Box office analysts keep telling us gimmick movies don’t work, romantic comedies are dying, no one wants to make westerns anymore, and there’s doom and gloom wherever you look. But when a particular type of genre film hits theaters, you realize there’s at least one kind of movie that’s almost always bulletproof—the time travel tale.
Think about it. When’s the last time a time travel movie totally bombed? The Time Traveler’s Wife comes to mind, but the 2009 film actually cleared $64 million domestically and over $100 million worldwide. Its performance was due at least in part to the popularity of the novel on which its based, but take a standard romantic drama and throw in a male protagonist who jumps involuntarily through time and you’ve got audience catnip.
“People are fascinated by it,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Rentrak. “I remember as a kid loving the original Time Machine, starring Rod Taylor, so it’s certainly not a new thing. The subject never seems to go out of favor and audiences love it.”
Time Travel is Nothing New
The first adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine was released in 1960, but that was far from the first movie to cover the subject. The original cinematic incaration of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was released in 1921. Meanwhile, Wells’ novel was published in 1895 and even before that, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol came out in 1843. That’s over a century-and-a-half of audiences being entertained by the concept of time travel.
This weekend, we see Richard Curtis’ romantic comedy About Time hit multiplexes. The film stars the recent queen of time travel movies, Rachel McAdams, who appeared not only in The Time Traveler’s Wife, but in Woody Allen’s 2011 Oscar winner, Midnight in Paris.
New York psychiatrist Karen B. Rosenbaum, M.D. recognizes the inherent draw of the movie’s central gimmick. “Movies about time travel are the ultimate escape because actual time travel is not possible in reality,” she says. “We can often identify with the characters in these movies because almost everyone wants to undo certain things in their past or avoid pitfalls in the future. Many people have regrets about specific events in their life and time travel is portrayed as an easy solution, such as seen in About Time.”
A Highly Bankable Genre
Considering the popularity of time travel movies, it’s surprising they aren’t more common. Still, there are probably more of them than you first realize. The three McAdams movies mentioned above, plus three Back to the Future films, four Terminator films, and the two Wells adaptations brings us to an even dozen.
That doesn’t even being to scratch the surface. There are tons of them—blockbusters like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Men in Black III, and Star Trek; medium-sized thrillers Source Code, Frequency, Looper,and The Buttefly Effect; and small indies like Donnie Darko, Safety Not Guaranteed, and Primer.
It doesn’t stop there. Time travel is part of romantic dramas like Somewhere in Time and The Lake House, comedies including Hot Tub Time Machine and Time Bandits, body switch romps such as 13 Going on 30, romantic dramedies like Kate and Leopold and even franchises such as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Austin Powers.
Almost every movie with a time travel aspect to it is an automatic draw. Even a disappointment like the 2002 Time Machine adaptation that starred Guy Pearce, Jeremy Irons, and was directed by the author’s great grandson, Simon Wells, cleared $100 million worldwide.
But why is that? Is there a psychological aspect? Or is it because audiences always look for fresh kinds of storytelling? The two concepts are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
The Lure of Non-Linear Storytelling
“There’s an esoteric example I can use, that being Pulp Fiction,” Dergarabedian says. “It’s not a time travel movie, as such, but it does play with time, and I think people enjoy that just as much. When it’s done well, non-linear storytelling can have a similar effect. While other films will take you into the future, there are those that allow you to move back and forth. Another example is Memento, a different way to play with time.”
In both movies, and with recent successes like Source Code and Looper, the filmmakers combine elements of time travel with strong characters, solid action, and proper storytelling, giving audiences a product that’s tough to resist. Still, there’s an even stronger pull for people looking for escape, one that flows deep from our subconscious.
“Even though we cannot physically travel through time, most of us constantly travel in time in our minds, when we ruminate about the past or worry about the future,” Rosenbaum explains. “In the fields of psychology and psychiatry, we speak about ‘mindfulness,’ the practice of staying in the present and quieting the endless chatter of our minds. In About Time, the protagonist is faced with a choice at one point: to live in the past, or to stay in the present and look forward to the future. Most of us often face this same dilemma.”
Dergarabedian theorizes one way to catch cinematic lightning in a bottle is to combine all the elements of what makes a good movie and find a way to bring time travel into it, “The numbers lend credence to the fact that in a lot of cases,” he says with a laugh, “it really is worth the effort.”
Still, as interesting as it may be to think about and as fun as it may be to fantasize, there are some places we probably shouldn’t go, even in our heads.
“Although time travel may seem attractive,” Dr. Rosenbaum says, “it is usually preferable to learn from the past without living in it and to leave the fantasy of time travel in the movie theater.”
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