A grotesquely costumed, knife-wielding creep on the Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes) theatrical poster promises an exploitative slasher pic along the lines of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. To some degree, considering the degradations made upon a breathtakingly beautiful girl alone in the woods, it is. But Nacho Vigalondo’s Spanish science fiction puzzler is a friendlier sibling to Shane Carruth’s Primer (2004), a much more brain-spraining chronological conundrum. Both are rare science fictions that rely on a complexity of ideas rather than special effect eye candy. Vigalondo’s different take on the sci-fi tropes of time travel (more on that later) makes Timecrimes a little easier to follow.
The film opens with Héctor (Karra Elejalde) driving home from grocery shopping with the hatchback of his car ajar, leaving a string of groceries behind him (yes, it’s a metaphor). He and his wife Clara (Candela Fernández) are outfitting a country home as a retreat for the stressed-out insomniac. We never learn what exactly ails him, or what kind of job affords them such a lifestyle. Little do we realize that violence and chaos is already roiling in the bucolic woods around them. Their neighbor turns out to be a research institute developing a rudimentary time machine. The device is not due to be tested for weeks, but unnamed staffer El Joven (Vigalondo himself), is hanging around the facility to tinker with it without permission.
Héctor encounters an unconscious nude woman (Bárbara Goenaga) in the woods, and finds himself pursued by what he assumes to be her assailant. Taking refuge at the institute, El Joven volunteers to hide him in an apparatus that resembles a hot tub prepared for a milk bath. From Hector’s point of view, the doors open mere moments later, but he finds himself several hours in the past. Even though Héctor is the first person to ever travel through time, El Joven seems pretty unamazed that the machine works. He’s also assured of the rules: Héctor must be sure to stay out of the way as his future self comes to the time machine, after which there will once again only be one Hector in the world. Meeting himself and/or altering events (say, preventing his future self from ever passing back to the past), would cause a cataclysmic paradox.
El Joven never specifies what exactly the results would be, but anyone familiar with Doctor Who, Star Trek, and the aforementioned Primer would know that a temporal paradox could rupture the space time continuum, reverse the polarity of the neutron flow, be really socially awkward, or… whatever. More illustrative is the paradox at the heart of the Terminator films: the evil artificial intelligence SkyNet sends a cyborg back in time to kill Sarah Connor, before she becomes the mother of SkyNet’s mortal enemy John Connor. Future-John also sends his best friend Kyle Reese back in time, ostensibly to protect his mother. As David Foster Wallace pointed out in his vicious critique of Terminator 2: Judgement Day, the paradox is that both time travelers cause the unwanted future to occur: Reese sleeps with Sarah and becomes John’s father, and the wreckage of the cyborg becomes the technological basis for building SkyNet.
Héctor originally acts impulsively and attempts to contact his past self by phone, and then in person. He makes a series of calamitous errors, and eventually comes to realize that he must shift his strategy to ensure he not disrupt what has already happened to him, but will be everybody else’s future. El Joven only sticks Hector into the time machine in the first place because a copy of him that already went through told El Joven he had to do it. Hector kidnaps and abuses La Chica to recreate the perverse scenario the past version of himself encountered. He commits a perverse crime against her, but not for his pleasure (to anyone not aware of his predicament, his behavior is psychotic).
But the increasingly crazed Héctor tries one last time to change events. He travels back in time again, creating a second temporal loop-de-loop, a third duplicate of himself, and more proliferating walkie-talkies than I was able to keep track of. Héctor only seems to realize near the end of his ordeal that everything is clicking into a predetermined sequence of events, regardless of his direct or indirect interference. Eventually, a calmness comes over him, and he simply sits down and waits for events to finish playing themselves out, knowing there is nothing he can do. So Timecrimes’ notion of time travel is not actually like that in Star Trek or Terminator, but more like the television show Lost, whose rules stipulate that there is only one unalterable timeline. There is no such thing as a paradox.
Héctor’s time loops are straightened out by the end, with only one version of himself left in the world. But his misadventures in time have left a trail of destruction behind him similar to his spilled groceries in the beginning of the film. La Chica lies dead in his garden, he’s crashed two cars, and the police are coming. La Chica’s necklace is in his pocket, and he’s sure to be found guilty for her death. Perhaps worse of all, a working time machine site idle at the top of the hill, waiting for more mistakes to be made.
The DVD also includes Vigalondo’s excellent short film 7:35 de la Mañana (7:35 AM), in which he exhibits his prowess with the slow reveal of narrative information.