How to Build a Time Machine
by Paul Davies
This time travel movie could be the best of them all. If so, that would be because of its timely usage of two current themes: digital technology and terrorism, and an actor in full control of both: Denzell Washington. Add to that certain advance theories of the physical world and a very earthly romance across barriers of time and space, not unlike the less scientifically focused "The Lake House." The result is an action thriller from producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Tony Scott that could do some bragging about their use of futuristic concepts (and a brilliantly conceived opening).
Taking a page from 9/11, the unimaginably heinous criminal act of terrorism that gets New Orleans ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington, with emphasis on the last syllable: car-LINN) involved is a cataclysmic blast of the Alvin Stumpf Ferry running between the Canal Street and Algiers landings on the Mississippi, killing more than 500 men, women and children. While some pandemonium lingers and medics round up bodies, Carlin is a study in concentration, triangulating the source of the attack, and zeroing squarely on the Crescent City Connection Bridge overlooking the river.
Investigative logic brings him to the exact spot of interest, from which the weapon causing the explosion was fired. He confirms this by finding residue from the weapon, which gives him a lead role in the investigatory assumptions. He's ahead of the FBI and cooperating agencies, and he plays his unarguable discoveries modestly, aware of the investigative pecking order. This pays off. No confrontations with the territorial honchos who claim rank over him. He's just a mere ATF agent, and he acts as though he accepts his relatively minor role, which impresses and endears him to his "superiors." FBI team leader Jack McCready (Bruce Greenwood) and agent Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer) agree he'll be an asset to their efforts because of his intuitive skill and workable nature.
Thus he becomes the defacto leader in a futuristic world of top-secret technology, a super-duper time machine based on the concept that it's possible to continually record all of earth, in 3-D, and play any portion you select. He finds himself in an underground "Time-Window Lab" (designed by Chris Seagers, production designer) in the company of Pryzwarra, chief surveillor Denny (Adam Goldberg), operator Gunnars (Elden Hensen) and physicist Shanti (Erika Alexander). Facing the console in the room is the 20-foot main surveillance screen.
The crew explains to Carlin: because of the limits of the random access memory (RAM) resources, the playback is 4 days ago. While it's playing, you can change perspective or location with full zooming and panning capability but, because it's continuous, you can't replay a moment in time in order to change perspective. You can, however, record what's been seen.
As revealing as that sounds, it doesn't make crime fighting automatic. The idea of where to look at any given time is the key to collecting the necessary evidence, and that's where Carlin's intuitive power plays a big role, allowing him to confirm his theory about the bridge and, eventually, track down the identity of the perpetrator.
But just when the revelations seem to end, a new wrinkle shows up. A body has been found in the river, that of a woman bearing wounds not unlike the ferry victims. But the currents and the body's location make that connection highly doubtful, particularly when time of death is found to be before the bombing.
Which leads everyone to look elsewhere for further clues... except agent Carlin. When he first sees the corpse of the woman now identified as Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton, "London") he is stunned by the sheer beauty of the victim, even in death. A personal and emotional attachment is made as he pursues his own feelings as much as the case itself. For sure, a sexual tension has been introduced and, with time and space possibilities, it becomes a motivational force. Checking Claire's apartment Carlin notes, among other things, a strange bulletin board message that has a suggestive resonance with him and the situation. Could it be a message he left for himself? In some future time?
With such an innovative storyline, technical expertise and the most advanced cameras, the writers play a great game of time shifting, and they must all take considerable credit for maintaining the logic of it with such wizardly balancing of the elements. Writers Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio's integration of an almost plausible digital time machine with a heart-thumping romance and the crackling apprehension of a dangerously misguided religious militia quack shows terrific skill. You don't deliver this level of absorption unless everyone involved is at the peak of their talents.
The only trap of such creative imagination, however, is the need to explain the concepts supporting the theory of the machine. It may be important to do this volubly in order to make certain the parameters of plausibility are understood, but it's also possible that a mite more dry narrative crept into the screenplay than was necessary -- Einsteinian dialogue to choke the throats of those who attempt to explain it, diagram it, or illuminate it (kudos to Erika Alexander, the egghead in the room). Interesting though it may be to the physicists among us, the discussion of parallel universes, wormholes and space tunnels does tend to apply some brake pressure on the pace now and then.
The consistent level of skillful filmmaking shows in the cinematography of Paul Cameron and the battery of high-tech cameras used in the production, including the hi-def Genesis camera, the Time Track camera by Digital Air, and the Lydar camera originally made for the military. Effects included infrared, thermal imaging and Heat Impulse visual imagery. Impressive, and to good use, well integrated by Cameron's always appropriate lighting.
All this sharpness is also reflected in the performance of every cast member. Paula Patton, despite being dead for the first half of the journey, is a complete standout, sensual, provocative, dynamic. Washington is a joy to watch as he immerses himself in mystery and technology with an entirely human goal full of anxiety and high stakes problem solving. You feel not only his building involvement with this woman but all the reasons for the emotion, as well. It's a reaction any man could identify with. "We'll all tend to fall for her," as Washington himself put it in his commentary about the film.
Cavaziel's madman Oerstadt is the kind of role he does credibly well, generating fear out of focused hatred and demented beliefs, a psychotic machine of mass murder.
As for the concept of the time machine taking this form, I couldn't help associating it with such current computer technology as Zillow, which gives you angular views of every house and home on the civilized portion of the planet along with its real estate value; and mapping of the globe, notably with Google Earth. Did the recent emergence of these utility programs spark the idea for this warping of the universe in the first place?
As this spine-tingler proves, it pays to be forward thinking.
~~ Jules Brenner
The DVD ~ [Blu-ray]
The DVD ~ [Blu-ray]