Monday, February 27, 2012

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival Daily, 2012.09 (18 February): Time Again and Dimensions

Have some Not-Quite-Horrible Photography:

Let me tell you, Antony Neely is a dedicated Scot: I'm not running around New England in a kilt as a joke for even one day, but he was rocking something similar the next evening at the Marathon. Sure, it probably gets you remembered, but I just have a hard time imagining packing my luggage and thinking "I should bring two of these!"

Antony Neely and Sloane U'Ren were pretty charming guests, folks who know their stuff and can speak with confidence compared to the first-time filmmakers that make up the bulk of this festival's visitors. They had plenty of stories, and were happy to discuss details with the audience.

One question I get a lot after film festivals, especially the likes of Fantasia or SXSW where I see a pretty massive amount of films in a short amount of time, is how I keep them straight. The truth is, most of the time it's not that hard - unless you go to festivals that are very narrow or just see the studio films at major festivals, these events are composed of movies that tend to stick out in a crowd. Indeed, things only really get difficult in cases like this day, when there's little flexibility built into the schedule and you find yourself having to write about the same sort of thing twice in a row.

In this case, it's time travel that doesn't quite "diagram". And because this involves talking about the ends of movies, I'll pick this up after the reviews & links to EFC.

Time Again

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2012 in Somerville Theatre Micro-cinema (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, video)

It would be nice if Time Again were a little better. The filmmakers are trying so hard to make an entertaining movie, and at times they've got the right idea. Energy, enthusiasm, and good intentions can only take a movie so far, though, and this one could probably use a little more in the way of resources and experience.

Sam (Tara Smoker) and Marlo (Angela Rachelle) are sisters who live, work, and play together - although Sam is older and more responsible while Marlo is impetuous. And yet, it's Sam who disappears in the aftermath of a bloodbath at the diner where they work on her birthday. Six months later, a man with an office in the same building (Scott F. Evans) tries to have Marlo kidnapped because he thinks Sam stole something from him and now Marlo has it, though she's rescued by Detective Lym (John T. Woods). Things get really strange when an old woman (Gigi Perreau) shows up with a set of strange coins, somehow sending Marlo back in time to the day of the incident.

Director Ray Karwel knows what he wants to make here - a fun action movie which can be done with limited locations and budget, with a story simple enough for the audience to not have to worry about it but just enough twist to keep things interesting. On the larger scale, he gets the tone right more often than not. Things move fast enough to keep from getting dull, there's just enough irreverence for the tone to be breezy despite the real danger, with the silly, pulpy nature of the central plot device helping in that regard too. Karwel and his co-writers don't strive for more importance than the story can support, and that serves them well.

Full review at EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2012 in Somerville Theatre Micro-cinema (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, video)

As much as I found the festival describing Dimensions: A Line, A Loop, A Tangle of Threads (to give it its full title) with "Imagine a sci-fi film on PBS' Masterpiece Theatre" to be a bit too glibly "X meets Y", there's no denying that it is a very proper little English period science fiction story. Though there may in fact be less to it than meets the eye, it's handsomely mounted enough to be a real pleasure.

We start in 1921 - "one of many", as a subtitle informs us - watching three children play: Stephen (Sam Harrison) and Conrad (George Thomas), cousins who are more like brothers and now living together, and Victoria (Hannah Carson), the next-door neighbor who is mutually smitten with Stephen. A strange old Professor (Patrick Godfrey) drops in on the garden party and delights them with talk of time travel and other dimensions, but that will, unfortunately, be what the week is remembered for fifteen years later. In 1936, Stephen (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) is still living with his mother (Camilla Rutherford); he's a brilliant theoretical physicist obsessed with building a time machine even though his theories suggest, with ninety-nine percent certainty, that changing the past is impossible. He's aided at first by Conrad (Sean Hart), with the pair later joined by Annie (Olivia Llewellyn), who attended one of Stephen's lectures and may perhaps have grown interested in more than just the structure of spacetime.

It's interesting that writer Antony Neely (through Stephen) implies not just a "many worlds" cosmology for Dimensions, but the extreme one where every possible binary decision is made both ways (perhaps even at the quantum level), because the implication is not just that you can't change the past, but that free will itself is an illusion. This is done early, and sets the tone for the rest of the movie - it won't be a story of the mechanics of getting a specific result; rather, it will be a story of paths that cannot be left - a tragedy of unavoidable obsession.

Full review at EFC.

From here on out, the ends of the movie will be discussed

When I talk about time travel films in particular not "diagramming", what I basically mean is that you can draw a flowchart of the movies' events and find clear paths of cause and effect for all characters. It may sound like a ridiculous, nerdy thing to worry about, but a post on whether or not a direct-to-video movie fits together or not likely has the most pageviews and comments of anything I've done on this blog.

Time Again has problems in the area. It seems, structurally, to be a "closed loop" sort of story, where the circumstances that cause a character to travel in time are the results of that character traveling in time. The Terminator, pre-sequels, is close to the platonic idea of this structure; David Gerrold's "The Man Who Folded Himself" is it taken to its absurd extreme. If Time Again were a shorter movie, we could probably plot it something like this:

T+0. Marlo leaves Sam to get ready for the Vegas trip; remains off-screen until T+3.
T+1. Marlo from T+4 arrives to prevent Sam's death
T+2. Marlo and Sam leave the building, thus jumping forward to T+5. At this point, there is no Sam in the timeline.
T+3. Six months later, Marlo from T+0 is almost kidnapped by Mr. Way.
T+4. Sam from T+6 appears, gives Marlo the coin, and Marlo jumps to T+1.
T+5. Marlo and Sam return from T+2; final fight; old Sam leaves the building and jumps back to T+6
T+6. 45-ish years later, Sam jumps back to T+4, apparently comfortable waiting so long because she knows this is a closed loop and her jumping back is destiny.

That's actually kind of tight. The trouble is, there's not just a T+4; there's T+4.1 and T+4.2, with Marlo not getting things right the first time, changing history, and actually seeing Sam die at least once, which breaks causality - once Sam has died at T+2, where does the Sam from T+6 come from? Normally, this is the point where sci-fi films start doing handwaving ("we've got to jump back quickly before the time waves catch up and collapse this reality!"), but this movie doesn't even do that. I suppose with magic coins, you don't need to make sense, but it bugs me.

Dimensions sort of has the opposite problem - it diagrams perfectly, in part because it's built so that it it can't help but do so. When Stephen travels back in time to become "The Professor", his theory explicitly states that he can't actually change history, and his attempts to do so wind up not even creating alternate universes; by its logic, all possible timelines exist and all paths are taken.

And, that's kind of unsatisfying. Larry Niven once mentioned in an essay that he hated this sort of thing - it meant that nothing we do matters, and even our mistakes should be things we own. Sure, there is the inevitable line at the end about how Stephen was only 99% sure - and maybe his taking Victoria's jump-rope creates a new timeline where she survives, becomes best friends with Annie, and two couples pair off to live happily every after... But that's a last-second bit of bet-hedging.

Kudos to Dimensions for offering up a fairly clear view of this sort of structure, but by suggesting all timelines "count", it implies none of them do, and that does sort of suck the wind out of the movie's sails a bit.

No comments: