By Kary Vannice
Humans have always been fascinated by the concept of time. Scientists study it, philosophers contemplate it, artists try to depict it, and directors make movies about it. Here are eight mind-bending movies that explore different facets of our understanding of time.
Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) explores the “many-worlds” theory that proposes that every life choice creates an alternative timeline, thus creating many parallel universes. Martial arts action star Michelle Yeoh plays Evelyn Wang, a laundromat owner who discovers she can move between these parallel timelines and tap into the talents and skills of her alternative selves. Because of her special abilities, she is tasked with saving the entire multiverse from eventual doom by a version of her daughter, who has evolved on a different timeline. As she enters different versions of herself, Evelyn can see how different life choices on other timelines lead to different outcomes in her personal relationships, prosperity, and even her personality. If you’ve thought about what your life might have been like had you made a different choice at a crux moment, this movie will fuel your imagination!
The Jacket (2005) also focuses on the idea of timeline jumping. However, it sticks to one universe and has the main character, Jack Starks, played by Adrian Brody, jumping between past and future in a fractured and frantic attempt to save his own life. After returning home from the first Gulf War, Starks is wrongfully accused of killing a police officer and, because of his claims of innocence, is sent to a mental institution. While incarcerated, he is forced to undergo brutal sensory deprivation treatments inside a morgue drawer after being bound in a straightjacket and injected with experimental drugs.
Over the course of these terror-inducing “treatments,” Jack’s mind fractures as he desperately tries to ground himself in memories of the past, one memory in particular, that of a young girl he helped shortly before he was institutionalized. His attachment to the memory is so strong he “jumps” to 15 years in the future and finds her where she tells him of his death a few months later. With each new treatment, Jack jumps from future to past, convincing key people of future events and persuading them to make different decisions to change the outcome of their future lives, all the while trying to figure out how to use his time-traveling abilities to change his own future and save his own life. At the film’s end, however, one wonders if Jack was truly traveling timelines or if it was simply his tortured consciousness creating comfort where his body could find none.
Somewhere in Time (1980) may have you questioning whether time is just a mental construct and whether one can time-travel through autosuggestion alone. The stars of this romantic drama, Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, are separated by nearly 70 years of time and space, but that doesn’t stop the pull and passion of true love. After falling in love with the photo of a turn-of-the-century actress, Christopher Reeve’s character learns how to self-hypnotize so he can travel back in time to find a woman he swears he had a brief encounter with eight years before, when she was in her 80s. Convinced she is the same woman as the one in the photo, he uses tape-recorded suggestions to hypnotize himself back to 1912, he finds his love and embarks on a mission to convince her they are meant to be together and, in fact, have been before, or will be, depending on whose timeline you’re working from. She’s eventually convinced and allows herself to fall in love with him, only to be robbed of him when a 1979 penny he finds in his pocket breaks his hypnotic suggestion and sends him back to his own time. But don’t worry, as classic romance movies of this time almost always do, the story eventually brings these two lovers back together again in the afterlife.
I Origins (2014) plays on the idea that the afterlife is just another life, and another, and another, and that we carry one unique characteristic with us into each new incarnation, the irises of our eyes. The movie begins with a Ph.D. student who’s researching the evolution of the eye at a costume party where he meets a masked woman, Sofi, with unique and beautiful eyes. At the end of the night, she abruptly leaves, and all he is left with is the memory of the irises of her eyes. Fate, however, leads him to her again one day on the train. They begin a passionate, albeit tumultuous, love affair, which ends tragically with her death not long after. Seven years later, when his first child is born, he discovers that his son has the same iris signature as a man who had recently died in Idaho. Spurred by the hope that this could connect him to lost loved ones, he runs a scan of Sofi’s eyes. He finds a match in India, but the records are for an orphan girl with no known address. He goes to India and spends weeks searching and putting up billboards with photos of Sofi’s eyes, hoping to reconnect with the memories of his past love.
In Time (2011) takes place in a future where the currency is time. Everyone on the planet stops aging at 25 years old. From that point on, they must earn time to stay alive. They must also spend time to stay alive. Time is used to buy food, take the bus, even have a beer. Most people live day to day, earning just enough time to stay alive until tomorrow. But there are wealthy businessmen who bank time and live for decades, centuries even, in luxury.
In the ghetto, people steal time, trade for time, and even kill for time. Will, a lowly factory worker played by Justin Timberlake, has a chance encounter with one such “wealthy” man who is tired of living but has over 100 years left on his “clock,” which is digitally displayed on his forearm. The man gives Will all but 5 minutes of his time and “times out,” making Will a target but also emboldening him to take time back from the immortals and give it to the common man. This movie is a fast-paced Bonnie and Clyde meets Robin Hood, and will have you thinking of the term “time is money” in a whole new way.
The Map of Tiny Perfect Things (2021) is a new take on the old Bill Murray classic Groundhog Day (1993). Mark, a teenage boy, is stuck in a time loop, repeating the same day over and over again. After many iterations of the same day, Mark can anticipate the movements and actions of others and begins to help them in in tiny, subtle ways, only to get up the next day and do it all over again. One day, however, he meets a girl, Margaret, who also seems to be living the same loop. Mark and Margaret live endless days together, sharing their dreams and hopes for the future, but the future never comes. Each day is the same as the last, and Margaret frequently and frustratingly disappears after receiving mysterious text messages, leaving Mark wondering what part she’s playing in the loop. Mark eventually discovers where Margaret’s disappearing to, and that there are some things worth living the same day over and over for, and that not all futures are full of hope. Some are full of heartache.
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) is the warning on a classified ad placed by a grocery store clerk looking for someone to travel back in time with him. The ad also reads, “This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before.” A Seattle Magazine reporter and two interns, each with an ulterior motive of their own, set out to find the man who placed the ad and find out if he truly believes he can travel through time. This movie is less about time travel and more about the exploration of regret, making plans to right wrongs that happened in the past, and how pain can cause us to rewrite our history to alleviate our current suffering.
Primer (2004) is a little-known, low-budget film that depicts what developing time travel might look like if one applied the laws of physics to everyday objects as a “side project” to a regular 9 to 5 suburban job. You’re bored already, aren’t you? Well, you shouldn’t be. This is probably the most realistic movie about how actual time travel might come about, as well as what humans might do with the power to travel back in time. Written and directed by Shane Carruth, a former engineer with a degree in mathematics, who also stars, this film doesn’t “dumb it down” and also doesn’t “glam it up.” It won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance film festival and has gained a cult following. Its popularity is not so much due to the science behind time travel, but the exploration of how average humans might grapple with the power of being able to alter and manipulate the past, present, and future.