Science fiction was the first form to take on time travel. It probably started with H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine in 1895. But movies probably have the lead today on getting audiences to think about the concept.
It is an idea that has some science behind the fiction. Physicists have been considering the possibility of traveling in time since Einstein’s theories of relativity were published. Einstein showed that time slows as moving objects approach the speed of light. And gravity also slows time.
In his book How to Build a Time Machine, physicist Paul Davies writes, “The theory of relativity implies that a limited form of time travel is certainly possible, while unrestricted time travel — to any epoch, past or future — might just be possible, too.”
That’s more encouraging than some earlier interpretations of Einstein’s work.
What would happen to our lives if time travel became a reality?
I have written here about the paradoxes that might occur when time traveling, but the real problem is trying to build that time machine. It will cost a lot of money. The complexity of such a machine would mean only a few time traveler would have access. But even a few travelers could have a big impact on life as we know it.
Science-fiction writers and moviemakers have been playing with time travel for a long time and have considered and overcome many problems. For the stories to be interesting, we usually have to accept that the time machine allows a traveler to create a complete loop – to travel back into the past or future and then return. Traveling to the future has fewer paradox issues than traveling to the past.
One online article rates the top 22 time travel films. I’m not a fan of all their choices but most of my favorites are there.
Of all the films on this list, The Time Machine is the only book I read before seeing the film. I loved reading H.G. Wells’ books as a kid. The book influenced all the time travel books that followed and I think the film influenced subsequent time travel movies.
The film is set in 1899 London where inventor H. George Wells invites some friends to his home to see his machine that allows one to travel into the fourth dimension of time. Wells travels into the future and back. The author Wells wanted to predict where he saw humanity headed and he goes as far as to 1966 and when he flies through an atomic blast, he is pushed all the way to the year 802,701. Civilization is unrecognizably horrible. When he returns to 1900, no one believes him. Though a modern audience might chuckle at the movie’s effects, it did win an Oscar for Best Special Effects in 1961.
The older and cornier 1949, A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court is based on a Mark Twain book. I read the book after seeing the film on TV as a kid. The book is more satire than sci-fi. The film stars Bing Crosby as Hank, and yes, Bing sings songs. Like some later films, al it takes for Hank to time travel is a hit in the head. (So, did he dream it all?) What I enjoyed in the film and book is how Hank takes his 1912 knowledge back to King Arthur’s time (I’m a big Arthurian romance fan too.) and comes off like a wizard. For example, he knows about an eclipse that will occur and so makes it seem that he controls the sun.
Corny as the film seems today, that Twain story premise has been used in contemporary films like Black Knight, The Spaceman, King Arthur and Just Visiting.
I really like the 1980 film Somewhere in Time, because it focuses on the effects of time traveling and sets aside the technology. In the film, Christopher Reeve’s character, Richard, travels back in time to 1912 to be with the woman he loves.
Another film that avoids explaining the time machine technology is Peggy Sue Got Married, a Francis Ford Coppola film starring Kathleen Turner and Nicholas Cage. Peggy (Turner), who is recently separated from her husband Charlie (Cage), passes out at her 25-year high school reunion and awakens (Wizard of Oz style) back in time in her senior year of high school. That’s the year she got pregnant and married Charlie. A chance to change her present presents itself. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards and is fun and thoughtful.
A nice twist on time travel occurs in the book and film The Time Traveler’s Wife. Henry De Tamble (played by Eric Bana) has no control over when, where and for how long he goes in time. In this version, time traveling, like being a vampire, has some big drawbacks. But he persists. I would too if Rachel McAdams was waiting for me.
Hermoine does some time traveling in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban using a “time-turner”, though it’s not a major part of the plot.
The Austin Powers films (International Man of Mystery, The Spy Who Shagged Me and Goldmember) play time travel for laughs, including a laughable time machine.
There’s no science in Hot Tub Time Machine but that movie surprised me by being funnier and better than it seemed in previews.
Monty Pythoners Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin wrote (and Gilliam directed) Time Bandits. With a good cast that includes John Cleese, Sean Connery, Ian Holm, Ralph Richardson, Katherine Helmond and Shelley Duvall, this fantastical film features a young boy who joins up with some time-traveling, treasure-hunting little people. Sounds like a kids film, but it gets pretty strange and dark.
Talking about dark, I move right on to to another Gilliam film, 12 Monkeys. It’s a serious sci-fi thriller with Bruce Willis’ Cole trying to save the future from a virus created in the past. This is a complicated story that can easily be viewed again. Brad Pitt got an Academy Award nomination for playing a mental patient revolutionary.
One of my favorites is the 1979 film Time After Time. It takes H.G. Wells (Malcolm MacDowell) as its main character and takes him him from London in 1893 to 1979. The twist is that Wells’ friend Stevenson has used the time machine that Wells’ wrote about (turns out it really existed!) and took off. Unfortunately, Stevenson is Jack the Ripper and he used the machine for the ultimate escape. Wells goes to the future in pursuit. Wells also falls in love with a modern day woman played by Mary Steenburgen. The story has some interesting things to say about our modern world.
Most people think of Groundhog Day as pure comedy, but I think it has a lot of serious stuff to say about time and people. I wrote a post on “The Zen of Groundhog Day” so I don’t need to go into that aspect here. Bill Murray’s cynical weatherman gets stuck in a time lop and keeps going back 24 hours and reliving Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. He learns a little bit more each time, and eventually he comes to a true revelation.