Monday, April 29, 2013

Review: Timestalkers

This is a fun one for all the sci-fi nerds out there. Just let me emphasize that, by "fun," I don't mean "good."

Timestalkers is a cheesy 1987 made-for-TV movie about a history professor and Old West hobbyist (William Devane, almost completely miscast) who, after the death of his wife and son (the boy from Who's the Boss), finds himself recruited by a time-travelling fashion model (Lauren Hutton, sadly wearing a cap over her tooth-gap) to help her stop the assassination of some 19th century person to further the vague career goals of her deranged, homicidal ex-colleague (Klaus Kinski, looking like Doc Brown's psycho brother).

Kinski and Hutton alternately employ unnecessarily gaudy time-travel technology to make the plot appear to develop. Even before this, however, we are treated to "flashbacks" from Devane's antiquing road trips that depict what Kinski is (simultaneously?) doing in the Old West. The part that's by turns endearing and irritating is that each flashback is accompanied by an explosive screen effect and the stolen sound of a TIE fighter cannon firing.

Apart from a scary German-accented villain, burn rings as traces of time travelers arriving, and occasional vehicle destruction, Timestalkers doesn't steal too egregiously from more well-known time-travel movies of its day. But one commonality deserves mention, not because it's stolen, but because almost every time-travel narrative wrestles with it: a plot that, taken on its own terms, makes no sense.

For one thing, since Hutton bothers to pursue Kinski through time in the first place, she must expect that Kinski's meddling in the past will affect her experiences in the 26th century. But the only reasonable theory I've seen of how time travel would function (the one about parallel universes) means that, as soon as Kinski goes to the Old West, he's out of Hutton's timeline forever, and fucking stuff up in a completely different universe about which Hutton would care not a whit more than Successful George McFly (end of BttF 1) cares about the Successful Biff universe (BttF 2) where he's dead. I could belabor this point, but it's best that I control my pedantic urges…so I think I'll save that for when I review a time-travel movie that deserves it more.

However, even more obviously ill-thought-out is Timestalkers' ending, in which Hutton, out of pity, uses her temporal-reconfiguration-bauble to somehow send Devane back to the day of his wife and kid's death, but with the foreknowledge that it will happen, so he's able to prevent it. Does Devane therefore remember all of his experiences with Hutton? The implication is no, but the film stays vague. More critically, now that he has no reason to descend into a loneliness-fueled obsession with Old West lore, will he ever acquire the trunk with the photo that started the whole plot going? And does that mean no one will stop Kinski from killing that guy in the past? And does that mean Hutton completely screwed up the mission she just finished completing successfully?

The only way to reconcile all of this, as is often the case with time-travel movies, is to conclude that all time-travelers are criminally irresponsible. At least that makes a certain amount of sense.

As for the performances, Kinski mainly looks confused, but even confused Kinski is scary, so he works. Devane's commitment to the material is at least partial, and his character is fairly agreeable, but I could still list dozens of mid-'80s TV actors who should've been the lead. Hutton's natural charm comes through despite some pretty weak dialogue, not to mention spending half the movie in a Union army uniform—and, Gods be praised, they didn't make her kiss Devane. Tim Russ (Voyager's Tuvok) was apparently in here somewhere, but I missed him. And speaking of TV actors, we also get John Ratzenberger, playing Devane's friend who works at a secret military research facility that nevertheless admits Devane onto the premises on sight.

Anyway, Timestalkers is never quite as boring as I feared it would be, with the exception of one painful scene with Forrest Tucker. Wikipedia tells me it's adapted from a novel, which isn't shocking considering how the whole thing feels a little authorial-wish-fulfillment-y. It's too dated for contemporary kids to like, but in its day, it might well have pointed some impressionable youths toward other, better sci-fi—faint praise, but I mean it as actual praise.

Note: Timestalkers is expiring from Netflix Instant, but apparently it might be available for free streaming on Hulu, for those so inclined.

Star Score: 2 out of 5

1 comment:

  1. Oh come on! Timestalker made Back to the Future look like C.R.A.P.!

    As someone who, back in the late 80's used to rent videos to customers from a van, Timestalkers ALWAYS came back with positive reviews. Even by those who had watched, and loved, BTTF.

    My score 7 out of 5