Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh, Martin Donovan, Clement Poesy, etc.
Music by: Ludwig Göransson
Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
I am writing this review from the future while travelling backwards to the past to try and alter events which have yet to occur in the present. Confused yet? Jokes aside, Christopher Nolan’s latest temporally challenging and narratively inverted blockbuster, TENET (2020), is actually not as complicated as some would lead you to believe. However, that’s because I’ve been training my brain with such mind-boggling adventures in time, space and dimensions while watching the third season of the ingenious German sci-fi drama, DARK (2020), this week. Safe to say however, TENET is still rather complex and probably unnecessarily so. Yet, Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker who loves exploring challenging scientific concepts and marrying them to hugely involving plots and stylish spectacular action. All credit to him too for pushing himself and the audience!
TENET opens with a fast-paced set-piece located at a Ukrainian opera house. A SWAT team, that includes our unnamed hero, (John David Washington), is there to save a spy and obtain an unidentified object, which will of course become an integral part of the plot later or earlier on in the story. From then on, ‘The Protagonist’, as he later becomes known, becomes embroiled in stopping the megalomaniacal plans of Russian oligarch, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). In order to do so he attempts to infiltrate and stop Sator via his bullied wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). Here the Protagonist builds a bond to Kat and this provides the emotional glue of the film. Although, I’ll be honest, I was too busy thinking about the machinations of Nolan’s head-twirling approach to temporal structure, than actually feel much for the characters.
What the film lacks in emotional depth it more than makes up with spectacular action. There are at least six incredible set-pieces that involve hand-to-hand combat, fast-paced vehicle pursuit, bungee-jumping and all-out combat between various government and mercenary factions. Nolan and his production team twist the action with a visually mirrored trick which, well I won’t say anymore. Moreover, the grandiose style and cinematography are eye-popping. Sharp suits, sharper knives and futuristic masks are adorned by the characters giving the spy thriller a hyperreal edge. Similarly, the stunts and editing are superbly orchestrated and executed. Having said that, the sound design and dialogue could have been better. Far be it from me to criticize, but in striving for verisimilitude in the sound, the constant wearing of masks meant important dialogue lacked clarity. Likewise, in the final amazing set-piece I was lost amidst the bodies and explosions as to who was who and why and what and how. Clearly a second and third watch of TENET (2020) is in order.
While the action was pretty much flawless throughout, the screenplay, unlike say Nolan’s prior high-concept masterpiece, INCEPTION (2010), did lack character depth for me. While I realise this was Nolan’s intention, hardly any time is given setting up the characters. So much so they become cyphers within the plot. Nonetheless, the charisma of the cast, notably John David Washington and the impressive Robert Pattinson, dominates the screen and the two bounce off each other magnetically. Elizabeth Debicki and Kenneth Branagh also bring much to their roles, however their subplot involving domestic abuse felt out of place in such a post-modern spectacle. Moreover, Branagh’s oligarch was, in certain scenes, verging on parodic cliche. I wondered if the villain of the piece could have been a little less B-movie heavy at times and possibly more cultured. This is a minor gripe though. After all, he is the bad guy!
Ultimately, TENET (2020) is a big, brash and confident Bond-type film with bells on. Sure, the rules of the world could have been excavated and presented somewhat clearer. But, Nolan favours a breakneck pace and be damned if you cannot keep up. Indeed, I am certain he has covered all the plot-holes (or paradoxes) I thought I saw and numerous questions I had by the end. While it is not without flaws, on first watch, I once again have to congratulate Christopher Nolan for striving for original thinking and fascinating concepts within a genre film. One may even argue that there are too many ideas here and simplification could have created a more emotionally satisfying film. However, there are many moments of cinematic genius in TENET (2020), notably in the Sisyphean payoffs within the inverted plot structure. Finally, one won’t see a more shiny and beautiful looking film all year. The future is bright: the future is Christopher Nolan.
Executive producers: Alex Garland, Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, Eli Bush, Scott Rudin, Garrett Basch
Cast: Sonoya Mizuno, Nick Offerman, Jin Ha, Zach Grenier, Alison Pill, Stephen McKinlay Henderson, Cailee Spaeny, Karl Glusman, Jefferson Hall, Liz Carr, Janet Mock, Aimee Mullins, Linnea Berthelsen etc.
Cinematography: Rob Hardy
Composers: Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow, The Insects
Distribution / Screening Platform: FX / Hulu / BBC
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
“I read more about science than anything else, and it started with two things. One was getting my head around this principle of determinism, which basically says that everything that happens in the world is based on cause and effect. . . One is that it takes away free will, but the other is that if you are at a computer powerful enough, you could use determinism to predict the future and understand the past.”Alex Garland – Creator of Devs
Alex Garland has an impressive literary, cinema and now televisual curriculum vitae. He gained acclaim as the writer of the novel, The Beach, before moving onto screenwriting duties with fine films such as: 28 Days Later (2002), Sunshine (2007), Never Let Me Go (2010), and Dredd (2012). He made his directorial debut with Ex Machina (2014), which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. His second film,Annihilation (2018), garnered further acclaim, so much so, FX bypassed a pilot and went straight to series for his latest science fiction narrative, Devs (2020).
While I am a massive fan of Garland’s work, I wasn’t too enamoured of Annihilation (2018). I found it brilliantly made with some fantastic concepts and incredible moments, yet overall it was too slowly paced. With the eight superlative episodes of Devs (2020), Garland has kept the meditative pace of Annihilation (2018), but also delivered a story which really connected with me this time. With Devs (2020) he has successfully merged a compelling technological espionage plot to an intelligent exploration of philosophical thought and behaviour. Moreover, Garland presents a complex group of themes and characters relating to Silicon Valley tech firms and how their work could control individuals, companies, governments, society as a whole, and actual time itself.
Set now in San Francisco, the narrative opens with two employees of the Amaya Corporation, Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno) and Sergei Pavlov (Karl Glusman), attending work. Sergei has a big presentation to pitch to Amaya CEO, Forest (Nick Offerman) and chief designer, Katie (Alison Pill). It goes well and Sergei is invited to work on the mysterious DEVS project. At DEVS he finds wondrous halo-style lighting in the woods and an incredibly expensive set of buildings, capsules, platforms, workstations and screens. Dominating the landscape also is a gigantic model of a young girl (Forest’s daughter, Amaya) who looms over the company and the San Franciscan horizon. These spectacular props, sets and locations are complimented by impressive cinematography from Rob Hardy throughout the eight episodes.
Sergei’s tenure at DEVS does not last long though as he goes missing. Lily, who was in a loving relationship with Sergei, is distraught and, with the help of ex-CIA head of security, Kenton (Zach Grenier), attempts to locate him. When Sergei turns up dead from an apparent suicide, Lily is convinced there is a conspiracy occurring in the Amaya company so begins a dangerous investigation. Even more intriguing, however, is the work that is occurring at DEVS itself. Led by Forest’s desire to “resurrect” his deceased daughter, this complex computer programme can somehow view events from the past, recreated via particle-driven software and projected on huge screens. Using this application the developers and programmers are attempting to determine the future from what has occurred in the past. If they can determine the future they may be able to control it. Mind blown yet? Safe to say, Lily’s investigation into Sergei’s death and the DEVS system become inextricably linked as the drama unfolds. As such, the drama works well as a conspiracy thriller as well as thoughtful sci-fi as Garland punctuates the brooding pace with some crushing stunts and brutal murder set-pieces.
I’ll be honest, the technological side of Devs (2020) was outside my knowledge repertoire as I do not comprehend coding or programming jargon. Nonetheless, I did understand what was occurring in the narrative as it was presented in a clear and digestible fashion. Unlike say the most recent seasons of HBO’s Westworld, which tied itself in knots with looping and over-lapping timelines, Alex Garland’s deft script, excellent direction and fantastic cast make Devs‘ (2020) complex science and tech theories comprehensible throughout. While Garland is dealing with theories relating to free will and deterministic cause and effect, the elegant structure, both linear and with flashbacks, builds a gripping narrative which maintains emotional impact for the characters and the choices they must make. Indeed, Lily Chan is a very empathetic leading protagonist and Sonoya Mizuno gives a compellingly magnetic acting portrayal. It was also fascinating to see Nick Offerman outside of his Parks and Recreation ‘Ron Swanson’ persona playing a highly driven and grieving father. Thus, to conclude, if you enjoy clever, meditative and Kubrickian style television in the science-fiction genre, then you should definitely use your free will and be determined to watch Devs (2020).
Written by Jason George – based on the novel The Old Axolotl by Jacek Dukaj
Cast: Pauline Ettienne, Laurent Capulletto, Stefano Cassetti, Nabil Mallat, Jan Bijvoet, Vincent Londez, Babetida Sadjo, Mehmet Kurtulus, Alba Gaia Bellugi, Regina Bikkinina, etc.
****MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ****
Netflix’s first Belgian original production series is an inspired adaptation of Jakub Dukaj’s electronic science fiction work, The Old Axolotl. While that work may be a digital release about a post-apocalyptic Earth, Into The Night (2020), is not a futuristic tale, but rather a very contemporary one set in the now. Opening in the Brussels airport the suspense is ratcheted up from the start when a NATO Officer, Terenzio Gallo, takes a Moscow bound plane hostage at gunpoint. Frantic and dangerous he orders the pilot and crew to take off immediately as they are all in danger. I won’t reveal what that danger is for fear of spoilers. What I can say is though these six episodes are one hell of a thrilling and panic-stricken plane journey.
Jason George’s excellent adaptation is written as a fast-paced disaster movie over six sharp episodes. Given the characters convene at an airport and the Brussels office of the United Nations is close by, the narrative establishes an ensemble of various nationalities including: Polish, Italian, Belgian, French, Turkish, Russian, Moroccan and in later episodes, English. Indeed, as well as the environmental threat and technological challenges the characters face, national identities and cultural clashes drive the drama of the series. The various personalities may be facing impending doom from an unknown source, while flying thousands of feet in the air, yet they cannot put their petty prejudices aside and this leads to much trouble. Amidst the in-fighting though some solidarity is found as the passengers and crew overcome a plethora of suspenseful moments and situations.
I personally cannot stand flying. Thus, my heart was literally in my mouth throughout this exciting series. The acting, action, direction and editing are all extremely well delivered, and I can safely say that this is one of Netflix’s winners. The threat the humans face is also very believable too. Furthermore, a classic disaster movie trope is to give the characters enough depth to bring you into their personal stories. Each episode is named after a character and is accompanied by a mini-flashback establishing their back story. We get one character seeking romance, one facing grief, another having an affair, a mother attempting to save her sick son, and so on. While these are very much standard types within the genre, the breathless pace of Into The Night (2020) leaves you dizzy from both the high altitude and anxiety.
“It’s the end of the World as we know it – and I feel fine!” Michael Stipe
With the world gripped by the COVID-19 virus threat one’s mind can run amok and look to possible futures. Thus, I thought it interesting to explore some visions of the Apocalypse as seen on the film. I mean you have to hand it to humanity; it’s able to distract itself from the possible end of the world by creating stories and entertainment ABOUT the end of the world! Here’s TEN of the best I could think of.
***CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS***
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) – UNKNOWN CAUSE
George Romero’s seminal classic zombie film gave birth (and death) to a whole subgenre of horror films. The low budget is no barrier to an ingenious concept involving the dead rising up and attempting to wipe out the rest of humanity. Both powerful as a horror narrative and social commentary, it remains one of the most influential films of all time.
PLANET OF THE APES (1969) – NUCLEAR WAR
Poor old Charlton Heston never had much luck with the future as his characters often ended up in dystopian visions of hell. Such films included: Soylent Green (1973), Omega Man (1971) and the classic Planet of the Apes, where simian humanoids are running the planet and enslaving the savage natives. One of the great sci-fi epics with probably the greatest film ending of all time, the film remains a timeless vision of the future.
MAD MAX: ROAD WARRIOR (1981) – NUCLEAR WAR
In between the road-raging original and this brilliant sequel there was some kind of global nuclear meltdown hitherto bringing about a dusty wasteland where fuel is God and humans will kill to get their hands on it! Out of the dust rises a reluctant hero, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), who strives to survive while battling hordes of petrolheads, psychos and punks! Definitely one of the best sequels of all time, George Miller spectacularly remade it with the equally pulsatingFury Road (2015).
THE TERMINATOR (1984) – ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
Bloody Internet, sorry Skynet! We create these wonderful computers to help us with everyday life including our Missile Defence Systems and they turn on us! Only a Mother and her child – who hasn’t been born yet – can save us from a life of death and slavery at the hands of the machines. Cameron’s seminal sci-fi action film delivers an unforgettable feast of story, concepts and emotion, containing in Sarah Connor’s, one of the best character arcs of all time.
THE MATRIX (1999) – ALIEN MACHINES / ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
Damned alien machines enslaving humanity and feasting on our fluids and organs for energy in some sick, twisted vision of a futuristic Harvest festival. Then again, compared to some of the shitty office jobs I’ve had I think I’d choose the “Matrix” over those; just don’t tell me I’m in the Matrix! Neo (Keanu Reeves) chose the other pill and it’s a good job he, Morpheus and Trinity did, because we get some kick-ass slow-motion action out of it.
WATERWORLD (1995) – GLOBAL WARMING
In this future we will basically live in the water and grow gills. Also, pure dirt and water will be our most priceless commodity. Well, that’s what will occur according to this apocalyptic-polar-ice-caps-melting-earth-swimming-pool-with-pirates movie. At the time it was one of the most expensive film flops in history, but IT actually wasn’t THAT bad. Kevin Costner plays a softer and more soaked version of Mad Max, while Dennis Hopper chews up the scenery as the over-the-top Napoleonic baddie at sea.
TWELVE MONKEYS (1995) – DEADLY VIRUS
Seeing someone close to you die in front of your eyes as a child is not a future you really need is it? But what if THAT person is. . . Following the opening of this brilliant film, the plot centres around future prisoners being sent back in time to find the cause of the deadly viral apocalypse. The awesome mind of Terry Gilliam filtering Chris Marker’s classic short La Jetée (1962), makes this an intelligent and exciting end-of-the-world blockbuster. Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt are on particularly good form too amidst Gilliam’s frightening visuals.
28 DAYS LATER (2002) – RAGE VIRUS
Alex Garland and Danny Boyle’s blistering British horror classic springboards a Day of The Triffids style opening as Cillian Murphy wakes up in a seemingly empty London. Alas, he is not alone as he finds, along with a ragtag bunch of survivors, the world has been populated with raging and rapid zombies hellbent on feeding. Boyle directs with a low budget, yet prodigious inventive flair in a modern-day monstrous classic.
THE WORLD’S END (2013) – ALIEN INVASION
The third in the Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost ‘Cornetto Trilogy’ is often seen as the weakest of the three. That’s because the first two are so strong, The World’s End suffers slightly in their shadow. However, a stellar British cast all combine brilliantly as a group of friends reuniting to enact the same town pub crawl they had done year’s before. It’s just a shame a bunch of aliens have decided to take over the town at the same bloody time!
THIS IS THE END (2013) – BIBLICAL APOCAPLYPSE
The end of days has never been so hilarious and dumb as in this Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg directed apocalyptic comedy. The stellar who’s-who cast of rising Hollywood actors including: Jonah Hill, Rogen, James Franco, Craig Robinson, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride plus many more cameos turns, all find themselves battling monsters, fiery sinkholes and each other, in an irreverent and gleeful disaster movie.
CONTRASTING DREAMS ON PAGE AND SCREEN: REVIEWING THE WORK OF PHILIP K. DICK
“Today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups… So I ask, in my writing, what is real? I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing.”
― Philip K. Dick
For a writer who wrote extensively about artificial intelligence and technology, Philip K. Dick himself was in fact a certifiable writing machine, publishing over 44 novels, a further 120-odd short stories, plus a whole vision of manuscripts, essays and other literary paraphernalia. His death at the relatively young age of 53 took an incredible genius away from us; however, you’re never too far away from his work either on TV, computer or at the cinema.
The latest cinema release inspired by Dick’s vision was the beautifully directed space epic Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Here Denis Villeneuve picked up the baton from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982); an adaptation of K. Dick’s seminal novel Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep (1968). But of course his stories have also given us film adaptations including: Minority Report (2002), Total Recall (1990 & 2012), The Adjustment Bureau (2011), Next (2007), Paycheck (2003), A Scanner Darkly (2006) etc. Moreover, Amazon has recently adapted his classic 1962 alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle (2015) to positive acclaim.
With Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror jumping ship to Netflix, Channel Four UK (Sony / Amazon in the U.S.A) and various other production companies) must have felt there was a “futuristic anthology show” hole in their schedule. Thus, they obtained the rights to Philip K. Dick’s back catalogue and produced a show called Electric Dreams – shown in two halves in 2017 and 2018. The production values were very high and some extremely talented actors, producers, writers and directors were brought in to bring ten Dickian short stories to the TV screen. Such creative luminaries included: Janelle Monae, Dee Rees, Ronald Moore, Juno Temple, Bryan Cranston, David Farr, Matthew Graham, Timothy Spall, Jack Thorne, Steve Buscemi, Anna Paquin, Terrence Howard, Travis Beacham, Richard Madden, Vera Farmiga and many more.
I have immersed myself in the novels, cinema and TV work inspired by Philip K. Dick recently. I was fascinated by the themes and narratives represented and comparisons between the literary and screen works. How did they compare to Dick’s original vision and how do they differ?
NIGHTMARE THEMES IN ELECTRIC DREAMS
Of late I have read his novels Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), Ubik (1969) and the collection of short stories – collated in conjunction with the Channel 4 series – Electric Dreams. Moreover, I have seen most of his works adapted for cinema. His narratives are often hallucinatory and dream-like with simple yet devastating prose. They deal in reality, alternative reality and beyond reality. You’re often in a place where you are unsure as to what is occurring is in the real world or some imagined or manufactured nightmare. Technology, disease and war are more than often a threat. The biggest threat though is humanity and its seeming endless proclivity for inventing weapons, machines and viruses with which to kill. Paranoia and doubt infect Dick’s work making you feel as trapped as his characters. Further, mutated strands of humanity are a staple trope where telepaths and empaths inhabit his oeuvre; along with classic science fiction aliens and monsters from outer space too.
The narratives, while possessing an otherworldly and futuristic feel, paradoxically feel realistic because his characters are everyday people. They are rarely action heroes or soldiers or scientists but rather administrators or office staff, factory or transport workers. They are family people trying to make their way through life and the horrors the world throws at them. Given Dick was writing during the 1950s onwards it’s not surprising that the threat of nuclear war hung heavy within his words. Furthermore, the rapid technological breakthroughs which, while offering hope for humanity, brought with it a movement to the loss of free will and a possible future governed by machines. Big corporations, banks, governments and computers all erode and destroy the very fabric of being in Dick’s world rendering human identity and existence obsolete. His universe is brimming with people under threat, humans desiring to escape and a questioning of what it means to be human.
CONTEXTUALISING THE NIGHTMARES
**CONTAINS FILM AND LITERARY SPOILERS**
Adapting Dick’s work can be complex because what works on the page as a concept can be difficult to transfer to a visual medium. Conversely, his work is often altered beyond recognition with fragments of the initial idea remaining while others stay true to the original. The original and subsequent sequel of Bladerunner (1982) are very faithful to the structure and futuristic vision of Dick’s original novel; retaining the ‘hunting of replicants’ plot and the existential question of whether an android can be considered human. In Electric Dreams the adaptation of the short story Human Is. . . . poses a similar question. In this story a wife faces the choice as to whether her husband, whose body has been invaded by an alien, is in fact more human because he is an improvement and displaying idealised human traits such as kindness and love. The flipside of this occurs in the film adaptation of Imposter (2002), and the short story adaptation The Father Thing, where nefarious aliens hell-bent on invasion take over the humans in order to divide and conquer. Human Is… both the short story and television adaptation are particularly convincing as many people have all been trapped in dying relationships where we wish we could change our partner. Dick’s story takes this idea and makes it real and emotionally very powerful.
Certain filmmakers, when adapting Dick’s work, will mould their style to his vision. For example, in the Steven Spielberg directed thriller Minority Report (2002), Dick’s pre-crime conspiracy model was presented as an action pursuit film with Tom Cruise going on the run for a crime he may or may not have committed. Spielberg retains the initial idea and concepts relating to pre-cognitive telepathy and empathic mutation but renders it a more fast-paced and spectacular cinematic experience. Similarly, telepathy and mutants feature heavily in Matthew Graham’s pretty faithful adaptation of The Hoodmaker. Like Minority Report telepaths are exploited by the government and law to do their bidding, only for the system to be corrupted and used for death by those in power.
Dick’s story We Can Remember it For You Wholesale, has been adapted on two occasions as Total Recall (1990 and 2012). Paul Verhoeven’s earlier version about warring government agents and colonies on Mars is an absolute blast. Dick’s concepts relating to alternative realities and implanted memories are fused with an explosive Arnold Schwarzenegger action film. Yet, what is retained amidst the shoot-outs and spectacular set-pieces is the main protagonists’ life dissatisfaction and desire to escape their everyday existence for something more exciting. This is a common theme in Dick’s work and can also be found in the Electric Dreams’ stories Impossible Planet and The Commuter. In the latter a Station clerk finds a hitherto lost “town” which offers a means of escape from his seemingly humdrum life but it comes at a cost. While Total Recall raises the pace and stakes within an interplanetary setting, The Commuter is more ordinary and emotional in its cerebral representation.
Political, social and technological corruption is present in many of Dick’s other works too. In Richard Linklater’s adaptation of A Scanner Darkly (2006), an undercover cop battles to conceal his identity while struggling with drug addiction. While in Electric Dreams, Dee Rees’ rendition of Dick’s short story The Hanging Man, takes an allegorical story about social unrest and fascistic hangings, turning it into a thought-provoking, paranoiac nightmare scenario. Rees calls her story Kill All Others, where we find Mel Rodriguez’s factory worker driven by fake news and political manipulation during an election. This eerily reflects much of the social and media saturation seen during Donald Trump’s U.S. election win. Likewise the adaptation of Foster, Your Dead became the very impactful Safe and Sound; and examined the deadly possibilities of technology firms manipulating youth within the context of the war on terror.
Arguably not as successful, however, was the Tony Grisoni adaptation called Crazy Diamond. This episode completely altered Dick’s story Sales Pitch, which told of a relentless Sales-Bot who won’t take no for an answer. In fact I had no idea what Crazy Diamond was trying to say and perhaps the writer should have stuck to Dick’s intriguing techo-nightmare premise. Indeed, threat of technology and the inevitable doom progress represents is also presented in the excellent episode called Autofac. Dick wrote this story in 1955 and set it after an apocalyptic world war has devastated Earth’s civilizations. All that remains is a network of hardened robot “Autofacs” supplying goods to the human survivors. However, these drones and bots are in fact hindering survival and the idea is incredibly prescient. Indeed with the rise of Amazon and Google and Apple industries our society is becoming more dependent on such technology to the extent we could be classed as helpless without it.
Lastly, what Electric Dreams demonstrates, along with the many film adaptations of his work, is that Dick’s concepts are just as relevant, if not more so than at the time of writing. Moreover, what this thematic and genre contextualisation of Dick’s work illustrates is that universal themes such as: the desire to escape; what it means to be human; media manipulation; fear of technology and war; oppressive government regimes; and all round insidious paranoia about a very dark future are inescapable and will always be part of society and the human condition.
My ongoing series writing about cinema stuff I love, has gone from eulogizing actors to directors and now to genres; oh, how progressive am I? Seriously though, in this piece I choose FIVE time-travel films which are just brilliant examples of the (sub)genre.
I love time-travel films and the main reasons are:
They offer fantastic and paradoxical narratives and “what if” scenarios.
They really get your brain working overtime.
The concepts fit all manner of different genres from action to comedies and thrillers and even the Western.
The philosophical concepts at play often examine the nature of existence; especially where one tries to make sense of life or find meaning where there probably is none.
As evidence I present FIVE such time-travel films which meet all of the criteria and are representative of most genres. Please note I have concentrated solely on time-travel films released in the cinema so Doctor Who remains parked up for this particular piece.
**HERE BE MASSIVE SPOILERS**
BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985)
This is probably the most perfect Hollywood movie. It’s a high-concept-time-travelling-Oedipal-narrative-joy-fest which combines action, comedy, romance, sci-fi, and nostalgia genres while backed by a past and present pop music extravaganza! A young teenage innocent called Marty McFly is thrown back to the 1950s. In the 50s he unwittingly begins to undo his own future by accidentally beginning a romance with his own mother. Allied to that he must help his father (Crispin Glover) overcome his social weakness plus battles with horrible bully Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson). Following the basic temporal rule that one’s actions in the past will affect your future the tremendous script is jam-packed with so many wonderful gags, twists and chases; while the race-against-time narrative is a thrill-a-second. The rich iconography – notably the mad scientist’s DeLorean “time machine” – plus cracking performances from Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, render this one of the most exhilarating time-travel films ever.
GROUNDHOG DAY (1993)
Bill Murray is obviously praised as a wonderfully funny man but he’s also a deviously good film actor. At times he doesn’t actually seem to be doing much but his mind is always working as he gives a sly look or a sarcastic smile or a silent sigh from his deadpan, hangdog face. In Groundhog Day he runs the gamut of ALL emotions from anger to desperation to insanity to bliss to apathy to suicide to pride and finally to LOVE! This is a wonderful film with a tremendous “what if” premise which offers the idea we can only move on in life if we’re prepared not only to accept change but also throw off cynicism and find romance. The exceptional script mines the Sisyphean narrative for so many brilliant sequences as Murray relives the same day over and over again. At the beginning this temporal immortality offers an array of gifts to his jaded weatherman Phil Connors; however, by the end his life becomes a dreaded nightmare and repetitive hell. Ultimately, time-travel has never been so funny, tragic and romantic!
I think most time-travel films are paradoxical by nature and holes can always be found in the logic but as a time-travel/thriller genre film Predestination worked really well while providing an intriguing gender-political angle too. The nature of the loner and finding love for others and oneself was also an interesting theme plus the inevitability of fate was there in the subtext too. There’s been a lot of big budget dross at the cinema recently but for the running time this gem offers far more than many other star-driven, big-budget movies. Even though I enjoy seeing stuff blown up on screen I do love a brain-twister too and this film presents one hell of a challenging narrative. Starring Ethan Hawke and with a breakout performance from brilliant Sarah Snook this film from German/Australian directors has intelligence, thrills, heart and several mighty plot twists which bear up under successive viewings.
THE TERMINATOR (1984)
This is one of my favourite films ever. It propelled Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron to mega-stardom in their respective fields and has often been parodied and imitated but rarely bettered. While story is simple: a killing machine has been sent back from the future to destroy Sarah Connor – the soon-to-be mother of uber-rebel leader John Connor; the journey is an absolute humdinger. Cameron’s lean, mean and muscular action screenplay combines brains, brawn, cracking one-liners and explosive set-pieces. Moreover, Linda Hamilton excels as the endangered young woman who turns from a flaky waitress to formidable matriarch over the course of the film. The sequel was brilliant too but the original will remain, despite being made for just $6.4 million dollars, the epitome of a tech-noir-futuristic-time-travel-action classic.
TIME CRIMES (2007)
This fascinating Spanish thriller has a narrative like a Russian doll as it is structured on an enigma within a conundrum within a paradox. It concerns an ordinary Spanish bloke, who having seen some weird behaviour going on in the woods near his house, ends up looping and pursuing multiple versions of himself throughout one very bizarre day. Similar to Triangle (2009) – an underrated time-paradox gem directed by Brit filmmaker Christopher Smith – the enjoyment derives from immersing yourself in the weird and unexplained reasons why Hector (Karra Elejalde) has begun a psycho-sexual, violent loop of death involving a number of temporal leaps. This is all paradoxical plot and wicked thrills and while there is little in the way of characterisation the filmmaker Nacho Vigolondo has created the closest equivalent to a movie version of an Escher painting.