As a story telling conceit, time travel is one of the finest available to writers of science fiction and fantasy. It allows you to place your character waaaayyy outside his comfort zone, to revisit ideas and events that reside in everybody’s cultural memory and abuse them for all their worth, or, alternatively, to play with dinosaurs.
Nearly every sci-fi fantasy franchise worth its salt has included time travel stories. It’s an idea that never loses its value (after all, we keep making more history), and will next be seen in Rian Johnson’s Looper, which on buzz alone stands to be added to the pantheon of the greats.
So before that happens, I’d like to take a rummage in the history of time-travel and highlight a few of the machines that have allowed characters to break the rules of physics in all the best ways.
We’ll start with a realistic take on the idea, move on to a personal indulgence, maybe my favorite stand-alone time-travel story, before hitting the classics: two machines that have driven two of the greatest time-travel films ever made, before ending pretty much where it has to, with, in my opinion, the greatest (time) machine from any science fiction, fantasy, cult film or comic book ever created.
But we begin in some fella’s garage…
5. The Box
– PRIMER (2004)
Shane Carruth’s ultra-low budget sci-fi Primer is testament to the ability of invention and imagination to produce something magical without throwing millions of dollars at it. Contrast it to the most recent Hollywood version of HG Well’s The Time Machine. Though that would mean watching The Time Machine and I really don’t recommend that. However, if you’ve yet to see Primer, you owe it to yourself to rectify that situation.
The set-up is brilliantly simple (four guys run an experiment in their garage that yields an unusual side effect). Having created time-travel in a realistic fashion, Carruth proceeds to explore the moral dimension of the act. Not only does his set-up allow you to examine the right and wrong of meddling within the past, it addresses the steps that must be taken to avoid the paradox of crossing your own path, and the nature of personal reality – if two of you exist concurrently, which one is you?
The lo-fi nature of the film works wonders in this area, making its lessons more immediate, more compelling. We don’t really think about realism and consequence in something like Doctor Who. By its very nature, we’re shielded from it. After all, having accepted a two-hearted alien skipping around time and space in a phone box, changing face, costume and personality every few years, it seems churlish to nit-pick the physics.
Primer allows us no such easy escape. It demands we think, it demands we care. Fortunately it doesn’t demand we understand, only that we strive for understanding. It’s among the most challenging, and consequently most rewarding, of modern sci-fis, a film that doesn’t so much reward repeated viewing as require it.Tags: Back to the Future, bill and teds excellent adventure, doctor who, the delorean, the tardis, time travel