Travelling through time drives films including An American Pickle

 Seth Rogen in An American Pickle. Picture: Warner Bros.
Seth Rogen in An American Pickle. Picture: Warner Bros.

An American Pickle is the latest example of the Rip Van Winkle-type story on film.

The title character of Washington Irving's 1819 story is shorthand for any character who time travels and is probably the best known example, if only because of the title character's distinctive name. The idea, however, is found in many cultures and goes back thousands of years.

It's not surprising this should be so common. It sets up a situation full of both dramatic and comedic potential and characters can go back as well as forward in time.

Creators can play with the poignancy of time, family and friends lost, the wonder and hassles of dealing with a very different environment, trying to fix wrongs or simply exploit the comedic culture clash. And there are wrinkles on the idea - being sent back in time, for example, or backwards and forwards.

In An American Pickle, a Jewish labourer becomes, literally, pickled and wakes up in present-day New York where he meets his great-grandson, his only surviving relative. But being family doesn't necessarily mean they will relate to or like each other: they're very different people with very different lives.

A scene from Bill & Ted Face the Music. Picture: Supplied

A scene from Bill & Ted Face the Music. Picture: Supplied

Brendan Fraser went forward twice. Once was in Encino Man (1992) as a young caveman frozen in a block of ice. He's discovered and thawed out by two 1990s teenagers who pass him off as a foreign exchange student so his odd behaviour will be accepted.

In Blast from the Past (1999), Fraser plays Adam, a man born after his parents entered a fallout shelter in 1962 when they mistook a plane crash for the Bomb. The family is locked in for 35 years but when Adam is finally sent to the surface in search of supplies (and a girl), he finds himself in a strange new world for which his parents' teachings and cultural influences and his decades of isolation with just the two of them have not prepared him. At least 1962 was more recent than the Ice Age.

Also in release now is Bill & Ted Face the Music, the third in the comedy series featuring two dimwitted musicians who travel back and forth in time encountering Napoleon, Socrates, Abraham Lincoln and other important figures. They even dice (well, play Battleship and Twister) with Death, in an inspired riff on The Seventh Seal, about which it's a sure bet they've never heard. Ingmar Bergman? They probably don't even have a clue about Ingrid Bergman.

The original Planet of the Apes film series also played it both ways. In Planet of the Apes (1968), astronauts from Earth in 1972 went into hibernation and ended up in 3978 to find themselves on a planet where the apes were in charge and humans were primitive (the surviving astronaut, played by Charlton Heston, made a shocking discovery at the end, but it shouldn't have been: all the apes speak English).

In the third film, Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), three chimps escaped from the planet destroyed in the second film in 3978, via spaceship, and ended up on Earth in 1973.

Why the first and third films were set in the very near future is not explained (did the filmmakers expect things to have changed markedly?).

The 1979 theatrically released TV pilot Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, had the title astronaut fly a NASA deep space probe in 1987 into an orbit that froze his life support systems. He was discovered and brought back to Earth 500 or so years later. He encountered, among other entities, a robot with a speech impediment (really? why?) named Twiki that sounded like Mel Blanc and got caught up in a war between Earthlings and Draconians (no prizes for guessing who the baddies are: talk about your nominative determinism).

At least Buck was among recognisably human people, unlike the main folk H.G. Wells' time traveller would find. The Victorian-era inventor of The Time Machine (1960) played by Aussie Rod Taylor, skips ahead to the times of World War I and World War II (lucky guy) and a nuclear war in 1966 (optimistic bunch in 1960, weren't they?).

Then he takes a big leap forward to 802,701, where he encounters the gentle, primitive Eloi who are preyed on by the nasty underground-dwelling Morlocks. Both are descended from humans: how's that for evolution?

A scene from Blast From The Past. Picture: Supplied

A scene from Blast From The Past. Picture: Supplied

Then there are the paradoxical and troublesome elements, of which I don't pretend to understand all the theoretical underpinnings, but I doubt many of the filmmakers who exploit them do either. They do come into play quite a bit.

Take the Back to the Future films. Going back in time as a teenager to find your mother-to-be has a more-than-motherly affection for you when you meet her adolescent self would be weird - if something Oedipal happened, would the kid be your son/daughter/sister/brother?

Icky enough and horrible to contemplate, but when you realise if she doesn't get together with your dad, you and your siblings won't be born, it's arguably far worse. What will happen to you? And how and when? Or do you just have to make damn sure that the right thing happens and hope your parents have lousy memories?

This is like the Terminator movies and their variation on the grandfather paradox: what's happened has happened, so can you really go back in time and change something? And if you could, what - and who else - will be affected?

Things got more complicated as the BTTF and Terminator movies went on and it was best not to try to analyse things but go along for the ride.

I wonder if Eric Stoltz ever wonders what it would be like to have a time machine so he could go back and not be fired from the first BTTF film and replaced by Michael J. Fox.

This story Time travel a tried and true device first appeared on The Canberra Times.