Monday, July 06, 2009

Movies: Time Travel on a Budget

One of the things I like about Netflix is that it gives me a chance to watch lots of obscure, independent, often low-budget science fiction movies. This time, I'll review a trio of time travel films that I've watched in the last couple of years. (Minor spoilers ahead.)

Time travel is a natural theme for this kind of film, since a lot of the really cool ideas about it require no glitzy special effects. You just need an intelligent script and sufficient acting and production quality to put it across. Such movies can have twisty plots and complex narratives. The same scene might appear several times, each time imbued with new significance. Because of this, I often like to watch a good time travel movie more than once.

Primer (2004). This movie, shot in suburban Dallas for something like $30K by Shane Carruth, has a reputation as a superb "underground" science fiction movie. In my view, the reputation is well deserved. Two guys -- engineers at high tech firms during the day -- are trying to invent antigravity in their spare time. They invent time travel by mistake. The process of discovery is wonderfully portrayed, and the operating rules of time travel are extremely well thought out.

At one point, we learn that one of the guys, at the very beginning of their time travel experiments, built a "failsafe device" -- an additional time machine to allow someone to go back to the beginning and fix problems that might arise. This idea is a great example of why I like this movie so much. It is clever, but also naive; so instead of being a safety measure, it turns out to complicate things immensely. (Especially after it turns out that a time machine can be folded up to fit inside another time machine....)

The movie is complex and makes the viewer work to "get" the plot. It soon becomes apparent that you are not watching the first "iteration" of the time travel loop. You are already being presented with a timeline that has been changed many times, recursively. Not everything is explained, so even after two or three viewings you may still have questions. If you like, you can check out one theories on one of the web pages devoted to discussion of this movie. I still find myself pondering certain aspects and scenes of this movie, long after I watched it.

Feedback (2002). Another extremely-low-budget movie about time travel. This go round, the device is a telephone that can call six hours into the past.

I did not like Feedback as much as I did Primer. For one thing, I did not identify with the characters as much. (One review, with less kindness than accuracy, called them "low-rent hoods".) The tension is provided by conventional dangers such as criminals with guns. There is one rather cool special effect -- I will not spoil the surprise -- but the film budget was similar to Primer's. Like Primer, though, it manages to look quite good.

12:01 (1993). This movie is often compared to Groundhog Day, which was made about the same time. The movies differ in two important respects: Groundhog Day gives no explanation for its basic premise, which puts it more in the fantasy category; and Groundhog Day is a truly great movie, while 12:01 is merely somewhat charming. In each movie, the central character has to live the same day over and over again, trying to learn enough to make everything come out right. (12:01 is very loosely based on a short film from 1990, which is included in the DVD. The short film is much, much darker -- real Twilight Zone stuff. The original source material is a short story by Richard A. Lupoff.)

This is not really an independent movie, since it was made by an established (third-string) Hollywood studio and has fine, recognizable actors (like Martin Landau and Helen Slater). There are some funny parts. The technobabble is especially babbly.

I suppose I need a ranking system for the movies I review. Here goes. Each movie gets three grades: Smart/Exciting/Pretty (S/E/P). "Smart" refers to how intelligent the plot and premise are; "Exciting" refers to how entertaining the movie is to watch; and "Pretty" recognizes striking images and cool special effects. All rankings are purely subjective; your mileage may vary.
  • Primer: S/E/P = A+/A/B+
  • Feedback: S/E/P = B/C/B+ (extra credit for one scene)
  • 12:01: S/E/P = C/B-/C
All of them pass in all categories, but then I'm not a very hard grader. If you can only watch one of these, watch Primer. If you can watch two, watch Primer twice! But if you have lots of time, check out one of the others.

Next time -- two movies about forbidden knowledge.


Blogger ewige said...

Glad to see you enjoyed Primer so much. For myself, the movie addressed one of my main complaints with other members of the time-travel genre: when one hops in a time machine, how does the time machine manage to stay in the same spot relative to the planet? In the case of Primer, the machine needs to take a pre-existing space-time path (i.e. the machine has to already be in place at the time you wish to travel back to). One cannot just hop in and pop back to the stone age. It's a lovely solution, and a terrific film.

11:08 AM  
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