The feelgood fantasy of films that let us leap back in time

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Time-travel has always held a fascination for filmgoers. Perhaps it's because we all wish we could undo our mistakes, says James Mottram

"This time-travel crap fries your brain like an egg." So says Jeff Daniels' mid-ranking criminal in Rian Johnson's new sci-fi film Looper. It's an apt statement for a sub-genre that continues to fascinate and frustrate filmmakers in equal measure. Because let's face it: time-travel movies, even the good ones, don't quite work. The logic will tie you up in a Möbius strip of knots until you drive yourself to distraction thinking about how altering events in the past will change the future.

Just a brief internet search will unveil dozens of sites devoted to deconstructing the temporal anomalies in even the most highly-regarded time-travel classics. How, for example, can the McFly siblings in the family photograph taken back in time in Back to the Future increasingly dissolve? Absurdly, the film theorises that this is simply because their parents' first encounter has been interrupted. But even if their births are jeopardised, how would this corrupt an already existing photo? Put it down to the grey area that is time-travel.

"It's a live-wire, a third rail in science fiction," says Johnson. "It's a tough, tough thing to deal with, logically speaking." Set in the near-future, his film posits a world where mob targets are sent back in time and killed by assassins known as "loopers", living 30 years earlier – to an era where time-travel has yet to be invented. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as one of these loopers, the games begin when his future-self (played by Bruce Willis) is sent back as his next target.

If the casting of Willis is a direct nod to his role as a time-travelling convict in Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys, Johnson seems not alone in his love of the genre. Already, we've had Men In Black 3 this year, taking Will Smith's Agent J back to 1969 to stop the murder of his partner. Meanwhile our own Richard Curtis has just shot About Time, a comedy he says is "about love, time-travel and the meaning of life" in which Domhnall Gleeson travels to the past to find himself a girlfriend (Rachel McAdams). "When you start thinking about time-travel it's a gripping subject, but I wanted to do a very small version of it," says Curtis. "So he can't travel places he hasn't been. He's always travelling within his own life."

At the other end of the scale is Colin Trevorrow's charming Sundance hit Safety Not Guaranteed. In it, a reporter and two interns go in search of the person behind an intriguingly written classified ad that reads: "Wanted: someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed."

That the advert is actually real, placed in the September 1997 issue of US survivalist magazine Backwards Home, makes the premise all the more delicious. Disappointingly, the explanation is rather more prosaic; author John Silveira, a senior editor at the magazine, placed it as a spoof page-filler. Nevertheless, it became an internet sensation. "John has boxes full of very sincere letters," reports Trevorrow, "from people like prisoners, who really want a time machine and were thinking it's real."

Therein lies the reason time-travel movies remain so popular. It's not just about travelling back to meet Napoleon or see the dinosaurs. There are "emotional needs", according to Trevorrow, that time-travel satisfies: the very thought that we can travel to bygone days, re-correcting costly mistakes and adjusting our destinies. However skewed the logic, it's going back to the past – and not the future – that keeps us hooked.

'Looper' opens on 28 September. 'About Time' and 'Safety Not Guaranteed' will open in 2013

Click here or on "View Images" to see the five best time-travel movies

*This article will appear in tomorrow's print edition of The Independent's Radar magazine

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?