The Best Movies About Time Travel, and Why About Time Isn't One of Them

I just popped in to an advance screening of Richard Curtis's upcoming time-travel rom-com, About Time and left over two hours later wishing I could go back in time to pick another film.

For some reason, thinking about Mr. Curtis's work, including this latest effort, a whole bunch of words beginning with "c" come to mind: cute, corny, commercial, cliché, calculated, sometimes clever... but not often enough.

Clearly About Time is calculated to appeal to young women in their 20s. I could tell because my screening was filled with such "tastemakers," who will be expected to venture forth and encourage their friends to see this tedious, saccharine outing.

I even overheard one such lady pronounce the film "cute" as I was bolting for the exit and a well-earned martini. Bingo, I thought.

The plot concerns Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), a pale, gangly, ginger-haired youth who, on turning 21, is informed by his dad (Bill Nighy) that all males in the family have the power to go back in time, as long as it's their own past they're revisiting.

Tim then proceeds to use his new powers to improve the results of his own pathetic romantic forays, and eventually, help others. Aww.

Beyond a script that stretches this well-worn premise to just over two hours -- it feels more like three -- young Gleeson (son of actor Brendan), has neither the looks nor charisma to carry off a leading man role.

We can well understand he'd be awkward around the ladies, and watching him prove it is, well, first awkward, then tiresome. Even when he's found true love, he's just not dynamic enough to make us want to follow his story.

His co-star Rachel McAdams (ah -- another commercial calculation -- casting an American ingénue!) seems to have a thing for time-travel movies, having already costarred in Woody Allen's Midnight In Paris.

Judging from that film and this one, she also specializes in playing young women with very annoying parents.

That said, she is perky, appealing and dare I say it -- cute. And the ever-charming Nighy steals most every scene he's in... but ultimately the material lets him -- and us -- down.

Movies that somehow play with the manipulation of time are surprisingly plentiful, as they tap into a fundamental fantasy we all share. For instance, I often wish I could have attended the Broadway opening of "My Fair Lady" in 1956. But I was still two and a half years away from being born. Fate is cruel.

Here then are a few time-travel films worth staying home for. It really is not worth trekking out to catch About Time -- a phrase I myself uttered when the end credits finally and mercifully rolled.

A Christmas Carol (1951) - One Christmas Eve, miserly malcontent Ebenezer Scrooge (Alastair Sim) gets a chance at redemption with some spectral visits, first by deceased partner Jacob Marley (Michael Hordern), followed by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. As the evening progresses, and he acquires harsh insights into his life and future, the sour skinflint transforms into a child-like, jolly man who resolves to use his remaining time and fortune to help those in need, starting with his own underpaid, browbeaten clerk, Bob Marley (Mervyn Johns), and his family. Based on Charles Dickens's most widely read and enduring story, this definitive 1951 British version, better known as Scrooge, outdoes all others for atmosphere and, of course, characterization. The incomparable Sim, a gifted actor who seamlessly inhabits his role, makes you believe he is Scrooge. Skillfully directed by Brian Desmond-Hurst, Carol is tight at roughly 85 minutes, yet remains extremely moving, with Sim's droopy eyes projecting all of Scrooge's terror, shame, and regret. By contrast, his outright giddiness at the film's conclusion will leave you feeling just the same way -- very much in the holiday spirit.

Planet of the Apes (1968) - A crew from earth led by Taylor (Charlton Heston) attempt time travel through space, and arrive on a distant planet a full two thousand years after setting off, with only their beards to indicate the passage of time. There they find an upside-down civilization where talking, reasoning apes rule, and humans are mute animals, brutalized by their masters. Taylor's appearance threatens the powers that be, as it calls many of their long-held beliefs into question. Will Taylor survive in this hostile environment? As with most Rod Serling stories (he co-wrote this with Michael Wilson), a fundamental twist in the nature of things opens the door to pointed social commentary. The ruling apes exhibit the same fears, ignorance and prejudice as we civilized humans, only it stings a little more when you're on the wrong end of the whip. The film is gorgeously shot and briskly paced by director Franklin J. Schaffner, who'd go on to do Patton. Kudos to 20th Century Fox on the quality of the restoration, as watching this pristine DVD felt like a whole new experience. Heston as the cynical Taylor makes an appealing hero, and Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter excel as kindly chimp couple Cornelius and Zira. That "wow" surprise ending is justly famous. Avoid the Mark Wahlberg re-make.

The Terminator (1984) - Sent from the post-apocalyptic world of 2029 to obliterate Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the mother of a future rebel leader, a scarily indestructible Terminator cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) materializes in 1984 and begins exterminating Los Angeles women with that name. Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a soldier sent by the beleaguered rebels to protect Sarah, tries to find the unwitting target before the Terminator does. But first he has to convince her he's not a madman. Long before Arnold had a gubernatorial gleam in his eye, he starred as a hulking, monotone killing machine in this electrifying sci-fi action thriller by director Cameron. Popping off one of the more memorable one-liners in film history ("I'll be back!"), Schwarzenegger is both frightening and funny, even as he brutally destroys anyone who interferes with his mission. Hamilton and Biehn handle their roles splendidly too, with credible intensity, fear, and against-all-odds resolve. Expertly paced and full of dazzling special effects, The Terminator is a hellish, suspense-fueled fun ride into the future.

Back To The Future (1985) - Accidentally transported back into the 1950s in a souped-up time machine invented by eccentric, half-cocked scientist Doc (Christopher Lloyd), high schooler Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) finds himself inadvertently interfering in the budding romance between his parents, cute bobbysoxer Lorraine (Lea Thompson) and nerdy George (Crispin Glover). Robert Zemeckis put a hip '80s spin on the old time-travel conundrum about how to avoid negative future outcomes, stuffing his movie with clever plot twists, lots of anachronistic humor, and a sweet love story between ... well, mother and son. The special effects are fun and not too gimmicky, and Lloyd's over-the-top turn as a demented research scientist plays perfectly off Fox's smart-alecky teen every-guy. Gear up for a fun ride into the "Future"!

Field Of Dreams (1989) - Iowa Farmer Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) obeys an inner voice telling him to turn part of his land into a baseball field. "If you build it, he will come," says the voice. And in this mystical parable of faith and hope, come he does, in the form of "Shoeless Joe" Jackson's ghost (Ray Liotta), and some other spectral teammates from the disgraced 1919 Chicago White Sox team. But Ray has some traveling to do himself to get to the bottom of what is actually happening on his field -- and why. Adapted by the director from W.R. Kinsella's book, this beautifully realized, old-fashioned fantasy movie raises the spirit and touches the heart. Costner is perfect in a role originally intended for Tom Hanks, while James Earl Jones provides magnificent support as a reclusive writer who joins Kinsella on his crusade. Liotta also scores in a pre-Goodfellas outing playing the legendary "Shoeless Joe" Jackson. This quintessentially American classic goes down just as well on repeat viewings.

Groundhog Day (1993) - Sent to cover a local Groundhog Day festival in Punxsutawney, PA, grumpy TV weatherman Phil (Bill Murray) is dismayed when a blizzard forces him and producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) to spend an extra night in the sleepy town. The next morning, he awakens to learn that it's Groundhog Day -- again! Phil then discovers he's stuck in an endlessly repeating time loop, doomed to live the same day forever. Is there any path back to his future? Ramis's oddball comedy tracks a cynical meteorologist's hilarious efforts to free himself from a wormhole that's locked him into one of the dreariest days of his entire life. Murray's deadpan line reading and impeccable comic timing are what really make this such a cult favorite -- especially as he devises various schemes to escape this maddening temporal loop. Chris Elliott, playing a dodo-brained camera operator, and sultry brunette MacDowell, the charming, cool-headed love interest, are wonderful as well. This is a fun, heady riff on petty misery that's tailor-made for Murray fans.

Run Lola Run (1998) - With exactly 20 minutes to deliver 100,000 marks or face the wrath of a ruthless mobster, Manni (Moritz Bleibtrau) phones his girlfriend Lola (Franka Potente) in desperation. Jolted into action, Lola races through the streets of Berlin and tries to procure the money at the bank where her father works, while Manni attempts a supermarket stick-up in a last-ditch effort to save his neck. We get three versions of the same narrative, each with slight alterations and varying outcomes. A slick, kinetic thriller with a mind-bending temporal structure told in triplicate, Tom Tykwer's Run is a dizzying mix of pulsing music and adrenaline-fueled visuals, with a bold, punk-haired female protagonist you'll root for each time she hits the street. In the film's most ingenious narrative device, each split-second encounter Lola has with people she literally runs into triggers a glimpse of dramatic, often unsettling snapshots that predict that person's future trajectory. Frenzied, hip, and fun, Run Lola Run is three steps ahead of most Hollywood thrill rides.

Il Mare (2000) - As she prepares to leave the lake house where she's been residing, Eun-ju (Jeon Ji-hyeon) writes to the incoming tenant Sung-hyun (Lee Jeong-jae), asking for her mail to be forwarded. He replies, but Eun-ju is puzzled when she notices his letter is postmarked 1997, two years before she moved in, and realizes that he must be the original owner. Thus begins a correspondence, and eventually a romance, across time. In one sense, Lee Hyun-seung's "Il Mare" is a conventional love story like any other, trailing the delicately blossoming relationship between a young man and woman in contemporary Korea. Only the lovers are constrained by the physics of time, and the film draws its heart-wrenching power from that fantastical, and highly inconvenient, fact. How will they meet if they live at different moments, and are able to connect only via "magic mailbox"? Lee's subtle handling of this conceit, and the gentle, eloquent performances of his actors, all add up to a charming, gorgeously shot melodrama with a time-traveling twist.

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