Laurelin's Light

Random Thoughts from a Confessed Film Snob

14 January 2009

Review - Timecrimes

It's not often that you come across a time travel movie which adheres to Novikov's self-consistency principle of time travel. (Novikov's principle states that if you could travel back in time, the probability that you could change the past or create a paradox would always be zero.) Indeed, most movies of this genre thrive on ignoring Novikov, creating "drama" by allowing characters to meddle with past events, which then changes the future or even creates alternate realities.

Spanish writer/director Nacho Vigalondo, however, fully embraces Novikov in his brilliant feature debut, "Timecrimes" ("Los Cronocrimenes") and crafts what is probably the most intelligectually satisfying time travel film ever made.

Making a time travel movie which actually makes logical sense is achievement enough, but Vagalondo doesn't stop there. "Timecrimes" is also a gripping psychological thriller, in which the audience's sympathies shift from one character to another to another as the film progresses and we see the same events over and over again from different points of view.

In some of the film's press material, it is compared with Kurusawa's "Rashomon", which is probably the worst comparison which could be made and reveals a thorough misunderstanding of both films. "Rashomon" is a film about the slippery nature of the truth and how we can never know exactly what happened in the past simply be hearing different people's perspectives. Things will always be remembered differently or understood differently or retold differently based on the point of view of the witness. In comparison, "Timecrimes" is a film about the permanence and immutability of events in time. We may understand and appreciate events differently depending on our frame of reference, but those events still occured (and always will have occured) in a concrete, objective way.

"Timecrimes" begins with a middle-aged couple, Hector and Clara, moving in to their new home in the woods. Hector takes a break from working and sits back and explores the land around him with a pair of binoculars.

Hector first notices a strange silo off in the distance and then he thinks that he sees someone moving in the wooded hills overlooking his yard.

Upon further examination, he locates a girl with red pants and a white t-shirt standing in the woods and looking off to one side (at whom or what?). Suddenly she begins to take her shirt off.

Suddenly Clara interrupts him to tell him she is going into town. Once Clara has gone, Hector is unable to locate the woman again, although he does catch sight of her red pants lying bunched up on the ground. Intrigued, he goes exploring. Hector does find the woman, but he is immediately attacked by a man wrapped up in bloodied bandages wielding a pair of sharp scissors.

Hector runs wildly off into the woods and seeks shelter at a laboratory he find there. It is there at the laboratory that time travel enters the story. Hector is sent an hour back in time and by re-experiencing the strange events which occurred during that time he learns what was really happening.

"Timecrimes" is a very carefully crafted work. Every detail is precisely placed to tell the complete story of what really happened in those Spanish woods during that fateful evening. There is an amazing moment at the end of the second act in which we are shown a frame from earlier in the film, but this time focusing in on a very relevant detail in the background. Once it's pointed out so clearly, it's easy to wonder if that particular detail was really in the earlier shot (it was) and if so, how could you have missed it. But that's exactly the point. In film, just as in life, we often miss things which are hidden in plain view because our attention is drawn to the things which we think are really important.

Below, I want to discuss some of the moral implications of the film, which by necessity will include some light spoilers. If you are like me and you don't want anything given away, you may want to skip that section until you have seen the film.

In the meanwhile, though, I want to share another one of Nacho Vigalondo's films with you.
This one is a short titled " 7:35 in the Morning." It was nominated for an Oscar in 2005 as Best Short Feature, Live Action. It's a wonderfully twisted piece about the disconnection we have from the people we may see everyday and one man's misguided attempt to do something about that.

[Remember, there are spoilers from here on in.]

One of the most intriguing (or frustrating) things about "Timecrimes" is that although Hector eventually does learn what happened around him, neither he nor the audience ever actually learns why they happened. Because of the effect of time travel, everything in the film happened not because anyone caused it to happen, but because it had to happen that way. Everything Hector saw and did the first time had to happen again because (according to Novikov) there was zero probability that it wouldn't happen. For instance, the scientist who tricked Hector into the time machine had to do so, because he had already seen Hector get out of the time machine an hour earlier. Was his trickery morally wrong? Would it have been better (or worse) for him to have tried to stop Hector from going back in time in the first place? Would it even have been possible?

In the final act, we witness how the most heinous crime was orchestrated, but was it really a criminal act? The film makes it clear that amid all the time travel, nothing was ever changed. Events did not happen multiple times in multiple time streams, but rather the same singular events were witnessed from various points to view. So how criminal is it to orchestrate an event which has already happened?

So, the most striking thing about "Timecrimes", which sets it apart from all other time travel movies (indeed it sets it apart from almost every narrative film ever made), is that there are no inciting characters. No one ever initiates any action. No one. Every single character merely responds to events which are happening around him or her, events which are only set in motion by them responding to other events which were set in motion by them responding to events which were set in motion by . . . etc., etc. ad infinitum.


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