Maybe it’s inevitable that time travel movies, in which the same events happen and re-happen with difference, seem so well suited to structuralist taxonomy. The defining element in terms of plot is, of course, the fantasy of altering the past (personal, historical or otherwise), which creates a pretext for the relatively novel prospect (in mainstream film, anyway) of segments of narrative repetition.
Thematically, the film must also take a position on a broader question – namely, can the past be altered, or will time-travel simply provide empirical proof that we are on the traintracks of fate?
On this question, time travel movies are split:
Tragedy – Fate. Sorry, everyone. Examples: La Jetée (Ohhhhhhh.), Donnie Darko (Awwwww.)
Satire – We can change things, but boy do we mortal fools make a hash of it. Examples: Primer (What jerks!), Timecrimes (What a jerk!)
Romance – Hooray, the universe bends to our will! Examples: Star Trek IV (Save the whales? Have saved the whales), Back to the Future (Save the 50s!)
Comedy: Are there none, or can I simply not think of any? Commenters’ choice! (But let’s not have any Hot Tub Time Machine nonsense. Risible though the gang’s adventures might have been, the movie goes in Romance and you know it.)
[Hi! I’m future you. Unless you’re careful, you’re about read a sort of spoiler of the film Looper, only in the sense that you’ll have an account of the general attitude the film takes toward the possibility of changing the past, present and future. I read it the first time around, and found that it enhanced my eventual viewing of the film. But, you decide, McFly. ]
So, Looper. Romance aged in a Tragedy-Oak barrel. While reviews of time travel movies often consider the degree to which the movies take time travel “seriously” in the sense of coming up with plausible technological explanations, there is another tendency amongst the tragic films to take time travel “seriously” in the sense of being grimly reverent toward the subject. Looper maintains that attitude in a way utterly unlike the giddy freedom promised by most of the Romantic time travel tradition. The will to power is dangerous and tends to ironically replicate precisely the outcomes individual actors seek to alter. And yet, in Looper, the force of fate is less law than a center of gravity escaped not by rushing ahead, but by reflection.
OK, so a question: what about time travel films like Battlestar Galactica or Star Wars (galaxy far, far away), in which the time travel is in some sense completed by the human race ex post facto?
Comedy: Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
That category is pretty sparse, though, come to think of it.
Source Code (2011) — the Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle that has surprisingly received high critical praise — so awful that it’s comical. (And links with the “military-culture complex” that Eric Hayot mentions earlier.)