Movies can seem like windows into other worlds. From the audience’s perspective, cinema or television screens allow us to gaze into lives and adventures outside the scope of possibility.
In a grand and quite literal example, Thor: The Dark World will take audiences on a tour of the Marvel cinematic universe’s cosmic back yard. From the battlefields of Vanaheim to the bleak, barren crags of Svartalfheim, our favorite God of Thunder and his allies do a good deal of hopping back and forth through the Nine Realms of the Thor mythos.
All this interplanetary travel has us fondly remembering other films that take the idea of “portals into other worlds” literally – wherein both the characters and the audience jump through the looking glass and into ever stranger lands. Join us as we embark on a retrospective of the films that took us through portals and into the worlds beyond.
Though director Terry Gilliam has made a long career out of weaponized surrealism, Time Bandits still ranks as one of the strangest and most exciting entries in his filmography. If you haven’t seen it, any summary ends up sounding like a the description of a fever dream.
A neglected young boy falls in with a gang of thieving dwarves who travel through time and space using a map stolen from the Supreme Being. In the course of their adventures, they escape the sinking of the Titanic, hoodwink Napoleon (played with scene-chewing seriousness by Ian Holm), hang out with Robin Hood, escape the clutches of ogres and minotaurs, and eventually show down with the living incarnation of Evil in a timeless Fortress of Ultimate Darkness.
With all its fantastical creatures and leaps from location to location, Time Bandits is more or less the epitome of the world-hopping adventure flick.
The film that launched a surprisingly robust science-fiction franchise, Roland Emmerich’s Stargate spends so much time building up to what might be beyond its titular space portal that it’s almost a letdown when it turns out to be an endless desert ruled by a Chariots of the Gods-style alien overlord.
Despite the familiarity of the concept, the original Stargate still stands out as one of Emmerich’s better efforts. It’s a two-fisted pulp action flick initially masquerading as hard sci-fi – one that comes alive when it finally sheds its more dour trappings and goes for broke in its final act. Though the planet beyond the Stargate may not be as enthralling as first advertised, the adventure found there is more than enough to make up for it.
It’s said that the past is a foreign country – and it doesn’t get much more foreign than a feudal hellscape beset by war and demonic possession.
The third installment of the Evil Dead franchise begins where Evil Dead 2 left off – with chainsaw-armed protagonist Ash Williams flung through a mystic vortex and into a historically spurious version of the year 1300. Finding himself in an entire world overrun by the Deadites, Ash must track down the infamous Necronomicon Ex Mortis and put a stop to the infernal invasion.
Not only does Army of Darkness fully embrace the “splatstick” comedy begun by its immediate predecessor, it also becomes more overtly fantastical. Though Ash travels through time, the setting he finds himself in is so preposterous that he may as well have landed in Oz – a similarity that has not gone unnoticed.
Coraline thoroughly proves that kids’ movies need not be nothing but sunshine, sassy sidekicks, and princesses. In fact, Coraline‘s alternate, button-eyed world has gained a reputation as high octane nightmare fuel – even (and perhaps especially) for adults.
The glowing portal that kicks off Coraline‘s ghoulish festivities lies behind the walls of newly acquired country home. Beyond this cobwebbed crawlspace is a mirror world seemingly perfectly tailored for the titular heroine – and yet full of dark and unpleasant secrets. The images of this shadowy pocket dimension slowly coming apart at the seams are genuinely unnerving.
“World-hopping” becomes spectacularly literal in the climax of the now-classic Pixar flick Monsters, Inc. Even before they become the focus of a chaotic, death-defying set piece that ranks among Pixar’s best, Monsters, Inc. does quite a bit with the idea of mass-produced interdimensional portals.
These portals are, of course, simple closet doors – the delivery system that a world of monsters uses to harvest valuable fear from the children of our own planet. When scare-agents Sully and Mike accidentally bring a human toddler back across the threshold between universes, they set off a chain reaction that uncovers a conspiracy and leads straight to that final, hair-raising chase back and forth between worlds.
I still harbor a soft a spot for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, some 22 years after watching it on home video approximately five times in a row over the course of a single weekend. Bill and Ted is a tale so ingrained my generation’s consciousness that I’ve actually seen people online accuse Doctor Who of ripping it off.
A great adventure flick in its own right, Bill and Ted propels its heroes from ancient Greece to Napoleonic France to an extended visit to the knight n’ castles peril of the Middle Ages. Sure, the film is starting to show its age – Bill and Ted seem like archetypes frozen in the time and place of the movie’s creation. Yet, Bill Ted’s Excellent Adventure is second only to Back to the Future as the quintessential time travel comedy.
Speaking of movies that are starting to show their age, Stay Tuned can sometimes come off as a relic of its time – full of increasingly dated references and channeling anxieties about the evolution of entertainment that feel weirdly hysterical 20 years on.
This doesn’t keep the movie from being quite the hoot – a high-energy romp through a dozen different settings and film/television parodies. After signing up for what seems like the deal of a lifetime, television addict Roy Knable (John Ritter) and his long-suffering wife Helen (Pam Dawber) are sucked into a demonic television set and find themselves on the run through hundreds of malevolently bent channels – all of which are trying to kill them. A wonderfully demented animated segment makes Stay Tuned worth the price of admission alone.
Moving to the inner world, Inception takes the adage of men “containing multitudes” and transforms it into a thrilling mind-bender of a heist movie. As Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team of corporate dream-saboteurs proceed deeper and deeper into the subconscious of their target, the resultant changes in setting become ever more fantastical…and dangerous.
This culminates in a visually stunning journey into the deepest level of dreaming: the endless, crumbling cityscape of Limbo. There – in a place where a minute can last months and memories are malleable – Cobb has to face down his own mental demons in order to pull off the job that will set him free.
Much of the output of H.P. Lovecraft dealt with the worlds hidden beyond the veil of the senses – whether in higher dimensions or in the kingdoms built by men’s dreams. In those realms dwelt unfathomably ancient beings whose malevolence was far outside the understanding of humanity.
John Dies at the End posits that these beings are really just massive jerks.
Something like Lovecraft for the slacker set, John Dies at the End is a tongue-in-cheek horror comedy that leaps between worlds (and the worlds between worlds) with gleeful abandon. The film features swarm intelligences that speak like wannabe gangsters, a carnivorous mustache, a meat golem, and a living drug that unleashes its users from the moorings of time and space. Though the movie’s climax doesn’t live up to everything leading up to it, up to that point it’s one heck of a ride.
The Chronicles of Narnia book series helped popularize the subgenre in which characters step from the mundane and into the fantastical. As such, it feels appropriate to close out this list with the recent, big budget adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
The first moments in Narnia – amidst drifting snow and the light of a single lamp post – manage to convey a dreamlike quality that stands in stark contrast to scenes set in our own world.
Really, one could include the majority of the currently produced Chronicles of Narnia films on this list, given the ready availability of opportunities to step between our run-a-day world and the titular realm of dwarves, satyrs, talking animals, witches, and all manner of creatures of legend. That said, only the original 2005 entry properly conveys the sense of wonder, terror, and majesty created by its classic source material.
Just as viewers look to movies to transport themselves to uncanny worlds, movies will surely continue to return to the concept of people walking through doorways into the vast unknown. The preceding titles are just a handful of the films of this subgenre – you can probably think of even more. We’ll leave you with a few that didn’t quite make the list, but still involve some heady travels outside the human experience.
In the meantime, keep looking for the stars behind that closet door.
The Wizard of Oz (1939): The one that – for all intents and purposes – started ’em all.
Being John Malkovich (1999): Spike Jonze’ s savagely weird debut feature centers about a portal that takes people to rather different plane of existence – the interior life of actor John Malkovich.
Pacific Rim (2013): In a prime example of quality over quantity, only a single trip through an interdimensional portal occurs during the course of Pacific Rim – but what a trip!