From Primer to Sound of My Voice: Seven lesser-known time travel movies to herald the new season of Dark
The first season of Dark, the German television series, was an excellent example of a show that utilised the extended nature of the TV format to craft an entertaining and intelligent tale of time travel. On the eve of the second season, here is a list of relatively under-seen but supremely interesting time travel films from this century.
Since the dawn of humanity, the ostensibly endless and inviolable passage of time has fascinated theologians, scientists and storytellers alike. It’s presented us with enormous room to exercise our imagination, engage, ask questions and seek meaning within the ephemeral drama of our lives. Amongst the arts, film is uniquely positioned owing to its dependence on editing, which entails the fracturing of time to advance narratives. This renders films involving time travel all the more fascinating. It provides storytellers with a medium that seems tailor-made for these stories.
The first season of Dark, the German television series, was an excellent example of a show that utilised the extended nature of the TV format to craft an entertaining and intelligent tale of time travel. On the eve of the second season, I have collated a list of relatively under-seen but supremely interesting time travel films from this century. Don’t be alarmed if you fail to find films that you loved, for I have tried to stick to titles that didn’t quite set the box-office alight. That should explain the exclusion of Donnie Darko, Source Code, Looper and even The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Further, not all the films that follow are certified masterpieces or works of art. I have tried to pick films that are either intelligent, interesting, cerebral or entertaining, and in the best cases, a wholesome mixture of all these. So without further ado, in chronological order (there’s simply no escaping it), here they are:
Shane Carruth’s debut feature film, Primer, was made on a budget of 7,000 US dollars. In addition to directing, writing and acting in the film, Carruth is also credited as its producer, casting director, editor, music director, and production and sound designer. In most cases, it can be a recipe for valorous failure. But Primer is an exception, and how!
Carruth takes the premise of a group of friends who accidentally build a time machine to hitherto unscaled cerebral heights. To peddle a well-worn cliche, Primer puts the science back in science fiction. He crafts a mind bender that has spawned numerous internet forums which, to this day, continue to discuss, pick apart and come to terms with the complexity of an outstanding film. Despite the onslaught of original ideas that is Primer, it never stops being entertaining, and the endless scientific jargon spouted by the characters only makes for a richer, edifying and mind-boggling film experience.
Nacho Vigalondo recently directed Colossal, the Anne Hathway starrer, that was widely praised for its mischievous reworking of the disaster film genre. But he has been doing that for over a decade now. He debuted with Timecrimes, arguably his best film, where, much like Carruth, he didn’t let a limited budget come in the way of crafting a satisfying and clever time travel suspense thriller.
The film starts with a man walking into the woods on the heels of an attractive woman. He accidentally steps into a time machine and finds himself an hour back in time. Not before long, he is caught in a time loop and has to reckon with situations no one can possibly be prepared for. Timecrimes utilises smart plotting and excellent production design to engage the viewer. The intricate nature of the time loop and Vigalondo’s inventive direction keeps the viewers on their toes.
Triangle is another mind-bender that will make you rush to internet forums to make sense of its ending. From its title to the convoluted nature of its plot and the array of multiple twists and turns, Christopher Smith’s film provides its fair share of food for thought. But it is held in place by an emotional anchor.
A group of people are out yachting when they suffer an accident. Out at the mercy of the waves, they feel rescued when they spot an ocean liner. But the moment they board it, things start to go dreadfully wrong. Someone seems to be intent on killing them one by one. Jess, our protagonist, appears to be the only person who can figure out what’s going on. But when she gets stuck inside a time loop, things become far more complex.
Triangle fails to nurture its characters satisfactorily. But the central plot branches out in such mind-boggling ways that it remains deeply engaging throughout its runtime. The stakes are raised especially high for Jess, for she isn’t simply fighting for her own life. Time seems to present her with an opportunity to reckon with her past, only to fortify the walls that separate her from it even more firmly every time she tries to break through.
Sound of My Voice (2011)
Sound Of My Voice can well nigh be considered a feature-length companion piece to The OA, Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling’s excellent television series. It puts the question of belief smack in the middle of a tale about time travel. It is the tale of two people who set out to make a documentary on a cult leader who claims to be from the future. Before long, they find themselves warming up to her ideas, and the audience cannot help be swept along.
The film invites and encourages multiple interpretations, often asking viewers to question their relationship with faith and belief to understand the narrative. This near interactive quality renders the film invaluably engaging. It isn’t about right or wrong answers, perhaps. But ruminating over the images and ideas to crafter own version of the ecstatic truth of this film.
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Probably the most charming title on this list, Safety Not Guaranteed is a time travel romantic comedy that realises the potential of its odd premise in a genuinely heartwarming manner. A man places a classified advertisement looking for a partner to go back in time with him. Sensing a story in this strange request, a magazine writer ferries along a couple of interns to interview the man.
Indie darlings Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass turn in endearing performances that lend an infectious charm to a seemingly tall tale. Colin Trevorrow’s assured hand makes his debut film a highly enjoyable affair. Along with writer Derek Connolly, he lightens the mood of the time travel tale to mould an accessible, light-footed film. Safety Not Guaranteed is a quaint reminder that there’s a lot of fun to be had when travelling through time, whether you believe in it or not.
About Time (2013)
The first thing you need to know about this film is that it’s directed by the man who made Love Actually. The other thing is that it’s better. Bolstered by supremely affecting performances, Richard Curtis’ time travel romantic comedy is the kind of film that you wish you had seen before. It is joyous, heartbreaking, funny, charming and never short of rewarding. If Curtis had chosen to call the film About Love, it would remain as relevant as the current title, so deeply does he manage to enmesh love and time within the framework of its narrative.
What if, on your twenty-first birthday, your father were to tell you that the men in your family can go back in time? Imagine the possibilities. Especially for a less than confident young man who is willing to leave no stone unturned to find his one true love.
Curtis’ films tend to exist in their own malleable universe. He sets the rules, earmarks the players and makes them do things according to his own bidding. So is the case with About Time. There are cloying moments. There is sentimental stuff. But Curtis realises, even concedes and advises, that there’s no escaping time. Time is neither foe nor friend. It is. And we are in it. Wisdom lies in accepting that as the only truth. Curtis does, and in so doing, writes his best film.
The mere presence of Ethan Hawke can suffice to guarantee edifying fun in a film. Combine that with a great Robert Heinlein story about time travel and you have all the makings of a wild and twisty ride. There is all that and more in Predestination, by far The Spierig Brothers' best work. There is style, there is hints of substance and a flotilla of ideas to go around, which it doesn’t always manage to tackle convincingly. But it is an engaging film nonetheless, and even while it pales in comparison to the story that inspired it, Predestination remains interesting and supremely watchable.
Hawke plays a temporal agent who is tasked with hunting down a criminal while travelling back and forth in time. The criminal has always eluded him. His job acquires a new dimension when he runs into the character played by Sarah Snook. The film gradually turns into a meditation on identity, love and the parable that is human life.
To peddle another cliche, the less said about the plot of this film, the better. There is a month’s worth of twists and turns in there. But I cannot end this without mentioning the sheer meteorite of talent that’s Snook, who has the rare ability to communicate a library of ideas through her face, and who rescues this film when it begins to fumble.
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