Time travel movies are notoriously hard things to get right. If it’s not the scientists critiquing a director’s use of references to the theory of relativity, it’s the disappointment of a movie resting on the laurels of the unimaginative line ‘it’s genetic’. Very rarely do we see a work of time-travelling cinematic arts so smart that it can a) be both logical and realistic, and b) remind us why time travel is not meant to be toyed with in the first place.
At its core, what makes or breaks a time travel film is in how well it handles the after-effects of the temporal relocations. Any old film can send someone back in time, but it is only the truly great ones that show us the consequences of this, and unbeknownst to us teach us something in the process. That what can start as good intentions; can also quickly spiral into something that causes more harm than good. We all remember what Hermione once said right? That awful things can happen to those who meddle with time. So, whilst we wait for the next greatest time travelling conundrum to grace our screens and mess with our minds, let’s take a look back at some of the many perils time travelling has produced, and the lessons we have learnt from them.
Firstly, before we can delve into the dangers that travelling in time may impose upon a character, we must first understand how such temporal shifts work. Namely the theory behind what changes or stays the same. The method doesn’t really matter, (it can pretty much be split into either a genetic predisposition, or a vague-on-the-details time-travelling machine that does all the work for you), what is really important is whether or not the future they leave, will be the same one they return to. This is because whatever theory a character is stuck with, will change the types of hazards they might encounter.
There are, as such, three major categories or different ‘timelines’ that are created when a character journeys temporally. Firstly there is the Fixed Timeline whereby the future is set, and changing something in the past only works to make sure that the future becomes what it always was. Thereby absolutely nothing a character does in the past can change what happens in their future. They almost needn’t bother trying. In the words of the late, great, Doris Day herself; “Que Sera Sera”. The second theory is instead referred to as the Dynamic Timeline, in which changing something in the past has a ripple effect on the future. If a character kills their younger self in that timeline, they are a goner. Or they wind up creating a paradox where they never existed to start with. Or the ripples start turning into tsunami waves and they end up rewriting history so that Hitler lives. Ok, maybe not the last one, but you get the picture. Lastly, there is the Multiverse / Altered Timeline. This is where each time travel results in the party shifting to a parallel universe, and anything they do simply rewrites the new timelines history. Jokes on them though, because they can’t return to their original timeline anyway, so it basically ends the same way a Dynamic Timeline does.
Ok? With me so far? Need to watch Looper (2012) one more time? Alright then, for those still following, now it’s time for the lighter stuff. The disastrous, deadly, and downright dumb things that can happen as a result of characters deciding to mess around with temporal relocation. The plot-points that remind us why time travel films just won’t go out of fashion. No pun intended.
Firstly there is the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. This is a peril that can befall those who enter a Fixed Timeline. Because the future they leave cannot be changed, no matter their actions they are still doomed to make it happen. Usually in films involving this danger, the menace is alluded to from the beginning, but is not fully realised until the very end. This is what makes such films enjoyable, providing a twist finale that is both smart, worthy, and thought-provoking. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) it is a rare good outcome, that we as an audience come to by way of well-scripted do-over that ends up saving two lives instead of one (then again were both lives not already saved all along?). In Twelve Monkeys (1995) however, the concept is a bad one, explored through James Cole’s reminiscence of a man who was shot in an airport, that later turned out to be the older version of himself. If we learn anything from this peril, it is that sometimes things are just meant to be. That, and it’s amazing how this hazard can still sneak up on us, despite seeing multiple films that feature it.
Another peril that can transpire from a Dynamic Timeline is that of a character Killing Oneself to Reset the Future. When an evil version of them is out for vengeance in the past, or they screw things up so much they can’t undo them, the only way out is to make it so they never existed to begin with. This can be handled one of two ways, the devilishly smart effort that is Looper (2012), or the lazily handled work that is The Butterfly Effect (2004). Where one teaches us that sometimes you must make necessary sacrifices for the greater good, and believe that hope is stronger than fear, the other tells us that if we weren’t an idiot this never would’ve really happened in the first place. One guess which film is which.
A unique peril that can feature in Any Timeline is that of Meeting Another Version Of Yourself. This can end in one of many possibilities, all of which are usually not good. Most notably there is the ‘unbecoming’ of a character, whereby coming across another version of oneself wipes both out for good. This is what occurs in Project Almanac (2015). The further the teenagers jump back in time, the greater the problems that ensue when they meet up with another version of themselves. Jump back a night and they can still snap out of it. Jump back weeks, or months, and both versions disappear until the timeline can be rewritten back to its original (i.e. making sure they don’t build the time machine in the first place.) Perhaps the only film that does make any good out of the situation is Star Trek (2009) and then, that is probably only because it features one way time travel, so old Spock is fundamentally different to new Spock, solely on the grounds that New Spock will experience everything differently. Although the concept is typically not slickly handled in films, and could certainly use some fine-tuning for future flicks, these films still teach us something important. That maybe there is only meant to be one of us at any given time for a reason. There is after all, something beautiful about the balance of nature.
Lastly, the final one is the most head-spinning of all. Only one movie has dared attempt it, and even then, we still don’t know exactly what happened after watching it a few dozen times. Occurring in a Fixed Timeline, or potentially a Dynamic Timeline too, is the peril of Becoming you own Parent, Grandparent or Child. Yes, I am talking about Predestination (2014), in which Ethan Hawke becomes Sarah Snook, who becomes Ethan Hawke, who becomes…ok, you get the picture. If a movie is ever going to do your head in, this is the one. Both the Barkeep and the Unmarried Mother are the same person. And their child is them as well. It’s just one big endless time loop, with the father impregnating the mother, who gives birth to daughter, who is stolen by father, who is dropped back in time to become the mother, who goes on to be impregnated, who then gives birth, and then has a sex change, which sees her become father, and the loop starts again. It’s about the weirdest and worst thing that can happen as a result of time travel, but it’s pulled off with such finesse in the film, that it never seems cheap. We certainly get consequences from this film, but lesson? Well…maybe it’s just the plain and simple don’t screw with time, or time will screw with you.
1. The Departed (2006)
Undoubtedly one of Martin Scorsese’s finest films, The Departed (2006) was a violent and volatile movie experience that followed the parallel stories of an undercover cop and a mole for an Irish gang in South Boston. The film produced fine performances from Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio and although, like most Scorsese films, it clocks in at an absurdly long two and a half hours, it is still one of the most enthralling pieces of cinema ever created. Its best aspect however, is the fact that it became an Academy Award winner for Best Picture despite using the word ‘fuck’ 237 times. What most people don't know though is that it is a remake of gritty Hong Kong crime-thriller, Mou Gaan Dou or Internal Affairs (2002).
2. Star Trek (2009)
With Star Trek (2009) director J.J. Abrams was able to breathe life into a franchise that had continuously struggled with sub-par television shows like The Next Generation (1987) and Voyager (1995). Deciding to reboot the series instead of simply remake it, Abrams found a way to have the best of both worlds, including the late great Leonard Nemoy and a little bit of time travel to create wonder for a whole new generation of fans. Despite using way too many lens flares (We get it, you are artistic, but can you seriously stop blinding us,) Abrams work was fresh and fun. Space has never looked as good as it has in the hands of Abrams.
3. 21 Jump Street (2012)
Despite initial reservations about this reboot of the 1987 television series of the same name, (we really, really, expected it to bomb), this was without a doubt the best surprise hit of 2012. The new take focused on the classic trope of the ‘buddy movie’, bringing more comedy than mystery and delivering us some of the best one-liners in recent history. We’re still laughing over Jenko’s attempt to learn whilst on drugs; “One particle of unobtanium has a nuclear reaction with the flux capacitor – carry the two – changing its atomic isotoner into a radioactive spider. Fuck you science!” Just like the message of the movie, it’s not about how smart it is, it’s about how you connect with it and express those feelings.
4. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
We all know how awful Mark Wahlberg's Planet of The Apes (2001) was. It practically destroyed the franchise. After that atrocity we felt sure the series would not return. But our prayers were answered in the form of the reboot / sidequel Rise of the Planet of the Apes(2011). Despite the overdrawn title, the film brought a certain sophistication back to the idea of apes becoming the next step on the evolutionary ladder. What really sold the film however was the sheer beauty of WETA’s motion capture technology. No more ape suits, no more make-up and no more Mark Wahlberg, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) was pure unadulterated performance.
5. X-Men: First Class (2011)
We’re not saying the original X-Men movies were bad. Okay the third film definitely falls into that category. But the idea of leaving the characters and universe intact while rebooting them to explore their younger versions was an ingenious proposal. Matthew Vaughn brought us the final product in X-Men: First Class (2011): a fresh, clean and clear piece. James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Laurence bring a youthful and clever appeal to fan favourite characters and breathtaking visuals paved the way for a promising trilogy.
6. Batman Begins (2005)
George Clooney’s nipple suit is image we will never be able to remove from our brains, but Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) sure goes a long way to overcoming this. Whilst superhero movies are too often remade and rebooted there is a clear difference with Nolan’s version, mainly that it is the cleverest attempt yet. Neglecting the camp elements of the comic book character, Welshman Christian Bale brings a much needed edge and intellectual depth to his Bruce Wayne. Moreover, Nolan has clearly thought-out his adaptations, narrowing them down to a three-film scope and invoking a thematic journey for each picture (Fear in the first film, chaos in the second, and pain in the third).
7. The Ring (2002)
The movie that paved the way for a hundred foreign language horror remakes The Ring (2002) was one of this centuries best attempts at the horror genre. And what a remake it is, holding the box office record for such films with over $250 million in worldwide gross as of 2010. Not only that but it sold more than two million copies within its first 24 hours of release on video. The atmospheric thriller still holds audiences captivated today, resting on its ability to maintain suspense rather than offering shock value by piling on the gore. Kids today still hear stories about cursed videotapes and think twice. Those that actually know what videotapes are at least.
8. Django Unchained (2012)
There is very little that the original Django (1966) and Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 remake Django Unchained (2012) have in common outside of their gun-slinging revenge spaghetti western premise. Tarantino unleashes his full genius to the benefit of audiences everywhere creating rip-roaring fun. Yes the film lacks direction at times and is sloppily arranged, but these points pale in comparison to Tarantino doing what he does best: brutality and blood. We don’t watch it for its realism; we watch it for its honesty. Sometimes greatness comes in how a film never takes itself too seriously.
9. Let Me In (2010)
In a time when vampires were all the rage, Let Me In (2010) gave us a taste of what vampirism is really like; confined to the dark, craving death and stuck in an endless world of farewells. The dark and gruesome Swedish original Let The Right One In (2008) still maintains a hold over the remake, but Matt Reeves English version certainly does the original source material justice. Following it nearly take for take it deviates just enough to develop its own style and substance. Both young leads, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Moretz, handle their characters with maturity and intensity and help to drive the narrative along. In Let Me In (2010), Reeves managed to achieve what many directors seek but hardly ever find - the glory of producing a film that does not undermine the original, but instead works as a great alternative piece.
10. The Parent Trap (1998)
Before Lindsay Lohan went completely off the rails she played precocious twins Hallie and Annie Parker in a remake of the 1961 Parent Trap film. And though many of us would rather die than admit it, she was actually very good. I'm not saying it was an Oscar worthy performance or production, but The Parent Trap (1998) manages to entrance kids to this day, something the original film never did. Explaining American camps to those living outside the United States and fooling us into believing that Lindsay Lohan really did have an identical twin sister, the film is light, family fun. It’s Disney done right.
Brothers (2009), True Grit (2010), Twelve Monkeys (1995), The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011), The Amazing Spider-Man (2012).
Notable Never - Mentions:
Don't even get me started on Superman Returns (2006) or Johnny Depp's creepy attempt at Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), The Karate Kid (2010), The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008) and Nicholas Cage's "The bees! The BEEEEEES!!!!" The Wicker Man (2006).
Horror films are designed to scare us. Yet despite grasping this concept, we as a society still continue to watch them. Why? Well, there are a few reasons. For starters, some people actually like being scared. Others enjoy the gore. And then there are the ones who like to feel superior by watching stupid people die. But when it comes down to it, there is something strangely primal about the desire to know how to outwit the villain, how to outsmart the killer, and how to, well, survive. We think that if we know how other people fall victim to psychopaths and maniacs, then of course we will never be as stupid when facing similar circumstances. At its most basic, horror films are a study in the fundamentals of our basic biology; the more we as an audience learn about how to survive, the longer we live, and the more likely we are to pass on our ‘surviving genes’ to our progeny. No-one wants to be the blonde, bimbo-ey, big-busted, high-heeled, and easily trip-uppable woman who dies early. They want to be the one that makes it to the sequel.
Sadly, learning the tricks of this survival-trade is almost too easy now, given that for all the originality horror started with when it first emerged as a genre, most of its films now often fall into the trap of cliché. The killer lives in the woods. He has some unresolved mommy issues. He wields an implement of death that is frankly just quite absurd (I mean who the hell carries around chainsaws or fingered blade gloves anyway?). Whilst the predictability of these films does remove some of the scares, oppositely it provides a perfect opportunity for us as viewers to perfect our ‘how to make it to the end of the film alive’ knowledge. Therefore, I present to you the best tips for surviving a horror film. And for all those naysayers who ask “why would I need to know such a thing?” horror films are after all just films, I have five simple words for you. Based. On. A. True. Story.
1. BE A VIRGIN
Number one is the basic unwritten rule that pervades almost all horror films. Purity. If you can, be a virgin, because we all know the virgin lives. If you’ve seen it in Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980) and Scream (1996), you’ve seen it in pretty much all of them. Virgins are practically untouchable in the eyes of killers. They can be battered, bruised, or broken, but just like the killer, they are an unstoppable force of nature that just can't die.
2. DON'T HAVE SEX
Similarly, if you can’t be the virgin, at least be the person who doesn’t have sex. Do not have sex in a car. Do not have sex on the beach. Do not for God’s sake have sex in the woods. Just don’t have sex. Anywhere. You will get pregnant, and you will DIE.
3. DO NOT GO INTO THE WOODS
As the song goes – “If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise.” A big, bloody, massacre-filled surprise. Which, let’s face it, should not really be a surprise anymore. Even Into the Woods (2014) tells us not to go into the woods, and that’s a Disney film.
4. DON'T CALL OUT TO SEE IF ANYONE IS THERE
I’m sorry to break it to you but your friends are already dead. You can mourn them and steal their stuff later. Right now your survival depends on your ability to accept that, suck it up and move on.
5. STOP TRYING TO CONVINCE PEOPLE TO BELIEVE YOU
Give up on your crusade to convince others of the insane goings on in your house, town, or summer camp. You are wasting important breath you could be better using to outrun the killer. People will not listen to you. Not your friends, not your parents, and certainly not your local police. More often than not they are in on it, and will turn out to be the killer. Those who aren’t are instead plagued with a serious case of “oblivious-itis”. There can be a body lying savagely ripped apart mere metres from them, and they will still turn to you and say; “There’s nothing bad going on. It’s all in your head. Go do your calculus homework.”
6. NEVER TRUST THE CHILDREN
They might appear like innocent, victimless and doe-eyed little people, but they are either the person who is going to beat you to survival (because filmmakers couldn’t possibly let a child die), or the devil's spawn sent to kill you. Either way, sacrifice the kid and save yourself. This is the Hunger Games. May the odds be ever in your favour.
7. DO NOT BE THE IDIOT
Now, the idiot comes in a variety of forms in horror films. They are the person who asks whether you should all split up. The answer to that question is a definitive no. Every time. Have you ever heard the principle that when in a pack, one need only outrun the weakest member to survive? Idiots are also that one guy who puts his ear or eye up to the door when things go silent. It’s a trap. It’s always a trap. There is nothing good waiting on the other side, I promise. And who is the most idiotic of them all you ask? The one that reads the weird Latin Satan-summoning incantation from a book made of human skin, labelled ‘Book of the Dead: Do Not Read’. In the words of Mike Wazowski; “Put that thing back where it came from, or so help, so help me!”
8. NEVER STATE THAT YOU'LL BE RIGHT BACK
It’s pretty simple, no you won’t. You are not the terminator, and unless you’re a virgin you are not indestructible. Those four words are what we in the know like to call ‘killer-bait’, signalling the most sure-fire way for you to never see tomorrow’s sunrise.
9. DO NOT EXPECT THINGS TO WORK
Car, phone, flashlight. In the horror-verse technology is known to abandon you in your most desperate of times. It will end up going all Skynet on you, so prepare yourself. In terms of the car, don’t bother driving it. Even if it was perfectly fine when you arrived something will be wrong. Tyres slashed, brakes cut, engine missing, dude sitting in the back seat. Cars are really just murderous beasts who refuse to start because they want you to die. Phone reception too, is as dubious as those advertisements that tell you it ‘only costs $9.99’. Morse code or smoke signals would be more effective. Lastly, bring a light source that is not a torch. Even those run by solar power will find some way of going dark on you just as the killer approaches. Try glow-sticks. At least that way you can see your death coming in a beautiful blue, green, or red aura.
10. THE MINORITY ALWAYS DIES
Whilst I don’t like to be racist, there is a trend that sees minorities condemned to never make it out of a horror film alive. As the saying goes, the black guy is the first to go. Even when he’s not, he is never the one that survives long enough for the final show-down. Neither is the Asian, the Latino or any foreigner really. Especially if you’re travelling outback Australia. On second thoughts, don’t go to outback Australia either. It’s not like there’s anything interesting out there than a giant rock anyway. No really…it’s mostly just desert. And a few kangaroos. That’s it. I’m not pulling your leg. But the Mick from Wolf Creek (2005) might if you’re not careful.
11. STEP AWAY FROM THE FOG
If you see white wispy mist up ahead, head in the opposite direction. Bad things never happen on a sunny Hawaiian beach, but foggy woods just give you that ‘about to be stabbed and mutilated’ feeling, you know what I mean?
12. DON'T ANSWER THE DOOR AT NIGHT
There’s a knock on the door in the middle of the night. That seems strange. It must just be Grandma dropping over some midnight munchies right? Don’t open the door. It seems simple enough, but people honestly don’t do it. So repeat after me – Do not open the door. Do anything else. Watch a movie, do your laundry, bake your own cookies, just DO NOT OPEN THE DOOR. If it’s really important they will come back tomorrow. In the daylight. And without the axe…
13. LEARN HOW TO USE A GUN
Know how to use a gun. Know how to dismantle, reassemble and load it. Know how to do it with your eyes closed. There is nothing worse than a last minute ‘he’s running at me with a knife but the gun's jammed’ scenario. So many horror movie deaths could be avoided by simple military-level weaponry knowledge. That and how a sawn-off shotgun can blow anyone’s head near clean off. Works wonders for the boys on Supernatural (2005).
14. GET YOUR RUNNING SHOES ON
Be an Olympic runner. It's not hard. Our bodies are designed for fight or flight, and more often than not the fight side of that equation doesn’t work. Especially not on an immortal serial killer. Do some cardio, and RUN FOREST RUN.
15. NEVER LET YOUR GUARD DOWN
And lastly, the most important tip of all - when the dead guy is dead, he’s not really dead. He’s only playing dead, like a well-behaved dog. Double, triple, and quadruple tap the dead guy. Then dismember the body. And don’t forget to burn the pieces. And whilst you’re at it don’t ever drop your weapon. Even when you think the game is over and done with, and you can finally go and relax for a week in the Bahamas, its not really over. The killer will make a resurgence and soon enough you'll find yourself in the sequel.
The Art of Thinking About Films
What makes a great film? How do you survive a horror film? Which movies deserve to be in Top Ten lists? This is the place to discuss that.
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