The future looks dark. Especially at the movies. In the many films featuring time travel, those who journey from the present to the future almost always regret it. What does the future hold? The end: of friends, family, our lives, and the human race. Who needs it?
The past is where it’s happening. For example, remember the “Wayback Machine?” It’s returning in “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” (opening Friday), an animated adaptation of a segment from the 1960s “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” in which a genius dog and his pet boy travel in their time machine.
Then there’s “Welcome to Yesterday,” a found-footage film (if I had a time machine I would travel to 1999 and somehow put a stop to “The Blair Witch Project”) about teenagers who build a time machine. Though originally scheduled to open Feb. 28, the film itself has done some time traveling recently, with its release pushed back to summer or fall. Apparently, the studio thinks that if released then, it could be a sleeper hit. With time-travel movies, timing is everything.
Speaking of sleeper hits, Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” (1973) may be the only upbeat future time-travel movie. Cryogenically frozen, a nerd played by Allen awakens 200 years later. The future proves a mixed bag; on the one hand, a dictator rules the country; on the other, vices like smoking have proven to be good for you.
Making the most of it, Allen joins a rebellion, falls in love, and ends with an affirmation of faith. What does he believe in? “Sex and death. Two things that come once in a lifetime. But at least after death you’re not nauseous.”
Otherwise, there is no hope in time-travel movies. Like in “The Time Machine.” H.G. Wells published the book in 1895, when progress seemed unstoppable and World War I was yet to come. And the film was released in 1960, at the height of Eisenhower-era prosperity, on the cusp of Kennedy’s Camelot. Nonetheless, when the time traveler reaches the year 802,701 AD, mankind has devolved into the ultimate dystopia.
Flash back, or forward, to 1968, when assassinations, racial violence, and Vietnam have betrayed all hopes, and “Planet of the Apes” summed up the future with its final revelation.
So bad are our coming prospects that time travelers are fleeing the future for our present, usually to undo the mistakes we made that caused all their problems. In Chris Marker’s short “La Jetée” (1962), later expanded in Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys” (1995), a chump is sent back in time to prevent inevitable disaster. Similarly, in James Cameron’s “The Terminator” (1984), a future vigilante pursues the title cyborg to save the mother of the savior of mankind. That is faith the equal of Woody Allen’s.
So the past is the way to go: It offers opportunities to cheat on history exams (1989’s “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”), confront past mistakes (1986’s “Peggy Sue Got Married”), and make bets on the Super Bowl, or otherwise exploit the ultimate in hindsight. But such tampering can backfire. Judging from the trailer, the kids in “Welcome to Tomorrow” have fun messing with the past until they realize they are causing present-day catastrophes. And don’t forget the Freudian implications of these films; Sigmund could write a book about “Back to the Future” (1985).
Meanwhile, there has been no time like the present for time-travel movies heading for the past, perhaps reflecting our growing pessimism and sense of guilt. In “About Time” a young man with an inherited gift for time travel vows to kiss the girl of his dreams when he had the chance. In the more offbeat “Safety Not Guaranteed,” the motive is to prevent a personal tragedy.
Ultimately, movies like “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” offer us Hollywood time-traveling at its best. It might not equal the original, but it could transport a certain generation back to the days of watching the best cartoon show ever. Now those were good times.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.