By Glenn Kenny
Updated February 17, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

Escape From the Planet of the Apes

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”The best evidence we have that time travel is not possible, and never will be,” concludes physicist Stephen Hawking after demonstrating in ”The Future of the Universe” that the laws of science prevent visits to other eras, ”is that we have not been invaded by hordes of tourists from the future.”

Feh. What does he know? The laws of time travel as propounded in the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle TIMECOP (1994, MCA/Universal, R, priced for rental) are a lot simpler than Hawking’s technical proof. To wit: (1) You can’t travel to the future because it doesn’t exist yet, and (2) you can travel to the past, but if you come upon your younger self, don’t make physical contact, because two manifestations of the same being can’t occupy the same space. The first principle helped Timecop‘s producers keep the budget down: Most of the action takes place 10 years from now, so the sets don’t need to look very futuristic. The second helps keep the movie exciting: Its climax has hero (Van Damme) and villain (Ron Silver) interacting with their younger selves, nail-bitingly aware that they can look but can’t touch.

When dealing with time travel, filmmakers always must decide whether to put in just enough such ”science” to make it seem plausible (as in the Terminator movies) or simply ignore the practical considerations in favor of flights of fancy (the Back to the Future series). Either way, time travel’s a great problem-solving — and problem-creating — device.

ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971, FoxVideo, G, $19.98) delivers a lightweight example of the pseudo-scientific method. In the first Planet of the Apes, astronauts crash-land on a world run by talking simians, who herd and torture primitive humans. The twist ending reveals that this planet is, in fact, the Earth of the future, which leaves us wondering how apes evolved into talking, reasoning creatures. Escape provides an explanation — one that crumbles upon scrutiny, but which, on some lazy evening, might be taken for food for thought. Renegade ape doctors Zira and Cornelius (Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall) go back in time to present-day L.A., and stay long enough to leave behind their offspring, who, equipped with advanced vocal cords, will become the great leader of ape-world legend. This Mobius-strip effect of the future turning in on itself works almost every time.

The granddaddy of time-travel sagas, by contrast, pretty much eschews scientific explanations altogether. The era-hopping apparatus in THE TIME MACHINE (1960, MGM/UA, unrated, $19.95), based on H.G. Wells’ novel, is little more than a comfy chair with a large fan above it. In this exciting if ultimately silly movie, a scientist (Rod Taylor) travels to the future to witness a struggle between pacifists (the hippie-like Eloi) and a race of warriors (the bug-eyed Morlocks). The meat of Wells’ novel is sacrificed in favor of all-out spectacle, but in that respect the movie works marvelously.

In TIME AFTER TIME (1979, Warner, PG, $19.98), writer-director Nicholas Meyer gives a time machine to Wells himself (Malcolm McDowell) and sends him to 20th-century San Francisco. Wells’ mission is to save his possible future wife (Mary Steenburgen, who in real life later married McDowell) from one of his 19th-century dinner companions, Jack the Ripper (David Warner). This makes for such charming comedy, disarming romance, feverish suspense, and genuine tragedy that viewers are likely to say ”to hell with probability” from the get-go.

Timecop, for its part, isn’t interested in teaching a lesson or exercising tear ducts. Pitting law officer Van Damme (assigned to make sure no one messes with the past) against slimy presidential hopeful Silver (who manipulates the technology to amass campaign funds) merely provides the excuse for much violent action. Van Damme’s his usual impassive self here, but his stolidity is in keeping with the character. Besides, Silver’s witty ruthlessness and Mia Sara’s genuine appeal as Van Damme’s wife carry the rest of the picture. Acting aside, Van Damme pulls off some novel stunts — his midair split will have you hitting the slow-motion button. Timecop‘s other pleasures are strictly of the genre variety, and they demonstrate why, in spite of party poopers like Stephen Hawking, time travel will remain an enchanting premise for years to come. Timecop: B+; Escape From the Planet of the Apes: B+; The Time Machine: A-; Time After Time: B+

Escape From the Planet of the Apes

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  • Don Taylor