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Doing the Time Warp Again--and Again

Movies* Time travel and manipulation emerged as common threads in the cinema of 2001 and look to continue this year.

January 04, 2002|BILL DESOWITZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Leaping forward, looking back, tripping back and forth, uniting past and present, time travel--both literally and figuratively--became one of last year's dominant movie themes, a year in cinema that we might as well dub "2001: A Time Odyssey."

In "Planet of the Apes," man and ape ricochet throughout time to play the ultimate game of "Survivor," getting closer in touch with their primal instincts. In "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," controlling time becomes the ultimate power play. In "Donnie Darko," a troubled teen (Jake Gyllenhaal) glimpses the future to repair a rift in a parallel universe and to redeem his own existence. In "Black Knight," a selfish medieval theme park employee (Martin Lawrence) discovers a sense of community by hurling back into the Middle Ages. In "Just Visiting," a medieval count (Jean Reno) tumbles into the present, finds his descendant and turns back the clock on his fumbled marriage. In "Happy Accidents," a time-traveling rebel (Vincent D'Onofrio) steps back nearly 500 years to find true love with a wary gal (Marisa Tomei) who has given up hope.

And in the recent "Kate & Leopold," a Victorian nobleman (Hugh Jackman) falls through a portal on the Brooklyn Bridge to find true love with a contemporary marketing executive (Meg Ryan) who has no time for romance.

In keeping with the conventions of the time-travel genre, destinies are fulfilled with pretzel logic. But these aren't mere fish-out-of-water stories; there's more of a desperate urge to change history and make up for the sins of the past, as if time itself were running out.

"At least until Sept. 11, we felt impervious--a kind of irony in the way we viewed the world," said "Kate & Leopold" director James Mangold. "What turned me on was making a wildly improbable premise and playing with real characters. Film is so magical in its ability to play with time. Film is about time. It's inherent in the cut--we're catapulted from one scene to another. The idea of co-mingling periods is fun in pointing out the differences."

As if these time-travel stories weren't enough, the year also gave us a subcategory of films that manipulated time with greater imagination: "Moulin Rouge" and "A Knight's Tale" conjure anachronistic worlds in which rock and pop ring out like a bohemian rhapsody in the former and an extreme sports anthem in the latter. "From Hell" links past and present by making the case that Jack the Ripper gave birth to the murder and mayhem of the 20th century. And "Memento," "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" and "Iris" travel back and forth through time to prove love's endurance and the precious power of memory.

When you add to the mix such 2002 films as the remake of "The Time Machine" (Guy Pearce plays an American scientist from the 19th century who travels in time to prevent the death of his fiancee), "Possession" (the adaptation of the A.S. Byatt novel that also contrasts the Victorian era with our own) and "Clockstoppers" (a high school student freezes time and must figure out how to save his father), you begin to realize this trend runs much deeper.

"Moulin Rouge" director Baz Luhrmann certainly thinks so. "We are in a period--and have been for a while--where we are deeply interested in universality. It's how we've chosen to examine our own social and economic realities. To look at our universality, we must look at ourselves from a distance. And when you have a quick look at where we are, who we are and what we're doing, you find that time changes everything and yet the human condition remains the same."

Cultural Factors Promote Nostalgia

Why this sudden interest in time-travel movies? The arrival of the new millennium? Nostalgia for the past? A vicarious impulse to erase the excesses of the 20th century?

Mangold attributes this trend to three cultural factors: the phenomenal success of "Titanic," which opened the flood gates for period pieces; the World War II nostalgia wave ushered in by "Saving Private Ryan"; and the publication a few years back of "Timeline," Michael Crichton's novel about a historian who travels back to 14th century France to save his professor, which is being made into a movie next year starring Paul Walker ("The Fast and the Furious") and directed by Richard Donner.

But are deeper forces at work as well? Ever since the transforming events of Sept. 11, there's been a lot of talk about changing our lives to find deeper spiritual meaning. Reevaluating our priorities, reconsidering our options and reclaiming time, making it more worthwhile, now that we realize our lives could suddenly end with a swift terrorist attack.

For once the movies seem to have been ahead of us in anticipating this spiritual longing by focusing on the subject of time, urging us to shake off the irony and ennui and start reconnecting with each other in more caring and compassionate ways.

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