A Brief History of Time Travel (in Movies)

From Men In Black III to Back to the Future to Planet of the Apes, films that voyage through the ages face internal consistency problems—and tap into the human desire to change fate.

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If ever a movie earned its time-travel plotline, it's Men in Black 3, which attempts to revive a movie franchise largely forgotten by audiences after its disappointing second entry. Men in Black 3 sees Will Smith's Agent J going back to the 1960s to save partner Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones in the present, Josh Brolin in the past), and mines its late-'60s setting for jokes both obvious (hippies, Andy Warhol) and subtle (Rick Baker's new alien designs, which are derived from the style of '60s science fiction).

But if time travel, as the Men in Black would have it, is "illegal throughout the universe," cinema is full of lawbreakers. It's been 10 years since the last Men in Black movie, but nearly 100 years since the first time-travel film hit movie theaters. There are so many variations on turning the clock forwards and backwards in cinema that it's difficult to say these films even belong to a unified "genre." But every time-traveling movie has, in its own way, had to overcome the mind-bending logic problems inherent in its premise. And each, too, has played on a universal, if vain, human desire to experience a world that's entirely unavailable to us—and perhaps to change things in our own.

It's not for nothing that the Wikipedia page on "Predestination paradoxes in popular culture" alone is over 21,000 words long.

Though most would cite H.G. Wells's 1895 novel The Time Machine as the progenitor of the modern time-travel story, the author wrote an even earlier one, "The Chronic Argonauts," in 1888. Sandwiched between Wells's two time-machine stories was the other founding text of the genre: Mark Twain's 1889 satire A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Unlike Wells, who always put at least a cursory effort into the science of his science fiction, Twain was more interested in what a time traveler would do than in how he got there; his Connecticut Yankee awakens in Camelot times after being knocked out by a crowbar.

It took a long time for the time-travel film to escape Wells and Twain's sci-fi shadows. The first three notable entries in the genre were adaptations of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court: a 1921 silent, a 1931 talkie, and a 1949 musical. George Pal's classic 1960 adaptation of The Time Machine was the first time-travel film to win an Oscar (for best visual effects). But despite these successes, time travel remained on the fringes of popular culture, only appearing as a plot device in adaptations like Planet of the Apes and Slaughterhouse-Five, or the occasional B-movie like The Time Travelers or Journey to the Center of Time.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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