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.
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.
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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The fact that it took so long for a non-adapted time-travel story to become a mainstream hit is a testament to how difficult films like these are to write. Every time-travel tale needs to establish its own internally consistent set of rules, and hardcore genre fans—a notoriously pedantic bunch—will tear apart any story that fails to do so. (It's not for nothing that the Wikipedia page on "Predestination paradoxes in popular culture" alone is over 21,000 words long.) It wasn't until the early 1980s that filmmakers like James Cameron (The Terminator), and Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) discovered an ingenious solution to the near-impossibility of writing a sensical time-travel story: Write a time travel story that's so much fun mainstream audiences won't care about consistency.
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Despite the considerable differences in their plotlines and executions, Cameron and Zemeckis's back-to-back time-travel films were massive hits, spawning franchises that are unquestionably the genre's best. They succeeded, in part, because they found the balance between science—enough, in fact, to keep diehard genre fans working out its logic for decades—and story. And once the time travel genre was unwedded from its prickly reputation, Hollywood began to apply it to every kind of movie imaginable. It would be impossible to name all the notable time-traveling films released over the past century (though I've done my best in the slideshow above), but the years following The Terminator and Back to the Future saw everything from time-travel dramedys (Peggy Sue Got Married) to time-travel horror films (Warlock), time-travel romcoms (Kate & Leopold) to time-travel stoner films (The Bill & Ted films). Last year, Woody Allen's decade-hopping Midnight in Paris earned a nomination for Best Picture—the first in the genre to do so.
It's easy to see why these movies endure. Who hasn't day dreamed about knowing what's to come or going back and changing what's happened? By visiting the past, you learn where you came from; by visiting the future, you learn where you're going—and even if you return to the time you came from, your experiences have changed you. In the end, that's the real magic of the time-travel genre and the reason it's such a reliable box-office draw. All movies promise to take you away from your normal life and show you something new, but no genre does it quite so literally—or so well.