The Spierig Brothers’ time travel thriller Predestination hits theaters at the end of this week (we’ll have a full review to accompany the release). While we hope many of you go see it, as it’s totally worth a few hours of your life, we think that a lot of people may sit this one out. After all, January can be a rough month at the theater, quality wise. Though the film is being marketed as a time-hopping crime story in the vein of Minority Report and TimeCop, that’s not what you’re going to see. Deliberately paced, continually shifting perspectives, and inherently weird, Predestination feels like a movie that the distributor has no idea how to sell, and as a result we’re afraid that this will fall into a category of films that, while excellent, are totally underappreciated. And in that spirit, we’d like to take the opportunity to explore some of our favorite under-the-radar time travel movies.
If David Cronenberg ever had plans to remake your film, you’re doing something right, and Nacho Vigalondo’s (Open Windows) low-budget 2007 sci-fi feature Timecrimes is definitely strange enough that you understand why it caught the Canadian body horror specialist’s eye. A fast-paced, twisting tale full of voyeurism and violence, the story follows a man named Hector as he becomes embroiled in an increasingly complicated pretzel of a mystery. Part slasher, part thriller, there is some debate about whether or not the layers of Timecrimes hold up to closer examination, but Vigalondo, who also wrote the script, keeps things moving quickly enough so that you never have the chance to ask that question while you watch. The result is wicked fun.
Shane Carruth’s no-budget mind-bender Primer falls into a similar category as many titles on this list: critically lauded, with a cult following, but under seen and largely unknown outside of certain small circles. When four engineer friends stumble upon a method of time travel, they, of course, use it for their own gain, opening up a wormhole of ethical issues. The timeline of all of their various jumps to the past, together and in secret, is so intricate and layered that, more than ten years later, it is still the subject of debate and discussion and countless elaborate infographics. Damn near homemade, but with every shot absolutely essential, Primer takes a standard central idea and uses it to lay these characters bare, forcing them through an ever-twisting, ever-changing philosophical and moral maze. I’ve watched it multiple times and I’m still not sure what the hell is going on.
The best time travel movies are all warnings about the potential hazards of tinkering with time, and the 2014 indie TimeLapse is definitely a cautionary tale about taking shortcuts to an end goal. When three friends who share an apartment discover a camera that takes pictures 24-hours into the future, it gives them a window into what’s to come. Initially it’s great as they use their new toy to cash in, but as lust, greed, and ambition start to creep in and take over, they become obsessed and turn on each other, starting down a dark, dangerous path. Director Bradley King channels Hitchcock, gradually cranking up the tension at every turn, until the wire in the apartment it drawn so tight that any move is hazardous, and the characters, all fantastic performances, try to figure out if they’ve been freed or trapped by the camera.
Odds are that you’re more than familiar with Terry Gilliam’s wingnut time travel jaunt 12 Monkeys, but what you might not know is that concept is borrowed from the experimental 1962 French short La Jetée. This influence actually led to the first “inspired by” credit on a film. Told through a series of still photos and voiceover narration, the story follows a prisoner in a post-World War III society that has been driven underground by nuclear fallout. He is sent back in time to “rescue the future,” where he falls in love and finds himself trapped in a fixed loop of events. La Jetée is beautiful, strange, and wholly unique, and if you haven’t yet tracked it down, you can find it online and it is well worth 28-minutes of your time. And if you don’t want to check this out, you can always rewatch 12 Monkeys again, or just wait for the serialized Syfy version that premieres soon.
Rian Johnson’s 2012 sci-fi thriller Looper may not exactly be under appreciated, as it is definitely a critical favorite, not to mention that it played a big part in him landing the job directing Star Wars: Episode VIII. Though it certainly performed better than many films on this list at the box office, it’s still definitely left of the mainstream. Looper weaves together multiple timelines, spanning futuristic eras, and even spins a single character into two distinct personalities. In 2044 Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a specialized futuristic hitman, a looper, who assassinates targets sent back from 2074. When his future self (Bruce Willis) materializes as his next victim, he balks, kicking off a taut, twisted, multi-layered story full of fast-paced action and fantastic performances all around. There’s even a telekinesis thread thrown in for good measure.
This is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and there are so many more films that could possibly fill space on this list. I’ve already written about Edge of Tomorrow a bunch of times recently, but the Groundhog’s Day-with-aliens actioner was almost criminally under seen when it dropped last summer. I don’t know that either Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure or Bogus Journey are underappreciated, but any list I make of time travel movies wouldn’t be complete without them. Terry Gilliam is not exactly a director whose films fly under the radar, but Time Bandits is definitely one that, over the years, doesn’t get as much love as it should. It’s also hard to go wrong watching H.G. Wells chase Jack the Ripper into 1979 San Francisco in Time After Time, or Timerider, with Fred Ward as a hot-shot motorcycle rider hurled back into the old west.
Are there any underappreciated, ignored, or forgotten time travel gems that you particularly love? Sound off below, and go see Predestination when it opens later this week.