12 Monkeys

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  • Year: 1995
  • Director: Terry Gilliam
  • Starring: Bruce Willis, Madeline Stowe, Brad Pitt

Unlike every other entry in this Match-Up, there is a possibility that 12 Monkeys is not a time travel movie at all. Plenty of viewers have interpreted that the whole film is seen through the madness of a mental patient. While this is not the theory I hold to, there are scenes in the movie that suggest this could be possible. Regardless, 12 Monkeys is the most psychological film on this list.

In an unspecified year in the future (although the script reveals it as 2035), the remnant of humanity lives underground after a mysterious virus wiped out 99%. Prisoner James Cole (Bruce Willis) is sent above ground to investigate, where he finds animals running wild and a recurring logo graffiti-ed onto buildings.

With the promise of a pardon if he finds something useful, Cole is sent back into time to find out the origins of the virus. We already have a different kind of time travel movie here, as the scientists are not trying to change mankind’s past—they don’t believe that to be possible. They are only trying to find a cure so they can bring the 1% that survive back above ground. When Cole is mistakenly sent back to 1990, instead of the intended 1996, he almost immediately gets locked up in a mental institution.  It’s nice to see a realistic turn like this, as obviously someone in the real world who talked of being from the future and an upcoming apocalypse would be deemed mentally unstable.

While very medicated, Cole meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), the son of a famous virologist. 1995 was a great time for Brad Pitt, with Se7en also coming out, and Legends of the Fall and Interview with the Vampire coming out the year before. Pitt completely buries himself in this role, ranting and raving about consumerism, the system, and his famous father Dr. Jeffrey Goines Sr. (Christopher Plummer). Pitt plays the younger Goines as a complete lunatic, and it’s exactly what the character needs.

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Pitt’s Goines is exactly the kind of character we’re expecting to be the mastermind behind the virus that destroys humanity. He’s very clearly mad, is responsive to Cole when he brings up the virus, and of course his father is a virologist. When Cole is finally sent to 1996 and sees the markings of the Army of the 12 Monkeys all over Philadelphia, the future scientists have all the information they need.

The twist that Goines and the Army of the 12 Monkeys having absolutely nothing to do with the virus is one of those that absolutely floors you the first time, but when you go back and watch, it makes perfect sense. It works so well, because it’s not really a movie where we the audience are expecting one, at least not of that caliber. It’s not really built up as a whodunit, and Goines has so many tropes associated with a typical evil scientist that we don’t even consider that his motives could be something else entirely.

Why would he name an apocalyptic army the Army of the 12 Monkeys? It doesn’t really make sense, but it’s the name of the film, so we don’t think about it. It makes so much more sense that the Army of the 12 Monkeys is just a small group of environmentalists taking it too far, letting all the animals out of the Philadelphia Zoo and locking Dr. Goines in one of the cages. The younger Goines is clearly too unstable to create a virus that could wipe out most of humanity.

There’s also the recurring image of Cole’s dream, which he eventually realizes was an event he witnessed as a child. He saw a man get shot down while chasing after a long haired man, and saw a blonde woman mourning over him. Of course, this is revealed to be Cole’s older self, but that’s not really a big twist. When it’s shown that 1996 Jeffrey Goines has very long hair, Cole immediately assumes that he is the man being chased after. It turns out to actually be Dr. Peters (David Morse), Dr. Goines’ closest assistant. David Morse has only a handful of scenes, and in all of them until the end, his long hair is obscured and blocked from view. He’s one of those characters that on a re-watch you see that his motives were right in front of you, but you were so caught up in everything the first time that you didn’t notice.

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Every performance is wonderful, but the one that still manages to be the stand-out is Madeline Stowe as Dr. Kathryn Railly. Dr. Railly is one of Cole’s doctors in 1990, and he kidnaps her in 1996 so he can get to Philadelphia and do something about the outbreak. Even though he is her kidnapper and they do sort of fall in love, it’s not uncomfortable. This is nearly impossible to pull off, but Gilliam seems to enjoy these kind of challenges. First, it works because Dr. Railly knows Cole is not going to be violent, but simply that he needs to get to Philadelphia. Second, she was his doctor and she cares about his well-being. She is sympathetic to what she believes are delusions, and she doesn’t even begin to have feelings for him until she realizes that they are not delusions at all. By this point, she is not a captive, and he does not have a mental condition after all.

In most every time travel movie, there are the scenes where the time traveler has to convince the people in the future or past that he is a time traveler. There are often tired and at worse annoying, but 12 Monkeys handles them very well. During the events of 1996, there are radio and TV reports discussing a boy trapped in a well. Cole tells Dr. Railly that when he first heard about this, his father told him “never cry wolf” and that the boy is actually hiding in a barn. Plus, Cole has a World War I-era bullet stuck in his leg from a brief overlay before he got to 1996. Both of these convince her that Cole is actually healthy. This is clever enough, but by this point Cole has started to believe he is insane. Now, Dr. Railly has to convince Cole that he’s not insane after all. The role reversal here is brilliant, and it’s one of the best parts of the movie.

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Due to these scenes, 12 Monkeys could easily have been anti-psychiatry, but it’s not. Dr. Railly is still incredibly intelligent, and there are clearly plenty of people who still could use her help. She doesn’t look stupid by finally believing Cole, because she gets there by logic and reasoning. Instead, she simply learns that there are exceptions to what is classified as madness.

We believe in their relationship, because these are two people who in a short period of time have really thought through things. Cole knows he could stay in his own time and accept the full pardon, but he’d rather be in 1996, spending probably his last days with Dr. Railly. Like in The Terminator, their love is accelerated by extreme circumstances, but we get the feeling that if these two had a whole life time to live together, they would be good years. I just never felt that way about Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor.

12 Monkeys also takes some cues from literature, movies, and TV. The whole story is inspired by the 1962 French short film La Jetée, in which a boy witnesses his future death in an airport shooting. In her lecture, Dr. Railly brings up the Greek myth of Cassandra, a woman who could see the future but no one believed her. Of course, this applies to both Cole and later Dr. Railly. Televisions throughout the film are often showing time-travel or monkey-related programming, which is partially what leads some viewers to believe Cole is delusional. Dr. Strangelove is also called to mind a few times. It is mentioned in passing in a speech given by Dr. Goines, there is the whole theme of a small portion of humanity escaping underground, and a few of the scientists in the future wear dark glasses that resemble Strangelove’s.

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When Cole and Dr. Railly are on the run, they hide out in a 24-hour Hitchcock theater (which just like all Hitchcock marathons somehow isn’t showing Rope) and watch Vertigo. This is followed by a scene where Cole wakes up and sees Dr. Railly in a blonde wig, a direct shout-out to the scene in Vertigo where James Stewart has finally gotten Kim Novak to dress like the dead woman he fell in love with. There’s an interesting inversion in that (spoilers for Vertigo I suppose) Cole at this point has accepted the fact that he is perfectly sane, while the scene in Vertigo verifies that Stewart’s character is clearly not mentally healthy.

The scene in the cab where an undercover Cole and Railly find out the truth about the Army of the 12 Monkeys is great, because for a split second we believe things might turn out well for our heroes after all. Their cab driver tells them about the animals being freed from the zoo, we got some swelling music and a gorgeous shot of birds flying away, and suddenly Cole and Railly start laughing, believing everything will be fine. For such a brief moment of euphoria, we believe there could be a happy ending. Then it hits—the virus still will be released. Five billion people still die, even if the Army of the 12 Monkeys has nothing to do with it. I believe it hits Cole when he enters the airport and realizes it is the airport from his dream. Railly realizes it not long after, when she’s waiting in line behind Dr. Peters.

The ending does seem to indicate that the past is not going to change, as Cole is still shot and the virus is still released. The goal ultimately was merely to change the future and not the past, and this is probably done successfully, as one of the future scientists is shown on the plane next to Dr. Peters. However, I’m not so sure that the past is unaffected. I’m possibly reading too much into this, but after the adult Cole is shot, Dr. Railly gets up and looks directly at the boy.

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Of the various times we saw James Cole’s memory, this was never shown. Even when he realized that Dr. Railly was the woman in the vision, we never see her looking directly at him. Now, of course no one remembers the face of that random stranger who stared at them in the airport years ago, but if this had happened the first time, wouldn’t he place her face at this point in the memory? I don’t know, it could be nothing, but for me it suggests that the past has changed just a little bit. I always viewed the final scene of the young James Cole leaving the airport with his parents as slightly hopefully, because he still has a life to live and maybe, just maybe, things will be a little different. If something can change even the slightest thing in the past, maybe with a lot of effort the scientists can change the virus from breaking out in the first place.

12 Monkeys is the best kind of thriller. It’s exciting, cerebral, emotional, and gains a lot from re-watches. I’ve watched it probably ten times and there are still little things here-and-there that I’ll catch. Let’s take a look at the final score.

Story (30/30 Points)

There is a lot going on, but it is brought together perfectly. The ambiguities are clearly intentional, and they only add to the psychological themes. It’s a rush, but nothing is skipped over.

Cast (30/30 Points)

Personally, I think this is one of the best acted movies of all time. Everyone is in top form, from Brad Pitt’s maniacal ranting to Bruce Willis’ boyish love of the 20th century. Christopher Plummer redeems himself from that bizarre performance in Somewhere in Time, and David Morse is chilling and calculated as the man who brings down humanity. Still, Madeline Stowe is the stand-out as a psychiatrist coming to terms with the fact that her crazy patient isn’t so crazy.

Experience (25/25 Points)

The main theme is great, sounding both like a theme of insanity and something an organ grinder would play (and organ grinders often have monkeys, hmm). Gilliam’s direction is obviously great, and the way certain things are hidden and obscured really adds to the tension.

Originality (13/15 Points)

It’s clearly inspired by another film, but it mentions that in the credits, making it kind of an adaptation. It’s similar to The Terminator a bit, but it tackles the themes so much better.

FINAL SCORE: 98%

It will probably take at least two viewings to understand the whole thing, but it is definitely worth your time. 12 Monkeys is one of the best thrillers ever made, and it’s my personal favorite Terry Gilliam film. It is definitely a unique voice in the time travel catalog.

Next week, it’s the remake of The Time Machine from 2002.

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7 Times The Academy Snubbed Kubrick Films

the seven

Well, the Oscars are upon us again. It’s time to see which films will be deemed the greatest of the year just to be criticized for being overrated ten years from now. I could do a typical list of Oscar snubs, but instead I want to look at one filmmaker whose films were overlooked by the Academy time after time—Stanley Kubrick. Let’s look at seven instances where his films weren’t even nominated in worthy categories.

7. Best Supporting Actor for Dr. Strangelove (1964)

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Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is actually my favorite Kubrick film. It’s only this low because the Academy did at least nominate it in a fair number of categories—Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Peter Sellers), and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Sure, Peter Sellers is the stand-out in Strangelove, but he’s playing three important characters, while George C. Scott plays just one—the hilariously gung-ho General Buck Turgidson. His expressions, physical comedy, and patriotism lead to some of the film’s greatest moments. He is the epitome of someone who doesn’t think before he speaks, with classic lines such as “I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed” in reference to 10-20 million civilian casualties, and at the very end not allowing for a “mine shaft gap.”

Scott didn’t want to play Turgidson so over-the-top, and Kubrick more or less tricked him into playing the character that way. It worked. Roger Ebert even called Scott’s performance “the funniest thing in the movie” and “a duet for voice and facial expression.” How hard would it have been to throw him into the Best Supporting Actor line-up for 1963? Scott probably wouldn’t have accepted if he had won, as he didn’t like the Oscars and rejected his own for Patton, but that didn’t stop them from nominating him other times.

6. Best Director for Paths of Glory (1957)

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America wasn’t ready for a movie like Paths of Glory in 1957. It is unashamedly anti-war in every frame, dealing with themes that we were ready for thirty years later with Full Metal Jacket. The Best Picture winner in 1957 was The Bridge on the River Kwai, a World War II epic, while Paths of Glory is a World War I personal drama. It deals with a small faction of an army and *shudder* not the United States or British army.

I understand why Paths of Glory wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, especially in 1957, the year that also gave us 12 Angry Men and Witness for the Prosecution. Why on earth was it not nominated for Best Director? What in 12 Angry Men justifies a Best Director nomination? 12 Angry Men is a fantastic film, with great acting and writing, but it’s essentially a play, with almost the entire movie set in one room.

In Paths of Glory, Kubrick’s direction captures the horrors of warfare, especially in contrast with the lavish homes of the higher-ups. Like Dr. Strangelove, it’s a punchy 90-minute affair that doesn’t waste a shot. The scene where the soldiers are let to their death at the hands of their own army captures the feelings of foreboding and doom perfectly.

5. Best Adapted Screenplay for Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

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1999 was a spectacular year for movies—American Beauty, The Sixth Sense, The Green Mile, The Matrix, etc. It was also the year in which Kubrick put forth his last offering—the bizarre, slow-paced thriller Eyes Wide Shut starring Tom Cruise. The reception was lukewarm, and reports even seemed to vary as to the late Kubrick’s own thoughts on the picture.

The years have been good to basically all of Kubrick’s films, but this one unfortunately may still need a few years. There are those, myself included, who see it as an underrated masterpiece, but there are others who just find it boring. Eyes Wide Shut is based on the 1962 novel Traumnovelle (translated Dream Story) by Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler, which is set in Vienna as opposed to New York City.

The story in Eyes Wide Shut is transcendental, strangely building on itself and then falling down upon itself. The changes Bill Harford goes through and the things he might or might not actually be experiencing are fascinating and weird. Then there’s that final line of dialogue. Is it funny? Is it uplifting? Depressing? Whatever it is, it’s pure Kubrick.

4. Best Supporting Actor for Full Metal Jacket (1987)

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It’s not that the second half of Full Metal Jacket is bad, because it isn’t, but if someone mentions the movie, what do you think of? “What is your major malfunction, numbnuts?” You’re so ugly you could be a modern art masterpiece!” “Do you maggots understand that?” Almost every line people quote from Full Metal Jacket comes from Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, played brilliantly by R. Lee Ermey.

So much had already been said about Vietnam by 1987 in films like The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, and Platoon. Showing the troops in training for half of the movie was a new and gutsy take on it, but it wouldn’t have worked without Ermey. He comes busting out of the gate right away and doesn’t let up until basic training is finished. If you’ve seen a drill sergeant parody or homage in film or television since 1987, chances are it’s based on Ermey or even played by him.

To add insult to injury, Best Supporting Actor for 1987 went to Sean Connery in The Untouchables.  No one’s arguing Sean Connery is a bad actor, but this was a consolation award. Connery’s performance in The Untouchables is fine, but nothing screams “Oscar-worthy.”

3. Everything for The Shining (1980)

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Here’s something you might not know—not only was The Shining not nominated for an Oscar, it was actually nominated for two Golden Raspberry Awards (Razzies) for Worst Director and Worst Actress (Shelley Duvall). My, how things have changed since then.

Contemporary thoughts on Duvall’s performance are mixed, but Jack Nicholson has said it’s the hardest part he’s ever seen an actor have to play and that she nailed it. Criticizing Kubrick’s direction on the other hand is mind-blowing. The Shining is so meticulous in its direction, letting us take in the isolation of the Overlook hotel through long takes and an endless parade of imagery.

Nicholson’s performance is over-the-top, yes, but he portrays a downward spiral into insanity better than practically anyone. Scatman Crothers also brings a brilliant supporting performance as Dick Halloran. The score is haunting, the cinematography is both beautiful and harrowing, and even seemingly smaller things like sound are used wonderfully. Honestly, the most egregious snub here is Best Art Direction (now Best Production Design), which takes into account set design. The Overlook Hotel is one of the most iconic sets in film, so much so that people have drawn out the floor plan to show that it is architecturally impossible. Obviously, Kubrick knew this and that adds to the horror. There’s also the hedge maze, the strange-looking bathroom, and the obsessive symmetry put into every shot. It really should have been nominated for something.

2. The acting in Lolita (1962)

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Lolita isn’t talked about as much as other Kubrick films today, and that’s a shame. It’s an incredibly well-made film, highlighted by some stellar performances. Obviously, it was incredibly risky in 1962 to make a film out of a book like Lolita, and the film was still heavily censored. The casting was crucial for Lolita to be remembered as a great film, as opposed to just a big pile of controversy.

James Mason took a big chance by taking the part of pedophile Humbet Humbert, but his charm is absolutely necessary to playing the part effectively. In the book, Humbert tries to appeal to the audience through his prose, but the film needed to cast an actor who can appeal to an audience in other ways. Mason comes off as high-class, kind, and charming at first, making his true self all the more unsettling. The second half of the film is basically one long villainous breakdown on Humbert’s part, and Mason plays a man falling apart to perfection. He was nominated for a BAFTA and Golden Globe for Best Actor, making his lack of Oscar nomination even stranger. Granted, he would have been up against Peter O’ Toole for Lawrence of Arabia and Gregory Peck for To Kill a Mockingbird, but the man at least deserved to be in that mix.

Sue Lyon was just fourteen when she portrayed Dolores “Lolita” Haze, and hers is definitely the most challenging performance in the film. It’s not that one scene stands out, but rather her gradual transformation of a girl whose childhood is taken away from her. Peter Sellers is great as always as Claire Quilty, a playwright who assumes many hilarious identities while on the trail of Humbert. This was the film that got him his roles in Dr. Strangelove, but he deserved some recognition for this too.

1. Best Picture for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

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Is there really another choice for number one? 2001 is a film that reinvented an entire genre of film, pioneered visual effects that hold up marvelously today, and dealt with themes that critics and film goers will never stop discussing. Even viewers who may not find it entertaining can at least agree it is one of the most important films of all time… and yet in its day, it didn’t even get a nomination for Best Picture.

I’ll give credit where credit is due. 2001 did win one award for Best Visual Effects and was nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. It lost the screenplay award to The Producers, another film from the year that holds up wonderfully today, so that’s fine. It’s not only that 2001 wasn’t on the list for Best Picture, but rather the films that were. Does anyone even remember Rachel, Rachel? No, I’m not talking about the fictional movie Rochelle, Rochelle from Seinfeld. What won best picture in 1968? Oliver! (and no I’m not excited about it)

2001 is an experience as much as it is a film. It goes for extended periods without dialogue, so Kubrick can give his material immense room to breathe. It’s less-is-more in some ways, but it also covers millions of years of human history and the discovery of alien life. To not even nominate this ambitious and beautiful film for Best Picture is one of the biggest mistakes in the history of the Academy Awards.

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Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

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  • Year: 1989
  • Director: Stephen Herek
  • Starring: Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, George Carlin

I need to make an apology. I really should have swapped this one out for Time Bandits. I left Time Bandits out, because we already had one Terry Gilliam film in the match-up (12 Monkeys) and one film where David Warner plays the villain (Time After Time), but that film is so much more creative than this one. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is pretty much dumbed down Time Bandits as a high school movie.

Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) are two slackers who need to ace their history project or they will fail the course. They’re lost as how to go about doing that when they’re visited by Rufus (George “Can I Say Any of Those Seven Words in Movies” Carlin), who lives in 2688, a futuristic utopia inspired by Bill and Ted’s music and attitude. He gives them access to his phone booth time machine, so they can get an “A” on their project and change the world.

I guess there’s some irony in the fact that George Carlin is really phoning in his performance and how the time machine is a phone booth, but it really just seems like he’s in this for the paycheck.

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But I will never sink as low as children’s television… until the ’90s.

The future of 2688 seems like a pretty cool place, not because Bill and Ted inspired it, but because it is run by… The Minister of Soul, The Master of the Universe, Eighth Wonder of the World,

DO I HAVE TO SAY HIS NAME? DO I HAVE TO SPEAK HIS NAME?

Alright, so that works better with an audience, but seriously that’s Clarence “Big Man” Clemons of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, playing one of “The Three Most Important People in the World” (so essentially himself).

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Bill and Ted use the time machine to round up various historical figures to come and speak for their history report, including Napoleon, Billy the Kid, and Socrates. Since Bill and Ted are lovable idiots (the lovable part is up for debate), they don’t know much about them and often pronounce names incorrectly like “So-Crayts.”

The potential for jokes here is endless, but it is barely utilized at all. Most of the jokes rely on Bill and Ted simply being idiots, and instead of clever historical references, it’s mostly just “Hey dude that’s Abraham Lincoln.” We could have had American Presidents wondering what’s going on in Mongol China or outlaws exploring Napoleonic France, but it’s just a jump from set piece to set piece.

Dan Shor is at least mildly amusing as Billy the Kid, because at least it looks like he’s enjoying himself. The odd friendship between him and Socrates has a couple moments that’ll get a chuckle. The one figure the movie does kind of put some thought into is Sigmund Freud (Rod Loomis) who seems to be holding a sexual object in every scene—a cigar, a vacuum hose, a straw, a corn dog, etc.

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Hey Doc, sometimes a corn dog is just a mishmash of processed pork covered with breading.

In a completely superfluous subplot to fill time in a 90 minute movie, Bill and Ted leave Napoleon at home with Ted’s little brother. What do they do? They go out for ice cream. Um… what’s the joke? Napoleon eats a lot of ice cream and likes it, but how is that funny? The pin he earns for eating all the ice cream looks silly next to his military buttons, but surely this whole subplot couldn’t have existed for that one sort-of joke. What if he looked at a dessert menu and saw a Napoleon? I’m not saying it’s hilarious, but it is at least a joke. Then, Napoleon goes bowling for no discernible reason. It relies way too much “People will think Napoleon doing things in the 20th century will be hilarious” instead of actual clever writing. At least the water park where Bill and Ted finally catch him is named Waterloo, so it’s good to know that the people writing this are at least minimally familiar with history.

There’s a scene near the end where Bill and Ted are getting ready to take the historical figures to the auditorium for the speech, but Bill’s stepmom (whom he has a whole Freudian thing with, because time travel movies in the ’80s insisted on it) tells him he has to do his chores first. He makes all the historical figures help, but with the exception of Freud and the vacuum, there aren’t any jokes except “Look, it’s famous people doing chores.”

This is followed by all the historical figures getting loose in the local mall. It kind of feels like this is the scene we’ve been building up to, seeing as how the previous scenes were really rushed. So what does Joan of Arc do? She goes to the hair salon and gets her hair cut? No, okay, um she goes to the boy’s clothing store? Alright, no, I’ve got it. She goes to the mall’s restaurant and gets served a burned steak.

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She teaches aerobics… because it’s the ’80s I guess. I give up. Where’s the joke? This is simply another “Here’s someone doing something they don’t normally do” scene that expects us it find it funny simply because it’s random. The most egregious example has to be Abraham Lincoln though. You have Abraham Lincoln in a mall. How hard is this? It’s written in the oldest book of jokes that you have to send him to the movie theater. Instead, he goes to get his photo taken, which of course isn’t funny.

This could all be forgiven if our leads were actually interesting characters, but they’re not. Bill and Ted are the typical “Sure they’re stupid but they’re just so darn sweet you have to love them,” but I just can’t stand them. It’s sort of trying to be a PG stoner comedy, which is really weird, because a stoner flick without the drugs doesn’t make any sense. I know the creators have said Bill and Ted aren’t stoners, but come on—random philosophizing, the deadpan reactions, the general slacking attitude. These are clearly stoner stereotypes.

The constant catchphrasing and high-fives between the two isn’t funny to begin with and only gets more annoying as it goes on. It comes off as insincere, especially when Bill thinks Ted has been killed and simply says “This is bogus.” The script has a weird mix of moments where the audience is supposed to laugh at how stupid they are, but plenty of others where we’re supposed to love them and feel sorry for them. I don’t find the “idiot fish out of water” comedy all that funny to begin with, but it’s been done better than this.

Time travel is handled a bit differently than most films, though. At various times when Bill and Ted are in trouble, they simply say they’ll go back in the time machine and fix it later, instantly solving the problem at hand. In a serious movie, this would be too easy, but it works in a comedy, since we all know it has to work out anyway. It’s just a quicker way of getting there, and it’s actually kind of clever.

If Dumb and Dumber meets Time Bandits sounds like a movie you’d like, you’ll be entertained by Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. If it doesn’t, I don’t think you’re in for a surprise. It’s about what you’d expect.

Story (11/30 Points)

So many scenes feel like set-ups for good jokes, but they end up falling flat. It goes through the standard time travel cliches—issues with the machine, last minute escapes, the works. The Napoleon subplot is padding at its most obvious, and the “ace this assignment or you fail the class” has been done so many times before, and it’s incredibly tired.

Cast (14/30 Points)

You love Bill and Ted or you find them annoying. Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves are clearly having fun, so I’ll give them some credit. George Carlin on the other hand is not having fun. The historical figures don’t have much to work with, but for the most part the actors portraying them don’t really add anything. Freud and Billy the Kid are enjoyable, but I can’t think of one scene where Lincoln or Beethoven was all that funny. The addition of Clarence Clemons as the literal “master of the universe, king of the world” is pretty enjoyable, but he has just two short scenes.

Experience (13/25 Points)

The tone is pretty consistent, and if it’s your kind of film, you’ll enjoy the charms. It’s just not for me. There’s a lot of ’80s rock, which is appropriate, because Bill and Ted’s music goes onto inspire the world.

Originality (5/15 Points)

It’s really, really unoriginal. Most of the humor doesn’t go anywhere, and the characters and plot lines have been seen before. The whole thing just kind of feels like they’re going through the motions.

FINAL SCORE: 43%

So many scenes in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure feel like they’re being filmed as quickly as possible, just so they can get on to the next one. Unfortunately, it never really leads to anything. Sure, there’s the big presentation at the end, but even that isn’t really funny. Obviously, most people disagree with me, as it spawned a sequel, a cartoon, a cereal, and somehow a career for Keanu Reeves. I completely understand why it’s popular, but I can’t get into it.

Next week, it’s a complete 180 with the psychological thriller 12 Monkeys.

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Back to the Future

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  • Year: 1985
  • Director: Robert Zemeckis
  • Starring: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson

Even if you’ve never seen Back to the Future, there’s a very high chance you’ve seen if referenced, homaged, or parodied in pop culture. 30 years later, it’s probably the most talked about film of 1985, as well as a contender for the most famous and beloved work of time travel fiction ever. So why does it hold up so well?

It would have been so easy for this movie to appear dated. It’s a high school movie from the 1980s where our lead character travels back to the 1950s. Plenty of ’80s high school movies are dated, simply by being drenched in the culture of time, but to also set in the ’50s could easily have been a disaster (*cough* Porkys *cough*). The ’80s view of the ’50s was almost as cliched as… well, our view of the ’80s today.

High school movies set in the ’50s tend to either portray students as completely wholesome or completely sex-crazed, with very little in between, but the characters in Back to the Future seem like real people. Sure, George McFly (Crispin Glover) comes across at first as a standard nerd, but once Marty (Michael J. Fox) gets him to open up, he’s quite a nice guy who has strength beyond his means. Lorraine (Lea Thompson) is one of the “popular” girls, but she has no issue associating with George and eventually falling in love with him.

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The typical high school bully is also taken a look at with the character of Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson). He’s not just a jerk who will grow out of it after high school, but rather an attempted rapist. It would have been so easy to have taken him down the “bullies because he’s insecure” route, but the movie deserves some serious props for being this dark with their bully.

Compare these subtle deconstructions with something like The Breakfast Club, which also aims to break down high school stereotypes, but does it with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. While it has its merits, so much of The Breakfast Club doesn’t hold up today. First of all, the characters break out of their stereotypes in the course of one afternoon, while Back to the Future takes place over the course of a week. At the end of The Breakfast Club, the others still make the “nerd” of the group do their assignment for them, while the bully who was verbally abusing a girl just hours before makes out with her.

I know, I know, this isn’t a critique of The Breakfast Club, so I’ll move on. Another thing that could have been so wrong is Marty and Doc’s friendship. When you think about, it’s a teenager who is close friends with the mad scientist who lives by himself. However, the way it’s portrayed shows that they’re just people of very different ages who happen to be friends. It really helps that Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer (Claudia Wells) encourages Marty with Doc’s own words, showing that she respects him just as much as Marty does. Screenwriter Bob Gale and director Bob Zemeckis even came up with a backstory that explains the friendship. Marty snooped around at Doc’s place, befriended Doc as they both felt like outcasts, and Marty now works for Doc, helping with experiments and feeding his dog Einstein.

When people talk about the great characters in Back to the Future, Marty will always get mentioned as he’s the protagonist, but the focus is often on Doc for being the most bombastic and George for going through the most change. Marty’s traits and arc are more subtle than George’s, but they are still very much present. You might not notice it the first time you watch, but Marty has a very keen ability to see the good in society’s outcasts. He’s already done this with Doc Brown, and this helps him do the same with his own father as a teenager. Marty also has his own insecurities to overcome. Like his father with writing, Marty is afraid to share his guitar skills with the world, based on the fear of rejection. By the end, he finally overcomes this when he rocks the Enchantment Under the Sea dance with his rendition of Johnny B. Goode. The sequels feel the need to give him additional insecurities to overcome, but they feel shoehorned in compared to this realistic development.

The storytelling is absolutely flawless. Everything mentioned in the early parts of the movie comes back into play at some point, but it doesn’t feel forced. The Lorraine McFly in the original 1985 feels like someone who would endlessly reminisce about the past, as her marriage in its current state is awful. We understand why she mentions all the things Marty goes on to see in 1955. The clock tower supporter seems obsessed enough with her own cause that she would pass out fliers documenting the exact time lightning struck.

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Science in time-travel movies is tough, because obviously time travel doesn’t exist in real life. It’s over-explained in some films and glossed over in others, but for the kind of movie Back to the Future is, it’s handled perfectly. Doc tells Marty the flux capacitor makes time travel possible, that he got the idea from falling off his toilet, and that plutonium is required, but that’s about it. It’s just enough to make us believe Doc invented time travel, but not enough to bore us. Plus, the time machine is a Delorean and Doc is a pretty cool scientist, so even his lines of exposition come across as awesome.

Every scene and basically every line is memorable, but there is a one-two-three punch of scenes at the film’s climax that cements Back to the Future as a classic. When George McFly, who everyone but Marty had counted out, finally finds his strength and knocks Biff out, saving Lorraine from assault, it’s pure triumph. It’s not just that they’ll end up together, but that they actually earn it. Their meeting in the original 1955 was pure coincidence. George has grown as a character, and the future George will never be the same.

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Neither will Biff’s face.

This is followed by the dance scene, giving us the most romantic moment in the film (Lorraine and George finally kissing to “Earth Angel”) and the most fun (Marty playing Johnny B. Goode) back-to-back, and it is glorious. When “Earth Angel” fades, the romantic score comes in, and then the two play in conjunction, it’s just perfect. Also, pairing the seriousness of “Earth Angel” with the party feel of “Johnny B Goode” shows how well this film balances it serious and comedic moments.

With George and Lorraine’s story wrapped up, Marty still has to get back to 1985 and convince Doc to take precautionary measures against the Libyan terrorists who will otherwise kill him. Watching Marty try to tell Doc what’s going to happen in the future is heartbreaking, even when you know it will turn out alright. The Doc and Marty scenes in 1955 are beautifully bittersweet, as Marty knows this might be the last days he’ll ever spend with his friend. I love that the scene stays in 1955 after Marty goes back, because we get to see Doc celebrating his own success.

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So is there anything about Back to the Future that doesn’t work? A good number of people take issue with the final scenes, where it is revealed that George and Lorraine now have a happy marriage and are pretty well off, due to George finally embracing his writing and getting published. Even Cripsin Glover took issue with this, saying the McFlies shouldn’t need money to be happy. For me though, it seems pretty clear that both the happy marriage and the money come from George’s character development. By believing in himself, he has become a better person, caring more about his wife and giving himself a successful career.

Some also take issue with Biff waxing George’s car, as George is employing his wife’s attempted rapist. A lot of those who dislike this, though, will make it sound like Biff is George’s personal slave or something. It’s made clear that he’s just the auto detail guy in town, and he is only at the McFly house when they need cars touched up.

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Back to the Future is what happens when love is poured into every aspect of a film. The story, the directing, the performances, and the score all come together in perfect harmony. Oh, and what a score it is too. Apparently, Zemeckis didn’t think the story was good enough on its own, so he asked Alan Silvestri to compose the biggest theme he could… and boy did he.

There is some fish-out-of water comedy, but it’s used sparingly and incredibly well. Most of the comedy comes from the characters, as it should. The comedy and drama is mixed in just the right proportions, creating something that feels a lot like real life (you know, if we had time travel). It’s such a tightly-wound movie—no scene is wasted and the two hour run time flies by. Let’s take a look at the final score.

Story (30/30 Points)

Every scene is crucial,and the way characters are developed is unique and heartwarming. The three scenes at the climax just never let go.

Cast (30/30 Points)

The movie doesn’t have endless supporting characters, but there are five main characters who are all crucial to the story, and all of the actors give their all. Claudia Wells even makes the most of her few scenes as Jennifer.

Experience (25/25 Points)

It’s a gorgeous film to look at and listen to. The songs from ’80s and the ’50s are great, including “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis, which is perfect for the opening scenes. Of course, we all know and love the Johnny B. Goode scene. It’s something not often mentioned, but the aging makeup is really well done too, especially on Crispin Glover.

Originality (15/15 Points)

Very few time travel movies have someone change the future for the better, and even fewer have it stay that way at the end. That’s such a breath of fresh air. Of course, building a Delorean out of a time machine is pretty unique too.

FINAL SCORE: 100%

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, this is one of my favorite films, and it’s definitely the most fun film of all time. Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale clearly cared about this film a lot, and their vision shows in every frame. I respect them for saying they will never remake it or release a special edition with “updated” effects, because they understand the fans wouldn’t change a thing.

Trust me, there are still plenty of interesting time travel flicks to come. Next week, it’s an all-out comedy with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

The Night of the Hunter: What Makes It Great?

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  • Year: 1955
  • Director: Charles Laughton
  • Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish

Welcome to my new series, What Makes It Great, where I’ll sporadically be doing in-depth analysis of old and new classics. The Night of the Hunter is a great place to start, because it is one of those films that can be watched over and over again with the guarantee of always finding something new. As with all movies in this series, it is impossible to fully analyze a film’s greatness without going into spoilers, so you’ve been warned.

The Background

The Night of the Hunter was the only film directed by acclaimed actor Charles Laughton. So wait, after directing a thrilling and visually striking film, he never made another movie? Yeah, because it flopped. Seriously.

Alright, it kind of makes sense that not everyone “got” this film in 1955. Hunter is a very unique film in both its visual style and message, and it was way ahead of its time. It’s what I like to call a Marty McFly movie—”I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet, but your kids are gonna love it.” Spike Lee, The Coen Brothers, Martin Scorsese, and others have named it as a major influence, with the first two having direct shout-outs in their films—the famous love/hate tattoos in Do the Right Thing and the drowned car in The Man Who Wasn’t There.

As a Horror Film

What genre does The Night of the Hunter fall under? Arguably, it doesn’t matter, as many great films blend genres wonderfully, but Hunter is often considered a film noir. While visually it does borrow from film noir (or arguably both borrow from German expressionism), the story itself is rural rather than urban, follows the plight of children, has no complicated mystery or femme fatale, and has a happy ending. Honestly, it’s more of a horror film.

For me, there are two things that the best horror movies do, besides the typical good story, thematic music, etc. First of all, the mundane should be made scary. Things that should be completely safe and even comforting are suddenly the most terrifying thing in the film—taking a shower in Psycho, eating dinner in Alien, even a children’s book in The BabadookThe Night of the Hunter manages to do this with a hymn of all things. There are few creepier images in film than a shadowy Robert Mitchum riding a horse, singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” in his deep, resonant voice.

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The other thing that horror movies require to be scary is for our heroes to be vulnerable. Here, we have very young children on their own, surrounded by adults who are of no help whatsoever (until the end). The whole thing feels like a dream from the opening seconds, with the starry background and the haunting lullaby that plays over the opening credits. When Harry Powell first stands outside the Harper home, his shadow completely overtakes the room where John and Pearl are trying to sleep. The scene where Pearl and John escape downriver is completely transcendental, one of the most beautiful ever put to film. When they stay in a barn overnight, believing themselves to be temporarily safe, and they hear that eerie cry of “Leaning, Leaning, safe and secure from all alarms” and then see Harry Powell in the distance, it takes us back to the primal fears we all had as children. Director Charles Laughton tapped into something basic here, something childlike that is fear at its most raw.

Religion, Sex, and the Patriarchy

Maybe America wasn’t ready for a movie about a religious serial killer in 1955. Like Se7en 40 years later (and I promise no more spoilers on that one), the killer is not hiding behind religion, but rather believes he is doing the will of God. That is so much scarier than merely someone pretending to be a man of God. The scene where Harry Powell talks to God clearly shows that he truly believes God wants him to kill women and blesses him with money to continue it.

In an early scene, Harry visits a burlesque show. As he watches the performance, his knife seamlessly switches on in a very phallic manner. At first, it comes off as a bit of a joke, but the more you think about it, it’s an incredibly complex image that sums up Harry Powell completely—his arousal is mixed with his violent tendencies. He believes that women like this ought to be punished, but he is undoubtedly turned on as well. He’s blaming someone else for his own actions. Mitchum’s acting is perfect in this scene, especially in the post-knife flip satisfied expression he gives while looking towards heaven.

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Harry is arrested for stealing a car, and ends up in jail with Ben Harper (Peter Graves), who committed murder and stole nearly $10,000 to provide for his family. Of course, Harry sees this meet-up as a sign from God.

The community where the Harpers live is a perfect location for Harry, because almost everyone falls for his tricks right away. This is a town where both the husbands and wives have a very twisted and sexist view of marriage. Icey Spoon, the appropriately-named ice cream shop owner, tries to convince Willa Harper that she needs to get over her recently-executed husband and move on. Icey doesn’t care about Willa grieving for her dead husband, or even marrying for love, but rather having a new father for the kids immediately. She then goes on about how women shouldn’t enjoy sex (In front of her husband!), and how when she has sex with her husband Walt, she just thinks about canning.

Then there’s the creepy way the husbands address their wives as “Mother.” The first time we see this happen, the local executioner is talking to his wife with the children in the next room. They are sleeping, so it wouldn’t make too much sense, but it could perhaps be explained away. Walt Spoon, however, constantly refers to Icey as “Mother” even though we don’t see or hear about their children at all. The husbands see their wives as no more than the role of a mother. It makes sense that a town as patriarchal as this would fall for Harry Powell, who is essentially the patriarchy taken to a murderous level. When Willa prepares to get into bed with Harry on their wedding night, he tells her that her body is only for “begetting children” and “not for the lust of men.”

The wedding night scene ends with Willa’s chilling prayer, “Help me to get clean so I can be what Harry wants me to be.” She doesn’t ask God to help her be what God wants her to be, but what her husband Harry wants her to be. She is not following a religion where God is the highest power, but where Harry Powell is.

In the scene following, Willa has become exactly what Harry wants her to be. At a fiery (very, very fiery) “revival” service, Willa blames herself for her dead husband’s transgressions, saying that if she hadn’t asked him for makeup and perfume, he wouldn’t have needed to commit crimes to provide for her.

Harry’s power over Willa culminates in the scene where he kills her. Willa is lying on the bed, talking but otherwise motionless, having so little power of her own left. She tells Harry she knows that Ben couldn’t have told him where the money was. Harry slaps her, but she stays in the bed, saying that she knows he doesn’t care about the money anyway. Harry walks over and raises his hand toward heaven. Note how the high ceiling and shadows make their bedroom look like a church.

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The score is a dual between a romantic waltz and a dark brooding theme, and the contrast of dark and light just makes this scene all the more harrowing. As Harry raises his knife to kill Willa as she lies on the bed, the visuals remind us of a biblical sacrifice. Willa knows what is happening, and the script even describes her as having “the ecstasy of a martyr.”

When the children finally do escape downriver, they eventually end up at the home of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), the only adult in the whole film who is actually helpful. Rachel is an independent woman, probably married in the past as a son is mentioned, but on her own now as a foster parent. It would have been so easy to have a movie about a murderous preacher be anti-religion, but it’s not at all. Rachel is a Christian, an actual one without a twisted misogynistic outlook, who shows the children how it can be done right.

When Harry Powell finds her home and claims the children are his, she doesn’t fall for it. When he comes back that night and starts with his “Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms,” she responds right back with “Leaning on Jesus, leaning on Jesus.” His is a vague, bizarre interpretation of religion, but hers is a solid faith.

After this, Harry Powell is really not a a threat at all. Honestly, from a story-telling perspective, the movie could have ended after this scene, but I understand the Hays Code at the time wanted definite proof that the villain would be punished. At least we get the great scene where Harry is arrested, and John falls on his knees and throws the money, begging the police to stop, finally letting go of the feelings he wanted to release when his father was arrested. Ben Harper had put such a burden on his young son that John never had a chance to grieve for his own father.

The Night of the Hunter is a film unlike any other, from the performances to the story and themes to the amazing score by Walter Schumann. It makes the audience feel all the danger the children are in, often feeling like a nightmare, but one with such beautiful imagery you can’t look away. It is truly a shame Charles Laughton never got to direct another film.

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The Terminator

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  • Year: 1984
  • Director: James Cameron
  • Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn

Of all the time travel films in this Movie Match-Up, The Terminator is the one least associated with the genre. The conflict of the film has absolutely nothing to do with defunct time machines, but it is still about changing the future. It is tough to think of The Terminator as just a single film, as it has now spawned four sequels, a TV series, video games, and a governor, but let’s try to strip all of that away. Let’s go back to a time before James Cameron was the guy who made Dances with Wolves in Space and everyone knew how to spell Genesis.

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You know, I’m perfectly fine with this opening script, except for the last word. It brings to mind the opening of the old Batman show.

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Will our heroes survive? Find out tonight on THE TERMINATOR!

We see a glimpse of 2029 here, and we see a bit more later through Kyle Reese’s flashbacks, but almost all of our movie is set in 1984. All of the time travel movies so far have started with our hero traveling back or forward in time, so starting in the past instead is a nice change. The time travel technology has already been developed, and it really exists just to get the plot going. The only issue with it is both the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) are sent back naked, for some blah-de-blah sciency reason which really exists to show Arnold’s Mr. Universe body. Immediately, we see the threat of the T-800 as he kills people for their clothes and a gun shop owner for weapons.

The T-800 is essentially a horror movie villain, a nearly-unstoppable force whose only intent is to kill Sarah Connor. It’s a machine covered in human tissue, blending into human society flawlessly (you know, except the chiseled physique and thick Austrian accent.). Perhaps the scariest thing about the T-800 is its ability to imitate human voices, whether it be a police officer or someone’s own mother. While it says very little, and perhaps because it says very little, the T-800 has become one of the most iconic film villains. It only says what it needs to do the job, and that makes it more terrifying.

The villain isn’t the only reason The Terminator works so well, though. All of the characters are well-drawn and feel like real people. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is the embodiment of the every-woman—a young waitress whose normal life is affected by forces beyond her control. She actually accepts things fairly quickly and proves she has survival skills she wasn’t aware of. Kyle Reese is a great action hero, and Michael Biehn plays all the war-torn weariness and hope of a better future perfectly. Even the cops are portrayed as intelligent and incredibly well-meaning, unlike the bumbling and unintentionally harmful police many action films have to offer. Of course, they are still defeated as they are up against an unstoppable machine they have no experience with. Lt. Ed Traxler (Paul Winfield) in particular is a stand-out character, going out of his way to protect Sarah and make sure she is comfortable. After taking Reese in for kidnapping Sarah, Traxler is the only one to consider that perhaps his story is true. Seeing him get blown away by the T-800 while trying to protect Sarah is one of the film’s most emotional moments.

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Unlike so many action movies, the story in The Terminator isn’t just an excuse to set up action set pieces and car chases. James Cameron’s story clearly came first, as there is very clearly a whole universe created here, in both 2029 and 1984. Any story that starts with two Sarah Connors being killed and the third on the run is going to be compelling. The mystery fan in me wishes the film had started with the investigation and revealed the T-800 and Kyle Reese later, but regardless, we’re sucked right in.

The one thing in The Terminator that doesn’t really work is the love story. Kyle and Sarah are partners in a life-or-death situation, so I completely understand them falling in love quicker than usual. It’s the backstory that makes it weird, and I’m not talking about how the sequels changed it or expanded on, just what is shown here. Kyle has been sent back to save Sarah, because her future son John is the one that will save humanity from their robot overlords (J.C. initials, subtle huh?). However, as the film goes on, we learn that Kyle volunteered for the mission because John showed him of a picture of Sarah and he fell in love with it. I don’t know… haven’t we seen this one before?

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I can even live with the picture thing, but he’s falling in love with his friend’s mom! Couldn’t we have gotten a scene in 2029 of John Connor being incredibly uncomfortable with this? Who knows? Maybe Reese is lying, and Connor sent him back to get his creepy friend out of the way. Of course, Sarah gets pregnant, making Kyle his own friend’s dad. Like I said, I’m not going to break down the science of time travel in these movies, because it’s not real, but if this “love story” doesn’t make you uncomfortable, I’m worried. Plus, at the very end of the film after Kyle and the T-800 have met their end, Sarah records a message for John saying that she and Kyle “loved a lifetime’s worth” in the short time they had together.

There are very clear themes in The Terminator about man and machines, and these are one of the reasons the film is the classic it is today. We get little glimpses here and there of how technology is already taking over in 1984. Sarah and her roommate’s answering machine plays a joke message about talking to a machine, which is alright because “Machines need love too.” The club where Sarah hides out is called the TechNoir, literally the “black technology.” Of course, the most evil machine, the T-800 itself, has been built to look like a man. Look at this shot, where it is resembles our common image of Frankenstein’s monster.

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At the end, when it rises up from the ashes like some kind of twisted metal phoenix only to reveal its robot interior, the true horror of technology overtaking us is brought to light. Even when man, the outer shell of the T-800, is stripped away, the creation of a machine still remains. There are many horror movies where the villain rises again at the very end for another scare and chase, but it’s actually justified here. Even if you know it’s coming, it’s a genuinely great cinematic moment. I just wish the stop-motion in the chase wasn’t so dated.

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Rankin-Bass was down on their luck in the ’80s.

What is it that finally kills the T-800? A hydraulic press—a machine. However, it’s operated by Sarah Connor, showing ultimately that technology in the right hands can be used for good as well. Of course, the ending cannot be completely happy, as Sarah’s life has been changed forever. We see her driving through Mexico, preparing herself and her future son for the war that is coming.

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How would we know it was Mexico if there weren’t 12 pinatas?

Obviously, The Terminator has stood the test of time marvelously. The story, performances, and most importantly the themes all hold up today. Are there a few too many car chases? Sure. Is the score perhaps too 80’s? I would say so, but a lot of people really like it. James Cameron gritty direction makes it a breathtaking thrill ride of a film, while still allowing for character development and the necessary exposition. Let’s take a look at the final score.

Story (26/30 Points)

Yeah, it’s the classic “Save Humanity’s Savior” story, but it’s done really well. The romance really could have done better, but it doesn’t hurt the film too much. It’s a story set on a huge scale, but since it focuses solely on our two heroes, we care.

Cast (25/30 Points)

Arnold has never been more perfectly cast than as a huge, threatening killing machine. Michael Biehn portrays every aspect of Kyle Reese’s character believably, and Linda Hamilton portrays Sarah Connor as a strong every-woman. Paul Winfield as Lt. Traxler rounds out the cast nicely, making the most of every second he’s on screen. Sure, the characters are archetypes, but they’re good ones.

Experience (18/25 Points)

The few shots we get of the future seem real, and the action scenes really hold up. The stop motion scene at the end really takes you out of it, though, and I don’t care for the electronic score.

Originality (12/15 Points)

It brings a lot to the table, mixing horror, science fiction, and action all into a story of what man has created. It’s a modern day Frankenstein, if Frankenstein’s monster had a gun.

FINAL SCORE: 81%

Time travel may play just a minor part, but the whole story is about saving and protecting the future. It holds up as a seminal work of the sci-fi action genre. Next week, we’ll be taking a look at very possibly the most famous time travel work of all time, 1985’s Back to the Future.

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