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.

RETROACTIVE (1997)

I normally like to keep the time travel rules a secret, but since Retroactive explains them in the first three minutes, I think I’m safe. Brian (Frank Whaley) is working on a big government project in the middle of the Texan desert. As near as I can decipher, there’s a machine that can reverse the flow of time. The only problem is that this process doesn’t preserve memories, but there’s a chamber in the facility that seems to protect any test subject inside of it from these side effects. Brian has to produce results or he’ll lose funding, and the movie kicks off when a rat he hasn’t tested “yet” successfully avoids the kill tunnel in a maze…

THE STORY:
And then we cut away to Jim Belushi being a crazy rockabilly redneck asshole.

“Hwell dadgum, ya silly beyitch!”

He plays Frank, a despicable Texan smuggler who speaks only in expletives and Southern-fried metaphors that nobody has ever actually used. He stops to pick up Karen (Kylie Travis), whose car has a flat tire after being run off the road by an 18-wheeler. As she rides along with Frank, she learns that he’s a real dickhole to his wife, Rayanne (Shannon Whirry).

And it’s mostly that for a while.

“So… y’all like Jean-Paul Sartre?”

I’m going to bust out a theory here, and feel free to claim it’s not valid. It was the ’90s. The time of Tarantino. I think this movie was trying to emulate that style, but with some sci-fi thrown in the mix. You know how From Dusk till Dawn starts like a normal action flick until… something not-normal happens? I imagine the filmmakers wanted to do the same thing, but with time travel; no hints that there’s anything space-timey going on until the middle of the movie. At some point, they decided to just explain it upfront with the lab scene, and to be honest, while the twist could have been interesting, this movie might have been unbearable without it.

Hooray, yelling! So much yelling.

The initial meeting between Frank and Karen and the resulting car ride is all a set-up for the temporal fuckery to come later, but if you didn’t know that, you’d think you were in for two hours of a brain-stabbingly irritating road movie, nothing more. Karen is caught in the middle of nowhere with some horrible people, and while it’s necessary for the story, it doesn’t change the fact that we’re stuck with them as well. Once she finds her way to the lab, though, the movie turns around completely, exploding with action, chronological conundrums, and all sorts of interesting twists that I refuse to reveal. Honestly, it’s one of the most compelling time travel stories I’ve seen this year. It’s not a thrill ride from start to finish, but from twenty minutes onward, it’s pretty awesome.

THE ACTING:
Alright, out with it: you only needed to see Jim Belushi’s name on the cover to assume this movie sucked, right? It’s okay, I did.

The tagline probably didn’t help, either.

Belushi was not the right choice for this role, but in a weird way, that’s why I like it. I don’t think the movie would be as interesting if Frank were played by a respected dramatic actor. This is simply just Jim Belushi doing a shitty Southern accent and having entirely too much fun with it, which makes him seem more insane. I’ll take it over forced “bad guy” mannerisms any day.

No Cumberbatch speeches here. Just giggles and gunshots.

Kylie Travis isn’t particularly memorable when compared to Jim Belushi’s clowning around, but she handles her role well. She’s not a full-on Action Chick; she fluctuates between confident and helpless, usually depending upon if she has a plan or a gun.

“No, he’s not covered in pink bandages. Why would you ask that?”

Actually, all of the women have an interesting power dynamic in this film, but that’s its own article. Shannon Whirry’s Rayanne has had to deal with Frank’s bullshit all of her life, but her performance always hints that her breaking point is right around the corner.

If she even makes it to the corner.

The casting of Frank Whaley as Brian the science guy is perfect. This stock character is usually an over-the-top dork or inexplicably gorgeous and great at fighting, but Frank just plays him… like a guy. He doesn’t treat time travel like a huge disaster or God’s gift to man; he just does his job and worries when appropriate.

In fairness, 90% of the movie is time to worry.

THE SPECIAL EFFECTS:
Okay, they’re a little corny. The actual time warp is mostly just spinning the camera while dissolving.

Aggghhh!

The computer displays are also a bit… simple.

Are you making a PowerPoint?

You can mock the sci-fi stuff all day long, though, because this movie makes up for it with real-ass explosions and car stunts. Remember those?

Keep in mind that time travel means blowing the same things up again.

Ditto for crashing cars.

OTHER (SPOILERY) STUFF:

  • Also leading me to believe this movie was a complete turkey: the DVD insert is way too in-depth for a movie that Roger Ebert or Leonard Maltin never bothered to review. Included in this fold-out gem is a list of all the awards you’ve never heard of that this film was nominated for, the mark of a movie trying too hard to convince you that it’s good. Except, you know, it’s actually good.

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  • Spoilers on the rules in case you’d rather not know. Just to add to my satisfaction, the rules seem to check out! While they don’t explicitly state too much about how the machine preserves your memories, it’s reiterated that all of time is being reversed. So essentially, it’s sending your memories back in time, or something… I guess. When it goes off, you’re in your body wherever your body was at the time, you just remember all of the events up to when the machine was activated. They don’t get into paradoxes too much, but it seems to work on alternate timeline rules, ie. you could go back and successfully destroy the machine without any repercussions. It’s Groundhog Day without the magic, basically.

THE “NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE!” MOMENT:
Brian wins the award for Shortest Time Travel Freak-Out at just one word. More of a noise, really. Still, it’s great, so I’ll give you a few lines before it for some context.

KAREN: “Oh God, he’s gonna go back and kill everybody!”
BRIAN: “Well, we’ll be there to stop him.”
KAREN: “Yeah, but we won’t know that he knows!”
BRIAN: “But we… we know now…”
KAREN: “Yeah, but it won’t be us now, it’ll be us then, right?”
BRIAN: “Uhhh…”

FINAL THOUGHTS:
While we’re dishing out awards here, the trophy for Greatest Distance Between Predicted Disappointment and Actual Entertainment Value absolutely goes to Retroactive, which beats Trancers by a nose only because the thought of Jim Belushi in a sci-fi movie set the bar exceptionally low. The first act is a slow build that might test your tolerance for the nasal twang of a fake Southern accent, but when it picks up, holy hell, it never stops. Great action sequences and smart sci-fi concepts collide, and while it could spark philosophical conversations by the end, it never forgets that it’s a ’90s shoot-em-up at heart. If you love time travel and gunfights, pick this up and sandwich it between Looper and Trancers.

NEXT WEEK:
Happy Accidents (2000), The Butterfly Effect (2004)

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