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Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)


History is about to be rewritten by two guys who can’t spell.

Welcome to the 80’s, where fashions are loud and the teenagers are incomprehensible. Welcome to California, where everyone, like, totally talks like a surfer. Meet Bill and Ted, two average high school students righteous dudes who are about to embark on an excellent adventure in order to pass history class.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a sci fi comedy film directed by Stephen Herek, based on characters created by writers Ed Solomon and Chris Mathesen for improvisational theater. It stars Alex Winter, Keanu Reeves, George Carlin, and a motley handful of historical figures.

In the year 2688, San Dimas is a peaceful utopia, inspired by the music of the historical band known as the Wyld Stallyns. However, this future is in danger, because in 1989 the founding members, one Bill S. Preston, Esq., and one Ted “Theodore” Logan, are just a couple of metalhead slackers who are in danger of failing history class. If that happens, Ted’s father, the Chief of Police of San Dimas, will send Ted off to a military school in Alaska, forcing the band to break up. And that would be bogus. An agent named Rufus is sent back in time to offer aid in the form of a time-travelling phone booth, while the Stallyns try to hammer out a report on how various historical figures would react if presented with the modern day, without much success. After a bit of convincing from themselves from 24 hours in the future, the lads decide to give it a shot. When they accidentally bring back Napoleon from a foray to Austria in 1805, they are struck with the idea of actually bringing historical figures to the San Dimas of 1989 and setting them loose to see what they think. Naturally, a lot of hilarity ensues.

This is one of the classic comedies of the late 80s, and the movie that introduced the world to Keanu Reeves. It’s goofy and fun and plays merry hell with both time travel and history, just because it can. The two leads are unabashed slackers who start out thinking that Joan of Arc is Noah’s wife and don’t understand the historical significance of many key figures beyond their being a bunch of “old, dead dudes”. However, despite their baseline boneheadedness, the Wyld Stallyns are genuinely good-hearted people and care about each other in a hetero life partner sort of way, and the idea of being separated potentially forever clearly distresses them for reasons other than the breakup of their band. George Carlin’s portrayal of Rufus is somewhat nearer the “Mr. Conductor” end of his acting spectrum than the “Foulmouthed Cynic” end, and while his mentorship only lasts as long as pointing the Stallyns in the right direction for success, his handful of scenes are memorable as he acts as a Intertemporal Yoda.

Now, while at first blush this might appear to be just another stoner comedy (even though the boys don’t appear to be stoners so much as ditzy Californians), if you pay attention you will notice some very clever points scattered throughout the pure comedy. For example: Rufus never tells the Stallyns his name – they learn that bit of info from their future selves. In fact, they learn a lot about time travel from their future selves – and they seem to grasp it fairly readily once proof is offered (indicating they may be smarter than they appear). All the jokes involving Sigmund Freud (him getting attacked by the drape attachment on a vacuum cleaner, his corn dog drooping after he gets shut down by some girls in the mall), Genghis Khan in the sporting goods store (he actually assesses an aluminum baseball bat as a potential weapon, testing its strength and balance before going on a merry rampage), Beethoven tearing it up on electronic keyboards in a music store (even though he is close to deaf at the time they nab him, the speakers could easily be cranked up loud enough that even he could hear it), Napoleon’s exploration of San Dimas (he gets recaptured at a park named Waterloo, which is incidentally the name of the city where he was captured in real life) and the multiple temporal gambits the lads set up at the end to make sure they get their historical figures set up in the auditorium in time (which would require a hell of a lot of linear thinking on their behalf) combine to make you think while you’re laughing your ass off, and with a bit of afterthought you realize that all the potential paradoxes have been tidily ironed out (though this doesn’t seem quite so funny when you realize that all the historical figures most likely died shortly after being sent back).

If you’re looking for a multilayered time-traveling comedy that takes standard history and runs off giggling with it, I highly recommend Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. You will be laughing your ass off at the stoner moments and the “aha!” moments alike, and the time travel, while mainly a vehicle for comedy, is very well done. Get this one for your collection.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

05/16/2011 1 comment

I’ve noticed an interesting rule of low-budget sci fi franchises set in the future: When time travel to a recognizeable period is involved, the most common temporal setting is modern times. It makes sense from a budgetary point of view: recreating a certain historical period can be expensive, and it’s hard to get all the details exactly right. Naturally, it will transpire that the modern day has the thing or resource needed by our visitors from the future, with no easy way to communicate what it is or why they need it. Here we have this basic plot, only with a Hollywood budget. How well did it do? Let’s find out.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is a sci fi film set in the Star Trek film franchise, the fourth film in the series, a direct sequel to Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and the third movie in the story arc known to fans as the Star Trek trilogy, finishing the storyline started in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It was directed by Leonard Nimoy, and stars Nimoy, William Shatner, Catherine Hicks, Nichelle Nichols, DeForest Kelly, Walter Koenig, and a couple of humpback whales.

It is the year 2286. The crew of the starship Enterprise (destroyed during the events of The Search for Spock), are living in exile on the planet Vulcan while their recently resurrected crewmate Spock is still recovering from his resurrection and having his katra re-integrated. So far, his Vulcan components are repaired and functioning just fine, but he is still having trouble coming to terms with his human half. As they are headed back to planet Earth in their stolen strategically re-purposed Klingon Bird of Prey to face trial for Kirk being a heroic badass and saving the day disobeying orders and stealing the Enterprise, they receive a distress call from Starfleet, telling them of a cylindrical probe approaching Earth (because Earth is the center of the universe), sending out a signal that has toasted the electronics of many crucial systems and has the potential to destroy the planet. One odd detail: the probe is being aimed at the ocean, not at any of the land-based civilizations. Spock determines that the signal is actually the song of humpback whales, a species rendered extinct on Earth 300 years ago. Well, arse. Since there are no whales, there can be no response, means that Earth is screwed – unless Kirk & Co. travel back in time to pick up a whale to talk to the darn thing. They slingshot around the sun to get the speed necessary to travel back in time, and arrive in San Francisco in 1986. Once there they find they’re in luck – two humpback whales are in captivity nearby – but at the same time they have a few more problems to solve before they can bring their aquatic diplomats back to chat with the probe, and of course, hilarity ensues.

This was a fun little movie. While it doesn’t have the intense drama of Khan or the cultural development of Spock, it does have a simple plot made believeably complex by the expected problems of being from 300 years in the future, trying to get what you need to save Earth in your home time, without beating the viewer over the head with the Save the Whales message. Spock’s continued post-resurrection disorientation provides some of the funniest moments int he film, and watching the Enterprise crew running around San Francisco, year 1986, was a riot, even during perilous situations that could have completely jeopardized their mission. Interesting bit of trivia: during pre-production the filmmakers were concerned about filming in San Francisco, thinking the locals would see the actors running around and interfere with filming. As an experiment, they sent some extras touring the city in Starfleet uniforms. Nobody noticed. This is reflected in the film itself when people dismiss Spock as a recovering hippie, and Chekhov and Uhura are largely ignored while trying to get directions to the Alameda Naval Base so they can recharge the Bird of Prey’s dilithium crystals (almost completely out of juice after travelling back 300 years). Incidentally, the woman who ultimately stopped to help was not an extra, and they had to chase her down and have her sign a release so they could use the footage.

It seemed that most of the cast acknowledged the comedic potential in the plot, and they were bang-on in delivering it, staying straight-faced trying to solve their problem while the audience was rolling on the floor laughing. I especially offer mad props to Nimoy, who had to stay absolutely deadpan during some of the funniest scenes in the movie. Scotty’s encounter with a PC that lacked voice recognition capabilities, Kirk and Spock’s encounter with a jackass on the bus with a loud boom-box, and Chekhov’s encounter with Red Scare-era naval officers were just a handful of great scenes sprinkled liberally throughout this movie (though given the political climate I’m left to wonder how much trouble the Russian-born Chekhov could have potentially been in, given that he was caught in the bowels of a nuclear sub). ILM’s animatronic whales were impressive, too – so impressive that the crew got bitched out by conservation and animal rights groups who thought they’d filmed the scenes with real humpback whales. This is why ILM is a god.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home brings a satisfying conclusion to the story arc started in Khan, offering thrills and laughs in equal measures against a backdrop of yet another potential apocalypse. I highly recommend watching this one, but for best results you should only do so after you’ve seen the previous two.

The Butterfly Effect (2004)


If you could go back and change any event in your past, would you? Can you imagine the consequences of doing so? What if your every effort to make things better only makes things worse? What if fate is just a sadistic bastard?

The Butterfly Effect is a drama-sci fi film co-directed and co written by Eric Bess and J. Mackye Gruber. It stars Ashton Kutcher, Melora Walters, Amy Smart, and Elden Hensen, andthe Director’s Cut sports one of the most depressing endings I’ve ever seen in a movie that wasn’t about the Holocaust.

Evan Treborn has long suffered stress-related blackouts during traumatic events in his childhood and adolescence. In an effort to get a handle on what is going on during the missing periods, he has kept a series of journals over the years from the age of seven to the present day. By age 20, it has been seven years since his last blackout, but he discovers that he can use these journals to mentally travel back in time to these traumatic events, thereby causing the blackouts in the first place, and in doing so he tries to alter his own past for the better. However, each time he tries to change things, he causes an unintended ripple effect to the present with unintended and unpleasant consequences for everyone involved.

So. Ashton Kutcher. Ashton “Dude, Where’s My Car?” Kutcher, in a dark drama about a guy’s messed-up past and progressively more mess-up present. Yeah. Fortunately, Kutcher does drama well, which can cause a bit of whiplash considering he was in three comedies immediately before this and went on to host Punk’d, but hey. Not many comedic actors can pull that off. I consider this movie to be the evil counterpart to Frequency from four years earlier, considering how much fate seems to enjoy kicking Evan in the balls every single time he tries to improve things. The overall plot is well-crafted, though, with only a few question marks left in the end that resolve themselves cleverly with some though. However, the way it steers him to his final depressing decision smacks of borderline sadism, as his intentions are perfectly selfless and there is no indication that Evan “deserves” his fate.

On the positive side, it is refreshing to see a time travel movie that doesn’t invariably work out for the better. Nearly every time travel movie I’d seen up till The Butterfly Effects release offered a happy ending as a consequence of playing with the timeline, even if the initial effects were nearly disastrous (like Marty McFly nearly writing himself out of the timeline in Back to the Future). This movie is well-written and well-acted, with none of the goofiness that might have completely ruined the effect. However, the ending is so far down in the shadows of Depression Land that I almost needed to watch Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to cheer myself up.

If you want a time travel movie with plently of mind screw and darker consequences for timeline manipulation, I suggest renting The Butterfly Effect, but keep some antidepressants or a comedy handy for afterwards.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)


With every successful movie, there is a good chance that the studios will want to repeat their success. Occasionally, this may result in an unrelated film being repurposed as a sequel, but more often the same people will simply make a sequel. As sequels go, there are three basic types:

  1. Sucky sequel: This sequel falls short (often far short) of its predecessor’s level of quality, and comes off as an obvious, half-assed money grab.
  2. Equivalent sequel: The sequel does not fall short of its predecessor’s level of quality, but neither does it improve on things.
  3. Improved sequel: A rarity, the improved sequel not only meets but also exceeds the quality of its predecessor, taking the concept in new directions that still fit with the established storyline.

In a pleasant surprise, this film finds itself in the third category. And it kicks all kinds of ass.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a science fiction action film directed by James Cameron, and is the first sequel to The Terminator. It stars Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Edward Furlong, Robert Patrick, and some really cool CGI effects.

It has been eleven years since Sarah Connor was last menaced by the (nearly) unstoppable Terminator. John Connor, the future savior of humanity, is now a troubled youth of ten, living with foster parents in Los Angeles after his mother was arrested for trying to bomb a computer factory and sent to a hospital for the criminally insane. Even though he spent his entire childhood being prepared for the impending apocalypse, John isn’t sure what to believe now. Little does he know that in the future, Skynet is going to make another temporally-assisted attempt on his life, this time with the T-1000, a newer and more dangerous model of Terminator composed of liquid metal, with the ability to mimic anything it touches, including people. Fortunately, the human resistance is able to send back yet another guardian, this time a familiar face – a T-800 identical to the one who previously tried to kill Sarah, but reprogrammed to defend John. The two converge on John in a desperate race, and their mutual target is about to learn that his mother’s crazy rantings are anything but delusional…

When I first saw this movie, I hadn’t seen the original in years, but I heard all the hype about the groundbreaking computer generated effects – only two years since The Abyss, in which Cameron also used groundbreaking CG effects, except the hard way. It was amazing to see the advances in CG since then, even though in the fifteen minutes or so of transformation time the T-1000 had, only a relative handful used CGI. And it looked amazing. As the first movie which had a major character be partially (and in a couple scenes completely) created in CGI, the results were impressive and eye-popping. Even though morphing effects had been in use since Willow, and CG-created characters were as old as Young Sherlock Holmes, this time through it looked amazing. Arnie, of course, gets enhanced with old-school makeup effects and animatronics, and the two types of effects mesh well.

The acting was also superb. Linda Hamilton, having previously played Sarah as a meek little mouse of a woman being menaced by things that technically hadn’t happened yet, buffed up to play Sarah Connors, Mother of the Human Resistance, and I could easily believe that she was a little unhinged, albeit with a very good reason – she’d been beaten over the head with a really bad future, she was having nightmares about the impending nuclear apocalypse, and she’d been told that her son was the only thing standing between humanity and its own annihilation. The movie does make it clear that even though John loves his mom, her behavior does not make her a good mother. If anything, it makes her borderline psychotic, to the point that she nearly tips over the edge into the same territory as the focused, emotionless killers whose creation she was trying to prevent. The opens the door for a surprisingly philosophical discussion about humanity, as the inhuman T-800 turns out to be a more dedicated parental figure to John than even Sarah was. Robert Patrick makes an effective rival Terminator as well, sleeker and faster than the T-800, in effect a leopard compared to Arnold’s grizzly bear. Also, sharp-eyed fans of the first will recognize Earl Boen reprising his role as Dr. Silberman, the police psychiatrist in the original, now responsible for Sarah’s care in this one (and about as effective), though of course he gets belted across the face with the truth in a very satisfying sequence at the psychiatric hospital.

It is very rare to find a sequel that improves so drastically upon the first, but it is not surprising to find that James Cameron managed to pull it off. If you enjoyed the first but felt it needed something more, watch Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and then just sit back and enjoy the action.

The Terminator (1984)


“Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”

In 1984, the idea of the implacable, unstoppable killer was not new. Halloween did it in 1978, and Friday the 13th did it in 1980. Then James Cameron had himself a nightmare about an implacable, unstoppable, cyborg killer from the future, and a franchise was born.

The Terminator is the first movie in that franchise, which Cameron directed, as well as co-wrote with William Fisher, Jr. It stars Arnold “I’ll be back” Schwarzenegger, Linda “not an action girl yet” Hamilton, Lance “Aliens” Henriksen, and Michael “Come with me if you want to live” Biehn. It is worth noting that O. J. Simpson was considered for the role of the terminator, but Cameron didn’t think he would be believable as a cold-hearted murderer.

In 2029, intelligent machines seek to exterminate what remains of the human race. Standing in their way is John Connor, a freedom fighter who has united humanity against them. With the Resistance on the verge of victory, the machines send back a cybernetic T-800 (Schwarzenegger) to hunt down and kill Connor’s mother Sarah (Hamilton) before he is even conceived, thereby accomplishing a retroactive abortion. The humans, however, send back an agent of their own, a soldier named Reese (Biehn) to defend Sarah from the terminator. Sarah, meanwhile, is a mere waitress at a diner, and has no idea yet what’s going on. However, there are three Sarah Connors listed in the local phone book, and the two time travelers race to find the correct one first, in order to either kill or protect her.

This is one of my favorite sci fi movies. James Cameron’s twist on the Implacable Killer theme works on so many chilling levels, even with the tiny budget he had. The “post apocalyptic future” scenes were plausible, considering that they were accomplished with scale models, forced perspectives, and matte blocking, and Stan Winston’s stop-motion endoskeleton, though slightly dated, is thoroughly calculating and looks like it really wants to eat your face. The facial surgery sequence doesn’t look quite as real at is might have, but I heard they scaled back the realism to keep it from being too disturbing. Seriously, the Terminator just sliced out his eye with an Exacto knife – how is that not supposed to be disturbing?! Stan Winston was and still is an FX genius.

And of course, rather than riding completely on special effects, this movie (like so many 80s sci fi films) relies on its acting to carry the terror of the concept. Biehn, as usual, plays an intense military type desperate to convey the gravity of the situation to his terrified charge in a limited period of time, and Hamilton is plausible as the unsuspecting civilian caught between faction in a war that hasn’t even happened yet. And… Arnold. Arnold, you terrifying, machinelike bastard. Where would this franchise be without you? (Probably trying to do the same thing with another bodybuilder, with less impressive results, but I digress…) He has maybe 18 lines in the whole film, but he makes it work, even with his heavy accent, almost like they were still ironing the kinks out of the vocal synthesizer. Although, if you’re acting like an emtoionless machine, is it still really acting?

In all, if you want to see a thrilling, suspenseful sci fi action flick, if you want to see where the whole Terminator franchise started, or even if you just want to see Arnold Schwarzenegger clad only in shadows for about a minute and a half, rent this movie. You will not fail to be impressed.