The Grand Tour (1992)

According to IMDB, this initially went under the name of ‘Timescape’ and missed out on a cinema release, but was retitled ‘Grand Tour: Disaster in Time’ for the home video market. I’ll admit to being sceptical of this, as A: My old VHS copy clearly says ‘Timescape’ and B: ‘Grand Tour: Disaster in Time is a clunkier (but vaguely more apt) title. In the interest of slightly pathetic obligation to the notion of canon, the title sequence within the version I’m reviewing simply reads ‘The Grand Tour’, so I’ll stick with that. Directed by David N Twohy (best known for Pitch Black and stilted attempts at a Riddick franchise), it’s a time travel movie, but one unhampered by the populism and economic success of, say, Back To The Future or Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. In fact, to this day it has eluded a DVD release in this country. The production is certainly humble enough to befit its obscurity, but there are enough original beats, not to mention a terrific central performance, that do deserve it some elevation (or failing that, waffle), by me, here, now.

Jeff Daniels stars as Ben Wilson, a still-grieving widower in the process of renovating a guest-house on the outskirts of town with his daughter Hilary (Ariana Richards). The pair are joined by a tour group, headed by the dubiously magnanimous Madame Iovine (Marilyn Lightstone), who insists on paying upfront for them to stay in the largely unfurnished building. Ben is instantly wary of the party’s eccentric behaviour, but has bigger problems in the shape of his late wife’s father, Judge Caldwell (George Murdock). Caldwell explicitly blames Ben for her death, and is encroaching upon his custody of Hilary. Long story short, the tour group are in fact (spoilers follow) time travellers from an immaculate-but-dull future, passively witnessing historical disasters in a callously decadent fashion. Their presence heralds the arrival of catastrophe, as a meteorite decimates the town and its population. Before their subsequent departure, a sympathetic time tourist slips Ben one of their passports. With his daughter’s life in the balance, Ben travels back in time to help set things right.

The film plays out like a feature-length episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, where the one-shot, high-concept premise is often contained within a folksy, small-town setting. In fact, the film is based on a short story called Vintage Season, written by one-time Twilight Zone contributors Lawrence O’Donnell and C.L.Moore. The Grand Tour avoids the pitfalls of similar-minded movies by not spending the post-reveal run time on a futile expansion of its own mythology (see Richard Kelly’s The Box, be my guest). Instead, once the penny drops and the second act begins, the plot takes the premise to a logical conclusion, but one that’s unafraid of cutting the Gordian knot at the expense of a more coherent finale.

The trouble with time travel stories is simply this; messing with time means messing with plot. Certain events already established may become undone, paradoxical, or rendered arbitrary by the protagonist’s ability to change it on a whim. If the traveller cannot change the past, say due to some form of predeterminist cosmological policy, then that can also feel arbitrary, not to mention unsatisfactory to the audience, as ideas are refused permission to conclude. What would actually happen if you went back and killed your grandfather? What’s more satisfying to see, the gun jamming for no reason, or the very fabric of reality unweaving in a psychedelic visual feast? Well, both are pretty stupid, but at least the latter would make for a better screensaver. ‘The Grand Tour’ has no such dazzling display, but it does allow the third act to delve into willful paradox, as Ben travels back 24 hours and teams up with the Ben from earlier on in the film. This twist allows for another unique trump card, as Ben literally confronts himself about his cowardice and complicity in his wife’s death. It’s a surprisingly harrowing sequence for such daytime-style melodrama and provides an unusual wrinkle to some otherwise forthright characterisation.

There’s no denying the TV-movie production values, but Jeff Daniels provides a much-needed emotional centre, judging the tone perfectly and inhabiting the everyman role with relative comfort. There’s a pleasing incongruity to the tourists themselves, as they for the most part seem to have escaped from central casting in a mythical epicentre of the 1980s. Meanwhile, their resident ‘retropologist’ blunders against passing cars whilst gawping at contemporary telephone lines. It’s hard to imagine such a party spending much time in history before getting rumbled by someone at somepoint, but therein lies the joy of imagination. Also endearing is the reveal of their mufti; a barmy assortment of esoterica replete with Tin Man face paint and New Romantical garb. Truly the future is a place of wonder.

As is the way with much of live-action science fiction, ideas triumph over compromised execution. In the case of The Grand Tour, ideas include the emotional detachment that Time and Space afford us from tragedy and ultimately how arbitrary that detachment is. More satisfying is the notion that, for lack of a better metaphor, perhaps reality can let us kill grandad now and then.

– Nik Drou

The Grand Tour on IMDB

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