Is There a Temporal Mechanic in the House?

22-Aug-07 12:37 PM by
Filed under Films, Television; 6 comments.

Time travel is a fascinating concept that is bafflingly unpopular at the box office. With the exception of Back to the Future, few films that dabble in this science fiction staple have become household names — and those that do, such as The Lakehouse and Click, owe their recognition more to the stars than the plots.

Yet even Sean "Hobbit" Astin couldn't elevate Slipstream out of obscurity. But before I review this film, I'd like to rewind the clock and examine its ancestry of other little-known time travel films: Time After Time, Time Changer, Timestalkers, Out of Time, and Happy Accidents.

I first became aware of Time After Time from the preface of Time and Time Again, a Superman graphic novel about time travel. In this movie, H.G. Wells' time machine is a reality and is stolen by Jack the Ripper, who uses it to travel from 1893 London to 1979 San Francisco. The most biting social commentary we get out of this situation is Jack's observation to Wells: "Ninety years ago, I was a freak. Today, I'm an amateur." The rest is a fairly typical murder-thriller. Malcolm McDowell was adorable as H.G. Wells, with plenty of laughable moments as he encountered various technological advances (though in general, his acclimation was much too smooth). David Warner, the villain, was recognizable from Tron, Quest of the Delta Knights, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II, Titanic, Star Trek VI (as Chancellor Gorkon), and his voice work on animated films and shows. It was neat to see Mary Steenburgen in the role as the love interest of a goofy, time-travelling scientist, which she reprised in Back to the Future Part III. Overall, this mediocre story vacillated between amusing, gripping, and not much of anything.

Conversely, Time Changer had a bit too much commentary — not only on the state of society, but the causes for our supposed descent. This film has Gavin MacLeod (Murray Slaughter from The Mary Tyler Moore Show) sending a Bible professor from 1890 to the 21st century to see the consequences of eliminating Jesus' name from Jesus' teachings. I hesitate to call this movie "propaganda", as I'm sure the creators felt they were addressing a valid concern. But the film is so heavy-handed in its preaching of Christianity that it is obviously intended to be not just a sci-fi film, but primarily a vehicle for religious teachings. It was interesting to view this take on time travel, though, as the main character spent his time not ooh-ing and ahh-ing over our technological advancements, but instead despairing at the degradation of society and its morals — all as a result of us not letting Jesus into our hearts. The film ends rather pessimistically (and, again, not too subtly) by suggesting that our world has fewer than 45 years left in it before the literal second coming of Jesus and his Rapture.

Timestalkers and Out of Time are both made-for-TV movies from the late Eighties. Both continue the Time After Time trend of chasing futuristic criminals to our day. Neither film is on DVD, and only used copies of the former are available on VHS. Timestalkers features William Devane, Lauren Hutton, John Ratzenberger, and Forrest Tucker in a film in which a modern-day history professor becomes involved when police from the future track a fugitive to our own era. I remember this movie featuring some creative applications of time travel, such as getting around physical barriers by temporarily shifting to a period in which the barrier did not exist.

Out of Time's villain is pursued by time cop and talk show host Bill Maher, who teams up with his great-grandfather, a present-day cop. The film ends with a temporal paradox that I saw through even though I was only nine years old at the time of the viewing. But just as memorable and more enjoyable were the array of high-tech toys Maher brought with him to our time, such as the cellophane gun. Who knew being a lawman could be so much fun?

Finally, Happy Accidents stars Marisa Tomei and Vincent D'Onofrio in the cliched "man comes back in time to prevent a murder and fall in love" plot. Except here, we never really know if D'Onofrio is a time traveller or a lunatic; all his evidence and support are extremely suspect. It's ultimately a love story that tried my patience with unlikable protagonists and a plodding plot. Give me Somewhere in Time any day.

6 Responses to “Is There a Temporal Mechanic in the House?”

  1. GeneD adds:

    Speaking of time travel movies, I also recommend Twelve Monkeys, although I realize that director Terry Gilliam's style is an acquired taste. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was reasonably popular, as was Groundhog Day.

    Going further back (in time, of course), Buck Rogers, Planet of the Apes, and Time Bandits are also noteworthy, although time travel is used more as a plot device in most of these films than as a scientific hypothesis. There have also been numerous television shows that have used time travel, not the least of which were Voyagers and Quantum Leap.

    Isaac Asimov once pointed out that despite the paradoxes of Back to the Future, it was an entertaining fantasy movie. Much speculative fiction falls into this category…

  2. PeterW adds:

    Star Trek certainly had lots of time travel. (Nobody has mentioned First Contact yet.) Sometimes you began to wonder how they ever managed to squeeze in "time" for the present day! :-)

    And we shouldn't forget another "mainstream" series with a time travel theme — the Terminator movies!

  3. Hiphopguy23 adds:

    Speaking of Back to the Future, has anyone read the original script at It's like a completely different movie! No Delorean. And Coke powers the time-travel machine! Weird.

  4. Erik adds:

    Recently, Eureka has dealt with the issue of time travel with its 1st season finale and 2nd season opening episodes. Eureka, however, takes the position that any time travel is dangerous because it can create potentially conflicting parallel timelines. Spoiler alert — don't read below if you don't want spoilers….

    To bring back his lost love, Henry, the Eureka mechanic and handyman (who just happens to be a quantum physicist among other things), takes a trip back in time to stop his beloved from being killed. A parallel timeline is set up and we are brought four years in the future. Everything is great — but then we find a body — and it turns out to be Henry's girlfriend. Meanwhile, a kind of tornado appears and starts to rip the town apart. A truck, believed lost in a tornado years ago flies in out of nowhere. Sheriff Carter goes back and 'fixes' things — and only two of the characters are aware of the separate timeline …

  5. Ken Gagne adds:

    Gene, Peter: There have definitely been good time travel films (like Bill & Ted — hey, I liked it) and TV shows (Quantum Leap, Time Tunnel). But the most effective use of time travel seems to be in the cult favorites, like Star Trek. I don't know why the timestream can't be more mainstream.

    Erik: Thanks for the recommendation! Eureka is another television show I've not seen. I see that the first season came out on DVD this past July 3rd; unfortunately, it's not (yet?) available from my public library. I'll try to keep it in mind…

  6. GeneD adds:

    Other recent television shows that used time travel as more than an occasional plot device include Journeyman, Heroes, and Flash Forward.