The only thing I knew about the Spanish sci-fi thriller Timecrimes going in is that people often accuse the time travel horror Triangle of blatantly ripping it off. It’s easy to see how that accusation gets tossed around. Both films feature a similarly-masked killer and a tortured/confused protagonist stuck in a Groundhog Day-type time loop that becomes increasingly inevitable each time it plays out & progresses. Although Timecrimes beat Triangle to the punch in some ways I found myself less in love with what it delivers than the much more supernaturally bizarre film that followed. It’s probably best for Timecrimes‘s sake to ignore that comparison entirely & enjoy it for its own small scale, economical thriller charms. It works perfectly well outside that context & is a must see time travel thriller for sci-fi junkies on its own terms.
Timecrimes begins with a fairly typical horror film setup: a married, middle-aged man is violently punished (stabbed in the arm) for ogling a young topless woman through binoculars while he is supposedly bird-watching with his wife. Things get much stranger form there once he’s tricked into entering a time machine that brings him back to that exact same time of day. In order to avoid altering the trajectory of time already established he forces the young woman, a kind stranger, to disrobe so his alternate version can ogle her through binoculars. You can already see where this is headed, I’m sure. A lot of the fun in Timecrimes is in watching the ever-complicating plot set up its Rube Goldberg machinations & to scratch your head over its self-creating paradoxes. You know exactly where the plot is headed, but expect many twists & betrayals to be revealed in the process and it’s fascinating to watch a character climb into his own grave and then retroactively dig it. As the time machine operator puts it, “The machine doesn’t solve problems. In fact, it creates them.” As these “problems” stack up to an insurmountable fever pitch Timecrimes finds a nice little groove for itself, like needle slowly spiraling inwards on a record.
Although nicely layered, Timecrimes‘s plot structure is a lot less complicated than similar time loop features like Triangle or Groundhog Day or, the most complex of them all, Primer. What I most appreciated about the film, though, was not its structural complexity, but its interest in constructing a moral dilemma. It’s difficult to tell for sure if the film’s protagonist is an objectively bad person or just a victim of circumstance doing objectively bad things in order to maintain the integrity of his preferred timeline. It’s also interesting how the film turns the passive ogling of a stranger’s body into something much more violent & predatory. By the end of the film when he proclaims, “I had no choice” in regards to his escalating mess of questionable offenses, it’s all too easy to call bullshit. He had plenty of choices. He just chose to be selfish & self-preserving at every turn.
Timecrimes was obviously made on a shoestring budget, which often shows in the acting & script (I’ve never seen anyone so goofily trick a stranger into a time machine outside a UCB sketch before), but it makes the most out of its resources. Time-marking talismans like Blondie’s “Pictures of You” & the masked killer’s Darkman-esque getup are brilliant uses of simple tools at the film’s disposal and it really does get a lot of mileage out of the moral crisis of its plot despite its trashier impulses. If Triangle “borrowed” heavily from Timecrimes, I’d say it improved on its formula significantly, but the film really is an enjoyable, efficient sci-fi thriller in its own right and there’s more than enough room in this world for both works to be their wonderfully strange, independent selves, regardless of when they were released in time.