A Wrinkle in Time, Indie-Style: Timecrimes and Primer
Time travel has been an idée fixe in the realm of sci-fi since 1895, when H.G. Wells published his classic novella The Time Machine, an influential story that spawned an entire subgenre in literature of the fantastic and, eventually, cinema. The latest twist on the genre, Nacho Vigalondo’s Russian doll-like thriller Timecrimes, will get a theatrical release tomorrow from Magnet Releasing, a specialty division of Magnolia Pictures. The film—about a man who repeatedly travels a few hours into the past to untangle a dark chain of events—was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year, and United Artists already has plans to remake the film in 2009 with Children of Men screenwriter Timothy J. Sexton and Canadian auteur David Cronenberg reportedly attached.
In the film, middle-aged Hector (Karra Elejalde) is vacationing with his girlfriend Clara (Candela Fernandez) at a country house in Spain. A few disturbing encounters—agitated phone calls from a creepy stranger, then the alarming appearance of a naked young woman on the grounds—sends him into the woods to investigate. After locating the woman, now unconscious, he is attacked by a scissors-wielding lunatic whose head is wrapped in bloodied bandages. Wounded and scared, he flees to a nearby research facility where a frightened scientist (Vigalondo) convinces him to “hide” in a fluid-filled pod. Naturally, the mechanism turns out to be an experimental time machine, and Hector is transported into the recent past, though to say more would spoil the fun of Vigalondo’s meta-puzzle. It’s a meticulous reworking of the basic Wellsian template, updated with borrowings from horror and contemporary thrillers. Most inventive is the way Vigalondo toys with our sense of perspective, jumbling a panoply of Hector’s past and future selves so we are unsure, as spectators, how to orient ourselves. Perhaps Sexton will have more success beefing up his characters, but at least at the conceptual level, Timecrimes is a worthy addition to the time-travel canon.
Revisiting Vigalondo’s film got me thinking about another recent sci-fi indie thriller, Shane Carruth’s talky, super-brainy Primer, which earned the Dallas-based writer-director a Sundance Grand Jury Prize and several Independent Spirit nominations in 2004. Shot with an amateur cast and crew on a minuscule budget (about $7,000), Primer boasts finely modulated performances by Carruth and David Sullivan, but, like Timecrimes, virtually no special effects. Instead, Carruth creates tension in edgy, conversational exchanges and precision editing, not to mention assured camerawork, in which time overlaps are rendered by shifts in perspective and subtle structural adjustments to the filmed action. The story concerns Abe and Aaron, a pair of young, entrepreneurial-minded corporate engineers working on a potentially lucrative project in their spare time, with a suburban garage functioning as their makeshift lab. They build a “box” out of home-appliance scraps to test their theories, and make an important discovery about their newfangled device, which does something they never anticipated, appearing to transport a tiny canister of argon three seconds into the past. Things get interesting when they attempt to duplicate the process on a larger scale.
Most time-travel films position their protagonist (usually a man) to arbitrate a moral crisis created by a disturbance in the time-space continuum, an aberrant circumstance prompted by some selfish motive (love, greed, glory, hubris, scientific curiosity) on the part of one or several characters. In the case of Primer, Abe and Aaron are not mad tinkerers at all, but factotums of corporate industry, ultra-productive rationalists committed to “36-hour days” who ultimately run up against the limits of their own emotional and psychological endurance as extended-time voyagers. The film is just 77 minutes long, and the jargon-heavy dialogue can at times obscure the relevance of key scenes, but these are minor flaws in an otherwise suspenseful, ingenious iteration of the time-travel genre.
There are a few scenes available online at video-sharing sites, but I’ve pasted a YouTube link below that I think gives a good sense of the film without giving away any of it key plot points.