Monday, August 14, 2023

Festival View - On the Matter of Time Travel in 2023

“Time travel is really hard to write about!” Dean Pelton, Community

Time travel has been a staple of science fiction short films since the very beginning. George Méliès did films about time travel; that’s how very it gets. Part of the reason is that the process of editing creates a form of narrative time travel, moving the viewer jerkily forward or backwards, completely unstuck in time like a Vonnegut character. In recent years, there have been an incredible amount of time travel shorts, including the Oscar-nominated short Time Freak. I’ve programmed dozens of time-travel shorts, from the absolutely blissful Multiverse Dating for Beginners to the darker Conversations with My Time-Traveling Future Self to the smart caper flick Heist, to a brilliant film made in 48 hours, Sorry About Tomorrow.

2023, though, saw Cinequest put three exceptional time travel shorts out there for all to enjoy!

The Problem with Time Travel

Mr. Chevesky of the International Brotherhood of Time Travel Workers has been sent to visit a woman in 2030 by the President of the World to ‘set her comfortably on the viranda,’ which is 2370 talk for eliminating her. He first arrives as a holographic phone call, while he’s waiting outside to come in and do the murder stuff. They actually have a very nice little chat that evolves into… well, that’s the play, and we wouldn’t want to give it away.

The film is satire, and it’s fun, and the pacing is great. The idea of the International Brotherhood of Time Travel Workers is great to see mentioned: instead of being a government agency that sends out the messenger, it’s a union! There’s a theme of ecologic catastrophe due to silica desiccant packets. I knew it all the time!

There’s smart comedy, and the acting is sly in a way I didn’t expect.


Amy Acker is always great. She’s been around for a couple of decades and she’s appeared in a few shorts I’ve programmed over the years, including the hilarious The Lord of Catan. Though she’s not the star of Creeper, she adds a touch of gravitas that this short assuredly needed.

It’s not an overt time-traveling short, at least not at first. It reads like a stalker’s tale, but the single greatest use of time-traveling as a way to save the narrative of a film since Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure makes this a 100% certified time travel story.

But really, it’s a story about the dangers of families that don’t function and how the long-term effects can manifest in the present just as easily as in the future. It’s a fascinating examination of that idea, and its pacing is fantastic.

Plus, that one moment when they realise that time travel can literally save your life is just perfection.

Time Tourists

This one is a short from New Zealand, a country that has been making fantastic short films that I’ve shown in nearly every festival I’ve ever worked on. The story is simple, actually: a pair of travelers arrive at one of the most beautiful places in all the universe, a large inlet surrounded by mountains. It’s gorgeous, and that allows for all sorts of fun cinematography.

Oh yeah, the two folks are from the future, where the world has been befouled by us terrible humans.

The pair of them have a little flirting, but one of them is staying in the past for the long haul, and the other has his return ticket already punched.

It’s kinda a cross between a meet-cute and a missed connections, but the time travel plays a role that is both charming and heartbreaking. It’s only 6 minutes, but it packs in the emotional resonance without feeling like it’s trying to pack so much in.

So, what do they say about time travel in today’s festival film world?

A fair bit, actually. There’s the obvious, that time travel is still a totally valid form of science fiction to explore in the short form. In fact, while films like Bill & Ted’s and Looper and even 12 Monkeys certainly make a case for time travel in the feature film mode, the short form allows for things like causal loops and entropic ensnarement to be skillfully dodged, or explored without the sort of pedantic detail that so many feature films feel like they have the runtime to dig into. Two of the films Cinequest is showing this year explore the secondary effects of environmental destruction in the present, which is a classic for SF films of all sorts, but they see the future as being able to change all that, while accepting that humans never change their behavior no matter the certainty of the outcome of contemporary actions. We tend to think that we will change our behavior if only we can be shown the effects, but these stories speak contrary to that idea.

Which sounds a lot more dour than these films turn out to be. Creeper is a thriller. The Problem with Time Travel is a dark comedy. Time Tourists is a romance. This ability to explore different parts of the genre spectrum shows not only the malleability of time travel as a plot device, but its role as more of a setting, an idea Jay Lake and I would argue over for ages back in the day. This sort of flexibility is much easier to explore in less time, and that why I’m so glad that time travel has replaced zombies in genre short film festival submissions!

POSTED BY: Chris Garcia - Archivist, curator, and professional wrestling enthusiast. @johnnyeponymous