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Some of the best films that deal with alternate timelines

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During the whole lockdown, I have been watching various TV shows and films. That includes a rewatch of Community on Netflix. While watching Remedial Chaos Theory, the fourth episode of the third season, it got me thinking about alternate timelines. The episode is the one where Jeff (Joel McHale) throws a dice to see which one of the group will go to get the pizza. This sets up six different timelines (including the Darkest Timeline) and we see how each plays out.

This was of course inspired by the Mirror Universe in Star Trek, which is why Abed (Danny Pudi) in the Darkest Timeline makes fake goatee beards to wear. The J.J. Abrams movies also set up another alternate timeline, the Kelvin Timeline, that led to adventures that were a little different from those that had gone before.

The upshot of all this is that I got thinking about the many different movies that deal with alternate timelines. There are quite a few of them, but here are some of the best…or maybe just the weirdest. Oh, and I have not included any of The Terminator movies as, while the first couple are brilliant, they have declined in quality and the timelines are all over the place and I just couldn’t face that gordian knot! I was also going to include 1980’s The FInal Countdown, but by the end of it, they haven’t really changed anything, so while it is a great time travel movie it doesn’t really set up an alternate timeline. Then there are Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Both brilliant films that I loved, but I’m just going to mention them here.

Possible spoilers ahead.

Back To The Future 2

A brilliant trilogy that deals with time travel in such a great way. However, it is only in the second film that we see how easy it is to mess things up if you start using it for personal gain when Biff takes The Sports Almanac back to his younger self. This set up the dark timeline that sees Biff as a multi-millionaire who rules over Hill Valley with an iron fist and a bunch of goons while running BiffCo. Of course, using The Sports Almanac takes away any feeling of chance for the sporting events that Biff bets on, and where is the fun in that? It is the element of chance when laying down a bet in a casino and using bonus promotions that adds to the excitement. The film also has Doc Brown explaining the whole concept of alternate timelines in a brilliant way.

It’s A Wonderful Life

Frank Kapra’s 1946 classic is usually associated with Christmas, yet it does include George Bailey (James Stewart) getting to see an alternate timeline for the town of Bedford Falls. A much darker timeline, one in which he had never been born. For a Christmas favourite, it does go to some very dark places as we see a man contemplating ending his own life despite all the good he has done. We so often don’t see how much of an impact we have on the world and it is often another person who can make us realise just how wonderful life can be.

Primer

Shane Carruth’s 2004 indie classic follows a team of engineers who accidentally create a way to time travel. They then use this to make some money, but as time goes on we realise there may be multiple versions of them running around causing various shenanigans. I would like to explain it all in greater detail, but I really cannot. It is a dense, complicated film that is brilliant but also very complex. You will get the basics, but the way it is written and the way dialogue is delivered will either have you scratching your head or watching the whole film again…almost like time travel in itself!

Donnie Darko

28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. That’s how long is left until the world ends. That’s what Frank the Rabbit tells Donnie Darko in this brilliant film that brought Jake Gyllenhaal to everyone’s attention. Like Primer above, this film does not give you all the answers (well, the director’s cut gives a lot of them and suffers because of it), but you just want to know what has happened and what will happen. A fantastic supporting cast and a great central performance make it all the better.

Frequency

This 2000 sci-fi film sees John Sullivan (Jim Caviezel), a homicide detective in New York City finding a cross-time radio frequency on his late father Frank’s (Dennis Quaid) ham radio, which allows the two to speak to each other across time. As John tells his dad about various events, Frank avoids certain death and John witnesses the changes that ripple out from that. You get the emotion of a son getting a chance to speak to his father who dies years before and then you have the thrills as they try to stop a serial killer who has been on the prowl for a number of years.

Sliding Doors

Unlike many of the other films on this list, this comedy-drama from 1998 does not involve any time travel or sci-fi gizmos. It just shows two paths the central character’s life, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, could take depending on whether or not she catches a train. We then keep switching between the two timelines. The editing and construction of the film make it a breeze to follow and a joy to watch.

Jumanji

While not immediately a film that screams alternate timeline. Initially, it is all about some kids who find the mystical board game which unleashes various creatures and effects whenever they roll the dice. In the process, they free Alan Parrish (Robin Williams) who had been trapped in the game since he was a young boy. You need to play the game all the way through to get to the end. It is only when we reach the end do we see how time has been altered with Alan returning to the past as a young boy (but with all the things he had learnt still intact) meaning all involved had a much better life in the new timeline.

There you have it. Just a few films, but there are many more out there. Which are your favourite films that deal with alternate timelines?

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