Time Traveling Through the Ages: From H. G. Wells to Harry Potter

Posted on 13 October 2017
By Carlton Whitfield
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Humankind has always been drawn to achieve the unattainable; this is how man managed to fly and then get on the moon. Yet there are a few things that we still haven’t been able to master – instead, we write books and make films that detail our fascination with supernatural abilities like superhuman strength, telekinesis and time travel.

This last one has captured the imagination of sci-fi authors since the first steps of the genre and been the subject of countless movies over the years. Today, we examine the old-school time travel movies vs. their more recent counterparts.

The Time Machine (1960): A Dystopian Future

H. G. Wells is considered one of the pioneers of science fiction – in his work, he predicted the airplane, travel in space, nuclear weapons and the Internet. He coined the term “time machine” in his homonymous novella written in 1895; the book not only propelled his career but also popularised the concept of time travel. It was adapted into film by George Pal, well known for his fantasy film series and his work in special effects that won him an Oscar for this movie.

It stars Rod Taylor as English scientist and inventor George, who travels from Victorian England forward to the year 802,701 A.D. in hopes of finding a utopian society. Instead, he finds a world populated by the innocent, childlike and vegetarian Eloi and the Morlocks, vicious troglodytes that attempt to thwart his return to the present.

What is perhaps most notable about time travel is that H. G. Wells understood its limits: his protagonist’s time machine can move forward or backwards in time, but stays put in place – which quickly makes George realise how this affects his travels.

The Planet of the Apes (1968): A World Turned Upside Down

The original that inspired a series of movies and keeps captivating audiences worldwide focuses on time travel in different context: a crew of astronauts (led by Charlton Heston) traveling close to light speed crash land on an unknown planet. They wake up from hibernation to find out that while they have only aged 18 months, they now find themselves in year 3978 – almost 2,000 years after the date they started their voyage, in 1972.

They soon encounter a society where apes have evolved into the most intelligent and dominant species, developing speech and technology, while humans are mute creatures, dressed in animal hides and enslaved by their ape masters. The movie saw four sequels and later a remake by Tim Burton in 2001, and a reboot/origin story series in 2011 starring James Franco. The first film was admitted to the Library of Congress National Film Registry, especially in light of its iconic last scene.

Paycheck (2003) and The Butterfly Effect (2003): The Rise of the Individual

In older movies, time travel is mostly used as a means to examine how future societies would evolve – mainly to find a dystopian future awaiting, echoing the collective anxiousness of humankind after the experience of two world wars. By contrast, newer movies focus on the effects of time travel on the individual, who usually uses it to predict and change the future, assuming a more active role.

This is the premise of The Butterfly Effect, where Ashton Kutcher discovers he has the ability to travel back in time and set childhood traumas right – with unforeseen and terrible consequences. Ben Affleck uses his reverse engineering skills in the Paycheck for the greater good: besides predicting lottery tickets, he manages to stop an evil CEO from using knowledge of the future for his own financial gain and save the world from nuclear catastrophe. Hermione Granger and later Harry Potter also use a time-traveling device in the fourth instalment of the film series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, in order to save themselves – but of course this is slightly less jaw-dropping against the (literally) magical setting of the movie.

Countless other movies build on this concept; but our fascination does not stop there. Most famously, the Doctor (also known aptly as the Time Lord) in the immensely successful Doctor Who TV series uses his TARDIS to travel in time and save civilisation more times than we know of, while video games like Life Is Strange also rely on turning back time. So, who knows what the future holds for time travellers?