Part of the fun of time-travel movies is batting around their rules, and bending brains in an attempt to follow the internal logic or lack thereof. If that were all of the fun of time-travel movies, Time Lapse would be a blast. Bradley King’s sci-fi film imitates the greenish tint of Primer, giving that movie a less wonky, slightly more fantastical makeover. Finn (Matt O’Leary), the building manager for an apartment complex, along with his girlfriend Callie (Danielle Panabaker) and their skeezy live-in buddy Jasper (George Finn), discover a device in their deceased neighbor’s apartment that takes Polaroid-style pictures providing a glimpse one day into the future. With the machine bolted to the floor and pointed at their apartment window, programmed to take a photo at 8:00 every night, the group can receive messages—intentional and not—from their future selves.
This may not sound like ideal pretext for a story centering on dog-racing results, but based on Jasper’s immediate plans for this world-changing device, Time Lapse would disagree. Jasper, whose interest in inexplicably televised dog-racing is established early and often, convinces his less-sketchy friends that providing race results from the future via Polaroid is the best and easiest way to exploit this technology and become rich. Finn buys this dubious logic because the movie sells his life as an aspiring painter with a seemingly unobtrusive building-manager job as a torturous dead end of crushed dreams.
Here’s where the movie’s ideas about time travel become especially daft and sometimes fascinating. Because their initial discussion of gaming the dog-race system put the characters on a path toward this plan, the racing results turn up in the next photo, prominently displayed in their apartment window. Jasper places bets and wins; this also means that in order to make sure that photo can be taken in the future, the characters must display those results in the window that evening at 8 p.m. (Finn also cures his painter’s block by glimpsing his own future paintings.) When later photos display less-straightforward images, the trio attempts to re-stage them at the correct time—the implication being that any attempt to deviate from the path might (somehow) result in unknown death or destruction via the space-time continuum. So one character’s dire warning of “don’t fuck with time” essentially encompasses any attempt to change the future in any way, which is to say any plans whose scope exceeds 24 hours.
This seems dodgy even by the standards of time-travel logic. These recorded images are presented as both ironclad and only set into motion one day ahead of time. But the flimsy conceit briefly coalesces into an interesting experiment in self-fulfilling fatalism. Will Finn, Jasper, and Callie fall in line with the photos’ predictions because it’s inevitable, or because they’re using them as an ongoing guide? It’s a conundrum worthy of a good X-Files or Twilight Zone episode.
The writing of Time Lapse, however, is not up to those standards. Its yoking together of dog-racing bookies, roiling inter-roommate jealousy, and absolutely terrible paintings suggests a darkly comic low-rent noir version of sci-fi. But the movie plays its stupidity straight, with crude first-draft dialogue (“He’s keeping the photos for safekeeping”) delivered via soap-level performances. The three central actors lack warmth or even basic rapport from the start, which makes it difficult to trust their fuzzy interpretation of the time-travel rules—or, for that matter, their tolerance for each other. Instead of provoking shocks of surprised laughter when the plot turns stickier and more violent, the movie’s biggest laughs seem wholly unintentional, like the decision to make one of Finn’s defining motivations his desire to produce at least one mediocre painting per day. King and co-writer B.P. Cooper keep the twists coming, but they don’t illuminate much about the characters beyond how dumb they are. The best time-travel stories transcend their knotty logic with thought-provoking emotional truth. Time Lapse provokes thought, but mostly in spite of itself.