Well we’ve been through ten time travel movies, and now it’s time to declare a winner. Unlike the Christmas Carol match-up, there will not be too many categories for worst, as most films were overall pretty good, even with their flaws. There are one or two horrible things I need to re-visit, but not in every category. Let’s start off with…
COOLEST TIME MACHINE
Most cinematic time travelers aren’t just happy with just traveling in a pedestrian box (the characters of Primer aside), so they create something truly unique. As Doc Brown said, “Why not do it with some style?” I’m fascinated by the mental time travel of Somewhere in Time, as it opens up a whole other realm of questions and ideas. We don’t see much of the technology in 12 Monkeys, but it seems to be a bizarre re-birth thing. Of course, there’s the Delorean in Back to the Future, but nothing beats the original time machine from The Time Machine 1960.
It’s one of the things that has made George Pal’s film iconic. He paid attention to little things like this, creating a look that is still remembered today.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR (NON-VILLAINOUS)
Many of these films have large ensembles filled with talented actors, so I’ve separated villains from other supporting characters. On the supporting actor side, there’s Paul Dano’s short but memorable screen-time in Looper, Brad Pitt’s ultimately non-villainous role in 12 Monkeys and Christopher Plummer’s in the same, Paul Winfield’s antithesis of every action movie cop trope in The Terminator, and Alan Young’s charming turn as Filby in The Time Machine 1960. In spite of all of these, how can I not give it to Crispin Glover as George McFly in Back to the Future? He shows that we all have parts of ourselves that even we aren’t aware of, and he plays both the nebbish and confident sides wonderfully. It really is an amazing performance.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS (NON-VILLAINOUS)
In some cases it’s hard to judge what’s supporting and what’s lead, but I’ll be generous. Jane Seymour makes the most of her time in Somewhere in Time, but unfortunately it’s more about Richard’s obsession with her than it is about her. Claudia Wells has a few great scenes as Jennifer in Back to the Future, but she’s only in the first third and then the final scene. Yvette Mimieux does well as the naive Weena in The Time Machine 1960, but I prefer Samantha Mumba’s Mara in the 2002 remake.
In her short screen-time, she creates a strong and well-rounded character. She’s not naive, but rather a leader of her tribe. Her chemistry with Guy Pearce is spot-on, and I kind of wish the whole movie had just been about that.
Wow, there are so many good ones here. Miklós Rózsa goes out in style with his swan song score of Time After Time. The organ grinder theme in 12 Monkeys captures the madness of the film perfectly, and you’ll get nervous chills just listening to it. The Time Machine 1960 and Back to the Future both have sweeping scores that will make you want to drop everything and go on an epic adventure, and they both rank among the greatest film scores ever. There is still one better, though, and that’s John Barry’s breathtakingly gorgeous score for Somewhere in Time.
As I said in my review for that film, John Barry’s score tells a better love story than the screenplay. Heck, you don’t even need the movie. Just listen to that music box theme. It’s nothing short of perfect.
BEST AND WORST VILLAIN
Most categories don’t really have a bad entry, but we need to talk about bad villains. Ok, one bad villain. While I don’t really care for Christopher Plummer’s villain-ish performance in Somewhere in Time, nothing compares to the Uber Morlock from The Time Machine 2002.
Who thought that design was scary? Everything from the name to the hair to Jeremy Iron’s campy performance to the purely expositional dialogue is all wrong.
Now for the best, and there are a lot. Neither Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure or Primer really has a villain, although you could argue that the leads in the latter are pretty awful people, Aaron in particular. In Looper, there’s both Jeff Daniels as mob leader Abe and Bruce Willis as Old Joe, who both deliver stellar performances. Biff (Thomas J. Wilson) in Back to the Future starts off a dumb bully stereotype and eventually shows to be more, and Dr. Peters (David Morse) is definitely the most evil villain in any of these films. There are classics like Arnold as the T-800 in The Terminator, but none even come close to matching The Great One.
David Warner’s performance as Jack the Ripper in Time After Time is charismatic, chilling, and by far the best thing about the movie. Without it, Time After Time would probably be pretty forgettable. The way he looks at the violence of the 20th century and says “I’m home” wins him this category alone.
Unfortunately, some time travel movies don’t really write female characters very well. On the good side, though, Emily Blunt gives a strong performance as Sarah in Looper, and Mary Steenburgen works with what she’s given in Time After Time. Lea Thompson shows the inner depths of Lorraine in Back to the Future, and Linda Hamilton makes Sarah Connor a likable and tough every-woman in The Terminator. The most interesting character and best performance though is Madeline Stowe as Dr. Kathryn Railly in 12 Monkeys.
Every character in 12 Monkeys is fascinating, but Madeline Stowe’s Dr. Railly coming to terms with Cole not actually being crazy is the most interesting arc. There are so many ways this could have been handled poorly, but they are all avoided.
Both versions of The Time Machine give us leads who aren’t really complex characters but are played by great actors (Rod Taylor and Guy Pearce, respectively). Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fine in Looper, but he’s limited by the facial prosthetics. Michael Biehn gives Kyle Reese a lot of heart in The Terminator, and he makes you believe a romance that could have been uninteresting. Bruce Wills nails every aspect of James Cole, from the wonder to the determination to the romance, and 12 Monkeys features one of his best performances. It’s a touch choice, but I’m going to have to call a tie on the dual leads of Doc and Marty in Back to the Future.
Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd make you believe that these two unlikely friends have been close for a long time, and it’s great how quickly Marty befriends the ’50s Doc as well. Marty is such a likable character, and his subtle character development here is so much better than the forced one of the sequels. Doc has to get over his own obsession with everything being perfect, and finally accepts that changing the future isn’t all bad.
There’s some tight competition in this category, because even some of the weaker movies have some amazing moments. The cell phone scene in Primer is a fascinating puzzle, and any scene in Somewhere in Time that lets you just soak up the atmosphere is enjoyable. The talking rings of The Time Machine 1960, as well as the final scene with George and Filby, are a big part of what makes the movie special. There are some great dialogue scenes, like Old Joe and Young Joe’s diner conversation in Looper, the aforementioned “I’m home” scene from Time After Time, and the taxicab scene from 12 Monkeys where we get a brief moment of hope. I’m really close to giving it to the Eloi village scene from The Time Machine 2002, because the directing, the scenery, the performances and the music are transcendental, but I’ve got to go with the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance from Back to the Future.
George and Lorraine finally earn their romance here, followed by Marty finally overcoming his doubts and rocking the house with “Johnny B. Goode.” When “Earth Angel” fades and Alan Silvestri’s score takes over, it’s a heroic moment.
This is a tough one. If you read the previous reviews, you’ll see that I gave Back to the Future and 12 Monkeys a perfect score in this category. Both The Terminator and Looper deserve mention, but they won’t beat these two. Future is a great study in character and everything is tightly wound. Nothing is wasted. 12 Monkeys, on the other hand, is complex and has some things you won’t notice until the second or third viewing. It also has very possibly my favorite movie twist, so I do have to give it the point.
Let’s see where that puts us.
BEST OVERALL FILM
Obviously, this does not say everything as the scoreless Looper and The Terminator are much better movies than Somewhere in Time or The Time Machine 2002. The lesser ones just happen to have a few things that really stand out. Although I would consider 12 Monkeys the most thrilling time travel movie, I have to call Back to the Future the best.
Almost every film in this match-up has redeeming values, but Back to the Future is a perfect film. It’s stood the test of time and will continue to.
Next week, I’ll be starting the next match-up. Thanks for reading!