Saturday, August 27, 2005

Under the Hood: Time Chasers

This is a thought I've had from time to time: Why does Hollywood always remake good movies? Surely, the movies that most deserve to be remade are the ones that were bad, since they got it wrong on the first try. This is the first in an intermittent series of attempts to look at bad movies and see how they could be made good.

Time Chasers, for those of you unfamiliar with the Mystery Science Theater 3000 classic, is a film about a science teacher named Nick who invents a time machine, installs it in a light plane, and then sells it to an evil company called GenCorp. GenCorp makes its own version of the time machine (in another light plane), and before long, Nick's discovered that the beautiful utopian future of recycling and fuel efficiency he once visited has been replaced by a back alley somewhere in Vermont that's meant to represent a post-apocalyptic dystopia. So he has to go back in time and convince himself to keep the secrets of time travel secret, lest evil GenCorp CEO JK Robertson use it for...well, evil.

The first thing the movie needs, and the most obvious, is a budget upgrade. Because, wow, is it cheap. The time machines are, as previously noted, light planes. The evil GenCorp is represented in the exterior shots as what looks to be a VoTech college and by the interior shots as what looks to be a local library. Electric drills are pressed into service as guns and nobody seems to notice. The actors are...well, they're not the worst. They're reasonable. But I'm sure that even they would agree that replacing them with Tom Cruise and Maura Tierney would be fair.

The second thing it needs is a logic overhaul for the main plot device--namely, that Nick has managed to develop a home time machine, but that he needs a little spare cash and has to sell the rights to EvilCorp. There's a scene that practically rubs your face in the number of ways you could make insane amounts of money with a functioning time machine, and it occurs before Nick sells the rights. I'd change GenCorp from an evil corporation to a humanitarian foundation, and instead of Nick wanting to make a little spare cash, he thinks that the awesome responsibility of time travel needs to be considered by more than just a high school science teacher. JK could go from being a slick, oily, evil CEO to a Palpatine-style manipulator who tells Nick everything he wants to hear until he can get the time machine for his own personal gain.

The budget upgrade also allows us to highlight something they didn't have the budget to really show in the initial version: It's not that GenCorp does something awful that wrecks the future, it's that they commercialize time travel in ways that cause catastrophic problems. You could get into this a lot more in the high-budget version--our version of JK has sold various time travel applications to major corporations, allowing them to steal their own future patents, dump waste in the far future, and other things that are short-sighted but profitable. (He's been able to do all this in the span of a few days because for him, it's been a year--he's just been taking the time machine and traveling back over the same span of days over and over again in order to get all this done before Nick even knows about it.) JK's being careful not to use the time machine to change history, he's not that insane, but he's perfectly willing to sabotage the future. After all, it's years away. Plenty of time to fix it.

But the future is fighting back. The movie, due to its low budget, could only function with two light planes, but our hypothetical high-budget version could see people from the future with pirated time technology willing to wreck the "no changing history" rule. Nick is the target, not JK, because JK is careful to keep a scapegoat handy. In order to find out why crazy people from the future are targeting him, he zips out there, and sees the devastation first-hand.

Then, things pretty much head along the same track as the film, but higher budget. After a confrontation and narrow escape from JK, Nick decides that the only way to stop things now is to visit his own past self and make sure he doesn't give the technology to JK. JK, in turn, decides that it's time to take Nick out of the picture. The two of them have a "time chase" (you'd probably want to establish, unlike the actual film, that one time craft can track another), which ends with Nick crashing his light plane and JK capturing Nick with the intent of taking him back to the Revolutionary War and killing him 200 years before anyone might find the death suspicious. (He's at this point desperate enough to slightly bend the "no changing history" rule.) The actual sequence in the film is a little weak, but nothing that couldn't be fixed with a higher budget and better staging.

However, past Nick finds the ruins of present Nick's light plane, and deduces that his future self had something to tell him. He tracks JK's craft, gets a group of Minutemen to help turn the tide against JK, saves his own future self, and agrees to destroy all info on the time machine. JK tries to escape and keep the technology, but present Nick manages to get on board his time craft and crash it in Revolutionary days, killing both of them. Past Nick, though, refuses to turn over the time tech, and inadvertently saves both his own life and JK's, while preserving the utopia he's seen come to pass.

It'd certainly be better...

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