Top 10 Time Travel Thrillers!
What is it about time travel that makes for such entertaining cinema? Is it the uncertainty? The wonderment? The endless possibilities? The innate desire to move up and down, backwards and forwards through our own personal chronology? The ability to change the past and alter the future? Whatever the fascination, time travel has been a staple of movie plots for almost as long as the medium has been around. H.G. Wells' timeless tome THE TIME MACHINE has remained a seminal piece of literature since it was published in 1895, with various movie iterations of the tale seemingly produced generationally. Hell, to this day one of the most popular and universally beloved movies ever made is BACK TO THE FUTURE, rightly so. And guess what? Next Friday (June 6th), Tom Cruise is poised to add the time-travel subgenre to his resume with the release of EDGE OF TOMORROW. As such, we thought why not get a preliminary idea of where Cruise's latest stacks up against what's become a rich history of genre contenders. Gals, ghouls...peep our Top 10 Time Travel Thrillers above!
It's hard to believe any movie starring Ashton Kutcher would end up with as many thought-provoking thrills as THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT, but hey, let's give credit where it's due. Granted, the overall voice is a bit of a DONNIE DARKO parrot, but despite its largely unlikeable star, the movie actually handles the notion of time travel in a rather original, viscerally charged sort of way. Constructed around the Chaos Theory - where every action, no matter how small, has an equal and opposite reaction somewhere around the world - THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT does a good job of keeping the viewer off-guard with its unpredictable storylines and nonlinear threads. However, that same plaudit also becomes a penalty when flirting with too much confusion, especially towards the end of the flick. The story sort of unravels as it moves along, muddying the cogency it worked hard to foster in the first half. Sill, it's an undeniably memorable 113 minutes.
Van Damme's greasily coifed mullet is alone worthy of praising, so when you factor in the tight leather and a twisted tale of time-traveling law enforcement, TIMECOP kind of elevates to legendary B-movie status. At least, it does in our minds! Y'all know the drill, Jean-Claude plays a gruff, take-no-shit security guard in charge of monitoring time travel. But when a crookedly powerful politician from JCVD's past comes a calling, the ever-oily Ron Silver (RIP), a perilous race against and across time ensues. It's a sick flick, made so by longtime Van Damme pal Peter Hyams in their first of three collaborations to date (SUDDEN DEATH, ENEMIES CLOSER). And as a sly nod to the progenitor, THE TIME MACHINE, Hyams used a sled-like vehicle to transport his characters through the 4th dimension. What can I say, history repeats...
After soaring beyond the cosmos with his debut feature MOON, Duncan Jones avoided the dreaded sophomore slump by giving us SOURCE CODE - a high-concept action-thriller abiding by the closed-loop logic of GROUNDHOG DAY. You remember the scenario. Gyllenhaal plays an Afghan war vet seemingly trapped in another man's body when he suddenly awakes on a doomed commuter L-train in Chicago. Then, 8 minutes later the train blows up. Only thing, Gyllenhaal isn't dead...he's instead sent back in time prior to those 8 minutes, tasked with figuring out what went wrong and then rectifying the problem. Lessons learned through repetition and a series of close calls is what makes SOURCE CODE so compelling, just as it was in the classic Bill Murray comedy. SOURCE CODE though ups the stakes by incorporating a body-identity element to the time-travel premise, with the ticking clock of an onboard explosive adding extra tension.
Of all the flicks on our list, here's the little indie darling that could! Nacho Vigalondo's ingenious TIMECRIMES, the $2.5 million Spanish mind-bender, is as enthralling as any recent time-travel thriller we can think of. The reason? The whole short-order amnesiac time-travel angle and the mystery therein. In what's become a recent trend in the subgenre, TIMECRIMES doesn't feature grand, sweeping movements through time, spanning decades and continents, but instead focuses on immediate momentary lapses of about an hour or so...with the entire story basically taking place over the course of a single ill-fated day. Shite's fresh! Beyond that, it's difficult to describe without spoiling, so we'll just say, if you've not seen it already, be sure to do so stat!
After breaking out with his muscular noir-mash-up BRICK in '05, then suffering somewhat of a sophomore slump with THE BROTHERS BLOOM in '08, Rian Johnson bounced back in a big bold way with his third feature LOOPER a couple of years ago. Dope flick, right?! Hell yeah it is! And what struck me as particularly cool, if not original, is the way the whole futuristic time-travel angle merely served as a plot-device to tell an even larger story about an aging hit-man's fading identity. Rarely do you see a mafia movie that features something as scientifically off-the-wall as time-travel, yet Johnson and his cast and crew do a bang-up job of marrying the odd couple in a believable way. Of course, the first-rate cast and the effulgent visual FX only elevate the material that much more.
It's hard to believe DONNIE DARKO came out 13 years ago this October...coincidentally the same amount of time between its release and the events depicted in the film. Now whether or not the mystique of the movie is simply due to an editorial accident (the director's cut is far less compelling), there's no denying the oddly alluring blend of sci-fi time-travel, humorous teen angst and outright psychological horror. Shite's like the demented lovechild of Spielberg, John Hughes and David Lynch! A strange brew indeed, anchored by Gyllenhaal's stoic and somnolent standout turn as our deeply troubled yet titular "superhero." As such, Donnie is able to parlay his advanced IQ to traverse time through a series of wormholes...ultimately allowing him to suss a way to save the people in his life he cares the most for. Killer cinematography and a slick retro-soundtrack make DONNIE DARKO a fresh yet nostalgic time-capsule of the way things were in 1988.
It's about to get medieval on your Ash! That's right y'all, there's no way in Deadite hell we'd omit Sam Raimi's zanily cartoonish piece of horror slapstick known as ARMY OF DARKNESS. Shite's too damn good! In classic fish out of water fashion, when our heroic goofball finds himself unwittingly transported to the year 1300 A.D., a violent situational comedy of errors ensue. Ash and his coterie must fend off a horde of zombified medieval ghouls, and in the process retrieve the Necronomicon (Book of the Dead) so he can return home safely. All capricious good fun here, capping off what's still ranked as one of the most venerated horror trilogies ever made. And hey, here's a fun game for you...have you ever spotted Sam's brother Ted Raimi in the 4 different roles he plays in the film? How about William Lustig's cameo as Fake Shemp?
If you get a chance, do yourself a favor and go check out Chris Marker's 1962 black and white short LA JATEE, as it's the direct inspiration Terry Gilliam used to alchemically mold 12 MONKEYS...perhaps the definitive dystopic time-travel thriller of all! What a bold and brash marriage of story and style that has not only endured over the last 20 years, but in some respects, has actually gotten better with age. To me that means the flick was clearly ahead of its time, which in turn is a pretty a sly meta-wrinkle considering its own subject matter, wouldn't you say?! As for the time travel angle, which Gilliam also worked wonders with in TIME BANDITS, here it's done as believably as in any film I can think of. For such a nonlinear and heightened narrative, the flick is remarkably grounded in how realistic it plays. Of course, Pitt and Willis playing off-type antiheroic weirdoes only enriches the overall experience.
Consider this a tip of the lid to the entire TERMINATOR franchise, with extra props out to Jimmy Cameron for conceiving the presciently terrifying SkyNet model, a threatening cyborg paradigm that's becoming all too real by the day. Look, we can't front on the themes and ideas put forth in the '84 original, but come on, T-2: JUDGMENT DAY is a far superior film. It's tone is far less precious, far less serious than the first, yet still retains the lofty ambition of a hardened Cameron sequel. Dude ups the ante in big bad way with T-2, working with an even larger canvas to paint his dark vision of a futuristic mesh-point between man and machine. In fact, it's the complex grey interplay between the two that fascinates so greatly. In T-2, humanity is aided by technology to squelch an even more dangerous futuristic cyborg (T-1000), with the personal dependence/friendship raising the most interesting dilemma of all.
Respect your elders, kiddies! No jesting, it's with the highest reverence that we salute George Pal's 1960 film adaptation of THE TIME MACHINE, based on the aforementioned H.G. Wells classic. Shite's history! Not just because of the landmark standalone achievement it remains almost 55 years later, but because of the fertile ground it tilled for future generations of time-travel thrillers to flourish. You can't have many without the first! But perhaps even more important than its legacy is the actual subject matter and thematic heft the original story carried. Instead of traveling to the future to find a harmonious utopia, the main character in the TIME MACHINE discovers that humanity has devolved into two primitive factions, one of subterranean troglodytes and the other of free-spirited wastrels. The message? If we're not careful, it doesn't matter how far technology advances if humanity regresses as a result. Powerful shite!