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Double Feature Fridays: Time Travel

Making mistakes while hurtling through time can have consequences both hilarious and terrifying

Utsav Kotrial Aug 31, 2018

Marty and Doc prepare for the ride

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As an avid consumer of film, it always feels like a small victory to stumble upon an entertaining time travel flick. Although it is a popular concept, it’s not easy to balance out fully fleshed-out characters with such a tricky, imposing plot device.

A still from ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’

Time travel is notoriously difficult to write. It’s full of paradoxes, and if the storyline is complex, keeping track of all the moving parts can be a pain. However, when used right, it’s an incredible tool to explore the human condition and create exciting scenarios that would otherwise be impossible. Time travel fantasies express a universal human desire to control fate. Some of the most innovative stories on film feature them, either at the core (Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow) or as a feature (Donnie Darko, Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban).

This week on Double Feature Fridays, we’re digging into two unforgettable space-time journeys, the quintessential Eighties’ romp Back To The Future, and Primer, a no-budget thriller from 2004 that took the indie scene by storm.

Back To The Future

‘Back To The Future’ poster

There’s nothing about Back To The Future that hasn’t been said already. It’s a beloved adventure-comedy that continues to show up on Best Ever lists for its sheer fun factor. It takes a potentially disturbing plot with Oedipal undertones and turns it into a fast, funny movie that gets tense when it needs to be.

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A high school comedy with a twist: What if you went back in time and your teenage mother became infatuated with you, instead of your father? Marty (an adorable Michael J. Fox) risks his very existence unless he can find a way to make his young parents fall in love.

Marty meets his mom

It packs everything you’d want in a popcorn flick: a love triangle, detestable villains, dazzling special effects, and an energetic soundtrack. The actors are fully committed to these charming, witty characters, and the chemistry between the eccentric scientist Doc Brown and Marty is the stuff of legends, recreated many times in other media, the latest example being the hit U.S. animated series, Rick and Morty.

The time travel mechanic is simple to understand, and very, very stylish. After all, it’s a sports car that runs on nuclear energy. In Marty’s own words, “So you’re telling me.. you made a time machine.. out of a DeLorean?” When the swanky car hits 85 miles an hour, Marty is transported to the Fifties, where the film has a lot of fun playing with the way mindsets and trends that differ from the Eighties.


‘Primer’ poster

This hidden gem won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance because of its thought-provoking and completely unique approach to the time-travel thriller. Produced, written, scored, edited and directed by leading man Shane Carruth, the film follows two engineers who create error-checking devices. One day they accidentally invent a machine they don’t fully understand, and notice that it can make objects travel through time. Things gradually start getting out of hand when their curiosity causes them to create a bigger version of the machine that can transport humans.

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Primer is infamous for complicating the mechanics of small-scale time-travel and bringing it closer to what it might actually be like in the real world. It doesn’t dumb down the science behind it, but neither does it spend time explaining the science, or giving the audience any exposition when they’re lost. It can take a couple of viewings to fully ”˜get,’ and fans have created elaborate charts just to explain the chronology and events.

Aaron and Abe try to understand their invention

The time machine itself looks unremarkable, you wouldn’t look at it twice. It’s a bunch of wired-up boxes in a grey storage locker, which fits with the grounded narrative. Made on a very low budget, the lack of visual effects and the grainy, intimate camerawork makes you feel like you’re watching old tapes of somebody’s life. It shows you two men in mundane settings; in a garage, at their office, or at their homes.. and benefits greatly from natural, underplayed interactions.

Keeping up with the plot is part of the fun, and the film takes great pleasure in severely disorienting the viewer as things start to get convoluted. It has the potential to split the audience in half: one half might find it enigmatic and elusive, while the other might find it pointless and frustrating.


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