In these films, the fourth dimension, time, is like a background character—where will it take us?
As those who have been in an accident know, time is a subjective experience. It can slow down so that during a car crash, for example, seconds decelerate.
Each moment is defined, even in memory—the experiential analog is a slow-mo scene in an action movie. And then sometimes time speeds up, as during a night out with friends. Then too, film comes to mind: As events whip past along with the hours, it feels like a living in a montage.
But despite these easy comparisons between life and moviemaking, playing with time on film is notoriously tricky: film is, of all the art forms, arguably the toughest to transcend the fourth dimension within—its structure insists on unfolding over minutes or hours.
If you get it wrong, pushing viewers into alternative timelines can come across as silly. Get it right, and you’ve sucked your subject into an another version of everything they think they know.
There are almost as many ways to play with time (beyond simple visual cues that it’s passing) as there are films that attempt the challenge. These three films featured here on Labocine get us to think about time in three very different ways.
A Fly Called Fig is only 4 minutes long, but for the fruit fly, Drosophila, who only lives for 40 days, every minute counts.
“Time is a vital factor in the narrative as Fig's form is determined by his life cycle and time must pass for him to undergo metamorphosis,” explains filmmaker Samuel Ridgeway. It’s a story we think we know—the simple life cycle of a fly, but Ridgeway uses regular reminders of how little life a fruit fly gets to up the stakes in Fig’s story: It’s hard not to empathize with the little guy.
Ridgeway aimed to “translate ‘fly time’ into human time,” he explains. But how? By getting close—at first via a microscope lens, we watch the titular Fig gobble up banana mush, pushed around by his siblings; he is the smallest one.
Ridgeway then lets us watch for a significant chunk of the short film, as Fig struggles from his pupa. It’s a significant, yet time-consuming moment in Fig’s life, and deserves our attention too. Ridgeway’s ultimate intention is to show us how “episodes that may have only occurred for a few minutes [to the human viewer] are actually major life events.” For just a moment, we watch in fly-time.
Time is also of the essence in Odessa—an utterly human story about a Manhattan woman about to embark on a 135-year space journey. Time is the “...primary driver of the human drama in my film,” describes Cidney Hue of her film.
As the Mission Specialist attempts to enjoy one last evening out in the city, her choice is challenged by a stranger: Here, the protagonist “...must grapple with the time she will lose at the sacrifice of enormous scientific potential,” explains Hue.
“This is a question future astronauts will likely need to ask themselves as we push further into space.” It’s a poignant—and very specific—emotion spacefaring humans will have to deal with; losing time and the people they care about along with it. Hue’s focus on the Earthly details of a typical night in the city: faces and feet; lights and voices; the ordinary details of a random dive-bar; and the worn beauty of an ancient shop, coalesce to remind the viewer of all that will never be again.
Odessa is what a goodbye forever to the time you live in looks like.
On a more lighthearted note, 900 seconds tackles a time-travel classic: changing the past. Using Walter Mischel’s famous “Marshmallow test” as a narrative clothesline through the film, we see the kids in the experiment trying, and often failing, to resist the temptation of the sweet treat in front of them.
Told they’ll get two treats if they can keep from eating the one, we watch as the scientists observe the subjects—they and we are lulled into a quiet guessing game as the long minutes tick by. Will they or won’t they eat? Candy-eating suggests a lack of impulse control, and, according to the data, correlates to poor outcomes in life. The children’s’ choices now are a glimpse into their future.
But when a time-traveler shows up to change the results for one special kid, it enables filmmaker Robert Seneko to look into “...the elusiveness of the connection between real causes and consequences in our intricate world.” We’re not really sure whether the traveler gets the job done, but he certainly disrupts the orderly world we have been watching, and throws into dispute how we believe our past selves can impact our future. ”In a sense, time is a much simpler element for filming than any other, but no less fateful,” explains Seneko.
Starre Vartan is a former geologist who is now a science and environment writer. She's cowritten screenplays on climate change, the power grid and the first Mars landing for HBO, Discovery and CBS respectively. Her favorite films include The Fly, Logan's Run, the original Planet of the Apes, War Games, and Brazil.