When I think of sci-fi, I think of the great “what would happen…” science fiction I read in high school. An example of this is Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”. Time travel exists. There’s a company that specializes in allowing people to go back in time and shoot a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The company has these rules that keep the hunting from changing the future. The key rule is: stay on the path! Of course, during one of the hunts, this guy steps off the path and crushes a butterfly. When he returns to the future, things are sort of the same, but it is not the world he had left. There are words he has never heard before, someone else is President of the country, etc.
This kind of speculative sci-fi imagines a situation or technology and asks “What would happen if this was a thing?”
So I see big budget sci-fi films like After Earth, or Oblivion, or Edge of Tomorrow, or Divergent, or Robocop…and I feel they are hollow films. It’s more of “How do I solve this plot crisis?” rather than “Let’s explore this situation/technology.” Which doesn’t mean they are bad, it just means they are a bit more shallow to me, more for entertainment than for thought.
That was a huge problem I had with Edge of Tomorrow. Edge got compared a lot to Groundhog Day which makes sense to me and is helpful since it is the exact comparison I want to use right now. Groundhog Day is, in my opinion, successful sci-fi because it takes the premise of “What would happen if this guy was not only reliving the same day over and over but stuck in this one small town?” We get to explore that situation and the choices the guy/Bill Murray makes, what direction he takes things. The highs and lows. Compare that to Edge. Tom Cruise has to end a war against alien invaders. So the situation of “Tom Cruise dies and comes back to the same day” is limited to him just trying to find a way to win the war. There are no real choices, it’s just: train and get better and hopefully defeat the enemy. Yeah, sure, Tom Cruise starts the movie as a sissy and over the course of events toughens up, but is that really an impressive character arc? I don’t think so.
Oblivion suffered in the same way, I think. Tom Cruise has a fixed job he has to do, so he does it, then he has a single enemy to overthrow, so tries to overthrow that enemy. But there is no “exploration” of this “what would happen if….” We get a bit about his lifestyle, but it’s so simplistic: fix things, come home, sometimes bang his wife. There isn’t much of a world to explore, just the remnants of a world. Then we’re right into “plot crisis”.
I love sci-fi but I’m pretty tired of big budget sci-fi films that are all plot crisis. After Earth. Oblivion. Edge of Tomorrow. Divergent. Robocop. I feel like those films aren’t thought-provoking enough. I don’t watch them and think, “Oh goodness, what an interesting premise! What would I do in that situation?”
Do we even count things like Transformers and Guardians of the Galaxy as sci-fi at this point? I guess, in a way, but Guardians is more of a Space Opera, where as Transformers is spectacle with some theme thrown in. I don’t think most people would consider either Transformers or Guardians as “deep” films.
All of that is why I appreciated Time Lapse so much. It is exactly the kind of sci-fi that I love. A type of sci-fi film that seems, to me, more and more rare.
A dude creates a camera that takes a photo of the future and spits it out as a polaroid. What happens?
Well. A lot of fucking things happen, which is fantastic.
Time Lapse has that Groundhog Day quality where the situation allows the characters to explore and reveal who they are. I was talking to Brian Boyd from Suck It Up Buttercup about this idea and he said the key words: “human condition.” That’s it. That’s exactly the quality that permeates and elevates and resonates in great sci-fi like Time Lapse, Groundhog Day, Blade Runner, Predator, Brazil, 2001, and Jurassic Park. Well, I guess Looper. Looper definitely has the “human condition” element, but doesn’t fall into the “great” pile for me, for some reason.
How Time Lapse succeeds is by giving the characters multiple points of interest. So we have
Finn (Matt O’Leary): wants to be a successful painter, wants his relationship with Callie to go well, wants to maintain his friendship with Jasper, and wants to be comfortable (so is uncomfortable with danger and rule breaking).
Jasper (George Finn): wants a pile of money, wants to stay alive, wants to take care of his friends, wants power, is thinking ahead, thinking ahead, thinking ahead.
Callie (Danielle Panabaker): wants her relationship with Finn to go well, takes action to feel good when she is otherwise upset, and can be straight-laced like Finn or loose like Jasper.
So the characters aren’t just trying to succeed in one way, like in Edge of Tomorrow. They have a variety of concerns, and because of those various and often conflicting concerns we see many aspects of who they are. And they are often forced to take actions that help one interest at the sacrifice of another interest. You can ask questions like: “What would I do in that situation? Would I make the same decisions? What would I sacrifice and what would I pursue?”
One could also argue, if one was the type to look deep into films and make such arguments, that there is a meta-element to Time Lapse. With Finn representing the Hollywood-style “we need a formula, because formulas are safe and easy,” and Jasper more of the independent filmmaking spirit of “we’re going to get emotional and not be perfect but win anyway.” Callie is, in this metaphor, representative of the viewer and what the viewer wants from a movie experience. I’m not sure this kind of meta-element was intentional, but this kind of reading is available if someone wants it to be, which I think is cool and a testament to the film creators: Bradley King and B.P. Cooper.
King and Cooper have made a movie that is not only the kind of sci-fi I want to see, but they used Archetypal characters in a way that allows for Jungian analysis. Which means that I think people like me, people who love discussing movies, and love reading into movies, and love examining movies, will really get a kick out of Time Lapse. Or, at the very least, have fun arguing over the details of time travel.