In Time Chasers, amateur Vermont filmmaker David Giancola writes and directs a zero-budget homage to the Back to the Future trilogy, complete with an unorthodox time machine, jumps back and forth from the 50’s to the near future, and a few instances of people meeting their future selves. It’s cheap, the special effects are bargain basement, and the acting is atrocious, but it isn’t nearly as bad as most people think. It’s got a reputation for being terrible thanks to an appearance on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but what most fans of the show don’t know is that Time Chasers is a decent action movie with some funny dialogue and a sometimes thoughtful plot.
Nick Miller is a dorky scientist with Jay Leno’s chin and a horrifying red mullet. Using a Commodore Amiga, Nick has single-handedly created a time machine that he calls the Transport. For reasons never made clear, the Transport has been built into a small single-prop airplane, and every time Nick travels through time he has to take off and land (and pass through a cheap special effect that looks like he’s flying into a CRT display).
After a successful flight into the future (symbolized by him handing his mechanic friend a JFK half-dollar from the year 2041—though I don’t think they even still make those now), Nick invites two people to preview his invention: Lisa Henson, a reporter with a soccer mom haircut who was Nick’s high school pal, and Matthew Paul, a representative from the government contractor Gen-Corp who looks like Jon Lovitz with a bad hairpiece.
Lisa and Matthew think he’s nuts at first, but he proves his story by flying them to the year 2041. Amazingly, it doesn’t look much different from 1991, but there are subtle hints that the future is much more environment-friendly: everyone rides bikes instead of driving, and Matthew sees a placard on a building claiming it’s made of “recycled material”. Just like this script!
The Back to the Future homage kicks off in earnest when Nick attempts to explain the science behind his time travel device. But instead of anecdotes about falling off a toilet seat and thinking up the Flux Capacitor, he delivers an incredibly awkward analogy where the universe is his cup of coffee, and he and Lisa are the spoons. Well, they’ll be spooning together soon enough, believe me.
Matthew already sees the obvious financial applications of time travel, such as putting money in the bank 100 years ago and collecting the interest in the present, but Nick insists they should use the Transport for more noble efforts. Like, for instance, to “figure out a way to stop shooting each other”. And yes, he says that line with a completely straight face.
Upon returning to the present, Matthew says he wants Nick to personally demonstrate his invention to the CEO of Gen-Corp, a smarmy looking guy named J.K. Robertson. We immediately cut to the demo, and J.K. is impressed, and makes a deal with Nick right there on the spot. He says that until the deal is finalized, they can’t discuss the device with anyone, and that includes Lisa the Reporter over there. Upon hearing this, Lisa angrily takes off in a huff.
Later, Nick runs into Lisa at the local supermarket and the two reconcile. He then asks her out, and next we see them taking off in the very same plane that Nick was just told to keep completely under wraps.
For their first date, Nick takes Lisa to 1957. Way to abuse your god-like powers to impress a chick there, Nick. We watch them wander through a neighborhood and eat at a 50’s theme diner, er, I mean, they’re in the 50’s, eating at a normal diner. Yeah, that’s it.
As they head back through the CRT effect, suddenly we see the two of them making out. Gah! I could have lived a perfectly happy life without ever having seen that.
Anyway, they decide to cruise on back to 2041, where they see the city is now a wasteland. They land and find themselves tussling with armed gangs. (All very white and clean-cut gangs, by the way. Straight outta the Burlington hood, yo.)
Finally, Nick and Lisa meet an old couple who reveal that years ago, Gen-Corp sold the Transport to the government, which used it to go back in time and win wars they had originally lost. Then, eventually, Gen-Corp started selling to everyone, and now paradoxes, or “time tangents” as they’re called here, have ravaged society. The old dude explains that the past changes every day now, though how he would even be aware of it is never explained.
Nick and Lisa return to the present and head to Gen-Corp headquarters (which, apparently, are located in the atrium of a library) to talk J.K. out of selling the Transport to the government. But J.K. reveals that he’s already built his own Transport (as you’d expect, also an airplane) and he’s seen the future himself. So an angry Nick threatens to pull his license agreement.
Unfortunately, J.K. points to a section in the contract that essentially says they own Nick’s ass, in perpetuity, throughout the natural universe. He then goes so far as having Nick and Lisa arrested as corporate spies and traitors. As they’re led away, Lisa gets a great line when she tells Nick, “Fire your lawyer.”
But Nick creates a distraction, and the two of them escape from Gen-Corp. They soon find their way back onto the airfield and sneak back to the Transport. Unfortunately, they find it guarded by half a dozen goons, leading to this amusing exchange that was surely “inspired” by They Live:
“What would MacGyver do?”
“Take a piece of gum and turn it into a nuclear device. And I’m out of gum.”
Lisa creates a distraction and gets the hangar cleared. Once inside the plane, the two decide to travel back to the morning that Nick first demonstrated his Transport to Gen-Corp, and try to stop Nick’s past self from doing the demo. There’s a nice moment here where, with some sadness, Lisa realizes that if they do that, then she and Nick will have never met.
They persevere and return to the immediate past, but J.K. has already used his own Transport to jump there ahead of them. He shoots a gun out of the cockpit window, George-Kennedy style, causing Nick’s plane to crash. Lisa dies in the crash, but Nick is able to get away.
Future Nick goes to the airfield, but finds the place already crawling with guys from Gen-Corp. They chase him in a truck, but tree-hugger Nick can’t drive, so he hops on a bike instead. In a comic highlight, the Gen-Corp guys actually get out of their truck, grab bikes, and take off after him. Well, that was considerate of them.
Nick is captured by J.K.’s men, and is unable to stop his past self from showing the plane to Matthew. But it seems the plane crash itself has already caused a tangent of its own.
Instead of going to cover Nick’s demonstration, Lisa is told to report on the plane crash instead. She traces the registry number on the plane to Nick, but when she heads over to the airfield to give him the news, she’s stunned to see the very same plane, intact and sitting on the runway.
Things get even weirder when the police identify the body in the plane as Lisa herself. (Though, they actually make of point of saying the body was identified through dental records, which makes no sense. There’s no Dental Record Database sitting out there like they have with fingerprints or DNA. To identify someone through dental records, you’d have to have some idea of who it is, so you could contact that person’s dentist and ask for records. And I highly doubt the police would suspect the body was Lisa, considering she’s still alive at this point.)
Meanwhile, J.K. has Future Nick on his Transport, saying he’s going to take him somewhere where he won’t cause trouble. That somewhere turns out to be the year 1777, where the movie makes clever use of a local group of Revolutionary War re-enactors. Before J.K. can finish Nick off for good, Nick’s past self and Lisa’s past self suddenly show up. Past Nick has told the Minutemen that J.K. is really a British spy, and we get a fun shootout where J.K. matches up his Uzi against 18th Century musket rifles. (The reason Nick and Lisa knew to come back to 1777 isn’t made very clear, but then again, neither is the significance of the date November 12, 1955 in the Back to the Future movies.)
Meanwhile, Future Nick and Past Nick meet up, and have to admit, the split-screen effect where the actor plays opposite himself isn’t terrible at all. Future Nick is ecstatic to see Past Lisa, much to Lisa’s confusion.
Anyway, they see J.K. on the run from the Minutemen. Future Nick is about to take off to stop him from getting back to his Transport, but before he does, he kisses Lisa, and there’s a pretty priceless look on Past Nick’s face when this happens.
Soon, J.K. and Future Nick duke it out in a fight to the death. They both end up killing each other, but the great thing about all the tangents is that Past Nick and Past Lisa are both still alive and headed back to the present. Nick destroys all of his research on the Transport before he ever sold it to Gen-Corp, thus completely avoiding the sequence of events where both he and Lisa die. The movie ends with them running into each other once again at the grocery store.
Okay, sure, it’s a story full of all kinds of plot holes, and it basically hit the big old Reset Button, meaning that none of the events of the movie ever happened in the first place. But I’d be hard pressed to think of a time travel tale story that doesn’t end like this.
And yes, the movie is really cheap, but if movies were judged solely by how much money was spent on them, Charlie’s Angels 2 would be the greatest film ever made. The actors aren’t very easy on the eyes, and all of the action set pieces, with Nick jumping out of planes and hanging onto a wings, unfortunately none of that can really be pulled off on this movie’s budget. But I’m convinced that with professional actors and a real director, Time Chasers could have been quite a gem of a B-movie. It may have made for a good episode of MST3k, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad movie.