10 great lesser-known time-travel films

Trip back through history with our list of terrific time-travelling movies that deserve to be better known.

4 December 2014

By David Parkinson

Time After Time (1979) poster detail

Although H.G. Wells published The Time Machine in 1895, the same year that the Lumière brothers projected the first moving images to a paying audience, cinema was slow to recognise the dramatic potential of time travel. Master illusionists like Georges Méliès passed up the opportunity to travel through time and space. But Fritz Lang embraced the notion in Destiny (1921), which took its cues from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) and D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) in showing how Death (Bernhard Goetzke) allows a 19th-century waif (Lil Dagover) to travel across history to Baghdad, Venice and China in a bid to save her lover’s life.

Dreams were Dagover’s mode of transportation and concussion enabled Harry Myers to find himself in Camelot in Emmett J. Flynn’s 1921 take on Mark Twain’s satirical fantasy, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. A decade later, an enchanted radio took Will Rogers to the same destination in David Butler’s sound remake. But it wasn’t until Felix Aylmer’s shiny Time Ball landed in Elizabethan England in Walter Forde’s Time Flies (1944) that screen time travel was accomplished in a specially designed machine.

Three years later, Hollywood got in on the act when Kane Richmond boarded John Merton’s Time Top to venture back 200 years to retrieve a formula from an uncharted island in Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr’s serial, Brick Bradford. But it was 1960 before George Pal got round to filming Wells’s 802,701 encounter with the Eloi and Morlocks of a future Earth and, even though time travel became a familiar plotline in TV shows like The Twilight Zone, Doctor Who and Star Trek, features exploring the subject, such as Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes (1967) and Luis Buñuel’s The Milky Way (1968), remained comparatively rare.

Everything changed in the blockbuster era, however, with James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future (1985) focusing more on spectacle than plausibility. Subsequently, filmmakers have sought variations on the theme that allow travellers to pass along fixed timelines and through multiverses, as well as enter loops and paradoxes. Some have permitted free travel, while others have opted for involuntary jaunts. A few have attempted profound statements on humanity’s place in an unknowable scheme, but the majority have settled for escapist entertainment that fires the imagination without overtaxing the intellect.

Yet, away from the arthouse masterpieces (La Jetée, 1962), the slacker comedies (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, 1989), the canny satires (Groundhog Day, 1993), the conundrums (Donnie Darko, 2001), the nostalgic fantasies (Midnight in Paris, 2011), the high-concept thrillers (Looper, 2012) and the comic-book escapades (X-Men: Days of Future Past, 2014), there are those time-travelling gems that have somehow slipped off the radar … 

Time Flies (1944)

Director: Walter Forde

Time Flies (1944)

Produced by Gainsborough during the Second World War, this trip down memory lane had a ‘hands across the water’ feel, as Brits Tommy Handley and Felix Aylmer are transported back to Elizabethan times in the company of American entertainers Evelyn Dall and George Moon.

Although the metallic spherical time machine concocted by production designer John Bryan and effects master Jack Whitehead made screen history, the core storyline was a little less original, as it recalled Thomas Bentley’s Old Bill ‘Through the Ages’ (1924), a spin-off from a popular Bruce Bairnsfather comic strip that saw soldier Syd Walker hallucinate his way back to Merrie England after eating a tin of lobster in the trenches. However, while he merely looked on as Shakespeare (Austin Leigh) bored Queen Elizabeth (Gladys Ffolliott) with passages from Hamlet, Dall helps the Bard (John Salew) write the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene before breaking into a jazz number.

Je t’aime je t’aime (1968)

Director: Alain Resnais

Je t’aime je t’aime (1968)

Concluding her 2014 review of this 1968 revival, New York Times critic Manohla Dargis averred: “Cinema is a time machine, and, as he has long proved, from Last Year at Marienbad to Muriel and beyond, Mr Resnais is its ultimate time traveller.”

Time, space and memory were certainly key to Alain Resnais’s oeuvre, but he adopts an audaciously cubist approach to their depiction in this saga meticulously constructed from slivers and fragments by editors Albert Jurgenson and Colette Leloup. Resnais told Stan Lee (with whom he developed two unrealised sci-fi projects) that he learnt English from Marvel comics and he indulges his sense of the fantastic by having suicide survivor Claude Rich test a time machine by travelling back a year to relive a single minute. However, the apparatus (designed by Jacques Dugied Pace) malfunctions and Rich is trapped in a vortex that confronts him with key moments in his marriage to Olga Georges-Picot.

Slaughterhouse-Five (1972)

Director: George Roy Hill

Slaughterhouse-Five (1972)

Despite winning Cannes’s jury prize, George Roy Hill’s adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s acclaimed novel has consistently been unfavourably compared with Alain Resnais’s Je t’aime je t’aime and placed alongside Mike Nichols’s take on Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1970) as a brave stab at an unfilmable book.

Yet Hill, screenwriter Stephen Geller and editor Dede Allen make shrewd use of visual, verbal and sonic cues to show how middle-aged optometrist Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks) is randomly buffeted by memory and fate after he becomes “unstuck in time”. His return to the abattoir where he sheltered from the 1945 firebombing of Dresden as a PoW is depicted with a terrifying authenticity that gives way to tragic absurdity, as Billy and starlet Montana Wildhack (Valerie Perrine) are abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore and put on display in a zoo. Charlie Kaufman is reportedly reworking the text for Guillermo del Toro, but this version deserves reappraisal.

The Amazing Mr. Blunden (1972)

Director: Lionel Jeffries

The Amazing Mr. Blunden (1972)

Director Lionel Jeffries adapted this follow-up to The Railway Children (1970) from an Antonia Barber novel entitled The Ghosts, a time-slip story that employs a potion made from woodland herbs to transport two children back a century in order to save a time-travelling brother and sister from the fire that will otherwise kill them.

Opening in a Pinewood recreation of Camden Town in 1918, the action moves to the derelict shell of Heatherden Hall, as siblings Lynne Frederick and Garry Miller accompany mother Dorothy Alison after she accepts solicitor Laurence Naismith’s offer to become caretaker of the crumbling Langley Park. But the scene soon shifts to 1818, as Frederick and Miller strive to protect Rosalyn Landor and Marc Granger from the machinations of the dastardly Diana Dors and David Lodge. Veering between suspense and pantomime, this ends with a satisfying twist and the half promise of a sequel. But it never materialised.

Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea (1977)

Director: Jindrich Polák

Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea (1977)

Jindrich Polák is best known to non-Czech audiences for the Stanislaw Lem adaptation, Ikarie XB-1 (1963). But this take on Josef Nesvadba’s short story deserves to be equally renowned, as much for a moment of devastating poignancy inside Adolf Hitler’s bunker on 8 December 1941 as for its wonderfully convoluted plotline and the throwaway gags involving anti-ageing pills, a green incapacitating spray and a dissolving dishwashing detergent.

At the centre of the mayhem is Petr Kostka, who plays both womanising pilot Karel Bures and his milquetoast inventor twin Jan, who helped design a rocket capable of taking tourists to any point in history. But, when Karel chokes to death on a bread roll, Jan finds himself blasting off with a Nazi cadre intent on offering the Führer a hydrogen bomb. The SFX are a little creaky, but this is a worthy successor to the mischievous sci-fi classics of Karel Zeman. 

Time after Time (1979)

Director: Nicholas Meyer

Time After Time (1979) poster

Nicholas Meyer made his directorial debut with this rousing century-crossing clash between Jack the Ripper and H.G. Wells, which was based on an unpublished novel by Karl Alexander. Anachronisms and implausibilities abound, but they actually enhance a story that sees murderous physician Leslie John Stephenson (David Warner) steal the time machine that Wells (Malcolm McDowell) is about to demonstrate to his dinner guests in 1893 London and flee from the pursuing police to San Francisco in 1979.

Revelling in the depravity and violence he encounters (“Ninety years ago, I was a freak. Now … I’m an amateur.”), Stephenson has no desire to return and face justice when Wells follows him and their friendship founders further over sexually liberated bank clerk Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen). But, amid the gags about the shock of the new, the knowing references to “non-return keys” and “vapourising equalisers” firmly root this romcomedic thriller in the sci-fi genre. 

Les Maîtres du temps (1982)

Director: René Laloux

Les Maîtres du temps (1982)

The time-travelling occurs late in the action of this animated adaptation of Stefan Wul’s 1958 novel, The Orphan of Perfide. Yet it proves crucial to unlocking the secret at the heart of René Laloux’s follow-up to the revered Fantastic Planet (1973), which also boasted designs by Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud.

Similarities to Yellow Submarine (1968) and Star Wars (1977) abound, as space pilot Jaffar heads to Perfide to rescue Piel, the son of a friend who has been killed by giant hornets. Passengers Prince Matton and his sister Belle are incensed when Jaffar diverts the Double Triangle 22 to collect wizened pal Silbad and his gnome-like companions, Yula and Jad. But they prove their worth during encounters with the faceless angels of Gamma 10 and the piratical troopers from Interplanetary Reform, before the Masters of Time whisk the spaceship out of the gravitational field of the Blue Comet and send it six decades into the past. 

The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988)

Director: Vincent Ward

The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988)

Warning against the twin perils of contagion and conflagration, Vincent Ward’s stylised parable draws heavily on the art of Bosch, Bruegel and Grünewald, as well as the cinema of Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky. But this odyssey across time is also gently humorous and cannily avoids the broader strokes employed by Jean-Marie Poiré in Les Visiteurs (1993).

Production designer Sally Campbell and cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson contribute significantly, as an expedition through a mineshaft sees Connor (Bruce Lyons), his visionary nine-year-old sibling Griffin (Hamish McFarlane) and their four companions pass from monochrome Cumbria in 1348 to colourful modern-day Auckland in the hope that raising a copper cross on the cathedral spire will protect their village from the Black Death.

Ward had the idea while stranded between the lanes of a German autobahn and, fittingly, his favourite response came from Werner Herzog: “My God, this looks like a hard film to make!”

Timecrimes (2007)

Director: Nacho Vigalondo

Timecrimes (2007)

Few have travelled more often through time to unravel mishaps than Family Guy’s Stewie Griffin. But Karra Elejalde gives him a run for his money in writer-director Nacho Vigalondo’s feature debut, which brought a new complexity and sophistication to the realms of causal paradox and alternate timelines.

Elejalde winds up in scientist Vigalondo’s time pod after wandering into an institute adjoining the woods where he had been assaulted by a bandaged stranger after venturing from his garden for a closer look at the naked girl (Bárbara Goenaga) he had spotted through his binoculars. But a 90-minute backward jaunt turns Elejalde into a spectator of the events in which he has just participated and a further trip only exacerbates matters. Cinema rarely chronicles looping excursions with such keen acuity, but Australian first-timer Hugh Sullivan has recently matched Vigalondo’s ingenuity in The Infinite Man (2014), which resembles a cross between Primer (2004) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961).

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

Director: Colin Trevorrow

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

Originally published in issue 92 of the Backwoods Home Magazine, John Silviera’s cod personal ad about a time traveller seeking a companion had taken on a life of its own by the time screenwriter Derek Connolly saw it some 15 years later. However, Connolly and debuting director Colin Trevorrow saw past such sly lines as “you’ll get paid after we get back”, “must bring your own weapons” and “I have only done this once before” to concoct a mumblecoresque lo-fi romcom around rookie journalist Aubrey Plaza, who is sent to investigate Pacific Northwest shelf-stacker Mark Duplass, who has placed an identically eccentric message.

Amid the droll banter and deadpan set-pieces, a parallel love story develops between Plaza’s cynical co-reporter, Jake Johnson, and his old flame, Jenica Bergere. But, as Plaza starts to believe she actually can go back and prevent her mother’s fatal car crash, she receives not one, but two life-changing surprises.

Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder, a major BFI celebration of film and TV’s original blockbuster genre, ran from October to December 2014.

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