In the wake of H.G. Wells’ novel “The Time Machine,” which was originally published in 1895, fiction has been obsessed with the idea of time travel, especially as scientists have begun to explore its real-world possibilities. Fans of fiction likely grew up with time travel; we know all of the jokes and paradoxes, and we can categorize all the ways it works. As a result, it is surprising to consider that the concept, even combining the words “time” and “travel,” only seems to have entered the public consciousness in the closing years of the 19th century.
Beyond real-life experiments and countless fictitious hypotheticals, the trend of time travel is not stopping anytime soon. Case in point, Netflix recently recommended two low-budget time travel movies to me — “Time Trap” and “In the Shadow of the Moon” — both of which bring a fresh twist to the genre.
Directed by Mark Dennis and Ben Foster, “Time Trap” follows a group of five students searching for a missing professor in a series of caves where conquistadors once sought the Fountain of Youth. To the surprise of the group and the audience, the students find the Fountain, which initially took the form of a titular time trap and later as a well of water with miraculous abilities. However, in order to protect this magical spring, someone or something that predated the agricultural revolution created layers of time dilation.
One of the most evocative images in “Time Trap” is that of an Old West cowboy holding an oil lantern aloft with a revolver on his hip as he is frozen midstep like a fly in amber. Following him through a boundary in the air causes him to move in real time, and the world outside suddenly speeds up, causing years to pass in the span of seconds.
The principal point of interest in “Time Trap” is a narrative idea which calls to mind works of literature like “Rip Van Winkle” and its predecessors, some of which include the Ancient Greek story of Epimenides of Knossos and Irish, English and German folktales — tales in which people fall asleep, sometimes after interactions with mysterious “little people” and find themselves transported far into the future. Oftentimes, these are journeys of no return. Unlike the nostalgia of some time travel narratives that transport the protagonists into an unfamiliar and even threatening landscape where there once was familiarity, watching the world blur by at the speed of light is a claustrophobic and paralyzing feeling and produces a compelling race against the clock for the heroes of the film.
Furthermore, “Time Trap” also borrows from the tradition of H.G. Wells. Most time travel stories look to the past and present an opportunity to correct old wrongs or use the power of hindsight to create a brighter future. In the “Time Machine,” Wells tried to look to the future of the human race and envisioned it splitting in two, with the leisured upper classes becoming the ineffectual Eloi and the downtrodden working class becoming the predatory, light-fearing Morlocks; it’s a future that could only be imagined in the Victorian era.
Conversely, in the late 2010s, Dennis and Foster envision a destroyed planet that pushes humanity to an orbiting spaceship where humans grow to be eight feet tall, lose their ability to breathe oxygen and develop a completely alien language. The dystopic future of “Time Trap” might lean less on allegory in order to force the heroes to battle a giant man, but the movie employs its premise to the fullest extent of its creativity, and this sense of imagination creates some of the wilder sequences in the movie.
Regrettably, the majority of “Time Trap” is uninteresting. The subpar acting and adolescent action-adventure hijinks sink most of the film’s better moments. Moreover, the movie’s intended demographic is a little obscure; none of the film’s events are treated too seriously, yet multiple characters die onscreen.
“In the Shadow of the Moon” offers a thought-provoking, atmospheric alternative to “Time Trap.” Directed by Jim Mackle and produced by Netflix, “In the Shadow of the Moon” begins in 1988 with Locke (played by Boyd Holbrook), a beat cop in Philadelphia who begins to investigate a serial killer murdering people across the city, seemingly at random, with some futuristic weapon. Jumping forward in time decade-by-decade as his life unravels, Locke becomes obsessed with the case before he ultimately realizes that his opponent is actually moving backward, using a time travel method somehow connected to the gravitational effect of the moon.
The conceit of following a character who is not the time traveler, but an outside observer, is definitely a fresh approach for the subgenre. Locke is tasked with deciphering a mystery that exceeds normal explanations and, in turn, discovers a motive that leads him to question whether stopping the killer is even the right thing to do. Interestingly, the theme of racial dynamics functions as an a fundamental aspect of “In the Shadow of the Moon”; the killer in question is a young black woman, and the relationship between the black community and the police as well as the rising power of white supremacist organizations all contribute to the film’s thematic foundation.
While “Time Trap” capitalizes on a limited budget, “In the Shadow of the Moon” looks glossy and expansive. There’s nothing particularly reliant on effects, but “In the Shadow of the Moon” is clearly one of the movies that Netflix has chosen to sink some money into. The film is clearly influenced by intellectual time travel stories like Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys” while also delving into nostalgia with its recreation of Philadelphia in the ’80s and ’90s. Granted, the pacing is slow and the film makes few attempts to entertain or subvert its intelligence with humor or action, but it never fails to drag the viewer down a twisted rabbit hole — “In the Shadow of the Moon” goes for both grit and depth, but winds up slightly uneven.
As a permanent resident in popular entertainment, time travel has fascinated humanity as an idea for decades, but its connection to paradoxes and its lack of logic leaves the subgenre prone to plot holes. Some might think there is no satisfactory way to craft a flawless time travel story, but audiences still love it. Like all quality science fiction, the subgenre offers an alternative perspective on the world and creates a theoretical environment to confront one’s deepest fears. Although “Time Trap” and “In the Shadow of the Moon” are far from perfect, both films encompass entertainment and intellectualism equally, and I’d encourage you to watch both of them to decide which one you preferred.