Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Time Travelers (2012)

Time Travelers. dir Joe Cristiana, 2012. Starring Elliot Kotek, Gabe Bettio. Christiana Productions. 29 minutes.

Reviewed by Candra K. Gill

Time Travelers is a short, low-budget film by “guerrilla filmmaking” outfit Christiana Productions. It’s the story of two old friends who’ve drifted apart over the years. When they run into each other by chance, one of the friends invites the other to his home to catch up over drinks. We soon find that there’s a difficult history between the two, that there are ulterior motives at play, and that “chance” might not be the right word for their reunion after all.

As the title suggests, the story involves time travel. In Looper, another recent time travel film, one character refuses to talk about time travel mechanics, saying that if they started that discussion, they’d be there “all day […] making diagrams with straws.” Time Travelers takes the opposite approach. In many ways, the discussion is the point—or at least the way in which the action is revealed. This isn’t a case of feared telling over showing, as the adage about writing goes; rather, it’s a meditation on the idea that conversations shape our decisions in life. That one’s choice of words—and the actions connected to those words—can make all the difference.

This is a film that is conscious of the conventions of time travel stories. When we first meet the characters, they argue about the likelihood of their meeting after so many years. Is it fate? Mere chance? Words like fatalism, determinism, and probability get thrown around. Within the structure of the film, this conversation slowly becomes a meta-conversation. These are the things the audience is being invited to think about. Are the circumstances of our lives indelible, or can they be changed? If they can be changed, should they be? And what about the unintended consequences? As one character says, “This is boldly philosophical stuff.”

When they talk about time travel mechanics, the characters use the glasses from which they’re drinking to illustrate the concepts (as opposed to straws). Without giving too much away, there are multiple universes where people live out simultaneous lives. If one has the correct tool, a person can rewrite a given moment with the circumstances of a concurrent moment in another universe. This is shown by repeating conversations and events with subtle differences, which is a device that works well and rewards the audience for paying attention. Time Travelers also uses simple visual effects and strong aural effects to punctuate the time travel instances. We’re not told how these characters have access to the tool that allows time travel or how that tool works; but that doesn’t really matter.

The film’s main conflict hinges on a past transgression that’s both cliché and my biggest criticism: two other people are directly affected by the decisions the main characters make, but we don’t get to know those other people. This turns these other characters into objects—trophies to be fought over rather than people whose existence we’re supposed to be concerned about. Another major criticism of the film is the choice to use a shaky camera technique. It feels like the intent was to invoke instability, but I just found it to be distracting. Finally, as much as I have a general appreciation for talking about time travel, at times the conversations felt less profound and more self-indulgent.

What I liked most about Time Travelers was the scope. This was an intimate story about a limited number of people. The consequences they face are dire, but they are dire to their inner circle, not to the world at large. There is no super villain to conquer and no butterfly to step on to change history. Telling the story on this smaller scale is what makes the a film that mostly takes place in one living room work. Most of us have had conversations that have had a profound impact on our lives. We can empathize with these characters on that level.

Time Travelers is reminiscent of Primer, another ultra-low budget movie about time travel. While Primer is perhaps the better film, both it and Time Travelers show that it’s possible to make an intelligent speculative fiction film without multi-million dollar budgets and advanced special effects. I suspect we will be seeing more and more films like this as people learn how to make movies with widely available technology. This is a very good thing, and I hope movies like Time Travelers will inspire such future films.

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