Tag Archives: Time Travel

CAPSULE: LA JETÉE (1962)

Note: In the third reader’s choice poll, 366 readers voted to make La Jetée a candidate for the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made; we’ve upgraded its status accordingly.

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jean Négroni (narrator), Davos Hanich, Hélène Chatelain (models)

PLOT: After World War III, a man is trained as a time traveler to try to find a cure for the devastation, but he is more interested in locating the woman on a pier whom he briefly glimpsed as a child and whose image burned itself into his memory.

Still from La Jetee (1962)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTLa Jetée has all the cinematic quality it would need to qualify for the List, and a significant enough level of weirdness to justify inclusion. The film’s only drawback is its length; at a mere 30 minutes, it would need to be ghost-of-Hunter-S.-Thompson-on-a-peyote-trip bizarre in order to take a spot on the List away from a movie that’s three or four times its length. It is, however, a historically important film with links to lots of other weird movies, and any serious student of cinematic surrealism should be sure the name “La Jetée” at least rings a bell.

COMMENTS: The credits introduce La Jetée not as a film, but as a photo-roman (photo-novel). Filmmaker Chris Marker made this experiment, his only significant fiction film, between his usual essay-style documentaries; the story is told entirely through still photographs (with one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it motion sequence), third-person narration, and sound effects. The technique is surprisingly effective and remarkably cinematic, and it dovetails with the movie’s theme of memory; each image is itself like one of the nameless hero’s stored memories, which he accesses as if he’s browsing an interior museum. Sometimes the pictures fit together in sequence to compose a fragmented scene, and other times they make giant leaps into the future or past, in the same way that the mind jumps back and forth between present and past as it composes reality in real time. The story is vague in its details—we get no information about the war that nearly destroyed the world, and the potentially troubling etiquettes of romancing a woman across a gulf of time are glossed over—but we accept the fabulous story more easily and focus on its emotional and intellectual messages better without a lot of distracting Continue reading CAPSULE: LA JETÉE (1962)

LIST CANDIDATE: PRIMER (2004)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Shane Carruth

FEATURING: Shane Carruth, David Sullivan

PLOT: Two engineer/entrepreneurs accidentally discover a box that allows time travel, and

Still from Primer (2004)

soon get themselves into trouble.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LISTPrimer‘s baffling story gives you an untethered, free-falling in reality feeling.  But although the dense, complicated, and deliberately obtuse plot produces a level of confusion comparable in effect to the weirdest David Lynch movies, I’ve got the sinking feeling that, if you dissect  it carefully, there’s a perfectly logical explanation for everything that happens.  (That complaint makes the 366 project the only outlet in the world to potentially reject Primer because it makes too much sense).

COMMENTS: If what you most value in a movie is a plot that will inspire you to sit down and create a schematic flowchart—maybe using multiple ink colors to illustrate various contingencies—in order to figure out what’s going on, then have I got a recommendation for you!  Made for an incredible $7,000 on suburban locations with only two major characters and no special effects, Primer relies entirely on it’s smart, knotty script to keep the viewer interested—and succeeds admirably.  After a pre-time travel prologue, joltingly edited and spoken largely in an untranslated engineerese that’s fairly bewildering in itself, Aaron and Abe (A & B?) stumble upon a box that will allow them to travel backwards in time for about a day at a time.  Like any of us would, they initially use the box to play the stock market, investing in the day’s biggest mid-cap mover.  After placing their online orders in the morning, they agree to carefully lock themselves in a hotel room away from the rest of the world so that they won’t accidentally kill their own grandfathers or meet their doubles wandering around on the street.  The plan goes well for a while, but then strange, logic-defying events start happening, and each of the two men wonders if the other is cheating on their agreement, secretly going back a day to change events for personal reasons.  Paranoia mounts as they become suspicious of each other and of reality itself.  That brief synopsis actually makes Primer sound more (initially) coherent than Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: PRIMER (2004)

LIST CANDIDATE: PROXIMA (2007)

DIRECTED BY: Carlos Atanes

FEATURING: Oriol Aubets, Anthony Blake, Manuel Solás, Abel Folk

PLOT: Just as his life seems to be falling apart, aimless sci-fi nerd Tony (Aubets) becomes accidentally entangled with a doomsday cult, a time-traveling conspiracy, and new method of interstellar transportation. Or does he?

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Atanes is explicitly trafficking in weird material here, and PROXIMA certainly has its fair share of strange imagery and plot twists, but its elaborate scenario often feels culled from classics like Videodrome and The Matrix. Originality aside, though, its abundance of imagination and ambiguity might be enough to scrape onto the List.

COMMENTS: Attached to anything else, the tagline “The Last Science Fiction Movie” might sound hubristic.  But it’s absolutely appropriate to PROXIMA, an apocalyptic love letter to sci-fi and its fans.  Atanes puts his obsession with the genre front and center, and the film is dotted with casual references to Blade Runner, Star Wars, and Jean-Luc Picard.  Perhaps the most telling such reference is “Felix Cadecq,” the name of the Kilgore Trout-like author (Solàs) whose revelations set Tony’s adventure in motion—and a Spanish homonym for “Philip K. Dick,” whose pet themes form the backbone of PROXIMA‘s mind-bending world.

But Atanes, as liberally as he may borrow from the sci-fi canon, never settles for pure pastiche.  The opening scenes, for example, are refreshingly slice-of-life, patiently building up to the main plot with subtle hints of weirdness.  We see Tony preparing to close his failing video store, playing Halo as his girlfriend dumps him, and visiting a convention with his best friend Lucas (get it?), balancing sympathy with brual honesty in its depiction of his slacker lifestyle.  But everything changes after Tony and Lucas attend a panel featuring the eccentric old Cadecq, who vows never to write again.  Instead, he hawks his new CD “Journey to Proxima,” which he claims will guide its listeners into contact with extraterrestrial life.

From this point on, the film is a series of left turns, with detours into amnesia, astral projection, alien technology, and false imprisonment.  By the time Tony’s drifting through space in what looks like a magical refrigerator, it’s unclear exactly how each twist is related, beyond a loose sense that something epic is going on.  At times, the movie comes across like the breathless sci-fi equivalent of North by Northwest.  Alas, Tony’s sojourns into space also reveal PROXIMA‘s greatest weakness: its budget is tragically outstripped by its imagination, and its special effects are universally cheap and shoddy.

That said, it’s impressive how far Atanes goes with so little money, and PROXIMA ends with a string of stunning, otherworldly visions mixing its meager effects with real-world landscapes.  Furthermore, at no point is PROXIMA entirely beholden to its effects budget: unlike many Philip K. Dick adaptations, it stays away from action-oriented set-pieces, sticking to a more introspective, cerebral realm.  It’s less about the adventure itself, and more about the egotism of imagining oneself at the center of a vast, interplanetary saga.  As Cadecq says early in the film, “We are the protagonists now!”  But as Tony must learn, bridging the gulf between sci-fi and real life isn’t all it”s cracked up to be.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Proxima is a very Philip K. Dick-ian film with its abrupt conceptual twists and shifting revelations about what is real.”–Richard Scheib, Moria: The Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Review (DVD)

CAPSULE: S. DARKO (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Chris Fisher

FEATURING: , Briana Evigan, Ed Westwick

PLOT: Samantha Darko goes on a cross-country road trip and learns along the way that, once again, the world will end at a predetermined time unless she figures out a way to stop it. Where’s Jake Gyllenhaal when you need him?

Still from S. Darko (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In a way, S. Darko is an oddity itself; its very existence is questionable to anyone who has ever seen the original. But the only weird thing about this movie is how much it missed the mark. It’s a cheap teen thriller looking for a quick direct-to-DVD freak-show buck, not a captivating look at angry youth, mental illness, and time travel.

COMMENTS:  In this direct sequel to Donnie Darko, a movie that couldn’t have needed a sequel any less, we follow the exploits of Samantha Darko, Donnie’s little sister, who lost interest in the preteen dance group Sparkle Motion and went about growing up. She decides, or perhaps her BFF Corey decides for her, that she wants to become a professional dancer. They take a road trip from Virginia to California seeking this lofty goal, but their car peters out in rinky-dink 90s Utah. From there, they meet a couple locals, and everything seems peachy until BAM! time travel stuff happens again; not because of some real world-shattering drama, but through the power of friendship (???) The whole concept is somehow more bogus than before, and the suspension of disbelief is infinitely harder to maintain. It’s a bland pastiche of ideas presented in the first film blended together with sexy ladies and 90s slang that weakly mimics Richard Kelly’s original like a parrot without a beak. There’s none of the spirit of Donnie Darko to be found here that would even qualify this movie as a spiritual successor. S. Darko has a hollow concept that could have been designed to boot up a franchise involving time traveling teens with washboard abs. I’m not a slavish follower of the original, but Kelly had inspiration, and at least a vague idea of where to place a camera to make the most of a scene. S. Darko is all textbook pap, and while I don’t think I would travel back in time to un-watch this movie (as that is the single lamest reason to time travel ever) I won’t look back on it fondly, to say the least.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“S. DARKO is intriguing, and its actors come off well, but there’s no way of escaping comparisons to DONNIE, a truly special film…While you can tell it’s trying as hard as it can, and takes things a little further and into weirder territory in the process, the soul just isn’t there.”–Samuel Zimmerman, Fangoria

37. TIME BANDITS (1981)

“…Gilliam fearlessly brings the logic of children’s literature to the screen.  Plunging headfirst into history, myth, legend, and fairy tale, Gilliam sends his characters—a boy and six good-natured if rather larcenous little persons (i.e. seven dwarves)—careening through time-twisting interactions with Napoleon, Robin Hood, and Agamemnon (played, respectively, by Ian Holm, John Cleese, and Sean Connery).  The landscape is populated by the giants, ogres, and sinister crones of legend and fairy tale, all in the service of Gilliam’s weird, ecstatic vision.”–Bruce Eder, “Time Bandits” (Criterion Collection essay)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam

FEATURING: Craig Warnock, David Rappaport, , , Michael Palin, Shelley Duvall, Sean Connery, , Katherine Helmond,

PLOT:  11-year old Kevin is largely ignored by his parents, who are more interested in news about the latest microwave ovens than in encouraging their son’s interest in Greek mythology.  One night, a gang of six dwarfs bursts into his bedroom while fleeing a giant floating head, and Kevin is swept up among them and through an inter-dimensional portal in their scramble to escape.  He finds that the diminutive and incompetent gang is tripping through time robbing historical figures using a map showing holes in the space-time continuum of the universe that they stole from the Supreme Being; things get complicated when Evil devises a plan to lure the bandits into the Time of Legends in order to steal the map for himself.

Still from Time Bandits (1981)

BACKGROUND:

  • Time Bandits is the first movie in what is known as Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Imagination” or “Trilogy of Dreams.”  It deals with the imagination in childhood; the second movie, the bleak Brazil (1985), with adulthood; and the third, Baron Munchausen (1989) with old age.  Gilliam did not intend from the beginning to make three films with similar themes; he only noticed the connection between the three films later, after fans and critics pointed it out.
  • Gilliam began the script in an attempt to make something marketable and family-friendly, since he could not find anyone interested in financing his innovative script for Brazil.  The success of the idiosyncratic Time Bandits allowed Gilliam to proceed making imaginative, genre-defying films.
  • The film was co-written by Gilliam with his old Monty Python’s Flying Circus mate Micheal Palin, who is responsible for the snappy dialogue.
  • Ex-Beatle George Harrison helped finance the film, served as executive producer, and is credited with “songs and additional material” for the movie.  Only one Harrison composition is featured, “Dream Away,” which plays over the closing credits.
  • Gilliam shot the entire movie from a low angle to give an impression of a child’s-eye view of the world.
  • Sean Connery was not originally intended to appear in the final scene, but was meant to appear in the final showdown with Evil.  The actor’s schedule did not allow him to appear when the battle was being shot, but Connery suggested that he could play a role in the final scene.  His second, quite memorable, role consists of two shots, filmed in an afternoon.
  • A low budget release, Gilliam’s film cost about $5 million to make but grossed over $42 million.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The avenging floating head of God appearing out of a cloud of smoke.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  As an utterly original blend of history, comedy and theology wrapped in Monty Pyhton-eque verbal sparring and presented as a children’s fable, Time Bandits starts with a weird enough design.  As the film continues and the bandits journey from history into myth, the proceedings get more mysterious and existential, until the flick winds up on a shatteringly surreal climax that is bleak enough to supply the most well-adjusted of kiddies with years of nightmares.  As the tagline says, it’s “All the dreams you’ve ever had—and not just the good ones.”


Original theatrical trailer for Time Bandits

COMMENTS: Sandwiched between the Biblical parody of Life of Brian (1979) and the Continue reading 37. TIME BANDITS (1981)