Whether by accident or by design, every film festival tends to stumble on to a trend or two. At this year's SXSW, the big trend was time travel. Three films that played the festival dealt with characters jumping through time for reasons both selfish and selfless, which each movie tackling their shared genre in a completely different way.
But why time travel? As you watch The Infinite Man, Predestination and Premature, the answer becomes clear. Unlike most science fiction tropes, time travel can be accomplished on a low budget. All you need is a smart script and a cool prop that you can claim is a time machine and you're good to go. Low-budget time-travel adventures aren't new -- both Primer and Timecrimes made up for their small budgets and limited scope with huge ideas and exciting screenplays.
Of the three films, The Infinite Man is undoubtedly the smallest. The feature debut of Austrian writer-director Hugh Sullivan, the film abandons the high stakes usually associated with time travel and goes for something much smaller and more personal. Shot on one location with only three characters, the film follows a scientist named Dean who attempts to remedy a romantic weekend gone horribly wrong with his brand new time machine. As you'd expect, things get complicated and soon there are multiple Deans from multiple timelines running around, getting in each other's way and generally making life difficult for our Dean.
There's whimsical humor on display in The Infinite Man that recalls the screwball comedies of classic Hollywood, but the quirky performances and scenes of relationship deconstruction are all post-Sundance. It's a combination that works more often than not and star Josh McConville is adept at playing lovable buffoons and confident men of action, often in the same scene and opposite himself. The film is so fun and cute that it's easy to forgive the rougher edges. You'd expect any time-travel movie to have its fair share of logic gaps and plot holes, but The Infinite Man asks us to believe in certain character decisions that exist outside of normal human behavior. At some points, the humanity of The Infinite Man is sacrificed to feed the constantly deepening and twisting plot. In the end, it's all a little too clever for its own good.
As complex as The Infinite Man gets, it really has nothing on Predestination, an adaptation of the infamously complicated Robert Heinlein short story All You Zombies. Those who are familiar with the original story will know what to expect (it's practically a line-for-line translation with only a few new elements added) but fresh viewers should be wary -- this is not the film you think it is from the basic premise.
The basic premise is this: a time-traveling "temporal agent" (Ethan Hawke) embarks on his final mission, which sees him journeying to the 1970s and posing as a bartender. A patron walks in and they strike up a conversation. This conversation continues through the bulk of the film and just when you wonder what the hell is going on, the film kicks into gear for a wonderfully exciting final act that puts everything else that can before it in a new context.
Written and directed by Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig (the Australian duo behind the underrated Daybreakers), Predestination is essentially a two-actor show. Hawke is his usual dependable self, bringing humanity to a character who sounds like something out of Timecop. But the real surprise is Sarah Snook, taking on a role that has every right to be disastrous and turning in the kind of performance that should win her a lot of challenging work in the future. It's brave, weird and totally unreal work.
Predestination won't be everyone's cup of tea. It sticks close to its hard science fiction roots, feeling more like a weird oddity from the '60s or '70s than a modern film. Some will find its twists telegraphed, but others will enjoy seeing how all of the pieces ultimately come together. This is the kind of weird, thoughtful and genuinely out-there sci-fi films that reenergizes your love for the genre.
If you want a way to kill your Infinite Man/Predestination high, check out Premature, which takes the basic premise of Groundhog Day and injects it with racism, misogyny and lousy jokes. The story follows a hugely unlikable teenage boy as he lives the same day over and over again, beginning the day anew every time he ejaculates. So he has to team up with his unlikable friends to figure out why he's stuck in a time loop. Along the way, races are mocked, women are objectified and you roll your eyes because it doesn't even have the decency to be funny amidst all of the offense.
Raunch is big right now and the success of This Is the End proved that lowbrow humor and fantastical, straight-faced storytelling can exist in one package. But Premature is rotten at its core, falling into easy gags and forcing its lead to go through a transformation that doesn't feel earned. If you're going to rip off one of the greatest movies ever made (and Groundhog Day is one of the greatest movies ever made), you should at least note what it did right. As it stands now, Premature is a casually offensive movie that thinks it's edgy. It's the equivalent of the 11-year-old kid who just learned about the f-word.
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