December 17, 2020 – Time travel movies often contain puzzling elements because time travel into the past, particularly, can result in paradoxes. The most puzzling of all time travel movies I have seen continues to be “Primer” (2004), but this one is pretty close in its level of ambiguity.
I could not make much sense of this when I first saw it in a theater, in part, because of a bad sound system (insufficient volume on the center channel, drowned out by way too much volume on the other surround sound channels) European accents and its dense, fast-moving dialog sprinkled with unfamiliar, invented technical terms.
Like director Christopher Nolan's earlier science fiction film, “Inception,” this film has a lot of invented rules. Sometimes you can't breathe the air of the past, and sometimes you can, and sometimes you can't touch your past self without explosive annihilation, and sometimes you can, and sometimes you can move forward in time and sometimes you move backward, and sometimes the effect seems to happen before the cause, or not, and so on, depending on these invented rules.
So I waited for this movie to come out on video disk before I reviewed it because I could not make much sense of it the first time. The subtitles helped me a lot. Sometimes the dialog disappears so fast I had to stop the image so that I had time to read the subtitles. Anyway, I think I finally understood the movie better than I did the first time around.
John David Washington of “BlacKkKlansman” stars as the protagonist (yes, he is actually called that in the film). He is recruited to an ultra secret government agency, post-death, to be a kind of time detective/secret agent. His “death” is actually a test to see how dedicated he is to the mission.
The Protagonist's mission is to find out who is importing time travel devices from the future and to stop him from setting off a kind of time bomb that will destroy the world (and maybe a lot more than that).
The bad guy is a Russian, Sator (played by Kenneth Branagh of “Dunkirk”) a man who becomes head of a criminal empire thanks to time travel. He started out in a Soviet forced labor camp, salvaging nuclear materials. It was there that he discovered time travel, but he also became contaminated by radiation, which would later cause health problems.
Sator is on a quest to obtain secret time travel keys which can cause total annihilation if they are all combined and activated (of course that raises the question of why make the keys in first place, or once made, why not just destroy the keys instead of hiding them). The Protagonist is trying to prevent Sator from finding and activating those keys. This is not unlike Sauron's quest for the One Ring, or the Mother Boxes sought by Steppenwolf in “Justice League” (2017). The idea is to string the suspense out to the very last second before disarming the device.
This familiar plot device is obscured by all the strange rules I mentioned. There are “inverted” bullets that come out of their targets and forcibly fly back into their “inverted” guns, and there are car chases with cars going backwards in states of “reverse entropy.”
One one scene, the Protagonist wonders if it is O.K. to get into a time machine. His partner, Neil (Robert Pattinson of the “Twilight” movies) tells him to look at the exit on the other side of a partition where his future self is emerging from the machine in the past. “See,” he says, it works just fine.
Part of this time-tangled plot has the Protagonist attempting to undo the death of Sator's girlfriend, the remarkably tall and thin Kat (Elizabeth Debicki of “The Burnt Orange Heresy”) using time travel. At the same time Sator is trying to use the Protagonist's attraction for Kat as emotional leverage to obtain the time key wants.
It all ends up with the fuse of a nuclear bomb ticking down to zero with a whole lot of time soldiers traveling backwards and forwards in time at the same time in a “pincer” move, which includes decoy actions. Nobody seems to be entirely sure who they can trust.
Besides all the puzzles and complications, there is plenty of action, often including fights between people traveling with, and against, the arrow of time at the same time. Even if you are confused by all this complexity, there is still much to enjoy here. For me, it was just too much. I prefer more character depth and less emphasis on manufactured plot complications.
My feeling about this film reminds me of what the great director Alfred Hitchcock said about whodunits. There is no emotion in it, like a crossword or jigsaw puzzle. You just wait to see if the world is going to end, already knowing it probably won't. This film doesn't give the actors enough emotional room to do much except go through the plot points. They are just along for a ride through a maze, as is the audience. This movie rates a C+.
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