Time and Time Again

Growing up, my favorite genre was sci-fi.  I loved it in all its forms, from action-adventure sci-fi, like War of the Worlds, to the more cerebral, talkier sci-fi like Demon With a Glass Hand, the episode of The Outer Limits written by Harlan Ellison or another episode he wrote for the same series, Soldier.   He claims that James Cameron lifted aspects of both episodes for The Terminator and the matter was settled out of court (and Ellison given a credit acknowledgement) and, maybe because of the similarities, I’ve always liked The Terminator, too.    But there’s something else about those story lines I like: the element of time.  Both of those episodes, as well as The Terminator, deal with time travel, as well-worn a sci-fi story device as there is (click here to see the multitudes) and for good reason.  Send a character backwards or forwards through time and the story possibilities, as well as the mind-bending paradoxes, are endless.   And so in 1980, in my early teens, I was pleasantly surprised to find Hollywood offering me the opportunity to see two time-travel films in theaters in the same year.  They don’t have the name recognition of some of the bigger time-travel movies but both have held up surprisingly well.

Mention time-travel in the movies these days and Back to the Future is the first, and maybe only, movie folks will mention.  People love the Back to the Future franchise (I like it very much myself) but there are other time-travel movies out there I like a lot better.

Those two in 1980, for instance.   That year saw the release of The Final Countdown and Somewhere in Time.  The Final Countdown has been all but forgotten and Somewhere in Time is often maligned as a sappy, sugary tale of romance once upon a time.  And, honestly, it is but I like it anyway.

Somewhere in Time stars Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour and Christopher Plummer as a different sort of love triangle.  For one thing, the Christopher Plummer character, William Robinson, isn’t so much in love with Jane Seymour’s character, Elise McKenna (though he may be), as invested in her.   He is her manager and wants to keep her on track as she is the top stage actress of her day, which just happens to be 1912.  For another thing, the Reeve character, Richard Collier, isn’t from 1912, he’s from 1980.    And the way it starts is when the now 85 year-old Elise McKenna visits a young Richard Collier after the premier of his first play in 1972 and gives him a watch as she says, “Come back to me.”

Later, in 1980, he travels to the beautiful Grand Hotel at Mackinac Island in Michigan and discovers that  the woman who gave him the watch was a famous actress once, at which point he becomes entranced by the lovely Miss McKenna.   Suffice it to say, he travels back in time to meet her and, tragically, is pulled away from her just as their love for each other becomes undeniable.  At which point she’s left with the watch, which she hangs onto for sixty years and then gives back to him.  He holds onto it for eight years and gives it back to her.  Then another sixty and back to him.   Then another eight and back to her.  And so on.  And despite everything else going on in the movie, this is the part of the movie that fascinates me:  No one ever made the watch!  It just exists.  The universe simply created it for the sole purpose of giving Richard and Elise a token of their love to exchange.  Who says the universe is indifferent?

And where did the daisy chain begin?  She only has it because he gave it to her.  He only has it because she gave it to him.  Neither of them ever bought it.  And eventually, it will start to fall into disarray.  As the cycle never ends, the watch, by necessity, will arrive at ages of a thousand years old, a million, a billion!  At some point, one of them is going to hand the other one a handful of dust.

Furthermore, he only goes back in time because she showed up, gave him the watch and intrigued him.  But she only gave him the watch at his play because he came back in time and intrigued her.  So what was the first meeting?  He met her first, in 1912, I suppose, on a linear timeline but really, she met him first in 1972.  But actually, he made the decision to go to her in 1980.  When he “meets” her in 1912, he’s already met her in 1972.  But by the time of the meeting in 1972, she had already met him in 1912.

See, this is why I love science fiction.

The other thing about Somewhere in Time that succeeds for time travel is they don’t bother making the time travel anything technological.  It’s just a case of one character willing himself into the time of the other.  A literal representation of “I’d travel through time to be with you” or “when I’m with you, time stands still.”  Hoaky?  Sure, a little bit, but it’s written by the great Richard Matheson and, honestly, comes off a lot better than you’d think.  For one thing, with no real technologies involved, it doesn’t date itself at all.  It takes place in another time and place (even starting its own present day eight years before the movie was made).  Which brings me to that other time travel piece from 1980, The Final Countdown.  It’s loaded with technology and isn’t dated a bit.  There’s a couple of reasons for that.

It might not occur to you that filming a time travel movie almost entirely aboard an aircraft carrier is the perfect place for such a venture but, believe it or not, it is.    For one thing, the jets used aboard the ship were fourth generation fighters, used until the 21st century and not dramatically different in outward appearance from the fifth generation currently in use, at least not to a lay person.    So it still looks and feels like it could be taking place today.  But what about the fashions, you say.  There are none!  It takes place aboard an aircraft carrier with nothing but military uniforms and Navy haircuts so no one sticks out with wide lapels or heavy sideburns.  Again, they all look like they could be in a movie right now.  And honestly, that helps the time element extremely well because you’re not distracted by their contemporary time at all.

But there’s something else to it:  It’s not concerned with the oddities of differences in cultural shifts over time (like so many time travel stories, not the least of which being Back to the Future but also the previously discussed Somewhere in Time) but with a moral conundrum, something a lot of the best sci-fi does all the time.  The story involves the crew of the U.S.S. Nimitz, with Kirk Douglas at the helm, aided by James Farentino at his side and Martin Sheen as a government observer.  The carrier encounters a freak electrical storm and when they emerge from it, the year is 1941 and the date is December 6th, one day before the fateful attack on Pearl Harbor, which just happens to be where they set out from only hours before.  Once they figure out exactly what’s going on (within reason, that is – the actual device of time travel, the storm, is never explained and wisely so) they have a choice:  Sit by and let history happen or, knowing they carry enough firepower and technology on their one carrier to easily defeat the entire Japanese Navy, destroy the enemy and change the timeline.

They know if they do nothing, history will run its course, and they know how that turns out.  If they act, they stop one attack but what else happens?  Does America enter the war in Europe in December or wait another year, or two, until it’s too late?  The Final Countdown answers this question by having it both ways, that is, the captain makes a decision but the storm pulls them back out before anything can be done.  Of course, that doesn’t mean no one’s left behind, which leads to another fascinating aspect of science fiction as one character goes from young to old within the contemporary time frame while another grows old along the normal timeline but with the knowledge of all that is to come.  It’s a fascinating premise and if you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil the ending.

When it was released I saw it in a practically empty cinema and the reviews were middling.  It doesn’t have photographic magic in every frame and there are no wild or fanciful arcs of character.  It’s a pretty straightforward affair which, quite frankly, science fiction could use a lot more of.   Science fiction, whether in time-travel or full-on action mode, is usually about some idea more than anything else.   The idea in Somewhere in Time is a simple one, that love literally transcends time. The idea in The Final Countdown is a little more complex, that acting in favor of the immediate good may result in a long term bad.  But whatever the idea, Somewhere in Time and especially The Final Countdown, are two overlooked and undervalued time travel movies.  They’re not masterpieces but good, solid explorations of moments and morals and decisions made by imperfect minds.   Something science fiction can often do better than anything else.  And should do as often as possible, time and time again.

0 Response Time and Time Again
Posted By MedusaMorlock : September 5, 2012 8:56 am

Time travel is where it’s at! Glad to see some love for these movies, and of course you know that there’s a whole organization dedicated to “Somewhere in Time” and keeping the movie alive in the hearts of its fans. Their website is here: http://www.somewhereintime.tv/insite.htm

“The Final Countdown” is on streaming Netflix if you need a quick fix, and so is “Somewhere in Time”. If that isn’t a perfect Saturday night marathon, I don’t know what is!

Great post, Greg!

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 5, 2012 9:00 am

Thanks, Medusa. I love these movies because they both take the element of time travel seriously while Back to the Future and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure deal with it in a jokey way. Nothing wrong with that (heck, if it’s good enough for Mark Twain, it’s good enough for me) I just love the serious takes better.

Thanks for the link to the Somewhere in Time society. That’s so great that they have that.

Posted By Arthur : September 5, 2012 9:01 am

Yes, two great films. Ron O’Neal, star of Superfly, was also in the Final Countdown. Somewhere In Time was a bit of a hit when it first came out. Reading your review it dawned on me that The Titanic storyline may have been inspired by this film.

There was an elderly woman who had never married and who was still in love with the young DiCaprio who had saved her life those many, many years ago. And there was a piece of jewelry that she held onto all those years. In the final scenes we see her in deathly repose, and then she is together with the young DiCaprio and all the people who were on the ship and they are having a big party. The only people missing were the villains of the movie. Apparently they were all united in heaven. . .

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 5, 2012 9:05 am

Reading your review it dawned on me that The Titanic storyline may have been inspired by this film.

Arthur, when I watched Somewhere in Time again earlier this week that’s exactly what I thought! There are plenty of similarities but the ending really seems inspirational to Cameron. That’s the second place in this piece where James Cameron could be said to have been, uh, “inspired” by previous works.

Posted By Tony Dayoub : September 5, 2012 9:13 am

I can’t think of a sappier movie with more fans (myself included) than SOMEWHERE IN TIME. Despite its overabundance of sentimentality, I think what really sells it is Reeve’s performance and that ineffable quality of “reality askew” that Matheson brings to all of his work. Fantastic film.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 5, 2012 9:15 am

I can’t think of a sappier movie with more fans (myself included) than SOMEWHERE IN TIME.

Ha, it’s true. It’s so over-the-top romantic but it’s never bothered me for being too sappy. The actors really pull it off and the intrigue of the first third is quite effective, especially when he sees the old guest log and it has his signature in it. It’s long been a favorite.

Posted By CitizenKing : September 5, 2012 11:06 am

“Somewhere in Time” leads me to the Jack Finney novel “Time and Again”. The methods of time travel are similar, and in fact “Somewhere in Time” references the Finney novel by naming the professor character Finney.

I have long thought that “Time and Again” would make a good scifi movie, and have heard rumors of an adaptation for years. Most recently I learned that Lionsgate has optioned the book.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 5, 2012 11:10 am

CitizenKing, it’s surprising that Time and Again hasn’t been made into a movie. And I didn’t even pick up on the Professor name reference. Good call.

Posted By Brian : September 5, 2012 11:13 am

SOMEWHERE IN TIME is such a beautiful film, with a lovely John Barry score (there’s something about the music that carries the film for me, which is not to say the other elements aren’t superb). Growing up in Michigan in the late 70s and early 80s, this film had a cult status because of its Mackinac locations, so it was on TV a lot, and while I didn’t get it as a child, it’s a film I grew to love.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 5, 2012 11:15 am

Brian, as I think you know, John Barry is my all-time favorite film composer. I have his complete works, from the early rock/mod songs to the lush scores of the seventies, eighties and nineties. And of all his scores, all of them, this one is my favorite.

I’d love to visit Mackinac Island one day and see the hotel. It’s beautiful.

Posted By Vanwall : September 5, 2012 11:36 am

I always liked the time travel-ish “The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything” from 1980, it was loopy fun. The John McDonald novel it was based on was very influential as well.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 5, 2012 11:40 am

Vanwall, I think you brought that up once before on a Cinema Styles post and I still haven’t seen it again since my first viewing on tv when it aired. Except for Robert Hays stopping time on a beach and Pam Dawber undoing someone’s bikini top while they were frozen in time, I can’t remember anything about it. One day it’ll be available and I can finally see it again.

Posted By Cătălin Buzoianu : September 5, 2012 11:42 am

I remember catching on TV Somewhere in Time when I was 13 or 14 years old just because it had Reeve (i.e. Superman)in it, but even then the way time travel was incorporated into the plot seemed corny at best. It’s science-fiction fantasy in that respect, but, honestly, I do think it’s better than what Hollywood studios are putting out these days (Nicholas Sparks adaptations, for example). Come to think of it now, I think you could compare it just for fun with James Mangold’s Kate & Leopold, a movie that bears some (slight) similarities (the whole `person-out-of-time in love with a native of a certain period` theme) but it more strongly involved (for comedic purposes, of course, nowadays that’s a must, it seems) the process of adjusment to life in a different historical period along side the romantic story.
The Final Countdown, though, is just pure fun for me. I saw it in high-school (again on TV) and it took me back to that `old-school` SF literature, I mean the pulps of the 1930s and H.G.Wells and, to an extent, Jules Verne, in which the scientific aspect of the plot usually didn’t matter as much as the Earth-destroying ray guns and larger ethical questions (sometimes) involved. This movie is all about moral conundrum in a way I think we don’t see in Hollywood SF cinema nowadays. There’s always this love story subplot or other that takes front stage. I’m not thinking of Prometheus, but of similar themed films (involving time travel) such as Tony Scott’s Deja Vu and Duncan Jones’ Source Code. Both of them do away pretty fast with the techno-babble used to explain the science of time travel in favour of other things. You could say that in Deja Vu it’s the love story that develops out of Denzel Washington’s `voyeuristic` activities, and that in Source Code it’s Jake Gyllenhal’s character turmoils of understanding his situation and dealing with it in a self-sacrificial manner, and, at the end, the love story. There’s nothing wrong with a romantic subplot, TFC has one too, but it’s not as essential to the story I would argue. The movie is `saved`, for me at least, because of the big question(s) it poses.
But I do think that time travel, in cinema, is really hard to pull off without being silly about it in terms of coherence of plot and just plain common sense. For a better example, take The Time Machine and its 2002 remake. The first one is a classic that succeeded in making sense (in that SF-fantasy tone I mentioned earlier) narratively speaking, engaging for the viewer and entertaining. I stick with you after seeing it. I still remember as a teenager how I would just try to guees those 3 (or was it only 2?) books Rod Taylor’s character took back with him in order to rebuild civilisation in the very distant future. That’s powerful stuff, if you ask me. In the remake, on the other hand, the protagonist isn’t an inventor on a journey of exploration and scientific knowledge, but a man desperately trying to change the past to save his fiance from dying in an accident. It’s only at the end of the movie that he learns the futility of his struggle but in a very childish and ham-fisted way by a out-of-the-blue antagonist. He isn’t an idealist and futurist as in the first film, our protagonist, but some kind of a (run-of-the-mill) antihero, brooding and a bit cynical.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 5, 2012 11:45 am

Cătălin, that’s a very good analysis of the two presentations of the lead character in the two versions of The Time Machine. I never much liked that second one and you hit on why: It’s not about exploration but preventing an accident and then, escaping from it. The one thing I do recall liking though was the time lapse of the earth growing up and over it with rock and ice and volcanic ash over eons of time. I was really looking forward to it and then greatly disappointed.

Posted By Arthur : September 5, 2012 11:55 am

Greg, speaking of parallels and a film being “inspired” by another, note the beginning of Inception and the ending of Titanic. The last time we see DiCaprio in Titanic he goes under the water and disappears. The first time we see him in Inception he is coming out of the water, washed up on a beach, coming from where?

And note that whereas in Titanic the woman is mooning over her long lost love, DiCaprio, in Inception DiCaprio is mooning over his long lost love. They just sort of reversed the formula in Inception and provided a subtle, subliminal continuation or bridge from Titanic. . .

Posted By sandrabranum : September 5, 2012 12:55 pm

I love Trancers. It’s campy, but Jack Deth (played by Tim Thomerson) gives it just the right amount of seriousness. And I bet it’s one of two movies Helen Hunt doesn’t claim, but she was good in both I & II.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 5, 2012 1:23 pm

Sandra, totally forgot about Trancers. It was on cable all the time in the late eighties. It’s a lot of fun.

Posted By Cătălin Buzoianu : September 5, 2012 3:50 pm

Greg, thanks for the comment. The Special Effects were really something special (as with other movies produced or directed by George Pal) and if I remember correctly the film received an Oscar for them. The remake looked cheap in comparison, I think, perhaps because the original FX, reminiscent of Douglas Trumbull or Ray Harryhausen, seem less `flashy` and more `there`. What really impressed me the first time I saw the film was the ageing process the objects in the lab went through – you could actually see dust settling on things. The attention to detail is staggering.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 5, 2012 3:55 pm

Cătălin, I love the special effects too. Lots of attention to detail and the use of the dress shop fashion changes is a fun way to show the passage of time before the house is grown over and then falls apart.

Posted By John Maddox Roberts : September 5, 2012 4:07 pm

Another time-travel film from just a few months earlier was “Time After Time” with H.G. Wells pursuing Jack the Ripper from 1893 London to 1979 San Francisco. This one made full use of the cultural dissonances of time travel. One oddity (probably an in-joke by the writer, who knew both periods well) was Wells’ shock at the rampant prostitution, pornography and drugginess of late-seventies San Francisco. In fact, 1979 SF had very little in the way of sex or drugs that wasn’t abundantly available, and mostly legal, in Victoria’s London. Only the way people talk about these things has changed.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 5, 2012 4:10 pm

John, I love Time After Time. Saw it in the theater, watched it on cable, rented it on VHS and bought it on DVD. It has a lot more recognition than these two from 1980, I think, but even so, with each passing year more moviegoers are probably unaware of it. And, I may be wrong, but I thought the implication in the story was that Wells was shocked it was still around, not that vice existed in the first place. I always took his shock as being from the belief that the future would be Utopian and when he got there, it clearly wasn’t. I also love that the time machine is vaguely reminiscent of the George Pal time machine rather than trying for something completely different. It’s a very good suspense thriller.

Posted By Qalice : September 5, 2012 7:19 pm

I, too, love time travel movies and I can’t believe I’ve never seen The Final Countdown! Now I must. Just like you, I love the mind-twisting aspect of these movies. Like the parts of the first Terminator that start the research that makes Skynet’s takeover possible, bringing that Terminator into existence. The research is begun from its own results! Impossible! I love it.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 5, 2012 7:25 pm

Qalice, my thoughts exactly on The Terminator. Skynet exists because the terminator came back from the future after Skynet made his existence possible but his existence was only possible because Skynet was created by using the chip inside the terminator’s arm.

Another favorite: The Planet of the Apes original five movies. Astronauts arrive from Earth and find a planet run by apes. Turns out, it’s Earth. Then the apes use the rocket technology of the arriving humans to fly back out into space, go back through time (as the earth astronauts had moved forward in time) to Earth and give birth to an intelligent talking ape who will lead an uprising that will eventually lead to apes running the planet right up to the day the astronauts arrive and discover it. But the only reasons the astronauts find a planet run by apes is because they visited it.

Posted By Susan Doll : September 5, 2012 10:11 pm

Decades ago, I stayed at the Grand Hotel in Mackinac Island over Labor Day when they had a Somewhere in Time festival. It was so much fun, and the hotel was truly a magical place. I have no problem believing one can go back in time there.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 5, 2012 10:15 pm

Suzi, it looks so gorgeous there, I can’t imagine going there and not feeling transported in time. And I’d love to see Somewhere in Time there.

Posted By Doug : September 6, 2012 1:06 am

Although this isn’t quite about time travel, I see enough love for “Sci-Fi” on this post to mention a TV movie from a few years back which was solid Sci-Fi: “Stonehenge Apocalypse”
It was actually quite good.
Mention above of “Time After Time” brings to mind Mary Steenburgen who charmed me in both that movie and “Goin’ South”.

Posted By Rachel : September 6, 2012 2:00 am

I haven’t seen either Somewhere in Time or The Final Countdown but now I want to. I really wish love it when sci-fi uses a fantastical element simply to explore a moral dilemma. Sometimes that’s all you need. Or an emotional dilemma, as in the case of Somewhere in Time.

This post reminded me of the Dennis Quaid movie Frequency which takes the very old-school premise that a man who lost his father to a fire can suddenly communicate with the man’s past self through a ham radio. And the first part of the film, where the two men are just sitting and talking, figuring out what’s happened and trying to steer their future, is pretty compelling stuff. It’s very emotional and well-acted. The film got a lot less interesting when the plot shifted to the protagonist and his father trying to stop a serial killer through both their prospective time lines. Not bad, just a lot less interesting.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 6, 2012 7:51 am

Doug, I missed that one (Stonehenge Apocalypse) completely. Seems like I have a vague recollection of it but not really. I’m going to check it out. I just looked up a brief synopsis of it and it looks pretty cool.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 6, 2012 7:53 am

Rachel, I never saw Frequency but I have several movies like that myself, where they go in a direction they think will interest potential viewers when, actually, you just want it to keep going in the direction it was already headed.

Posted By swac44 : September 6, 2012 9:07 am

Something to keep an eye out for the next time it pops up on TCM is 1933′s Turn Back the Clock, with Lee Tracy getting hit by a car and coming to 20 years in the past, with the ability to rectify the mistakes that led to him becoming a poor tobacconist in the present. It’s probably more of an “it was all a dream” thing than actual time travel (there’s always Just Imagine with El Brendel getting frozen and waking up in the future), but it’s still interesting with Tracy conscious of the future outcome of his actions.

Posted By John Maddox Roberts : September 6, 2012 11:16 am

Wells’ shock at non-Utopian San Francisco hadn’t occurred to me, but you’re probably right. After all, “The Time Machine” itself was a warning about what would happen to humanity if it didn’t mend its ways soon. The Eloi were the effete descendants of the capitalist/bourgeois class, the Morlocks the brutish descendants of the proletariat, now supporting the Eloi solely for food. A classic “if this goes on” story.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 6, 2012 11:59 am

swac, never seen Turn Back the Clock, or even heard of it until now. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for it.

Also, Just Imagine was playing at the AFI recently but I missed it (I mean, I’ve seen it before but it would’ve been fun on the big screen). What a loopy movie.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 6, 2012 12:00 pm

the Morlocks the brutish descendants of the proletariat

That’s how most people describe the Movie Morlocks as well.

Posted By Ghijath Naddaf : September 6, 2012 12:29 pm

@ John Maddox Roberts
Thanks for reminding me at “Time after Time”.Such a great Movie.
Malcom McDowell and David Warner as Wells and Jack the Ripper
are a joy to watch.It´s funny and Horrific at the same time.
I want to see that one again.

Posted By swac44 : September 6, 2012 12:39 pm

Turn Back the Clock played on TCM within the past few months, I’m sure it’ll be back at some point over the next couple of years, and it’s worth seeing, not just for its fairly imaginative concept (for 1933, that is) but also a great Lee Tracy performance, since he gets to do some heavy dramatic work as well as play his stock wiseguy character. Plus it’s got some pre-code, Prohibition era fun to it as well. A nice surprise to see after I’d DVR’d it.

Posted By Shuvcat : September 6, 2012 12:43 pm

Love all these movies. Of course Mary Steenburgen reappeared in Back to the Future Part 3 as Doc Brown’s love interest/eventual wife.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : September 6, 2012 3:33 pm

I’ve never seen The Final Countdown so I’ve just added it to my Netflix queue. Looking forward to giving it a look after reading your write-up, Greg. This week has unexpectedly turned into a sci-fi viewing party for me.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 6, 2012 7:21 pm

@swac – And Lee Tracy doesn’t get nearly enough recognition. I love him (and everyone) in Doctor X.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 6, 2012 7:22 pm

This week has unexpectedly turned into a sci-fi viewing party for me.

That’s because it’s Sci-Fi September! I really like The Final Countdown and everyone does a great job in it. I think you’ll like it.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : September 6, 2012 8:35 pm

I didn’t get the memo about Sci-Fi September but I’m on board! At least this week anyway.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 7, 2012 8:35 am

I only sent the memo to myself. In retrospect, a pretty stupid decision.

Posted By Ghijath Naddaf : September 8, 2012 5:24 am

I just saw Tony Scott´s Deja Vu for the first time yesterday.
What a great Film.
Definitiv one of my favorite Time Travel Films now.

Posted By Jay : September 8, 2012 7:35 pm

Another great Time Travel Flick
The Philidelphia Experiment.

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