The plot of Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo's feature film debut, Timecrimes, is simple. Hector (Karra Elejalde) gets caught up in events that spin increasingly out of control when he spies a naked woman in the forest near his country home and decides to investigate. After being attacked by a mysterious stranger whose face is covered by a dirty bandage -- think Liam Neeson in Darkman, Hector seeks help at a nearby scientific research lab. A technician hides him inside a mysterious contraption, which turns out to be a time machine. Hector is transported a few hours back in time, and must make sure that his double, in this timeline, follows the same chain of events.
If I provided any further details, it would surely spoil the fun. Timecrimes is one of those super lean independent films that unfolds with clockwork efficiency -- just a few characters, a remote location, no wasted action, and no extraneous dialogue. Like the classic "last man on earth" films from the '60s and '70s, or some of the better Outer Limits or Twilight Zone episodes, the suspense is all inside the premise, following the action of one increasingly desperate character as he tries to find his way back to "normal."
Hollywood films generate thrills and chills with million dollar special effects. Timecrimes features some eerie glowing lights, cold, de-populated structures, interesting-looking gadgets and a few mysterious sounds, but most of the fun is in the reveal, in the unexpected twists and turns of time travel. It's interesting to reflect on the fragility of the future, how even the smallest action has the potential to cause a ripple effect, which may become greatly magnified as it moves through time. Future realities splinter. The time traveler's actions can have devastating consequences.
In most films of this genre, the time traveler understands his responsibility to do his best to "preserve the timeline." (See multiple instances in Star Trek for the gravity of Picard, the earnestness of Kirk.) Of course, the villains are also doing their best to disrupt the same, to erase people and their implications for future history. The Terminator series is a great example; evil robots sent into the past to destroy a future resistance before it is born.
But what of the imperfect protagonist, the one whose only wish is for his own self-preservation? What of the hero who has been wrenched from his own time and finds himself fighting to return to a life that has already been irrevocably altered? Timecrimes beautifully teases out the thread of this simple science fiction trope, winding it back onto itself until it is a hard knot, a lump in the throat, a series of increasingly bad choices -- all of them aimed at the impossible: erasing the moment when its main character discovered that time travel was possible.
Timecrimes opens December 19, 2008.