A Brief History of Time Travel Movies

Between the future and the past – here lie the roots of time travel flicks we have all come to love.

What is time? The more we think about it, the less we realise we know about it. For us novices, it’s a measure of continued progress, the existence of events flowing from the past to the present to the future. For physicists and scientists alike, it’s an ever changing quantity, so difficult to pin down preciesely that understanding its nature seems almost impossible.

No wonder then that, throughout history, there have been numerous artists, authors and flimmakers trying to encapsulate our utter fascination with the topic. From Dali’s „Persistence of Memory“, to Butler’s epic masterwork „Kindred“ and Denis Villeneuves blockbuster „Arrival“ – time continues to capture us and bend our minds. We know that we, really, don’t know anything about it, aside from the fact that it’s in every sense of the word – relative, and it’s exactly at this point where cinematography’s pursuit to reframe it through the help of time travel starts.

Time travel in movies isn’t necessarily a new concept. Starting with the first silent adaptation of Mark Twain’s famous novel „A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court“ from 1921, up to George Pal’s version of „The Time Machine“ which won an Oscar in 1960 for best visual effects, it seems that ever since we have movies, we have also had the need to use them as an excuse to talk about the idea of travelling between different periods of human existence.

However, even after the franchise „Planet of the Apes“ got immensly popular in the 60’s and 70’s, followed by an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s book „Slaughterhouse-Five“ in 1972, it took Hollywood a long, long while before it turned to the concept of time travel as a philosophical tool rather than a mere plot device. As it appears, the first change began to happen only in the mid 80’s with a rather odd candidate to fullfill the role of genre innovator – „The Terminator“.

Written and directed by James Cameron, this 1984 action movie took the world by storm. The first installment in the „Terminator“ franchise dared to go where no other well known movie before it did. While most of its predecessors relied on adaptations of famous novels dealing with the concept of going back to the past or exploring the future, this cult classic among science fiction fans brought us a wholey original screenplay, gocusing on the deterministic theories of travelling through time.

A year later, in 1985, Robert Zemeckis followed up with a work of his own. Often regarded as „The Terminator’s“ younger brother when it comes to the similarity of its themes,  „Back to the Future“, a comedy with light scientific elements, slowly paved its way towards becoming a genre staple. Today we can’t think about time travel movies without thinking of Marty McFly and the excentric doctor Emmet Brown, who together have to solve what’s commonly known as Einstein’s grandfather paradox.

Whereas the first „Terminator“ deals with a closed timeline, having its characters roam in a fixed sequence of events, where changing the past leads them to exactly the same point in the future they’ve desperately tried to avoid, Zemeckis explores the idea of a time travel narrative in which mendling even with the slightest of things has the power to changes history forever.

Near a decade later, with the second „Terminator“ comming to the big screens – „Terminator: Judgement Day“, Cameron proved that he had not yet said all he had on the high concept topic he chose to play with. Quite different, and often regarded as a piece of  a much higher quality, the second part to the famous franchise introduced us to the idea of multiverses.

If Schrodinger’s cat is alive in one universe while being dead in the other, would travelling through time innevitable lead us to exploring the parallel worlds in which we actually could prevent the outcomes we wanted to reveres so badly? According to Cameron, it might just as well.

It didn’t take long for other directors to realise how magnificent of an idea this was. An idea, in fact, so fruitfull for storytelling as it is to modern theoretical physics, that multiverses kept returning to cinemas ever since.

Today, we have a plethora of works to choose from. With movies such as „The Butterfly Effect“ and „Mr. Nobody“, followed by „Primer“, „Looper“ and the amazing „Intrstellar“, the genre of time travel related science fiction is an ever growing force. Even TV shows caught up with the trend, with the German Netflix show „Dark“ being regarded as one of the best products this type of cinematography has to offer.

It’s hard to tell whether science inspires the arts or if it’s the other way around. Most likely, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. As a race, we still have a lot to learn when it comes to even the smallest of things, let alone the vast ideas of time and space – but that doesn’t mean that our questions will remain questions forever. Physicists might do their dilligent job in laboratories and between the pages of textbooks, but with their own little thought experiments, movies and TV shows alike have already started doing their own work when it comes to thinking through big ideas.

Photo: Shutterstock.com


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