There are films from my yesteryear that I barely remembered into adult life. They came and went and often turned out to be cult classics. I have a good record in the cult classic department: The Last Starfighter, Krull, Big Trouble In Little China and The Care Bears Movie. All classics that people younger than me think are cool. Yeah, that’s what I keep telling myself. Back to the forgotten films. There was one film that came along and I’d had completely forgotten it was an actual film. This was around the same time I watched Adventures of the American Rabbit and The Adventures of Mark Twain so it’s a bit hazy. The film was called Timestalkers and it was one of the first movies I ever saw that tried to explain the concept and problems of time travel. I had seen time travel before in things like Star Trek but that was always a kind of sanitized phenomena where everything was wrapped by the 45 minute mark. Here, the usual tropes of time travel are on display but it’s a more personal film. Let’s get started.
Scott McKenzie (William Devane) is a college history professor, family man and old West gun nut. I’m not saying anything bad of him, he likes his little pop guns but his family is more important. However, tragically, his wife and young son are killed in a car accident right outside his home. A year later, he’s the same man but lives alone, his friend Joe Brodsky (John Ratzenberger) as his only real companion. He and Joe attend an auction for some old West memorabilia and buy a pair of steamer trunks. Looking into the history of the trunks, they come across a photo dated circa 1880’s. The picture shows three men who accosted a man named Joseph Cole (Klaus Kinski) in a frontier town saloon and who got shot for their trouble. The man who shot them is in the picture. But he’s holding a gun that comes from 100 years in the future. When McKenzie writes up about the paradox, he is then approached by a woman named Georgia (Lauren Hutton) who offers to help him and goes with to the town where the picture was taken. It’s only then that McKenzie realises Georgia is from the future, so is Cole and Georgia has been sent to stop him.
I know that’s only a paragraph of description but this all takes about 25 minutes to play out. At this point McKenzie doesn’t even know why Cole is travelling in time. In the 26th century, Georgia’s father and Cole invented a time travel device and Cole wanted to use it for his own reasons. Michael Crawford (Georgia’s dad) thought it too powerful for anyone to use for their own purposes. Cole doesn’t agree, steals one of the devices and escapes into the past then Georgia is selected to track him down. Now, here’s where things get a bit screwy. You see, Cole thinks by going back and killing an ancestor of Michael (who is an advisor to US President Cleveland), he ceases to exist in the future along with Georgia. But that would probably cause Cole to fail in his own past to invent time travel. That being said, Cole IS being played by Klaus Kinski and that man was crazy, demented and, according to recent reports, a pretty sick person. So we never stop to think about the paradox of Cole undoing his own work before it ever happens but at the same time going back in time to do just that. Klaus Kinski just has that ability to make you stop asking such questions. The best part of the film is the combination of the science fiction, detective and wild west genre’s of storytelling. Georgia and McKenzie know when Cole will strike, they just need to know where. Cole himself becomes more ruthless and desperate to succeed as the two heroes get closer. Hell, he kills Cliff from Cheers! for God’s sake. The film doesn’t stay in the one period, jumping between the 1980’s and the 1880’s as they try piece together an old legend of how Georgia’s ancestor was saved from a group of bandits. Once he realises what Georgia can do, you can see the delight in McKenzie’s face when he knows to save the future, he has to time travel. Devane as McKenzie has always been a favourite actor of mine and it was nice to finally remember where I knew him from after watching him in Payback (1999) and Space Cowboys (2000) and having a blast. McKenzie is quick witted and finds the perfect foil in Georgia, a woman who can interpret and understand the problems they face trying to track a time jumping madman. Lauren Hutton, I know next to nothing about except I remember her from Starflight One, which stars Lee Majors as the Captain of a marooned spaceliner in Earth orbit. Hutton goes straight for a depiction of a future person who knows enough to blend in and avoid the stranger in a strange land type that litters the cinemascape in these types of stories. I like Ms. Hutton and must see more of her stuff. John Ratzenberger as Joe is a great role at a time when he was most famous as Cliff in the aforementioned Cheers! and he comes across as a serious military general who also wishes that his friend would move on with get out and meet people. Some of Ratzenberger’s trademark quips and one liners litter his scenes with William Devane. He’s one of the best character actors around and he’s always welcome in any film I watch.
Now, I have to address a problem with Klaus Kinski. People have always known the German actor was mentally edgy and possibly deranged. His frequent collaborations with Werner Herzog (and indeed their numerous bust ups) are the stuff of legend and his performances are electric, often manic and always a talking point. I was watching an 80’s sci-fi called Creature on Netflix and it was kind of terrible and then Kinski suddenly turned up and everything became awesome. Performers react against Kinski. he just continues acting, that’s the kind of actor he was. Recently, revelations about Kinski the man have proved to be very sordid and, if true, repulsive. I’ll let you Google the details. Suffice to say, my appreciation for him as an amazing performer comes with the thought that home life with him was horrific. So I have to say that now that I watch him in things like this, it’s twinged with the knowledge that he’s another person on a list of people I love to watch on celluloid but can’t stand them as a person. Here in Timestalkers, he plays a sad figure of a man who because he couldn’t accept that something he created was to be used for noble intentions, resorted to murder and the worst abuses of a person in high office. At the end of the film, he seems to accept his fate as dealt out by Professor McKenzie. Kinski gives a wonderful moment at the end where he realises the trap of predestination he fell into and congratulates the people who were able to avoid it. Kinski makes a TV villain role into something driven, vain and Faustian and my enjoyment of the film is better for it.
The score of the film is by Craig Safan (The Last Starfighter, Good Guys Wear Black, Angel, Legend of Billie Jean) and again, elevates the project with a wonderful synth score and forlorn moments that highlight the points where McKenzie finds the courage to stand and make something in his life matter now that nothing mattered to him. It’s amazing that the score has never been available to the general public. Direction by Michael Schultz stays in TV mode but the film works beyond its origins and its best moments are a wonderful addition to the pulp sci fi genre. Schultz does fall on some tired tropes in the future with people wearing silver jumpsuits…because it’s THE FUTURE!!!. Also that same red laser science console from the Regula Science Lab in Wrath of Khan sure gets around. The film also fails to address the most glaring moment at the end of the film where an action taken by Georgia and McKenzie should have undone everything but it didn’t. But in a film where people are using solid crystals to jump through time, I should just run with it. Some amazing people who would go on to bigger things like John Considine (Michael Crawford), Tracey Walter (Sam) and the late James Avery (Blacksmith) turn up in the film and their performances add credibility, if not believability, to proceedings. Devane and Hutton form a great team and they have good chemistry throughout the film so when it’s time to say goodbye, I agree with William Devane when he laments that another good thing is leaving him. It’s the little things that make it all work.
The trailer for this makes it seem like a kind of Runaway meets Star Trek mashup which is insulting when the effort is more low key and subtle and arguably works better then what CBS TV were trying to sell it as. Shockingly, despite MGM owning the TV rights after CBS first ran it, Timestalkers has never been available on blu ray or even DVD. Why, when there are worse films on DVD, I don’t know. It’s available on US Netflix at the moment and for other people, there are video options online. If you find it on Netflix, add it to your watch queue or if you can find the VHS, speculate the couple of quid for it.
“Timestalkers is a delight to watch, a simple time travel adventure to enjoy and celebrate when TV didn’t worry about confusing its audiences and just got on with a good story.”