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    Back to the future: the best films about time travel

    27 August 2020

    Christopher Nolan’s Tenet hit cinemas this week – to widespread hype. Like his past films, Nolan’s latest offering is bound to reinvent the cinematic wheel. But there’s one theme in Tenet that is as old as cinema itself: time travel. Film’s ability to bend our sense of time has been an endless fascination for filmmakers ever since cinema was invented. Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt and Arnold Schwarzenegger seem particular veterans of the genre. Yet most of these films ask a simple question, and one that has truly universal import: if you could go back in time and make changes that would affect everything that happened subsequently, would you take the chance?

    12 Monkeys (Prime Video)

    Terry Gilliam has never been a director at his most comfortable in the confines of big-budget studio filmmaking, and his brilliant magnum opus Brazil became an exercise in compromise and corporate dissatisfaction. He had a far easier time with his Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt science fiction epic 12 Monkeys, which became comfortably his greatest commercial success.

    Although on paper its storyline, of a convict sent back in time to frustrate the spread of a deadly virus, sounds generic and straightforward, Gilliam’s quirky and abstract sensibility, which manages to allude to Chris Marker’s short film La Jetée, means that this largely eschews the thrill-a-minute expectations of most sci-fi action films in favour of something slower and more contemplative. It also proves, beyond all doubt, that Willis is a fantastic actor, as long as he cares about the film he’s in.

    The Terminator series (Prime Video)

    The first Terminator film is a lean, mean exercise in suspense, as Linda Hamilton’s waitress Sarah Connor is pursued by the Terminator, an implacable, near-silent android (Arnold Schwarzenegger, naturally) and protected by time-travelling soldier Kyle Reese. The second ups the ante, introduced state-of-the-art special effects and a sinister new Terminator, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick) and kept the action scenes mind-boggling. Thereafter, James Cameron stopped directing the films and a further four followed. None were particularly good, and although the third and fourth films were reasonably successful at the box office, the failure of the most recent, Dark Fate, suggests that this series has run its course, unless Cameron wearies of his Avatar films and decides to return to the pictures that made his name.

    Time After Time (Prime video)

    Nicholas Meyer co-wrote Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which many regard as their favourite film in the original series, thanks to its comic spin on time travel. Meyer, who also wrote and directed The Wrath of Khan, had previous experience thanks to his having made the Malcolm McDowell and David Warner vehicle Time After Time a few years before, which was based around a brilliantly simple premise: it wonders what would happen if HG Wells and Jack the Ripper were friends, and the Ripper used a time machine that Wells had invented to escape into the future, leaving the novelist no choice but to follow him. Combining suspense and thrills with fish-out-of-water comedy, Meyer elevates the whole genre to a new level. One day, it will probably be remade for Netflix.

    Looper – Netflix/Prime video

     If you believe that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the spitting image of the young Bruce Willis, then you’ll be the ideal audience for Rian Johnson’s twisty, clever thriller. But even those of us who might be more sceptical of the resemblance between the ever-boyish Gordon-Levitt and Willis cannot fail to enjoy this sophisticated and grown-up time travel extravaganza, which is based around a variant of one of the oldest questions of morality in the book: if you had the chance to go back in time and kill Hitler when he was still a baby, would you do so?

    With a fine supporting performance by Emily Blunt, a script that has a deeply clever and morally challenging central question and some innovative and thrilling action scenes, this is one of the best sci-fi films of the past decade.

    Interstellar (Amazon Prime)

    With his latest exercise in time-jumping, Tenet, currently wowing audiences, Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic Interstellar reminds us – if we needed to be reminded – both of the writer/director’s fascination with the manipulation and bending of time and the way in which perceptions shift as soon as we believe that the earth has more than three dimensions.

    Anchored by a superb, heroic performance by Matthew McConaughey as Cooper, a NASA pilot in the future who volunteers to set out on a quest to see if there is another inhabitable planet in the universe, Nolan’s film examines the way in which time travel is not merely a linear means of moving from A to B, and vice versa, but a far more complex and multi-faceted idea. It will probably need more than a couple of viewings to appreciate fully, but this is, as ever with Nolan, a thrilling and deeply clever journey into the unknown.

    Source Code, 2011 (Netflix)

    Jake Gyllenhaal received solid reviews for his part in this action-packed thriller about a soldier who discovers he’s part of an experimental government programme. In order to track down the bomber of a commuter train, he must relive the same eight minutes on loop and solve the crime. It’s nine years old and still a nail biter, striking just the right balance between action and character building.

    Edge of Tomorrow

    For all of Tom Cruise’s undoubted charm and charisma as an actor, there is – how best to put it? – something slightly punchable about that all-American megawatt grin that he sports. Anyone who has never been entirely converted to the temple of Cruise will probably get a lot out of Doug Liman’s 2014 action film, which offers the spectacle of him dying continually in a series of new and inventive ways.

    Taking the central structure of Groundhog Day – a man is stuck in an apparently endless loop of the same activity, ended only by his death and then sudden resurrection – and coupling it with an alien invasion storyline, Edge of Tomorrow (aka Live Die Repeathas an appealingly black comic sensibility as it torments Cruise’s character Major William Cage with endless variants on his end, even as he slowly becomes aware of what his world-saving task is.