Time travel isn’t anything new. As a sci-fi fan, I’ve seen plenty of it–Doctor Who, certain episodes of Stargate SG-1, Star Trek, you name it. In most cases, time travel ends up being something “cool”, a convenient window into fantasies or a plot device that ends up saving the day. Going back in time to kill Hitler or forwards to meet alcoholic robots is fine and dandy, but as a certified cynic, I have a special place in my heart for TV shows or movies that put time travel in a more banal yet thought-provoking context. The 2007 Spanish film Timecrimes falls in this category.
Timecrimes lacks all the splashy special effects and fantastical settings you’d expect from a time travel movie. Instead, it takes place in the Spanish countryside, and its protagonist is a balding middle-aged man named Hector. Hector’s entrance is unremarkable–his house is being remodeled, and he goes from napping in bed to lounging around on a lawn chair in his yard. To pass the time, he whips out some binoculars and lazily surveys the bucolic foliage behind the house, stumbling upon a surprising sight: a young woman undressing. Curiosity piqued, Hector sets out to investigate, and through a series of creepily mysterious happenstances, ends up traveling back one hour in time.
Yes, time travel happens. At the same time, the act itself is depicted with such banality that it seems boring; there are neither mad scientists jumping with joy nor swirling wormholes passing through solar flares. Therefore, we could say Timecrimes is not a movie about time travel, rather, it is a movie about the consequences of time travel. Giving even a middling amount of detail would completely spoil this movie, so I’ll just say that Hector ends up stumbling upon a complex series of conundrums and attempts to grapple with them. For all its apparent normalcy, Timecrimes is actually quite dark and suspenseful. I came to the movie expecting a more standard sci-fi flick, felt a bit let down by Hector’s initial seista-ing in the first five minutes, and then suddenly found myself with a case of the heebie-jeebies less than ten minutes later. Plot-wise, the film kept me guessing all the way to the end; it contained a decent set of surprises that, on second thought, wouldn’t have been so surprising if I had managed to uncover the very well-hidden hints woven throughout.
As I watched Timecrimes, I couldn’t help but think of another film at the intersection of banality and the “consequences of time travel”: Primer. Made with a $7,000 budget by a Texas engineer who also served as its director, lead actor, soundtrack composer (sound/cinematography/visuals in this movie are beautiful, by the way), and editor, Primer became a cult hit after its 2006 debut. Like Timecrimes, Primer is a rather low-key movie with seemingly unremarkable characters that accidentally encounter time travel. The two movies have many similarities in tone and style, but there is one vital difference: Primer is confusing as all hell, and Timecrimes is not. The two movies are both subtly dark and thought-provoking, but to different degrees–Timecrimes feels like an investigative story from Wired, while Primer is closer to something from an IEEE journal. To me, Timecrimes felt like Primer-lite: a surprisingly accessible version of an otherwise inscrutable topic.
Consequently, unlike with Primer, I would be comfortable recommending Timecrimes to general audiences; this is a movie you could watch with friends on Friday night as long as you’re willing to be slightly unnerved. Ultimately, Timecrimes doesn’t require complex diagrams to explain, but it’s still intensely interesting and adds variety to the broader world of time travel stories.
Timecrimes (Spanish: Los Cronocrímenes)–Spain. Directed by Nacho Vigalondo. First released October 2007. Running time 1hr 32min. Starring Karra Elejalde, Candela Fernandez, Barbara Goenaga, and Nacho Vigalondo.