Hello, friends in time, and welcome to a regular feature on Cinema 52 where I put my weekly viewing of Back to the Future on hold and watch another movie featuring time travel for comparison. It may not keep me sane, but it will probably always involve one guy shouting, “This doesn’t make any sense!” And that’s good enough for me.

TRANCERS (1985)

Tim Thomerson IS Jack Deth, and if you’re laughing at his name, you’re supposed to be. I think? It’s the year 2247, and Jack is trying to catch Martin Whistler (Michael Stefani), a stock movie bad guy with the power to turn humans into violent zombies called “trancers” that are under his control. He’s gonna be tough to nab, though, as he’s just gone back in time to 1985 and is murdering the ancestors of future government leaders, causing them to no longer exist. Can Jack Deth get his man before it’s too… uh, early?

THE STORY:
Before I say another word, I have to mention that my viewing party spent a fair amount of the running time trying to figure out if Trancers is a satire of bad movies or simply just a bad movie. In the end, I’ve concluded that it’s both. If you know you have a fairly small budget for your zombie time travel cop story, you might as well throw people off the scent by unabashedly going for a solid B and peppering it with a few gags.

No time to talk! Trancer!

So time travel in Trancers works by transporting your consciousness into one of your ancestors while your body stays behind on life support. I’ve personally never heard of this method before, and I’ve gotta say, it’s a surefire set-up for both tension and comedy. What do you do, for instance, if the only relative you have in the same year is a wheelchair-bound old man? Or lives a thousand miles away? Or both?

“Here’s your time travel neck shot. Try not to shit yourself when you get there.”

On top of that, you get the Quantum Leap problem of trying to blend in as someone you know nothing about. (This predates Leap by four years.) When Jack arrives in 1985, his ancestor is supposed to be giving a romantic conquest by the name of Leena (Helen Hunt) a ride to her job as a mall Santa photographer.

Is that strictly a work-only outfit?

Trancer Santa shenanigans ensue, then Jack runs all over Los Angeles with Leena trying to stop Whistler and his mind-controlled hordes. One of the tricks he literally has up his sleeve is a single-use watch that can slow time (one second becomes ten), because this movie didn’t have enough goofy stuff in it.

You got a bullet on you. Lemme swat that.

These watches, just like the time travel, are effectively used for both suspense and humor. (There’s a scene towards the end that had us dying laughing. Bad decisions only get funnier in slow motion.) This balance of tone is what keeps Trancers from becoming a painfully forced spoof or a laughably swaggering action thriller. Self-awareness can take a schlocky plot a long way.

THE ACTING:
The year 2247 is clearly made to look like it was built from blueprints drawn in 1947, which makes Jack Deth all the more interesting, as he’s supposed to be a hard-boiled detective type who would be more at home in our past, not our future. While Tim Thomerson doesn’t go around talking about how dames were poured into dresses, he definitely dials in that tough-as-nails noir persona without reaching scenery-chewing levels.

Yeah. See?

Helen Hunt does that sweet-but-independent leading lady thing she does, and Michael Stefani as the bad guy… shit. I can’t really recall his performance at all. I know he gives an evil speech or two, but other than that, he’s not very memorable. This could be due to his lack of screen time, as most of the movie consists of trying to find him based on trancer outbreaks. Still, with goons as good as the trancers, sometimes the villain can afford a break from being menacing all day.

THE SPECIAL EFFECTS:
Um, I think I’ve already shown all of them in this article? Time travel is a simple jump cut, slow motion is… slow motion, and that’s pretty much it. Oh, wait, when trancers die, they disintegrate. I’m not sure why.

It takes place in the N64 GoldenEye universe?

Also, there’s a quick matte shot of parts of Los Angeles underwater in the future.

You maniacs! You blew it up!

OTHER (SPOILERY) STUFF:

  • The satirical tone of Trancers is officially cemented as self-aware when Jack Deth is watching television and asks: “What the hell kind of name is Peter Gunn?”
  • There’s a clearly visible boom mic in the movie. Is it intentional? Not sure, but it gets a laugh either way.

  • Big time spoiler. This one is about time travel rules and it gives away the ending, so please appreciate how much sentence I’ve given you to decide when it’s time to skip ahead, which I really think you should because I liked this movie. So Jack isn’t supposed to kill Whistler, because he’s in his ancestor’s body and the ancestor certainly hasn’t broken any laws; instead, he’s supposed to give Whistler and himself a serum that will return them to the future. One the vials has broken, however, so only one of them can go back. Jack decides to return Whistler and stay behind. Good for him for protecting an innocent man, but… he’s still essentially “killing” the ancestor that he’s inhabiting. And if the vials are more for preventing paradoxes than preserving justice… Jack just became a veritable paradox factory. But before you think too hard about it… he’s Jack Deth, dammit.
  • The Trancers DVD is double-sided. Flip it over to watch over 40 trailers for Full Moon Pictures classics like Castle Freak, Dollman vs. Demonic Toys, and Trancers 5: Sudden Deth. Wait, what? There are five of these? No, there are six of these. *sigh* Maybe I’ll check them all out at the end of the year, but they’re all straight-to-video after Trancers II. I doubt they capture the same tone– wait, the last one is Jack running around in a girl’s body?

Jackie Deth?

THE “NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE!” MOMENT:
Nothing too crazy. At one point a random cop goes all trancer and freaks out about Jack being from the future in a burst of paranoia.

“Are you trying to twist the world and make the future come out the way you want it to?

FINAL THOUGHTS:
Another one to add to the Pleasant Surprise pile, Trancers is a great ride and absolutely shines when it both mocks and subverts film tropes that it has neither the right nor the funding to be satirizing. There are scenes so clever that I refuse to reveal them just so you have to watch them for yourself. (Evil snicker.) And even if you’re not a chin-stroking intellectual, the guns, zombies, and killer tanning booths are more than enough excitement to munch popcorn to. Check it out if you get the chance, because it’s low-budget gold.

LATER THIS WEEK:
13 Going on 30 (2004)

Want more time travel? Head on over to the Time Out archive.