‘The Grand Tour’ (1992): Little seen sci-fi time traveler better than remembered

Nostalgia’s a powerful thing. Revisiting a film from your youth can be a disappointing experience…or at least a wake-up call showing how you’ve grown or matured. But sometimes those old memories can surprise you, and there’s no better feeling than revisiting an old film to find that it holds up better than you thought it would.

By Jason Hink

That’s the pleasant experience I enjoyed the other day revisiting 1992’s sci-fi mystery The Grand Tour (also known variously as Grand Tour: Disaster in Time and Timescape), a film I had vague memories of and planned to revisit if it ever got a home video release. Well…there was a VHS I missed and apparently it did come out on DVD in 1999 and 2002 (I was still heavily collecting VHS in those days, waiting for the price of DVDs to come down), and a quick scan of Amazon shows used copies going for over $90. Unavailable on my streaming service of choice, Amazon Prime Video, I turned to that last-ditch bastion of hope—YouTube, where I found what looks like a 1:33:1 VHS rip with Japanese subtitles. Good enough.

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The Grand Tour stars Jeff Daniels, Ariana Richards, Emilia Crow (hello!), Jim Haynie, Marilyn Lightstone, George Murdock and Robert Colbert in a fantasy tale that plays on the themes of time travel and redemption, based on the short novel Vintage Season by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore.

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The Pacific Northwest(?), 1992: Widower Ben Wilson (Jeff Daniels) has returned to his small hometown to renovate an old guesthouse with his young daughter, Hillary (Ariana Richards). Local yokel bus driver Oscar (Jim Haynie) arrives at the unfinished guesthouse unannounced with a busload of weirdos led by the strange Madame Iovine (Marilyn Lightstone), who insists her group stay in the unfinished quarters while constantly proclaiming everything is just “graaaaand.” Ben obliges, but despite claiming they’re tourists, none of them carry cameras and their peculiar attire and manner has Ben suspicious. After some unusual encounters with a couple of these strange guests (Nicholas Guest and David Wells), Ben begins to consider that these so-called tourists may in fact be time travelers who have witnessed some of humanity’s most devastating disasters, such as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Are these oddball sightseers on a “grand tour” of these awful world events?

RELATED | More 1990s film reviews

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Meanwhile, Judge Caldwell (crusty George Murdock), whose daughter was married to Ben, blames Ben for her death…while Ben continually relives her gruesome death over and over in his mind, feeling guilty that he didn’t do enough to try to save her. Judge Caldwell instructs the local po-po to round up young Hillary and take her away from Ben, bringing her to stay with the Judge and his wife. SPOILERS Out of sheer curiosity and desperate to learn what those tourists are really up to, Ben mounts (ha!) a semi-romantic encounter with the beautiful knockout tourist, Reeve (Emilia Crow). But during this encounter, Reeve drugs him and he’s taken hostage by the group. While Ben lies unconscious under the effects of this ungodly roofie, disaster strikes the small town and kills many, including his daughter Hillary.

When the time comes for the tourists to depart, Reeve feels sympathy for Ben and sneaks him one of her time traveling tools—a magical passport each of the travelers carry with them. Ben must figure out how to use this passport and, once he does, teams up with a most unlikely ally to try to change the events of history and redeem himself by proving his bravery—a bravery that was missing the day his wife was killed all those years earlier.

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Director David Twohy, in his first film (he’d later direct The Arrival and Chronicles of Riddick, and has written others including The Fugitive, Waterworld and G.I. Jane), weaves a fun, interesting tale that skillfully engages the audience with a mixture of emotion, fantasy, and a well-played take on time travel, all on a smaller scale. It plays like a budget-blend of earnest TV family-drama and Back to the Future, with a little mystery and creepiness thrown in to spice it up.

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But why should I care so much about re-watching this minor film from the early ‘90s that didn’t even make it to theaters? Well, this film caused a stir in my rural local area; The Grand Tour was the first of just two films ever shot here in Douglas County, Oregon (the other being 1993’s Fire in the Sky)—both when I was in high school. I was a freshman and thrilled as the news of this motion picture business played out at the time in our local paper and TV news. As a film loving kid, I loved it! The tiny town of Oakland got the most screen time (with other scenes shot in Eugene and Drain), and during my YouTube screening I found myself glued just as much to the background scenery as to the film’s unfolding action. Thoughts popped into my head like: Where is Jeff Daniels going park his pick-up? Is he going to walk into Tolly’s Restaurant? I had my 10-year reunion there. Please walk into Tolly’s Restaurant!

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The Grand Tour was originally planned for theatrical release in 1991 but wound up debuting on pay cable in 1992. Jeff Daniels is reliably solid playing the widowed father, realistically portraying the everyman who wishes he could go back in time and do right by his wife. Daniels was just a couple years removed from playing another father-to-youngsters in Arachnophobia, and a few years later would regress to a virtual child himself in Dumb and Dumber.

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But stealing the show is Ariana Richards as the put-upon, overachieving daughter who not only takes her homework seriously but keeps dad in check as well. Richards would’ve been around 11 years old at the time The Grand Tour was filmed, but she carries herself with a sassy, believable maturity and does a fine job of acting naturally, or “in the moment,” as opposed to that wooden, stilted thesping you see from so many child actors. This would suggest bigger things to come for Richards, who was racking up Young Actress awards for her work in these smaller films and TV movies.

And indeed her next role after The Grand Tour’s release was her biggest—as Lex in Steven Spielberg’s Michael Crichton adaptation of Jurassic Park, which eventually cleared over $1 billion at the box office and has become a franchise that continues to print money today. Sadly (for her fans), Richards, who was born and raised in California, graduated from a New York college in 2001 and quit the film business altogether that same year to focus on her art career, her final role a reprisal of her Mindy Stergood character in Tremors 3: Back to Perfection (she did pop up once more in 2013’s SyFy schlock cable film, Battledogs). Coincidentally, she also got married in 2013—in Oregon.

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I’m happy I found the film and revisited it, even if it was on my smartphone screen with a fuzzy YouTube encode. The relative obscurity of The Grand Tour all but ensures that most people either never saw it or won’t remember it if they did (especially with all those different titles it’s been released under). But for me, anytime I see Jeff Daniels or Ariana Richards, I don’t immediately think of Dumb and Dumber or Jurassic Park; it’s The Grand Tour that always brings back the memories.

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My dad’s girlfriend at the time was from Oakland, that tiny town a few miles north of me where most of The Grand Tour was filmed, and her daughter was around the same age as Ariana Richards. They wound up hanging out together during one of the shooting days (I think she got a photo with her and an autograph), and she was also an extra in one of the big crowd scenes during the apocalyptic finale. But what I remember most was going to the local premiere party. It was so long ago that I don’t remember where it was held (some old theater in Oakland, I think), and I arrived late to the screening because I was involved in sports…but it was the first time I ever saw a crowd sit through the credits of a movie and applaud as names they recognized scrolled up the screen. I can’t recall if any of the Hollywood cast or crew were actually there (Daniels and Richards definitely were not), but I swear I saw Emilia Crow at the fancy after-party with a tall glass of champagne (unless there was some other blonde, statuesque, super-model-looking woman in our local area I didn’t know about). I was 14 and, unfortunately, didn’t approach her.

If I ever go on one these time-traveling “Grand Tours,” I’ll be righting that wrong.

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