The past few years have seen a number of very good, low-budget science fiction films, including Richard Schenkman's "The Man from Earth," Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore's "Special" and Shane Carruth's "Primer." None of these is a truly remarkable film, but together they indicate to me an encouraging trend in sci-fi filmmaking. Cinematic sci-fi is usually confused for science fiction tout court. And since sci-fi films are known best for their obsessive fans, flashy fx and tedious allegory, the genre as a whole has struggled to be taken seriously. But, while these films employ some of the same well-worn sci-fi tropes we see everywhere in Hollywood schlock - the time traveler, the superhero, the Methuselah - they aspire to something much higher than the lazy quotation of familiar narrative forms.
"Timecrimes," the feature-length debut of Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo, is the most interesting of this recent spate of films, and a good illustration of what I have in mind.
It is a time travel story, and one that uses a standard template: the time traveler who attempts to intervene in some chain of events, but whose efforts lead to (or exacerbate) the very events in which he wishes to intervene. Such time travel narratives often end up being shallow allegories about fate and destiny (e.g. "The Butterfly Effect") or self-satisfied exercises in the proliferation of clever plot twists.
"Timecrimes" flirts with both. However, Vigalondo manages to make something quite novel and interesting nevertheless. Near the beginning of the film, its main character Hector is victim to a bizarre series of events unfolding over the course of a single hour. A young woman disrobes and somehow falls naked and unconscious to the ground. Hector approaches and is stabbed and then hunted by a man whose head is encased in pink bandages. Desperate, Hector runs to an adjacent property where he is told by a nondescript scientist to climb into a strange chamber. Finally, Hector is sent an hour into the past by the chamber, condemned to relive the hour that has passed and then to be sent back a second time to relive that hour yet again. As he careens through time, he causes the very events by which he was victimized in the first place.
Here, as in so many other time travel stories, Hector plays a kind of Oedipus - i.e. the unsuspecting cause of his own sorry fate. Yet, while there is inevitability to the unfolding of these events, there is no fate. Fate isn't mere inevitability. Rather, it's inevitability with a moral shape. It calls its victim's attention to an inescapable vulnerability - to having one's agency jostled around by the course of worldly events: in other words, to moral luck. In fact, when we're dealing with fate, it isn't just that the victim's attention is called to her vulnerability. More, she is struck, even slapped in the face by it. And most often, this happens in the most violent ways - for example, as with Oedipus, when she realizes in a single horrifying moment that she herself has been the cause of her own suffering. Even in a narrative world where there are no gods, being struck in this way always happens as if by the interference of gods - mocking and capricious ones who don't just exploit the victim's vulnerability but expose her to it.
"Timecrimes," however, presents a world devoid of fate in this sense. In that world, the inevitability of events has no such moral shape. Indeed, so far as we can tell Hector himself doesn't see it as having any moral shape whatsoever. What unfolds is meaningless, absurd. That is, it simply happens, and for no other reason than that it happens. Hector's plight is not, for example, a punishment for attempting to meddle in the unfolding of time, since it isn't his meddling that sets things in motion in the first place. Nothing, that is, causes the chain of events that lead to his time traveling but that time-traveling itself. And once he is displaced in time, he causes things to unfold as they do for no other reason than that this is how things unfolded the first time around.
Yet, while Hector cannot be quite held responsible for instigating the events in which he is embroiled, neither is he simply swept up in them. Once he has made his first trip through time, he becomes the skillful manipulator of his own history. Yet, for all his careful manipulations he doesn't strike the figure of the godlike time-traveling hero guiding history 'from above' (e.g. a la "Quantum Leap.") As the story unfolds, we see that in every way possible he has been the author of his own demise. But as this mystery reveals itself through a series of narrative twists and turns, we see that he is doing nothing more than responding to the monstrous doppelgangers of himself produced by his chaotic journey. And these strange reflections are all the more monstrous for being both totally transparent to him in their motives yet incomprehensible outside the senseless closed system of this temporal loop.
In these ways, "Timecrimes" treads very close to the cliches which dominate the narrative templates it instantiates, and yet finds a fresh path through them. And its method for doing so - by underscoring the uncanniness in Hector's self-displacement and the blank senselessness of the events he undergoes - exemplifies some of the best aspirations of science fiction. Sci-fi at its best has always been a natural complement to high modernism. Both deal in the estrangement of the spectator. But while one of high modernism's fundamental strategies is to render the familiar strange, sci-fi finds its voice by doing the converse: awakening an unsettling recognition of ourselves in what is alien and unfamiliar. This aspiration seems to me clearly represented by Vigalondo's film. I'm not sure he achieves this aim as well as the best science fiction novelists and short story writers do. However, his film, along with the many other high-quality independent sci-fi films we've seen of late, gives me hope that soon enough we will find ourselves blessed with the cinematic equivalent of a Jorge Luis Borges, Philip K. Dick or William S. Burroughs.