Perhaps the only precursor to today's arty time-leaping flicks is Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, a tough story about a man adrift between the decades, attempting to stop a terrible virus from destroying the world. After staying in the present day (the 1990s) for a while, he's put in a mental institution where he begins to believe that the post-apocalyptic future is just a crazy hallucination.
The new wave of time travel flicks represented by Timecrimes and Primer use the idea of time travel to explore madness in the same way Gilliam did. In both movies, our time travelers are clearly going mad - in Primer, madness seems to be one of the side-effects of time travel. We see a similar trend on FOX series Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles, where all the characters who have traveled through time struggle with madness and traumatic flashbacks. With madness-loving director David Cronenberg working on a remake of Timecrimes, and a new Terminator movie in the works, we're not likely to see an end to this trend soon.
Madness makes almost any story more literary*, of course, if only because it takes a certain degree of art to represent reality through the eyes of somebody unsure of what's real. Even healthy minds are time travelers: In our imaginations, we jump around in time constantly, comparing what's happening right now to an event ten years ago, or recalling vividly a person who is long dead. So perhaps the idea of time travel is particularly suited to complicated, literary stories. It's a simple way to translate mental states into plot devices.
But why is time travel the plot device that arty types want to steal from scifi right now? Why not create indie flicks about aliens or space travel? Possibly because it's hard to create non-laughable aliens on an indie budget - so don't expect lit writer Jeanette Winterson's recent alien novel The Stone Gods to get the arthouse treatment any time soon.
I think there might be something else going on here, though, something connected to many people's realization that humans won't be traveling to space en masse in the near future. That dream died in the 1980s, when the moon landing honeymoon was finally over. These days, we don't all share a dream that one day we'll go to the stars, the way kids watching the first moon landing did. Instead, perhaps the most widely-shared scifi-flavored dream is of escaping to the past or future, instead of to the stars.
Certainly the fantasy of escape is at the heart of Timecrimes, where a man called Hector strays from his wife by idly watching another woman undress through his binoculars. This small act of betrayal sets in motion a psychotic adventure with time machines, self-tripling, and unbearable guilt. Is the movie really about time travel, or just the consequences of sexual anxiety?
Anyone who has seen an ordinary time travel film like Back to the Future would hardly recognize Timecrimes as part of the genre. Hector is not trying to change the past in order to make the present better, or even just to revisit a beloved lost time. His travels back to the recent past are clearly surreal representations of his own knotty psychology where sexual desire somehow always leads to murder. Not exactly the typical stuff of science fiction.
Still, it is science fiction - at least, a version of what SF would be if completely unleashed from the idea of genre. What's intriguing about the new wave of time travel indies is that they are unafraid to turn the conventions of hard SF into metaphors. There is no effort here to be "scientific," or to create a plausible time loop scenario. Instead, we are treated to a genuinely startling exploration of unknown territory in the human mind. And we get a glimpse of what science fiction might look like in years to come.
* You can see metaphorical time travel cropping up in non-SF literary work too: Joseph Heller's famous war novel Catch-22 is about a man whose madness causes his very narrative to become unstuck in time. (Unlike a similar work, Slaughterhouse Five, where the narrator is literally, not metaphorically, unstuck in time.) And both Marge Piercy and Joanna Russ have written literary SF novels (Woman on the Edge of Time and The Female Man respectively) that mix time travel with possible madness.