I think it’s fair to say that 1997 was the best year on record for science fiction movies. Extraordinarily, there were at least four classic masterpieces – Starship Troopers, The Fifth Element, Contact and Gattaca – and a smattering of lesser but worthy efforts. One of the latter were the little-known and very low-budget time-travel twister Retroactive. Other than a few explosions and car crashes, it has virtually no ”money shots” in terms of special effects, but even so it manages to be highly effective because the story and directing work surprisingly well.
The setting is the arid and depopulated desert landscape of rural Texas. The heroine, Karen Warren (played by Australian model Kylie Travis), is a hostage negotiator for the Chicago police, originally hailing from Galveston, Texas. A negatioation the previous week went south something awful, leading to the death of a handful of hostages, and, blaming herself, Karen is now driving around the Texan outback aimlessly, trying to cope with her failure. She has an accident with her car on the dusty road, leading her to accept a fateful ride from a couple passing by. Frank (James Belushi) is the driver, a local bad-to-the-bone bully with his abused wife in tow. Frank is involved in shady dealings with expensive computer chips, but when he makes a business stop shortly after picking Karen up, his associate shows Frank some photos showing his cowering wife having an affair with a Hispanic guy. Frank then takes his wife and Karen to a desolate location and has a hissy-fit, leading to the shooting of his wife. Karen escapes to a nearby research facility where – wouldn’t you know it – they’re having a special on time-travels this week! Well, not really, but there is this experiment going on, and without warning Karen is thrust 20 minutes back in time. Not physically; only mentally.
With knowledge of what is going to happen, she can now change events. And she does her best, but only manages to escalate Frank’s hysteria, leading to many other lost lives. Her only choice is to go to the facility again, hoping she can get one more chance to change it all. And indeed she gets her chance. And another, and another.
For the first half of the movie, the action is intriguing, but you’re not really sure it’s going anywhere. However, in the last half the action and excitement really picks up the pace, with things going from bad to worse, making it increasingly imperative to go back and change everything again.
The ending is not bad, but not quite as satisfying as one might wish, either, but the storyline is well-constructed, doesn’t have too many plot-holes, and is a pretty unique take on time-travel. The directing uses a lot of facial close-ups which is something I normally am not fond of, but in this case I really felt it provided an appropriately character-oriented style of storytelling. It was also a good fit for the actors. James Belushi and M. Emmet Walsh (in a small role) know their craft, and gave excellent performances. Kylie Travis – looking like what she is: a 27-year-old model – might not be enormously convincing as a hostage negotiator, but, hot damn, she is enormously nice to look at. Beautiful, confident and super-aerobicized, she displayed both the attitude and the physicality necessary to make her a well-rounded character for the viewer to gawk at.
I was positively surprised the first time I saw Retroactive, and now that I’m giving it a second watch, I am once again impressed at how far it stretches its very limited resources. It is not a brilliant movie, but it is a good movie. A solid and admirable effort that provides good and dramatic entertainment with a sci-fi slant. As far as time-travel and sci-fi is concerned, I will go so far as to call it a gem. It’s perhaps too much to call it the Idaho Transfer of the ’90s, as it isn’t anywhere near as complex, but in some respects – the miniscule budget and the sort of outback road-movie vibe – it comes quite close.
My DVD is a bare-bones Scandinavian release featuring only Scandinavian subtitles and no extras.
Director: Louis Morneau
Cast: James Belushi, Kylie Travis, M. Emmet Walsh and others
Runtime: 91 min.