Two of this week’s time-travel movies make a great comparison for how to grab the audience, or fail to do so. Both of them start without telling us much about what’s going on, but one intrigued me, the other didn’t (neither one worked well, either).
95ers: Time Runners (2014) opens with a tense couple Somewhere Mysterious talking very urgently (“The navigator needs to have enough to go on. He needs to insert you before they find the tipping point. Do you understand?” “Better than anyone.” [quotes courtesy of this review]), then a bald guy at a high-tech console, then a physicist falling in love at first sight with a hot-tempered Christmas Caroler. We’re obviously not supposed to understand what’s going on yet, but I presume we’re supposed to be intrigued.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t. For that to work at least one of the individual scenes would have to grip me, and none of them did. So I have no real reason to be curious, or wonder what’s at stake and why. I think the scenes of the couple and the bald man babbling about too much gravity and the timelines going wonky (or whatever) are meant to provide the plot momentum but they’re not clear enough, the technobabble isn’t clever enough and the people delivering the lines think Intense Shouting is the new method acting. It picks up later on, but if this were a book, I doubt I’d have gotten past Chapter One (I’ll have more to say in this weekend’s reviews).
By contrast, Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem (2014) managed to hold my attention, though the film ultimately didn’t work. Here, the opening is a man in a cavernous room picking up phones and answering desperately, then leaving to go to work down streets that mix worn buildings with bright neon colors. His work is incomprehensible, his issues are largely unfathomable (he’s nuts) but I was interested.
The difference? I think it’s the focus on the one central character, and the fact that what he’s dealing with is intensely personal, rather than involving the fate of worlds. I have no idea why he’s so desperate to answer phones, but it’s obvious it matters, in a way nothing in the opening of The 95ers does, despite all the intensity.
Draw what lessons you wish. I think I can draw a couple myself.