The first kind of story uses time travel as a means to an end, but the second is actually about time travel itself, and is therefore, to me, inherently more interesting. Nacho Vigalondo's 2007 film Timecrimes -- and I know that title sounds like it belongs to a Sci-Fi Channel Original Movie, but oh well -- is a time travel paradox film, and it's a refreshing curiosity right out of the gate, in that it clearly was made for very little money, and didn't need to be made for any more. Like Shane Carruth's earlier time travel paradox film, Primer (which, I'm going to admit right now, utterly baffled me), Timecrimes is a science fiction film that is about a concept, and Vigalondo gets around the problem of all those expensive bells, whistles and light shows that jack up the budget of movies like I Am Legend by realizing that they don't matter. The time machine in Timecrimes looks like a round sunken bathtub, over which fits a very heavy lid. The time travel special effect itself consists of a very cheap light and camera trick that is exactly as effective as it needs to be.
To summarize the plot of this film -- stopping, as is customary, before we get into spoiler territory -- is very simple. One day, Hector (Karra Elejalde) is home with his wife, Clara (Candela Fernandez). For a while, their day is pretty uneventful, save for one odd phone call, until Clara leaves to run an errand. At the time she leaves, Hector is sitting in their backyard, looking into the trees with his binoculars. While doing so, he sees a woman take her shirt off. Curious, he enters the woods to investigate, and finds her completely nude, and either unconcious or dead. While approaching her, a man with bizarre, pink-stained bandages attacks him and stabs him in the arm with a pair of scissors. Hector runs from the man, and soon finds himself in what appears to be a house, mixed with an office building, mixed with a laboratory. A short series of events leads him to a young scientist (Vigalondo), who tells him he can hide out in what turns out to be, but which Hector doesn't realize is, a time machine.
.And we're off. It's a curious aspect of these kinds of films that the more effective -- and the more fun and suspenseful and involving -- they are, the less sense they seem to make. Because at the end of Timecrimes, I had two questions. One was "Well, but how...?" and the other was "Except that...no, but what about...?" Also, Hector makes one very big decision towards the end that, while I understand his motives, because he can have only one, I have no idea quite how this decision is going to bring about the outcome he wants. But I guess that's why they call it a "paradox". Or one of the reasons, anyway.
Timecrimes is also quite a dark and melancholy little movie -- as was Primer, if I remember correctly -- which is a tonal approach I admire, because it reveals an unusually high level of empathy on the part of the filmmaker. Vigalondo's imagination is such that he's able to look at this story and say "Look, I know this is absolutely impossible, but if it were possible, wouldn't it be awful??" And I like that. I like art that takes the impossible and treats it not as a game or a gimmick, but as its own kind of reality -- the kind that exists on the page, or on the screen. The only severe hiccup I felt while watching the film was when I figured out a big plot twist at the exact moment the story element was introduced (which I don't point out in order to brag about it, because given how this point is introduced, and knowing what kind of film Timecrimes is, it's not hard to see the twist coming) and felt that the movie would have no surprises left. This turned out not to matter at all, because Vigalondo's film may not work on the plot level, and it may not actually even make any sense on that level either (then again it may -- it'll take at least one more viewing before I can answer that) but it sure works as a movie, and it reminded me how gripping and fresh the most shopworn of stories can be when the storyteller actually gives a damn for once.