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Hipster Holy Grail: Timestalkers (1987)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Timestalkers is the kind of movie I imagine most people expect me to review each week in a segment titled "Hipster Holy Grail."  It is 1980s synthpop cheese in an easy-to-digest, 90-minute made-for-TV-movie format.  Naturally it has all the charming elements of a low budget movie from the era that you'd expect: poorly animated special effects, obvious use of matte paintings, big blocky cars, ill-timed machismo, and antiquated attitudes toward women.  There's ultimately nothing special about it that would set it apart from any other cheap '80s B movie, but this one is exemplary of its particular subgenre.

My Rating: 3.5 / 5

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot

Scott McKenzie (William Devane) is a history professor and family man who, one tragic day, loses his wife and son in a freak car accident.

In the next scene....

Oh, what's that?  You think it's a little bit insensitive to show a man's family die horribly and then immediately move on with the movie a couple years later as if it wasn't really that big of a deal? Huh.  You know, now that you mention it, that is a pretty rough transition.  Well, I'm sure that McKenzie's loss will at least be a significant factor in his character arc or maybe build up to a third act reveal when...

Oh?  Really?  Doesn't come back at all except for an arbitrary epilogue?  Welp.  Guess there wasn't much of a point for him to either have a family or watch them die.


The movie actually begins about five minutes in when McKenzie, an Old West enthusiast, meets up with his buddy, General Joe Brodsky (John Ratzenberger), to attend an auction for 19th century American memorabilia and antiques.  The two chip in to buy a set of two mysterious pieces of luggage and go their separate ways to see what loot hides inside.

Upon opening his suitcase, McKenzie is shocked to discover a photo, ostensibly from 1886, that shows a man holding a modern era .357 magnum.  He and Brodsky examine the picture in more detail to try to confirm its authenticity, and when all the evidence suggests it's a legit picture, McKenzie writes a thesis around the idea that a time traveler went back to the 1800s and was caught on film.

Everybody at his university turns their nose up at the idea for its plain preposterousness.  But little do they know that McKenzie's thesis has actually set off a domino effect.  Centuries later, it will be consulted by a time traveling scientist, Georgia Shaw (Lauren Hutton), who realizes that McKenzie's willingness to buy into the concept of time travel, combined with his extensive knowledge of the Old West, makes him the perfect candidate to help her with a dilemma.

Y'see, a criminal / scientist from the future, Dr. Cole (Klaus Kinski), killed Shaw's father, a fellow scientist who helped him to invent a time travel device, following a disagreement about how the time travel technology should be used.  Cole escaped through time and the only lead Shaw has is that he escaped to the American frontier sometime in the 1800s. So Shaw visits McKenzie in hopes that they can work together to track down exactly when Dr. Cole went.

The rest of the movie plays out through a series of investigative scenes in 1987 intercut with scenes of Cole being an asshole and killing people in either 1886 or 1987, whenever he happens to be at the moment.  Eventually McKenzie and Shaw pick up on his trail and embark on a final confrontation to save the day before Cole can do anything (else) nefarious and mess up the timeline (more).

There's a couple of miscellaneous observations I had while watching that I think are worth noting.

First of all, I really appreciate how they handled Shaw as a character.  She's a little bit flat in terms of personality, but she actually is an empowered character and serves as a partner to McKenzie rather than a love interest.  Even though the film eventually lets McKenzie take center stage as an action(ish) hero, Shaw is never made out to be helpless or useless.  It's actually pretty refreshing.

Next, this movie has some of the most careless time travelers in film history.  Most movies at least pretend that there's a consequence to time travel.  And even in this one, there's a scene where the topic is discussed.  But they pretty much throw that out the window right afterward, as Cole is able to kill indiscriminately and it never seems to be a problem for the time continuum.

The worst part of it is when (technically a spoiler, but you should know this) McKenzie shoots Cole in 1886 and he dies.  Cole drops both a 20th century handgun and his time travel device in some mud.  But neither McKenzie nor Shaw seem terribly concerned about digging those up and taking them back to the right place in time.  They just sink into the mud and life goes on.

Mud isn't really that much of an impediment, guys.  That time travel doohickey is going to be sitting there for like 700 years before time travel gets invented.  Shouldn't that at least merit a discussion? That's enough time for somebody to buy up that land and start digging up the soil to build a strip mall or something, and then what?  You've got a time traveling construction foreman?  Was that your plan for the sequel you never made?

The Bit About B Movies (Yet Again)

A long time ago I bitched about Sharknado, and ever since then I've been linking back to that post to avoid rehashing my rant about modern day B movies (read: anything made by The Asylum).  The main point I keep making is that "B movie" should not necessarily equate to "lazy."

Sure, many B movies from yesteryear were crappy. I freely admit that.  B movies have always been the realm of shortcuts, copyright infringement, and creative bankruptcy.  But the difference is that a halfway decent director working on a B movie used to find ways to mitigate these shortcomings, if not turn them around to the film's advantage, whereas a lot of B movies today are just what you get when some asshole takes a DSLR and six aspiring bikini models to the beach, jerks off for six hours, then asks his buddy to fix it in post for slave wages.  B movies used to still have some effort put into them, even if the output was subpar.

As evidence of what I'm talking about, I submit Timestalkers as Exhibit A.  (I guess the obvious joke would be "Exhibit B," but whatevs.)

This is a fun, spirited, cheap-ass movie that manages to squeeze as much as it possibly can out of a thin premise and a loose collection of sets that happened to not have any surveillance on them the day of shooting.  Even though there's nothing unique or innovative about it, it still generally works as a film.  A stupid film, yes - but still a film.

The cast brings enough energy and charisma to what they're doing to keep things interesting.  The director throws in the occasional flair with a scene change, like framing an object in the same place across two different time periods and having the screen crackle around it.  The dialogue is hammy and overbearing, and what they lose in subtlety, they make up for with hilarious over-exposition.

It's not a good movie, but they actually tried to do something with it and it shows.  One of the nicest things I can say about it is that it's a breezy watch.  That might not sound like a compliment at first, but trust me - that's good news.

The Part About Cheap Time Travel Movies

So, last week I wrote about how much I love at-will time travel movies, which is technically what this one is, too.  But the difference is that Timestalkers opened up the span of its travels too wide (about 700 years), whereas Fetching Cody was smart enough to keep its focus neat and tidy (about 15 years).  The result is that even though both movies had tiny budgets, Timestalkers feels cheaper.

A little dumber, too, to be honest.  Cole's entire plot is to mess up the Shaw family line.  If it looks like the 1800s were a bad time to try, why not go a little later?  Or early?  There's no restraint on when he can travel - just his imagination.  C'mon, buddy.  You can do better.

Anyway, the problem with trying to do a time travel movie that gives you such a wide range of possible eras to travel to is that it'll get super expensive super quick if you try to do too much.  You'd have to build new sets and find new filming locations for each era in the story, and that would be cost-prohibitive.  So Timestalkers solved this problem by going to the Old West, and only the Old West.

From a production standpoint, it makes perfect sense. A Western backdrop lets you reduce your sets because most scenes can be filmed in the wilderness. You don't need too many props, and a lot of modern clothing can double for frontier clothing as long as you accent it properly.

But from a story standpoint, it kinda sucks.  Last week I said that time travel movies are always a metaphor for change* in some way. The problem is, the Old West isn't very conducive because it's already a metaphor.  The Old West is wilderness, lawlessness, ruthlessness, animal instinct and survival.  When you try to do a time travel movie in the Old West, you kinda have to ignore the extant issues, but doing that means you end up with a setting that's not quite the Old West.

It's also just kind of boring, because then your movie is less of a time travel movie and more of a western.  There's like a hundred thousand westerns already.  Why doesn't anybody ever travel back in time to, say, seventh century Zimbabwe?  Or maybe the Amazon River, circa 1820?  Or what about Siberia in the 1250s?

* Side observation that I wanted to mention, but didn't want to place upstairs for fear of interrupting my thoughts: There's a terrible / hilarious moment in the movie where McKenzie and Shaw are trying to figure out why Cole has gone back in time, and they both think about it really pensively for a long time until McKenzie snaps his fingers and says, "Of course!  To change history!"  I would say it's the stupidest line in the movie, but this script has a lot of contenders.

The Part Where I Complain About the Poster

Although I don't particularly care for the use of the Old West as a backdrop, I can understand why the filmmakers did it that way.  What I really hate, though, is how they handled the poster afterward.

That's not fair.  If you're making a time travel movie that consists almost entirely of traveling to the 1800s US Western frontier, then make your poster look like a Western.  This looks like there's going to be laser effects and a creepy old guy stalking people with his Death Ball.  Like a mix of Biggles and Phantasm.

The Part Where I'm Not Sure if I'm Complaining or Happy About Bad Moments

Once again, I find myself asking the age-old question: is this unintentionally funny, or is it just plain bad?  Timestalkers is full of moments that bring this inner Hipster turmoil to the surface.  There's innumerable arbitrary moments of clunky writing, bad dialogue, confusing character choices, or just sheer absurdity.

It kind of adds up to what I can only think to call "charm." Let me try to explain by way of an over-extended analogy.

Suppose you go to an antique store and you find a table where there's a bunch of old can openers on sale.  Some of them don't work anymore because they're all rusted and gross, but they had a good design.  Some of them can still be used now, even though you'd have to put too much effort into it.  Some of them won't work simply because the cans they were designed to open don't exist anymore.

As you look at all the different models, you contemplate the evolution of such a simple piece of kitchen equipment and you admire a century's worth of progress put on display.  Each can opener was appropriate for the time it was manufactured: functional and as aesthetically pleasing as you could hope for.

Then, somewhere in the middle of that pile, you find some weird-ass homemade can opener that seems to be two separate tools duct-taped together with somebody's initials written on it in magic marker.  It is also functional, and in the context of the other can openers, you can perceive its purpose.  But what you can't figure out is why somebody made it.  Can openers aren't expensive, and the ones you get from a factory are going to be a hell of a lot better made than this thing.

And you would probably just laugh and move on, but there's something strangely appealing about this goofy PlayTime thing.  You kind of want to buy it.  There's something sympathetic about its semi-handcrafted crappiness.  This can opener's going to be your little buddy from now on.

So you pay for it, name it "Cranky," take pictures of it in various unusual places, and set up a Tumblr account.  People will see it and comment, "What the hell is that?"  And you'll have to explain, "It's Cranky, my can opener."  And they'll laugh for reasons they can't understand, and even though everybody will acknowledge that there's no reason for your Tumblr account to be getting this much traffic, and even though your can opener is really pretty abysmal, everybody still kind of gets some comfort knowing that Cranky exists.

Well, that sure was a tangent.  Anyway, that's what I mean when I use the word "charm." Basically.

Timestalkers is chock full of nonsense that drew me in and gave me a dumb smile.  Like the part where McKenzie and Shaw try to figure out what day to travel to in 1886, and they struggle at the concept of adding one week to July 4th to come to the conclusion that they should go to July 11th, and then they both stare at each other with unbridled elation at having come up with the solution.

Or the part where they cut to a matte painting to represent how a field looked in 1926, and it actually looks pretty decent until they zoom in on one spot and you realize the painter decided to add chimney smoke to one of the houses in the field, and you think, "Who let that one pass?"

Or you can look at my favorite scene in the movie, which is when McKenzie and Shaw go to visit Texas John Cody, an Old West fan, to try to track down a lead as to where Cole will try going.  Texas John looks up a keyword on his computer and pulls up a database of cowboy songs, then chooses one.  His Commodore 64 starts singing to him while displaying the lyrics and some pixelated animation.  The movie then proceeds without comment either on the fact that Texas John has a database of animated cowboy music videos dating back to the 1800s or the fact that, while the video is playing, McKenzie has slipped his tie off his neck and tied it around his forehead like a headband, which he will wear in that fashion for roughly the next half hour.

This is just how things happen in Timestalkers.

Where You Can Watch

Timestalkers is currently streaming on Netflix.