Timecrimes (AKA Los Cronocrímenes, Spanish writer-director Nacho Vigalondo’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated short 7:35 in the Morning) tells the tale of a crazy hour or so in the life of an accidental time traveler. The movie doesn’t break any new ground when it comes to the subject of time travel and paradoxes, but there’s just enough humor and complexity to make it an engaging puzzle of a movie.
Karra Elejalde is Héctor, your average, middle-aged married man. At the start of the film, he and his wife have just moved into a new house. One evening, as the sun is setting, Héctor finds himself with time on his hands, so he grabs a pair of binoculars to scope out the new neighborhood.
He sees an eerie yet titillating sight in the woods behind his house: a young woman stands in a clearing, and she slowly begins taking off her clothes. Being, well, a man, Héctor immediately goes over to investigate. There, he finds the nude woman lying unconscious against a rock. Suddenly, he’s stabbed in the arm by an apparent psychopath, whose head is completely covered in pink bandages.
In his frantic escape from the madman, Héctor stumbles into a strange facility where an engineer (played by director Vigalondo) tells him to climb inside a machine to hide. When he climbs out a few moments later, it’s daylight again, and the engineer no longer knows who Héctor is. It seems the machine is actually a time machine that was just switched on for the first time, and Héctor has become the first person to travel into the past. He now gets to live the last hour of his life all over again, and the mysterious events that just transpired (or rather, will transpire) slowly become a lot clearer.
If you’ve ever seen a time travel movie in your life, it won’t take you long to figure out that Héctor eventually becomes the crazy guy in pink bandages. There’s still more to the story than that, including the reveal of a third version of Héctor running around in the woods, but this is not a film with big, surprising twists; it’s all about going along for the ride as an ordinary man is forced to do all sorts of absurd, insane, and violent things to keep the timeline intact.
Timecrimes is one of the most well-defined cinematic examples ever of a Stable Time Loop, where characters travel back in time and become responsible for events witnessed by their past selves. Héctor does various terrible things because he knows he will do them, and to not do them could potentially cause a catastrophic paradox. So if Héctor isn’t doing these things of his own free will, the question inevitably arises: Who exactly is deciding that these things should transpire in the first place? Well, clearly, the answer is God, i.e., the screenwriter.
This type of story usually says more about the writer’s subconscious psyche than anything else. We’re really only seeing a woman being forced to strip naked in the woods because the writer wanted to see a woman forced to strip naked in the woods. It’s hard to complain too much, because the naked woman in question (Bárbara Goenaga) is gorgeous, but the random sexual assault in the middle of the movie does make for some uncomfortable viewing.
Other than that sequence, the film has lots of dark humor and gives us plenty to think about. How many of us would be willing to commit the same “time crimes” as Héctor to avoid causing a paradox? And if Héctor is only obeying the forces of nature, and the rules of the big causality loop he’s trapped inside, can he really be held responsible for his own actions? I’d love to see the follow-up where Hector becomes the first-ever criminal defendant to use the Predestination Defense.
Thanks to well-done makeup effects and Elejalde’s lead performance, the Héctor we see at the end of the film is barely recognizable as the one we met at the start. He goes from not really “getting” time travel (when he sees his wife with his past self, he gets jealous of her being with another man), to having a better grasp on it than even the engineer. It sort of stretches disbelief that he’d be so quick on the uptake in the midst of enduring all sorts of physical abuse, but in a 90-minute film, some shortcuts do have to be taken.
Also, I have no idea how Vigalondo settled upon the Blondie song used repeatedly in the movie as a frame of reference to let us know exactly where/when we are in the timeline, but it works beautifully.
Unlike other cult films that delight in making time travel as dense and incomprehensible as possible (Donnie Darko, I’m looking at you), this is an easily digestible tale of paradox and predestination. In fact, this movie serves as a much better primer for the basic concepts of time travel than the movie actually called Primer.
Vigalondo’s next film was Extraterrestrial, which could best be described as the rom-com version of Signs, in that it purports to be about an alien invasion, but the invasion is only tangentially related to its character-driven plot. It’s a decent film, but nowhere near as compelling as Timecrimes.
His newest film Open Windows is his break into English language films. The thriller stars Elijah Wood as the obsessed fan of an actress (porn star Sasha Grey) who gets kidnapped, and Wood is the only one who can save her. And the Vigalondo-esque twist here is that the entire movie plays out through the windows on a computer desktop.
After viewing the trailer, I’m not entirely sold on the movie, but I’m looking forward to seeing it just the same. Vigalondo is a rare director committed to unconventional, high-concept genre fare, and even when the end results are somewhat lacking, I’ll always be curious to see what he does next.