The average Joe, it seems, doesn’t understand the subtleties of time travel. They have no concept of the potential paradoxes that can arise from reckless behavior and brash actions; they are deluded enough to think that they can best causality. The hero of Timecrimes, Hector, is such a man; apparently, he has never watched Lost (though admittedly, at the time of the film’s release, that series hadn’t quite gotten into the really heady time travel stuff just yet), or even seen a single movie in the Back to the Future series. He’s just a regular guy, a bit of a schlemiel, not a terrible person but also not the quickest, either. And incidentally that blissful unawareness is what makes this Spanish science fiction thriller work so well.
As viewers we tend to impose our own knowledge on the characters we watch in television programs and movies; when we watch a horror film, we like to muse about the poor decisions characters make and assert either to ourselves or our friends that we would not, in a similar situation, have made similar mistakes. And maybe we wouldn’t walk into that dark and ominous room by ourselves when we know that there’s a psychopathic killer on the loose, but then again we’ve wasted enough of our lives watching slasher movies to know what happens when you make that blunder. Hector isn’t that kind of person. He is by all indications a fairly straightforward and simple (not stupid, but uncomplicated) man, and a bit of a klutz. (When we first meet him, all manner of items are tumbling out of his hatchback, having left the tailgate open.) Hector does not watch Lost or read, religiously, threads and blogs that delve into the subject of the causal nature of time travel. He makes love to his wife, lounges in his backyard, and watches life’s passing parade behind the safety of his binoculars.
It turns out that some popular science fiction would have served Hector well; he sees a young woman undressing in the woods, goes out to investigate, and upon discovering her seemingly lifeless body is stabbed by a mysterious stranger wearing a pink bandage over his face. Hector flees, comes upon a mysterious lab, and ends up getting sent back in time an hour or so when he hides in a time machine; from there, his existential crisis begins.
The territory explored in Timecrimes is well-trod; we live in an age where time travel as a plot device is mainstream, making the struggles of our hapless protagonist feel somewhat familiar. As much as the plot might feel comfortable to us, it’s the actions of the character in addition to a seemingly never-ending string of twists and turns that together make the film feel fresh. It’s less concerned with tripping up its audience with dense exposition about the ins and outs of traveling through time– in fact it almost feels like a crash course in the dangers of meeting your past or future self. The young man who assists Hector in his journey through time (and who seems to know more about Hector than he lets on) is barely given time to admonish him on the importance of staying put and keeping the timeline intact. This ends up giving us plenty to think about during the film and afterwards, of course, though little of that discussion can be held in this review without giving away too much of the plot, but it isn’t what’s really important. Timecrimes is much less about ruminations on existentialism, and more about how Hector’s ordeal impacts and reshapes him as a person. By the film’s climax he is almost unrecognizable as a character; while knowing how things are going to happen thanks to the ultimate deus ex machina is bound to imbue one with a little more confidence, Hector’s knowledge has the effect of making him cold and very eerily removed from the events unfolding around him. Gone is the nigh-carefree man who just wants to relax in his own backyard, replaced by someone who is far more calculating and willing to commit terrible deeds (the crimes of the film’s title) to preserve himself.
The film’s major strength outside of its characterization is how refined it feels despite its obvious low budget, indie roots and sensibilities. Timecrimes seems like it cost peanuts to make and it probably did (though I cannot find a projected budget for it), and it goes to show what people can do with just a few dollars and a lot of imagination. The movie is mostly centered on character rather than effects, though no real effects are actually needed; just clever editing and a well-realized arc for Hector. Vigalondo’s cinematographer, Flavio Martinez Labiano, has a keen eye for composition and does well showing us only what we need to see throughout Hector’s quest. It seems like all the cool kids today are relying on unsteady and shaky camera work to add tension, and Labiano avoids such proclivities and still establishes a palpable sense of dread through his camera as Hector gets in deeper and deeper trouble.
Timecrimes is an obscure and unexpected surprise from Spain. It feels somewhat tired when time traveling is first introduced, but the direction that the film moves in once Hector finds himself in his own past is actually refreshing. Re-shaping expectations, the movie is suspenseful and tense, driven by its concepts and ideas and also primarily by a thrilling and well-paced plot. If you think that your dedicated viewing of Lost has completely prepared you for this film’s treatment of time travel, then you should find yourself pleasantly surprised.