Five 80s Time Travel Movies You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of: Reviewed
Sure you know those classic 80s time traveling movies like Back to the Future, The Terminator, and Star Trek IV. You’ve no doubt seen Bill & Ted, too. But there were a lot of movies about time travel that didn’t quite get the big screen love so many others did. Yes, maybe they weren’t quite as big with their production and budgets, but many were fun and challenging and still worthy of a look. Some. Here are five 80s time traveling movies you’ve (probably) never heard of. Reviewed.
My Science Project (1988) ★★☆☆☆
Let’s start with a cheesy-ripoff of Ghostbusters and Back to the Future. Sort of. Well, maybe not at all. A teenager named Michael (John Stockwell), interested in only girls and muscle cars, needs something to hand in for his class science project. So, with a girl who thinks she is on a date, he breaks into a government military scrapyard and naturally discovers a secret underground shelter where he finds a glowing orb-ish gadget (actually a cheap plasma globe) and steals it. Back at home, the next day, he and his friend Vince (Fisher Stevens) accidentally trigger it to activate and and when they rush to class, realize they’ve lost two hours and missed the science exam. They have a time machine. They bring it to their ultra-hip 60s throwback teacher Dr. Roberts (Dennis Hopper) who promptly gets pulled to another dimension and vanishes. As the device seems out of control, the boys end up using dynamite to destroy the utility tower but are arrested later for the teacher’s disappearance. But that’s only the start of their troubles. Asking the girl to bring the police the device, a geek intercepts and plugs the machine in again and suddenly a portal opens and the school is overrun by a t-rex, Vietnam soldiers and mutants. Whatever will they do?
Directed by Jonathan R. Betuel, My Science Project is a pretty standard sci-fi thriller with cheap special effects and a silly script. The young cast are fun to watch and Hopper is his typical over-the-top self, complete with a ginormous Peace medallion and a time-traveling trip to Woodstock. Not a total waste, it tries hard to be more than it is, ultimately a letdown.
Timerider (1982) ★★★☆☆
Talk about a great premise. A tech-loving motocross champion (Fred Ward) gets lost off track in a big race and unknowingly stumbles upon a time-travel experiment in the desert that sends him to 1877. How could this not be amazing? The full title is Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann and when Swann arrives in the old West, he’s a little perplexed at the horse and gunslingers who immediately start shooting at him (led by Peter Coyote who was in E.T – The Extra-Terrestrial just a few months prior). When Swann rides into the nearby town, still in his red leather riding gear, he’s mistaken for Diablo (the Devil). Taken in by the beautiful Claire Cygne (Belinda Bauer), she gives him a place to hide and a lot more (ah, classic 80s full frontal nudity in PG-rated movies). Now all he has to to do is survive until he can figure out how to well, get back to the future.
Directed by William Dear, it was written by Michael Nesmith, one of the founding members of the 60s pop group, The Monkees, who also composed the soundtrack. A very clever story that is well-directed and acted, it suffers a bit from production issues and a low budget, plus a long opening that drags a bit too much with shots of Swann racing, but is actually a good time once it gets going, boosted by Ward’s endless charisma. It also dabbles a bit in some time-twisty metaphysical bits, especially in the end, but always with a good sense of humor. Trivia bit: Swann travels back to 1877 on November 5th, the month and day as Marty McFly in Back to the Future. Both are probably nods to the month and day in the classic 1979 Time After Time.
Millennium (1989) ★★☆☆☆
Okay. This one hurts. As good as the premise is for the above Timerider, Millennium has it beat. In fact, it’s one of the best sci-fi time-travel concepts of the decade. Check this out: Humans from 1000 years in the future are a dying breed, suffocating by pollution and unable to reproduce so they time travel to the past and steal people who are about to die and send them into the far future to repopulate. They do this mostly with plane passengers on doomed flights. That’s a terrific concept. It casts television stars in the leads, with Cheryl Ladd most prominent, adding country singer Kris Kristofferson to the mix. Fooling around with paradoxes and making a statement about the dangers of humans running unchecked, the film is mostly compelling but due to its poor direction and subpar visual effects, it ends up looking like a cable TV movie. It becomes a bit confusing too as time shifts happen without warning and we often don’t know where we are. And then there’s Ladd’s annoying ‘future hair’ that looks like she might be a lost member of a Flock of Seagulls.
Directed by Michael Anderson, Millennium has some solid moments, and getting past the now poor looking effects, there is meaty story that asks a lot of questions. Still, a love connection feels forced, and overall, the production is just too slow. For fans of the genre, this is a must, simply because the story is so very cool, but for most, this will be a relic of the era better left in the past.
Biggles: Adventures in Time (1986) ★☆☆☆☆
80s time travel and sci-fi movies really like electric blue lighting streaks. In this movie, celebrity catering salesman Jim Ferguson (Alex Hyde-White) is living comfortably in modern New York City when he receives a knock on the door from an elderly man who asks him the time and wonders why ‘it’ hasn’t happened yet. He then leaves, and Jim returns to his living room, only to suddenly be transported to a battlefield in World War I where a bi-plane is shot down, piloted by Royal Flying Corps pilot James “Biggles” Bigglesworth (Neil Dickson). Shocking to say the least. But before he can get past an introduction, he’s back in his living room. What’s going on? Turns out, Biggles and Ferguson are ‘time twins’ who show up to help each other when one or the other is in mortal danger. Time shenanigans ensue. Mostly.
Directed by John Hough, Biggles is loosely based on the beloved novels by W. E. Johns and loosely is most assuredly the wrong word since none of the books ever once feature time travel. We can blame Marty McFly for that. Back to the Future had come out the year before and studios thought, “oh those kids and their time traveling fun” and completely reworked the original script, which was designed to be more along the lines of an Indiana Jones-like adventure. They then added a ‘teen vibe’ and pretty much wrecked the ‘Biggles vibe’, making him a secondary character in a movie with his name as the title. That elderly man mentioned above? He’s the great Peter Cushing, for whom many should remember as Grand Moff Tarkin in 1977’s Star Wars. It was his final role. Throw in some 80s pop and metal music and some truly bland, uninspired acting from both Dickson and especially Hyde-White, and this comes up short. Good only for some fun bi-plane fighter footage.
Time Bandits (1981) ★★★★☆
Okay, so this one might be a bit more well-known, but it makes the list. Young, impressionable, and wildly imaginative Kevin (Craig Warnock) lives in a quiet neighborhood with oddly neglectful parents whom seem far more interested in keeping up with the latest shiny things on TV than in their son’s fascination with history and exceptional creativity. Left to entertain and indulge himself, Kevin is reclusive and is lost in his own thoughts. In his bedroom one evening, he’s awoken by a rumble in his closet that suddenly bursts open to reveal a proud Knight in shining armor on horseback, who promptly rides off in the wooded forest where the bedroom wall used to be. When Kevin looks back though, all is restored to normal. Curious. The next evening, he packs a shoulder bag with supplies, grabs the Polaroid camera and waits for the Knight to return. Like the previous evening, a rumble in his closet gets his attention, but this time, no Knight. Instead, out pour six medieval-era dressed dwarves, led by Randall (David Rappaport). They are frantic and create a ruckus, but Kevin understands that they have stolen a large map and are desperately looking for a “door” out of the room before whomever is chasing them arrives. One wall is revealed to be a movable portal that leads to a lengthy hallway where Kevin is hesitant to follow until a disembodied, ghostly head known as “The Supreme Being” (Ralph Richardson) appears and chases after the group, demanding the return of what’s been stolen.
Directed by Monty Python veteran Terry Gilliam, who has made a career out of inventive, imaginative films, Time Bandits is perhaps his most thoroughly realized, wonderfully bringing to life a number of impressive real-world and fantastical locations, mixing just the right about of comedy, drama and lots of cool time traveling. More whimsical than heavy, and never intended to be more than a fun fable with a nudge towards keeping one’s imagination alive, Time Bandits is a masterpiece of production, set design and costumes, creating rich, tangible worlds that have great depth and character. And features a very cool giant. Aimed primarily at children, with colorful set pieces and high adventure, there is a lot here for adults as well and it’s hard to beat for films of this genre. A true time-traveling classic.