February second is Groundhog Day, the day the United States is confused enough to not know they’re observing Candlemass. It also happens to be Sportsball Day this year, so tonight’s the night to sit in a football patch and, if it’s the most sincere one, the Great Football will rise out of the patch to bring sportsballs to all the good little jocks of the world.
But in pop culture, February 2nd has unofficially become Time Travel Day, thanks to a certain famous movie which has had a lasting legacy out of all proportion to its modest release. Groundhog Day (1993) has Bill Murray as a weatherman trapped in a time loop in a folksy Midwestern town. It seems no matter what he does, he still wakes up every morning on February 2nd. It’s just the kind of speculative fantasy that only writer-director Harold Ramis (Ghostbusters (1984)) could produce with such a graceful touch.
The film has resonated for so long because it takes a deep subject and reduces it to its philosophical points. Characters right in the script even debate “what if?” There’s a minor thesis in there, even if you just take it as a wacky comedy.
So let’s talk about time travel… again…
The prospect of traveling in time as easily as we move around in physical space is tantalizing enough that it’s inspired some of our most creative fiction and provoked our greatest scientific minds. It’s an interesting enough idea that no less than the late Stephen Hawking threw a time traveler’s party, sending invitations out the day after to restrict the party to authentic temponauts only. Nobody showed up, and based on this experiment Hawking concluded that time travel would have to be impossible.
With all due respect to Mr. Hawking, weighty as that due is, maybe there’s a couple flaws we can find in that experiment. For one thing, unfettered time travelers have all of history to explore. Maybe they’re not that enthusiastic about hanging out in some guy’s apartment in the 21st century when they have orgies with Caligula to attend.
For another argument, imagine if some scientist does invent time travel. Doesn’t that person automatically become the most famous scientist in history? The inventor of time travel would outshine all who came before. Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, all would be mere footnotes after that. Maybe that’s why time travel never happens: As soon as you invent it, people from the future start popping in to party with you and you never get around to publishing the findings.
In case this whole Time Traveler’s Day thing catches on, here’s a few more movies to fill out your playlist:
Happy Death Day (2017)
As if Groundhog Day isn’t a black enough comedy, Happy Death Day is the closest successor and an even darker premise. Instead we have the protagonist Tree living through a day where she gets murdered at the end of the day. She keeps going through this loop waking up every morning ready to be killed again as she tries to solve her own murder. Oh, and it’s also her birthday, just for the extra ironic twist. This movie is underrated. It’s a union of existentialism, slasher flicks, and wacky campus comedy all in one.
The Back to the Future series (1985-1989-1990)
The Robert Zemeckis series which became the most famous roles for both Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, the Back to the Future franchise stands today as one of the best examples of contemporary sci-fi time travel fiction. It’s mostly a swashbuckling adventure series across time with an average teenager getting caught up in the experiments of a wacky garage scientist. It spawned its own animated series, a video game, a pinball game, and its own Universal Studios ride. In the category of family-friendly time travel movies, this is a tough act to follow. We’ll just cut this short here because we could use a whole post just on this universe.
Star Trek IV (1986)
The Star Trek universe is no stranger to time travel yarns. They start in the original series and continue through every iteration of a Trek TV series so far. The wiki has a whole page for these. But Star Trek IV was the one time a time travel story took up a whole movie plot, and one with a hefty dollop of audacity at that. We’re going to transport whales from the past to the present because an alien probe wants to talk to whales and we’ve let them go extinct. When you put it that way, how did this get made? Nevertheless, the late Leonard Nimoy proved to be one of the best directors of the franchise. This was the movie which set the “even numbered Star Trek movie rule.”
12 Monkeys (1995)
12 Monkeys is arguably the greatest realization of a time travel movie in hard sci-fi. Who else but Monty Python alumni Terry Gilliam, director of Time Bandits (1980) and Brazil (1985), could have pulled this off? Gilliam’s finesse with free-flowing imaginative fantasy turned into rock-steady internal plot logic with this movie, loosely inspired by the French film La Jetee. Your Humble Author even got it onto the list of the 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made over at another gig, where I lay out the brain-bustingly complex plot which nevertheless fits together down to the last detail. And then there’s the TV series it spawned, which manages to have its own following. With its story of a virus wiping out the world and a time traveler coming back to explore for the cause and a cure, the current Wuhan virus story does give you a chill…
Donnie Darko (2001)
Everybody forgets this one, but Donnie Darko is a time travel movie too, by virtue of it being an everything movie. The vast cult following from this murky story is based partly on how poetic the story logic is, driving fans to debate what’s going on to this day. It’s sort of the story of numerous random events happening over the space of just less than a month, beginning with a phantom rabbit telling Donny the world will end and… it doesn’t end, but exactly how is up to debate. The story is as much magic realism as it is science fiction, but it also works as an indie comedy, a coming-of-age story, a horror movie, and a psychological thriller. If you crack open the film can it came in, the film strip probably forms a Möbius strip, too.
Now you know the real purpose of this list: To introduce you to the greatest unknown movie in the sci-fi category and make you one of us! Triangle is yet another time loop story and also a horror movie. Jess is a single mom getting a day off from her kid to go out boating with some friends, but they get shipwrecked in a storm and end up on another passing cruise liner – which is deserted, but stalked by a killer who picks off all but Jess. But what about these clues from classical mythology thrown into the mix? Jess’ troubles are just beginning, and we won’t spoil it further because unraveling the knots in this story is the work of a lifetime! The movie is spoiler-proof because it’s more like a scientific theorem you have to watch for yourself to comprehend.
What is it about time travel movies and cult followings? It’s hard to appreciate now just how crazy the world went for Primer when it first came out. It’s not just a time travel story with the hardest of hard sci-fi leanings, but it’s about these Silicon Valley garage engineer types all stumbling upon a time-box invention and then getting woven into their own never-when plot as their numerous mishaps lead to a power struggle. If all of the above movies generated their own debate, Primer inspired the equivalent of several Internet flame wars of arguments. This is the perfect time to watch it now that everybody has at last shut up about it.
We could say much more on this subject and perhaps someday will, but – ironically enough – we’ve run out of time for now.