic comedy and action, with two immortal heroes of the 80s at the forefront - Marty McFly and Doc Brown. In the same vein, though not in the same league, are the "Bill and Ted" movies, which are silly and cheesy and still totally excellent, dudes.

"Primer" (2004) - An indie horror film about a pair of young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who accidentally invent a time machine and proceed to misuse it. "Primer" was shot on a shoestring budget and has almost no special effects, but generates plenty of tension with a great script and performances. Full of paradoxes and multiple timelines to untangle, some viewers have worked out incredibly elaborate explanations for what we see onscreen. Or you can just sit back and enjoy the escalating madness like I did. Covering similar ground is the Spanish language "Los Cronocrimenes" ("Timecrimes") from 2007, another intense little cautionary tale.

"The Girl Who Leapt Through Time" (2006) - Mamoru Hosoda's anime is a charming, sweet fantasy about a teenage girl named Makoto who discovers she has the ability to make short jaunts into her past. She has a lot of fun with her power at first, but then it starts causing no small amount of trouble. The movie is distinctive for its sunny tone and easygoing atmosphere, which features a lot of humor and sentiment. There are some pretty eye-catching visuals too, especially where time slows down or speeds up.


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