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A dance through time

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A dance through time

The Hollywood adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s bestselling novel The Time Traveller’s Wife is the latest film to play the time warp. Miles Fielder traces a venerable movie history.

Cinema has a long and impressive record of making films that turn on chronological catastrophe. Perhaps that’s because the medium is narrative-based and time warps create plot twists that transform otherwise routine storylines into ones that are enjoyably perplexing and reach satisfying smart conclusions.

The 1949 version of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, featuring Bing Crosby’s 20th century mechanic crooning to the owner of Excalibur, is, arguably, the earliest significant time warp film. Nevertheless, a good place to start a loosely chronological survey of the best of them is the 1960 adaptation of HG Wells’ The Time Machine (and not the underwhelming 2002 version made by the author’s great-grandson, Simon). Rod Taylor’s trip to the end of history, in that great Victorian throne, remains the genre classic by which all new entries are tested. In direct homage to it Time After Time (1978) saw Malcolm McDowell stepping into Taylor’s slippers to play a Herbert Wells in pursuit of Jack the Ripper after the serial killer steals his machine and absconds into the future.

Somewhere in Time (1980) reverses that trajectory to have Christopher Reeve hypnotise himself into returning to the Edwardian era in order to realise his impossible love for a woman in an old oil painting (well it was Jane Seymour). But timewarp romances take the back seat to action-oriented ones, as the phenomenal popularity of 1984’s Terminator proved (although come the third sequel the series’ increasingly confused a-chronological capers have been all but discarded). The Back to the Future trilogy (beginning in 1985) ultimately suffered the same fate, but the crazy-o time twists of the first two instalments made memorable what would otherwise have been a pedestrian teen comedy.

Here, I’d like to include a great New Zealand film, but it’s impossible to comment on the use and abuse of time in it without utterly plot-spoiling The Navigator (1988). Ditto Planet of the Apes (1968). So, sticking to comedy, three films from 1993 generated a lot of laughs: curmudgeonly Bill Murray living the worst day of his life over and over in Groundhog Day, Jean Reno’s 11th century knight having trouble with 20th century plumbing in Les Visiteurs, and Bruce Campbell’s zombie-slayer showing off his shotgun in 1300AD in Army of Darkness (originally, brilliantly, titled The Medieval Dead).

Terry Gilliam’s Pythonesque sense of the ridiculous dovetailed nicely with the inherent absurdity of the time warp in 12 Monkeys (his 1995 remodelling of the apocalyptic 1962 French short La Jetee), which was something he’d already established with Time Bandits (1980). And Richard Kelly also made the genre his own with the instant cult hit Donnie Darko (2001). Like that film, the Spanish comedy Timecrimes (2007) transposed weird science to suburbia in a cross between The Time Machine and an episode of The Simpsons. And most recently crafty JJ Abrams warped time to create an alternative (fictional) reality and thus give himself card blanche to boldly go wherever he damn well wants to with his Star Trek franchise reboot.

So here’s to filmmakers taking a leaf from the Danish prince’s book and seeing time stays well and truly out of joint.

The Time Traveller’s Wife is on general release from Fri 14 Aug.

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