Oh, Millie. You went and picked such a feel-good movie for the first flick that some of our more “tender” viewers were…somewhat scarred by your switcheroo with your second film, which while it’s not a slasher flick, kinds feels like one at times. At any rate, Millie started us off in the best way possible – with yet another MST3K short. This one tells us what to do on a date! The answer? Charity work! Chicks dig it!
But now on to the feature film, 2007’s Los Cronocrímenes (“Timecrimes”) directed by Nacho Vigalondo. As I pointed out in my email, it’s one of the rare films that has the felicitous properties of alliteration in the original and internal rhyme in the translated title. That’s not what makes it a pretty good flick, but it can’t hurt.
I think I’ve actually got quite a bit to say about time-travel in movies, and about incompetent reviewers, but before I get to that, why not run down the film?
The whole thing starts with Hector1 and his wife arriving at a vacation home in the country. (Yes, I said “Hector1”. It’s obviously a time-travel movie, I’m not really giving anything away here.) While his wife is tending to all of the chores, Hector1 goes out birdwatching. Figuratively. He watches a girl, inexplicably hanging out in the woods and taking her shirt off. Naturally. like any red-blooded Spaniard, when his wife heads off to the store Hector1 decides he has to go check this out. By the time he gets out to the spot where he saw the girl, he finds her naked and passed out.
Then he gets jumped from behind by some dude, who stabs him in the arm with a pair of scissors.
Stabber dude is totally creepy. Not only is his face wrapped in a bloody bandage, but he chases and binocular taunts Hector1. Spoiler: This is Hector2. I mean, this was completely obvious, given that he’s totally bandaged up so you can’t see who he is and this is a time-travel movie, but, yeah. Spoiler! Hector1 retreats over a barbed-wire fence to an incongruous science facility, abandoned for the weekend except for by one scientist, who quite obviously cons him (over walkie-talkie) into coming to a remote building where he claims he can keep him safe from the creepy stabber dude.
His idea to keep him safe? Jump into this vat of white lotion with a huge hydraulic lid! He’ll never look in there! Hector1 is plenty skeptical, but it’s now dark, the creepy stabber dude is peeking in through the window, and if you can’t trust a scientist, who can you trust?
Hector1 jumps into the vat – and emerges one hour earlier as Hector2 after the scientist activates it. When Hector2 emerges, a few things are weird. First off, it’s now light outside again, and second, the scientist seems to be astonished at his appearance. From an outside overlook, he is able, with his binoculars, to see himself (that is, Hector1) at the vacation house. Obviously, he’s a bit freaked out.
The scientist explains time travel to Hector2 with the help of a nifty diagram and also informs him that he is the first vertebrate to successfully travel through time. Then, for some reason, he leaves, allowing Hector2 to bail out.
I don’t think Hector2 really has a good plan as to what he is about to do, but he steals a vehicle from the science facility and drives off – only to drive past the girl he had previously seen in the woods. This surprises him, and he stops – only to be rammed off the road down a steep embankment into a tree.
He suffers a pretty bad gash on his forehead, and uses a bandage previously procured for his scissor wound to wrap his head. (Yeah, the bandage turns evenly pink instead of locally red. I don’t really get that. The prop budget was pretty low, so just let that one ride.) Naturally, hearing the accident Bike Girl comes over to see if he’s OK, and Hector2, now realizing that he himself is the crazy stabbing stalker dude, tries to convince Bike Girl to go help him in the woods.
Or so you’d think. But Bike Girl apparently has never seen a horror movie, because she thinks that going into the woods with strange, bandaged men to “help” them do something which they won’t reveal sounds like a slightly strange but ultimately reasonable idea. Finally she does resist his requests to have her do a striptease in the woods, but seeing as he’s stolen a pair of scissors from her backpack, he’s got a weapon. She starts the striptease (Hector1 watching in the distance, of course), but partway through, she makes a break for it, with Hector2 chasing her, and she’s knocked out when they fall down a steep hill. So Hector2 drags her back up, takes her clothes off, arranges her as she was when he found her as Hector1, and waits for Hector1 to show up. Stabbing. Binocular taunting.
Then Hector2 heads home, only to find that there are apparently intruders in the house. He chases an intruder onto the roof, and grabbing a retreating foot, causes the intruder to fall to the ground, dead. He looks down – and the intruder was apparently his wife.
Hector2 now realizes that he has to go back in time to stop his wife’s death. He arrives at the lab just in time to peek through the window and scare Hector1 into the time tank. Then he tells the scientist to send him back. The scientist resists, but ultimately reveals that he has been told by Hector3 not to allow Hector2 to go back in time. So the whole reluctance thing is obviously not going to work out.
Due to technical limitations on the time machine, Hector3 arrives just moments before Hector2. He tells the astonished scientist to act astonished at Hector2’s appearance, and once Hector2 is out of the way, steals another vehicle to head home to save his wife. He rams Hector2 off the road but subsequently crashes himself, suffering even further injuries. Believing that his attempt to save his wife has failed, he uses the walkie-talkie to tell the scientist not to allow Hector2 into the time machine.
Ironically, the escaping Bike Girl (recovered from her unconsciousness and reclothed) runs into Hector3 in the woods, and together they go to Hector1’s house. At this point, Hector3 starts setting things up. In addition to bringing about the intruder events experienced by Hector2, he locks his wife in a shed and quickly cuts Bike Girl’s hair to look like his wife’s, gives her his wife’s coat (“we have to disguise you”), and tells her to go hide on the roof. And it’s Bike Girl, not his wife, that Hector2 accidentally pulls to her death. While Hector3 and his wife watch from lawn chairs. Hector2, distraught, heads off to the time machine and the loop is closed.
Actually, this is a pretty awesome movie, especially considering the budget. But there’s a lot to say about this movie. First of all, I sometimes wonder whether movie reviewers actually watch the movies they’re supposed to review. I sometimes like to see what other people are saying about the films I’ve seen, and this one, being a bit obscure, has only two reviews linked at Wikipedia.
Jeannette Catsoulis at the New York Times seems to be mostly concerned with the film’s “full-frontal nudity”, which suggests that she doesn’t know the definition of “full-frontal” (hint: it’s not just breasts).
Wesley Morris at the Boston Globe seems to think even the director can’t figure out what’s happening in the film. Both make the mistake of claiming that Hector1 finds Bike Girl dead in the woods – even though she’s clearly breathing and she obviously recovers. And both seem to think that there are plot difficulties with the film.
I disagree completely. But to explain, I think I need to go more into the metaphysics of time-travel movies, and with that hypothetical time travel itself.
The fundamental problem with time travel is that it messes with causality and timelines. We live in a world that is evidently forward-causal. The past causes the future (in immediate succession), the future never causes the past. Furthermore, we live in a world with (at least as we experience it) one unique timeline. Any particular moment in time is experienced once. Once it has been experienced, it cannot be experienced again, and it cannot change. Time travel, in any instantiation, challenges the notions of strict forward causality (and in some cases the notion of a unique timeline), and often brings about paradoxes or at least logical difficulties. Time travel, however does not necessarily need to produce these paradoxes, depending on how it is envisioned.
Let’s imagine the simplest version of time travel: a time machine that exclusively sends its passenger forward in time. As an instructive case, think of Back to the Future, when Doc Brown sends Einstein one minute forward. When Einstein disappears, what causes this? The time machine, of course. This is still forward-causal. Einstein exits the timeline and re-enters some time later, without experiencing missed time. The one trick is the question of what causes Einstein to reappear. The cause, of course, is the time machine, and while the effect is not immediate, it is forward-causal. We’ve merely added a small wrinkle via the device of the time machine. Let’s call this saltatory forward causality. In saltatory forward causality, there is only one timeline, and there are no paradoxes. It’s also not very interesting, which is probably why I can’t think of a single film whose plot hinges on this device alone.
Back to the Future, of course, doesn’t, because the time machine also goes backwards in time – and this is where all of the trouble starts. Marty McFly, as we all know, goes back in time (saltatory reverse causation!) and interacts with his parents as teenagers – something we confidently know did not happen in the original timeline. Aha! A new timeline, or an altered timeline. We normally think of this as “changing the past”. How does this work?
Well, one possibility is an alternate timeline. By the action of the time machine, perhaps Marty exits his own timeline and enters a different one which was identical to his, at least up to the point that he enters. Now, combine this with saltatory reverse causation (saltatory reverse cross-timeline causation!), and we have no logical inconsistencies at all. Marty’s original timeline goes on (with Marty not in it) and the new timeline also carries on, with time-traveler Marty having the experiences he gained in the original timeline. But nobody ever makes movies like this, either. Why not? Because as a storyteller, you typically want the effects of time travel to be felt in the original timeline. If I send someone back in time, I want them to change the past. That’s the point, right? But if I send them into a different timeline, my past doesn’t change. So dump the alternate timeline hypothesis, because while it can easily be logically consistent, it’s not that interesting.
That means that to make a time-travel movie interesting, allowing changing of the past, one has to jump back in time into one’s own timeline. But this does weird things to causality. Specifically, it raises the specter of erasing the (future) event which caused the time travel in the first place. What happens if Marty’s interference causes his own self to never be born (often known as the “killing one’s grandfather” paradox)? Back to the Future suggests that he would just “fade away”, which isn’t a very satisfying answer. There is the real possibility of Marty ceasing to exist in 1955 (despite having appeared there) because the time machine event that put him there is subsequently prevented from happening. It’s a mess, and I like to think of this as “muddled causality”. I’m not sure what is causing what anymore, and frankly, I don’t know if anybody else is sure either.
How do we have an interesting time travel movie without all of these logical pitfalls? The answer, oddly enough, is inextricably linked in my mind to Peter Gabriel.
Back in the mid-’80s (oddly enough only a year after Back to the Future), Peter Gabriel put out a successful album (“So”) with a series of successful videos. At least one of these – “Big Time” – was heavily done with claymation. A lot of techniques were used, but the most interesting to me was what I think of as the “time loaf”. You can see this in the above video, most notably from about the 3:22-3:32 mark. In this technique, a three-dimensional loaf of clay is created, with each two-dimensional slice depicting a time point. If one cuts serially through the time loaf, one can see actions taking place. But if one is standing outside of the time loaf, one can see that everything that happens within the time loaf is predetermined. Even if there are “causal rules” in the way the events in the time loaf occur (objects “fall”, for instance), everything is predetermined, and notably, there is only one timeline.
It’s easy enough to extend a two-dimensional time loaf into a three-dimensional one, and to imagine that the events in a time travel movie occur as the result of sequential slicing through a 3-D time loaf. If you ask the question of what makes the clay ladies in Peter Gabriel’s time loaf dance, the answer is that that’s how the loaf is built. What made a time traveler appear in the time machine before it was activated? That’s the way the time loaf is built, where all of the timeline exists simultaneously (though it is not experienced simultaneously, but rather sequentially as we cut through it).
Under this hypothesis, I can imagine two types of causality. First off, there is stochastic causality. Let’s imagine an orange appears in my room, floating in mid-air for five seconds and then disappears, all of this for no apparent reason. A 3-D time loaf clay artist could perfectly well have done this, while following no rules at all. Stochastic causation. This, naturally, is quite discomforting. (Anything can happen! Chaos!) But of course, we could also have our time loaf clay artist get into our time loaf and construct an intricately complicated time travel scenario that follow internally consistent rules.
It’s neat, there are no loose ends (as long as our time loaf clay artist is skillful), no paradoxes, and it all makes sense. Of course, we also can’t change the past, because everything has been predetermined – no matter how much one of our characters tries. And for our movie, rather than the storytelling relying on the actual changing of the past, in a film with holistic causality the enjoyment is gleaned from some combination of the journey and the puzzle – taking the ride and then fitting it all together.
I really only know off the top of my head of two films that strictly follow holistic causality. Los Cronocrímenes, and Primer. And Primer, of course, is WAAAAAY too complicated. The timeline is out of control. I think somebody actually got a Ph.D. in reconstructing it. Los Cronocrímenes, however, is much more modest in scope. You can watch the whole film, and by the end of the movie, the entire thing makes sense. That’s what makes it so good. Oddly enough, I don’t even feel the need to see the movie again – I understood it fine the first time. And that’s good thing. Primer, on the other hand, was so complicated I would despair of ever truly understanding it. And that makes me not ever want to watch it again, but in a bad way.
Anyway, that’s my long spontaneous discourse on the metaphysics of time travel movies. I hope it didn’t suck. And even if it did, Los Cronocrímenes didn’t. So there. :p