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Dive into these 4 spectacular time-travel films starting yesterday

There's more to life than 'Terminator Genisys.'


David Wharton


Posted on Jul 14, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 9:04 am CDT

Terminator Genisys was the third attempt since 2003 to try and reinvigorate a once-beloved franchise that peaked over two decades ago with T2: Judgment Day. The Genisys team probably wishes they had their own time machine to go back and create a more favorable timeline, because the latest Terminator outing opened in third place, behind mega-hit Jurassic World and Pixar’s Inside Out. Then again, given that it currently sports a painful 27 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, maybe it’d be better to send a Terminator back to snuff out the idea for Genisys before it even happened.

Thankfully, those craving a more satisfactory time-travel flick need look no further than Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu to find several candidates that are way more entertaining than a geriatric Schwarzenegger. We’ve compiled four excellent time-travel tales you probably haven’t seen, all available streaming, and none of which requires a $155 million budget to tell a solid tale of divergent timelines. Just be forewarned: You might have to watch them twice.

1) Primer

Several engineer friends spend their off hours tinkering in a garage together, hoping their next invention will be the one that changes their lives. Aaron (writer/director Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) are working on the far-fetched concept of finding a way to reduce the weight of an object, but in the process, they create something even more fantastic: an accidental time machine. Part of what’s so satisfying about Carruth’s script for Primer is that these characters are very smart in how they approach the situation. They’re scientists. They’ve seen all the time-travel movies we have. Even though they decide to use the technology for their own benefit, they agree to strict rules about how to go about it, and they put into place safeguards to limit their impact on their reshaping timestream. And even with all that planning and caution, it all still goes wrong, because human nature is still part of the equation.

Part of the fun with time-travel movies is figuring out how all the pieces fit together, and Primer is like trying to assemble a particularly complicated jigsaw puzzle without the benefit of the box art. This isn’t a flick you can watch while cooking dinner or browsing Instagram. It demands—and rewards—the viewer’s full attention. But that makes the satisfaction when you finally grok it all the more satisfying. Both the script and performances are understated and convincing, and the entire movie has a pervasive verisimilitude that suggests, if somebody really were to invent time travel, it would probably play out a lot like this. For a movie that’s about reliving time, it’s entirely appropriate that most viewers will need multiple viewings to fully grasp Primer… but don’t worry, there’s also a chart if you need it.

Primer took home the Grand Jury Prize from the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, and has spent a decade cementing its place as a cult classic. It’s available streaming on both Netflix Instant and Hulu. And if your brain isn’t sufficiently melted after watching it, you can also check out Carruth’s even trippier follow-up, Upstream Color, on Netflix Instant.

2) Mr. Nobody

In the year 2092, Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto) is the last mortal human, 117 years old in a world where science has rendered death by natural causes a curiosity. He is dying. Nemo is all the more fascinating because his past is an enigma, and the attempts to unlock the mysteries of the old man’s long life form the spine of Mr. Nobody’s multilayered narrative. Nemo is eager to tell his tale, but he recounts multiple, contradictory versions of his past. In one, he was raised by his father; in another, by his mother. In one, he is forever finding and losing the love of his life; in others, he is trapped in relationships out of convenience or guilt. All of these visions of Nemo Nobody’s life may have happened, or maybe none of them did. It doesn’t really matter, because this is a story more about impossible choices than easy explanations.

It’s a testament to both Leto’s lead performance and the script by writer/director Jaco Van Dormael that all of Nemo’s possible lives are compelling, each touched by tragedy and joy in different measure. Any one “reality” could have made for a worthwhile narrative experience, and that’s crucially important to the film’s thesis that “everything could have been anything else, and it would have just as much meaning.” Mr. Nobody is also a visually stunning movie, coding each of Nemo’s possible realities in clever ways and occasionally getting really bonkers as Nemo slips through the cracks between them. Mr. Nobody will leave you thinking about life and death, free will and destiny, and all the ways your path has twisted through the years. It would make a perfect complement to similarly underrated cult hits such as The Fountain or Cloud Atlas.

Mr. Nobody reportedly received a 10-minute standing ovation after its premiere at the 66th Venice International Film Festival. That might seem a bit much, but there’s no question that Mr. Nobody is ambitious, complex, and more interesting than 98 percent of the things cluttering up the streaming landscape. You can watch Mr. Nobody on Netflix Instant.

3) Timecrimes

A man called Hector is enjoying a lazy day at home, lounging on his back lawn and watching the nearby woods through binoculars. Presumably he’s looking for birds, but his lens captures something more “letters to Penthouse” than “Audubon magazine.” A beautiful woman strips naked in the treeline, and Hector’s curiosity soon initiates a chain of events that is alternately tragic, befuddling, and bleakly hilarious. Soon he’s fleeing a violent figure whose face is wrapped in pink bandages, seeking shelter in a nearby laboratory, and guided only by an unfamiliar voice on the other end of a walkie talkie. By the time Hector seeks shelter inside a mysterious contraption filled with white liquid, things have only begun to get weird.

There are two competing breeds of time-travel story: those where past events can be changed, and those where time defeats any attempts to alter its flow. Much of the fun of Timecrimes is in trying to determine which type of time-travel story this is and in seeing poor Hector do his level best—even if that best is frequently ill-advised and incompetent—just to try and keep up and make things right. By the time the credits roll, many will be shocked by just how dark a path Hector has wandered down. If nothing else, Timecrimes may be the single most effective treatise against peeping Tom-ism you’re likely to encounter.

Timecrimes took home the Best Picture award from the Austin-based Fantastic Fest in 2007. At one point David Cronenberg was going to helm an American remake, but in 2011 it was reported that director Steve Zaillian had taken the wheel of the project. Timecrimes is now available on Amazon Prime. The only downside is that it’s the dubbed version, and sadly, my attempts to travel back in time and rectify that have failed.

4) Coherence

A group of friends—four couples—convenes for a dinner party on an evening when a comet shines in the sky overhead. It’s the sort of thing that would make for an ideal conversation starter, but spotty cell reception and a power outage soon has the friends wondering whether the celestial phenomenon above might be causing more than a lightshow. After breaking out candles and glowsticks, the friends spot a house in the distance that seems to still have power, so Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) and Amir (Alex Manugian) decide to hike over to see if they can borrow a phone. The pair soon returns, carrying a mysterious box and a peculiar story. Hugh’s revelation about what he saw in the other house is troubling, but even stranger are the contents of the box: photos of all the friends, marked with numbers that Emily (Emily Baldoni) soon realizes are written in her own handwriting.

It would ruin the fun to reveal where Coherence goes from there, but suffice it to say things get complicated fast, and paranoia propels what would have likely been a forgettable gathering deep into Twilight Zone territory. What’s particularly impressive, given just how many twists Coherence packs in, is that writer/director James Ward Byrkit didn’t actually have a script for this thing: he specifically cast actors with background in improv so they could riff a storyline based on a 12-page treatment that laid out the twists, character motivations, and general guidelines of what needed to happen in each scene. Settle in and see if you predict where Coherence will take you… Just don’t misplace your glow stick.

Coherence boasts an impressive 88 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s available for streaming from Amazon Prime.

Screengrab via hollywoodstreams/YouTube

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*First Published: Jul 14, 2015, 11:00 am CDT