I'm a sucker for a good time travel story. They get me every time; I can't help but get drawn in by the tricky scientific puzzles and moral conundrums, the questions of fate and chance and rips in the space-time continuum and all that nonsense. Back to the Future, 12 Monkeys, Terminator 2, Primer, Frequency; mark me down for yes, every time. And there are moments in Nacho Vigalondo's Timecrimes that work on those same levels. The bad news is that they're few and far between, buffered by long stretches of near-nonsense.
There's not much in the way of setup. Hector (Karra Elejalde) and Clara (Candela Fernandez) are moving into a large home near a wooded area. Hector is lounging in the yard when he spies, though his binoculars, a young woman undressing in the woods; he quickly sees that she's in some kind of distress, but when he goes to help her, a scary dude with bandages covering his face stabs Hector with a pair of scissors. Hector runs, the guy gives chase, and Hector ends up hiding in a laboratory, where a young scientist (played by director/screenwriter Vigalondo) has him hide in a large device that ends up sending him an hour and a half back in time. When he tries to go home, he sees himself there. Now there's two Hectors. He's caught in a time hiccup.
The first act is genuinely effective; the mysterious, somewhat menacing tone is thick and palpable, and the chase sequence is suspenseful and engrossing. The scenes where the scientist and Hector puzzle out what has happened to him are also fascinating, setting the table for what is shaping up to be a terrific little foreign genre picture on the order of Tell No One or Let The Right One In .
And then it goes off the rails. I won't discuss in great detail what happens in the second act, except to say that it takes us a good long while to figure out what Hector is up to, and why, and even after you do, you've lost quite a bit of sympathy for him. And even once his motivation is determined, the question must be asked: Replication is one thing, but what was the original motivation?
I realize I'm talking in abstracts here. But I don't want to reveal what happens because, unfortunately, running the clever plot in circles is about all Vigalondo has up his sleeve. Timecrimes becomes more of a gimmicky wind-up toy than the compelling narrative we were drawn into in the first half-hour. In this kind of story, plot and motivations have to be airtight; here, large chunks of the second and third acts are spent recreating things we've already seen, and suffice it to say a little of that goes a long way.
Plainly speaking, the anamorphic transfer is pretty awful. The washed-out colors, soft focus, and heavy grain that populate the 1.85:1 frame could perhaps be written off as aesthetic choices or marks of a low-budget production, but the image is riddled with noticeable compression artifacts (particularly on walls and other backgrounds) and even occasional edge enhancement. The blurred trees and brush in the background of the woods scenes are a mess of jittery pixels. The blacks look good, but that's about the only positive note for this ugly transfer.
Viewers can choose between a 5.1 mix in the original Spanish, a 5.1 English dubbed version, a 2.0 English dub, or 2.0 Spanish. I watched the Spanish 5.1 version, though I frankly couldn't hear a helluva lot of difference between it and the 2.0 version. Environmental sounds are particularly weak in the numerous outdoor scenes, with little or no sound coming from the rear speakers. Directional effect, music, and dialogue are strong in the front and center channels, however, with a couple of big moments (like a key car crash) felt in the back as well.
English subtitles are of course offered, as are something called "English Narrative Subtitles." I'd love to tell you what those are, but I re-watched the first five minutes of the film with that option selected and saw nothing, so your guess is as good as mine.
Extras are of fairly high quality and very high quantity--with over 90 minutes of them, one wishes Magnolia Home Entertainment would have sprung for a second disc so that they wouldn't have had to compress the feature so much.
First up is "The Making of Timecrimes" (44:26), featuring extensive behind-the-scenes footage and on-set interviews. Less slick and more fly-on-the-wall than most "making-of" featurettes, this subtitled extra is worth a look even for the film's more casual admirers. "Cast and Crew Interviews" (10:13 total) feels more like outtakes from the main featurette; the actors, producer, and writer/director Vigalondo are interviewed on-set, accompanied by more behind-the-scenes footage. "Makeup Featurette" (5:22) shows Elejalde in the make-up chair, with the make-up crew and designers chatting as they work.
Next up is "7:35 de la Mañana" (7:48), a previous short film by Vigalondo. It's odd but kind of funny (and entirely different from the feature, in terms of tone and style); worth a look, at the least. On the other hand, you can probably skip the "Timecrimes Internet Game Featurettes" (32:36 total), exhaustively detailing the series of interactive games and videos created for the film's website. This was a fairly ingenious marketing ploy and the process is interesting at first glance, but the featurettes are entirely too long.
Rounding out the package are a viewer-controlled Photo Gallery, a cheesy but brief Teaser Trailer (0:39), and additional trailers for other Magnolia releases.
Timecrimes has flashes of inspiration and moments of genuine suspense and fascination. Unfortunately, it spends too much of its running time spinning its wheels and coasting on its clever concept. Add in the unfortunate transfer, and this is one disc where a rental will definitely suffice.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.