Best of Netflix: The Art of Time Travel

While Timecop might be more well-known for being the movie that featured Simone from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off getting naked than for anything else, it’s actually not only one of the better Jean-Claude Van Damme flicks out there but also a rather smart cinematic exploration of the concept of time travel in general. Van Damme plays an agent of the Time Enforcement Commission (TEC), a government organization dedicated to stopping crimes that incorporate time travel (which is possible by the late ’90s), such as going back to 1863 and using laser-mounted machine pistols to steal gold from Confederate soldiers; after his wife (the aforementioed Mia Sara) is killed in an explosion, the Muscles From Brussels becomes involved in a conspiracy plot hatched by a corrupt senator (Ron Silver, having fun playing the villain) who needs money for his Presidential campaign fund. Don’t be fooled by its B-movie title, look and cast — Timecop is actually a clever and engrossing piece of science fiction, full of mind-boggling narrative twists and parallel universes that could sometimes use a visual assist from Doc Brown’s chalkboard.

An ’80s cult classic and then some, Trancers marks the first appearance of Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson), an L.A. super-cop from the far-flung future (2247, to be exact) who travels back to the 20th century to stop the mind-controlling villain, Martin Whistler (Michael Stefani), from turning more people into zombified minions and wrecking space-time havoc. The special effects are, of course, hysterically cheesy, but Trancers is actually one of the most imaginative sci-fi films of its decade, with the specific time-traveling technique being especially inventive: Jack takes a drug that allows his consciousness to leave his body and travel down his ancestral line until he arrives in 1985 (a good year for time travel, no?). You also get Helen Hunt, fresh off of Girls Just Want to Have Fun, as Deth’s punk-rock Gal Friday. Believe it or not, this thing spawned five sequels, starting with Trancers II in 1991 and ending with Trancers 6 in 2002 — and we wouldn’t be surprised if Deth ends up making a seventh appearance somewhere down the timeline, if the 65-year-old Thomerson is up for it (and we bet he is).

Terry Gilliam can’t get a movie made today to save his life (which is partly his own fault, as his stubborn refusal to compromise borders on being sociopathic), but back in the day, he somehow managed to get the funding to bring his strange and uncompromised visions to life — and Time Bandits certain is both “strange” and “uncompromised.” This tale of a young boy who ends up joining a group of time-traveling dwarves in their multi-dimensional adventures (which includes run-ins with John Cleese‘s Robin Hood and Ian Holm’s Napoleon, among others) is even more bizarre in retrospect — really, Gilliam can’t get a damn Don Quixote movie together, but this weirdo piece of cinema got the green light (and, indeed, got finished)? We’re glad it did, as it’s a fantastic piece of gonzo cinema, a pastiche of Gilliam-isms vomited onto a canvas and called “Art” — we’re especially fans of David Warner as Evil Genius, a bombastic villain prone to blowing up his minions (or turning them into dogs) and delivering random existential and theological musings (“Slugs? God invented slugs?”). Of all the crazy goings-on, nothing quite tops that jaw-dropping ending: “Mum, Dad, don’t touch it! It’s evil!” Whoa!

Director Brad Anderson has a truly great movie in him… and we hope that one day he’ll actually make that movie. For now, he’s somewhat cursed to make films that are almost great, and Happy Accidents is no exception. While Anderson is more well-known for psychological thrillers such as Session 9, The Machinist and Transsiberian, Accidents is his attempt at a romantic drama — one that features a time traveler from the future, played with surprising sensitivity and sincerity by Vincent D’Onofrio. Marisa Tomei is charming and cute as the unlucky-in-love New York gal whose latest lover claims he’s from the year 2470 and has traveled back in time to avoid prosecution for his sister’s death — she thinks the guy’s whacko at first, of course, but as his stories become increasingly strange, so too do they become somehow more believable. It ultimately doesn’t ever quite come together, but Happy Accidents will keep you guessing right up to the very end, making it as much an effective sci-fi mystery as a “quirky” love story.

Well, this one didn’t quite work at all, did it? Disney can certainly be mediocre, but they’re rarely lazy, which makes this by-the-numbers adaptation of the popular video game series more of an oddity than a disappointment. You’ve seen most of this movie before, and better, as it’s little more than a hodgepodge of other popular action-adventure movies with some random references to the video games thrown in “for the fans.” Jake Gyllenhaal (miscast, but he sure looks great) is the Prince in question who teams up with the beautiful Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton, the doomed Strawberry Fields from the latest 007 outing, Quantum of Solace) to keep the forces of evil from releasing the Sands of Time, an act which will effectively destroy the universe (or something); meanwhile, Alfred Molina provides comic relief as a shady ostrich-racing entrepreneur and Ben Kingsley goes further into Anthony Hopkins territory as a classically-trained and formerly classy actor who will now do anything for a paycheck. This confusing silliness has its moments, though we guarantee you won’t remember at least 80% of the movie by the time the closing credits roll.

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