FILM REVIEW: Timecrimes (2008)

Timecrimes (Spain, 2008)
Directed by Nacho Vigalondo
Starring Karra Elejalde, Barbara Goenaga, Candela Fernandez, Nacho Vigalondo

Just as James Cameron and Francis Ford Coppola cut their teeth making low-budget horror films, so many revered filmmakers started out in science fiction. John Carpenter, though more renowned as a horror director, began his career with Dan O'Bannon on the sci-fi comedy Dark Star. Way before Star Wars had even been conceived, George Lucas was testing the water with THX 1138. Then there are more recent examples, like Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko, Duncan Jones' Moon, and Timecrimes, the debut effort from Nacho Vicalondo (insert cheap food-related gag).
Timecrimes is an interesting and gripping time-travel film which manages to make the best of its low budget and serves up a twisty and captivating plot. Its limited resources and self-contained storyline prevent it from being the most ambitious examination of time travel, but all the pieces fit together very stylishly and the film has an interesting, horror-inflected aesthetic. Taken purely as a thriller, it manages to sustain the level of tension despite (or perhaps because of) the repetition of certain encounters with subtle additions or changes, and the creative decisions it makes are always interesting.

In any time-travel film there are three big obstacles which have to be overcome. The first is that every last journey and its consequences have to be explained without resorting to yards of dull exposition to fit tab 'a' into slot 'b'. Characters cannot simply use time travel as a deus ex machina to get them out of every tricky situation, and the film must be constructed in a way that such journeys are justified visually rather than vocally.Timecrimes manages to pass this test, with only one real instance of exposition or revelation. And even that scene is played out with suspense, as we realise just how many versions of our main character may be existing simultaneously. All the little pieces of the storyline fit together like a well-made jigsaw, and the film cleverly turns small details into matters of great importance. The small section of dialogue about getting a table through a doorway becomes all-important when said table is used to stop the man in the pink bandages coming up the stairs.

The second obstacle facing time-travel films is that the story must be simple enough to prevent the film tying itself in knots, but complex enough to allow the twists and paradoxes to actually have an effect. Films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which involves internalised time travel, i.e. in the minds of its characters) succeed because they draw in their audience with a straightforward premise and then proceed to test said audience's mettle by mixing up the order of events and questioning the motivations of characters.Timecrimes does this brilliantly, beginning with an ordinary suburban couple who are just moving into their new house. Their relationship seems relatively straightforward, and there is nothing about their new environment that would lead you to think they were in danger. Having set us up, the film takes a Hitchcockian twist as the husband looks through his binoculars (a Rear Window reference) and espies a girl undressing in the woods. He gets dragged into the subsequent events out of little more than curiosity, and for the early sections of the film we feel as disorientated as he does, as we try and come to terms with what is going on.

The third and final obstacle is that the film must ensure the safety of its characters in terms of continuity and motive, while sustaining tension and making it seem they may not survive. Within this there is the subsidiary problem over whether two versions of the same person can come into contact: in Timecop, they can so long as there is no physical contact, while in Back to the Future Part II merely seeing your past self is catastrophic.Timecrimes is in the company of 12 Monkeys and Slaughterhouse-Five, thematically speaking, since all three films pay little attention to the actual technology which could cause time travel. Instead, they focus on the damage it can cause to the people who partake in it, both physically and psychologically. The twist with Timecrimes is that some of that damage is self-inflicted. A number of key scenes are restaged and our response changes according to the knowledge we accumulate. The first time our leading man is stabbed in the arm with the scissors, we'd scared that he could be killed; the second time, it is much more poignant. As the scientist says, "this machine doesn't solve problems; it creates them".

Timecrimes is also interesting from a visual point of view. The early scenes resemble a late-1970s slasher film, in the manner of John Carpenter's Hallowe'en or Sean S. Cunningham's Friday the 13th. Much of the action takes places in the woods (a classic horror setting), we have a young girl who is either in her underwear or naked for a lot of the film, and the killer has a hidden face and a sharp implement for a weapon. Flavio Martinez Labiano's cinematography is grainy and murky, and the portentous music leads us to expect a certain amount of bloodshed.But the film turns out to be one of many pleasant surprises. Every time it seems to adopt or emulate one particular style or genre, it quickly dodges or departs from its conventions. Aside from the opening chase between Hector and the pink-bandaged man, the film does not resemble a slasher in either its plot or execution. It works hard to justify the nudity, taking something that on first viewing is gratuitous and retuning it so that the second time around it makes a little more sense.

The other great success of the film is that it manages to sustain tension even as all the pieces fit together. Like a lot of time-travel films, the big twist happens in the middle; without wishing to give it away, we find out who the pink-bandaged man is fairly early on. But the film remains tense (and often scary) because of the increased stakes that come with more versions of oneself running around. Having established the rules surrounding continuity and doppelgangers very early on, we do not need loads of exposition to explain what will happen if Hector should fail.The film does have a couple of weaknesses which are frustrating. Despite its general success in justifying the nudity (albeit in a roundabout way), the decision to have said girl then fall to her death for the sake of continuity is a troubling one. The ending as a whole feels unsatisfying, with Hector and his wife sitting on the lawn waiting for the scene to play out. It seems flippant or at least out of tone with the rest of the film.

Nonetheless, Timecrimes is an intriguing science fiction thriller which suggests a long and rewarding career for its director. It doesn't attempt any kind of deep analysis of free will, and it may not hold up to repeat viewing. But it is still an entertaining low-budget film with intelligence and conviction, along with a decent central performance and good photography. It's 12 Monkeys meets Hallowe'en with bits of Rear Window thrown in, and though it can't compete with any of those, it deserves to be seen.

Rating: 4/5
Verdict: A very promising debut


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