By Elisabeth Vincentelli
Time loops, twins, twists and trysts in this month’s collection of sci-fi picks.
We are in the near future and the European space agency is preparing to launch a mission that will last years if not decades — a length that means filling it with a young crew. Teenage twins Lázaro (Pablo Cobo) and Tristán (Louis Peres) are training together for spots in the program. They are equally dedicated, but the confident Tristán is doing just a little better than his brother. Just as you settle for “Space Academy: The Early Years,” director Edouard Salier makes a sharp turn.
One night, a strange green object — a meteorite? A spaceship? — falls from the sky into a lake in which the twins were swimming. Infected by the contaminated water, Tristán develops hideous lesions on parts of his body. With his mind and senses affected as well, his dreams of space are over. Meanwhile, Lázaro continues with his boot camp while helping their mother (Marta Nieto) look after the disabled Tristán — the roles have been reversed and Lázaro is now the dominant one. At its heart, “Tropic” is a family drama about sibling relationships and guilt, but it takes place against a sci-fi background and wanders toward body horror. The film’s refusal to explain what happened to Tristán is less frustrating than intriguing, and ultimately touching. (Rent or buy it on Vudu or Microsoft.)
Multiverse and time-travel movies are ubiquitous these days — which I suppose has a certain kind of meta logic considering the subject. Few of them, however, match form and content like this flight of fancy from director Geoff Marslett, who co-wrote the screenplay with indie-rock stalwart Howe Gelb.
“Quantum Cowboys” extends its premise of coexisting universes and crisscrossing timelines to its aesthetics by juxtaposing live action and animation. It goes further by using various techniques to mix and match digital and hand-drawn art. The cast is equally all over the map and includes a delightfully dry Lily Gladstone, David Arquette, Alex Cox, X frontman John Doe, Americana siren Neko Case and — is that really French new wave icon Anna Karina?
Sophisticated and endearingly ramshackle at the same time, “Quantum Cowboys” loosely follows the adventures of Frank (Kiowa Gordon), Bruno (John Way) and Linde (Gladstone) in the Arizona Territory of the 1870s. There are time travelers, too, and a film crew, and a director of sorts (Patrick Page) who appears to be editing realities together from a control room. I can’t claim that I followed the film’s plot, or plots, but anything this sui generis deserves a cheer. (Stream it on Fandor. Rent or buy it on most major platforms.)
Time loops tend to be something characters endure. Not so in Alex Lehmann’s sneakily dark comedy, in which Sheila (Kaley Cuoco) chooses to repeat over and over her first date with Gary (Pete Davidson). One evening, she introduces herself to Gary in a bar, and off they go into a journey of mutual discovery, wandering the New York City streets (the movie has a rather lackadaisical relationship with local geography). And then the same scenario repeats, with small differences. Sheila, you see, has chanced upon a time machine that, to the untrained eye, looks like a salon’s tanning bed, and she has become obsessed with getting her encounter with Gary just right, molding him to her exact desired specs in the process.
What is striking about “Meet Cute” is that it takes the archetype of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and shows what can lurk behind the upbeat quirkiness: in this case insecurity, depression, sadness, fear of the unknown, and even a death wish. The film is unflinching in its look at someone who, at times, exhibits signs of mental imbalance as she doggedly pursues her obsession. The discrepancy between the subject matter and the tone makes “Meet Cute” something of a daring oddity that subversively upends audiences’ expectations. (Stream it on Peacock.)
‘The Tunnel to Summer, the Exit of Goodbyes’
Anybody with a passing familiarity with fairy tales knows that wishes can come true, but usually at a price. If teenagers Kaoru and Anzu didn’t know that at the start of Tomohisa Taguchi’s anime feature, they certainly do at the end. (Note that most mainstream platforms have only an adequately dubbed version but the anime streamer Hidive also offers the Japanese original with subtitles.)
Kaoru (Oji Suzuka/Gabriel Regojo) is lonely and miserable: His little sister, Karen, died in an accident, for which their father blames Kaoru. One night, the young boy discovers a so-called Urashima Tunnel, which can grant a wish to those who travel in it. The downside is that time in the tunnel slows down to a crawl: three seconds inside equal two hours on the outside; a day is 6 1/2 years. Bringing Karen back is worth the danger for Kaoru, who practices spending as little time as possible in the tunnel with his one friend, Anzu (Marie Iitoyo/Patricia Duran). The tunnel is represented as a kind of liminal psychedelic space, and Kaoru’s scenes in it have a trippy vibe. But the movie is at its best describing the relationship Kaoru shares with Anzu in the normal world. Poignantly, the two characters are so obsessed with figuring out how to achieve their respective wishes that they don’t enjoy their moments together. As with so many fantastical quests, the answer is within their sight. (Rent or buy it on most major platforms.)
Like “Meet Cute,” Jared Moshé’s subtly emotional film is about making peace with life’s imperfections. Well, it’s more serious than manufacturing the perfect date because “Aporia” deals with loss and grief. Sophie (Judy Greer, in a standout performance) has lost her husband, Mal (Edi Gathegi, from “For All Mankind”), and she and her daughter, Riley (Faithe Herman), are not faring well. That’s when Sophie and Mal’s friend Jabir (the great Iranian actor Payman Maadi) tells Sophie that he and Mal had been working on a time machine. Lo and behold, the contraption is now ready, and it can be used to kill someone in the past. Sophie decides that they should go after the drunken driver who took Mal’s life. (The way the machine works involves the type of pseudoscience that will send physicists into peals of laughter; everybody else can just nod along.)
Amazingly, the contraption does work, Mal lives, and the family is whole again. Moral quandaries abound: What about killing a terrorist before he strikes? Unexpected wrinkles also surface in the new timeline, which is what happens when you alter the past. Losing a loved one is a horrendous experience, but what if trying to avoid that pain only displaces it onto others? The problem with moral dilemmas is that no time machine can solve them for you. (Stream it on Hulu.)