Essays · Movies

Time Travel Movies Used to Take Us Places

A look back to when sci-fi looked back.
Peggy Sue Got Married
Tri-Star Pictures
By  · Published on October 14th, 2016

Science fiction is often associated with the unknown, whether it’s the future of our world or what physically exists beyond it. However, it also includes the time travel sub-genre, which can focus on the past. That allows for period pieces to fall under the sci-fi umbrella even if they’re primarily meant to feed nostalgia and historical curiosity rather than speculative wonderment about technology and progress. Today’s time travel movies tend to be focused on the act of traveling through time, while those of 30 years ago were interested more in where, and when, their characters wound up. In doing so, they also transported us to those places and times.

Two movies in particular from the mid-’80s were based mostly in a desire to revisit the 1950s and 1960s, something Hollywood was doing a lot of in general since the success of American Graffiti in 1973. The producer of that movie, Francis Ford Coppola, directed a lot of movies set in the past over the next decade, but it’s his 1986 feature Peggy Sue Got Married that most closely relates to Graffiti in terms of romanticizing the time period and taking an audience on a sort of touristy trip to a bygone era. That it begins in the present then follows a woman as she somehow returns to the days of her youth makes it all the more literal a navigation of our retrospection.

There is no time machine in Peggy Sue Got Married. The title character (played by Kathleen Turner) travels in consciousness only – or maybe it’s all just a dream? – but otherwise it’s very similar to the previous year’s Back to the Future, enough that most reviews of Coppola’s film made the comparison. The main difference is one of them has a middle-aged woman unintentionally returning to her own high school days, in 1960, and has her thinking of breaking off her marriage before it begins, while the other has the teen child of a middle-aged couple who unintentionally visits their high school days, in 1955, and has him needing to make sure they do get married.

Also, Back to the Future has an iconic time machine, and that is a bit of a distraction from the fact that, like Peggy Sue, the movie is essentially a means to revisit the culture of the Eisenhower era and see it contrasted against the present. Both movies discuss time travel throughout, especially with regards to how to get the main character back to their original time, but it’s just a story device. In a way, it’s not that different from Peggy Sue’s multiplex contemporary Stand By Me, which transports us to 1959 via the narrated words of a memoir being written in the present. Back to the Future has physical travel, Peggy Sue spiritual travel, Stand By Me memory travel.

Where are the equivalent time-travelogues now that we’re 30 years out from those movies? There’s Hot Tub Time Machine, but that isn’t quite a loving look back at the 1980s, and as the title implies there’s more attention on the vehicle than the destination. It’s hardly a fitting homage to a period when a lot of time travel scenarios were accidental. The decade began with The Final Countdown, which takes us to the Pacific Ocean in 1941 just before Pearl Harbor, and Somewhere in Time, in which we join a man on a romantic journey to 1912. And by the end of the decade, the Back to the Future sequels gave us virtual trips to an imagined 2015 and the Old West.

In the past couple decades, time travel movies haven’t taken the audience places in the same way they did then. Now we get more attempts to be scientific about time travel. And what traveling there is has little to no transportive effect for us. It’s all about moving characters around in their story with none of that sense of virtual time tourism that reflexively relates to the power of cinema. Time travel is a device for mind-bending plots like those of Primer, Timecrimes, Triangle, Looper, and Predestination. All good movies, just a different sort. When there’s extended-stay travel, it’s typically characters from the future visiting today or from today visiting the future.

Aren’t we living in the most nostalgia-driven era yet? So why do we not have movies like Back to the Future and Peggy Sue Got Married today? Perhaps it’s because time travel stories don’t allow for the sort of mashup nostalgia we enjoy, a la Stranger Things. Or perhaps we’re too immediate in our nostalgia now that movies with shorter temporal distances, like Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow, Premature, Source Code, About Time, and The Infinite Man are more relevant? We do have time travel movies that transport us to the 1970s and 1980s, such as X-Men: Days of Future Past and Terminator Genisys, but their characters skip over us, coming from the future, eliminating our ability to connect as stowaways enjoying the trip back by proxy.

Soon enough, we won’t need time travel stories and proxies as gateways to the worlds of the past, because VR movies will turn cinema into even more of a form of virtual tourism than it already is. Or maybe virtual reality period pieces will actually require and depend even more on time travel as a device in order to make them make sense to us in the modern world, rather than just dropping us into the 1980s, 1950s, Old West, or wherever they’re set. I also predict a virtual reality filter will eventually exist that shows us everything literally in front of our eyes as it looked, virtually, in the past. It’ll be like living out our very own Back to the Future or Peggy Sue Got Married.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.