The dominant idea on earth, at present, is that we are each allotted a certain measure of time and must manage it efficiently. We have all kinds of technology designed to help us do more with our time, with “more” being quantitative, not qualitative. Even our so-called leisure time is booked with fast-moving spectacles: films and tv shows flashing across screens in fast-cuts, disappearing from theaters and networks before we know they exist; exercise equipment enabling us to make the most of our calorie burning in a minimal amount of time; and cell phones so we don’t have to wait to get home or for a public phone booth to find out where our friends want to meet us.
Not everyone wants to spend his time this way, of course. Kids, for example, might want to waste a little time, or spend it doing pleasurable rather than “maximal” things. Though they might have to go to school, they might rather ride their bikes all day, scope out potential dates, and go to raves all night.
Clockstoppers understands that teens see time differently from adults. Better, the film never denigrates a teen worldview in favor of “mature” sensibilities: its plot moves quickly, but not necessarily efficiently; its look is colorful and action sequences are fanciful. While kids don’t have the resources to make a movie from their points of view, director Jonathan Frakes and crew offer the next best thing.
In fact, Clockstoppers’ teenaged protagonist Zak Gibbs (Jesse Bradford) is a younger, baggier-pants version of Frakes’ best-known incarnation, as Commander William Riker of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Both Riker and Zak are clever and cocky, and like the ladies; both are also insecure and kind of geeky. This film, along with Frakes’ directing episodes of the youth-oriented science fiction TV series Roswell (formerly WB, now UPN), makes me believe that he is actually a teenage science dork trapped in a grown-up body, a perfect way to be when making movies for teens.
The plot begins when Zak stumbles on a wristwatch that allows its wearer and anyone he or she is touching to move in “Hypertime,” to move so fast that no one else can see them and everything else seems barely to be moving at all. The geniuses behind this technology are Zak’s physics professor dad, Dr. George Gibbs (Robin Thomas), and his former grad student, Dr. Earl Dopler (French Stewart). The bad guy is Henry Gates (Michael Biehn), a federal contractor in charge of perfecting the flawed Hypertime technology for the National Security Agency, but who plans to use it for his own evil purposes. The NSA, however, is on the verge of taking over the experiments itself. This is not reassuring: it’s not as if the NSA would want to use the technology to make pretty flowers grow more quickly.
The adults—Dr. Gibbs, Dopler, and Gates—are awed by Hypertime, and in fact mislabel the technology as actually stopping time rather than moving bodies faster. Dopler is one of those adults who can’t keep up. He complains to Zak, “What is it with you wacky kids today? It’s like nothing’s ever fast enough.” Zak’s mom (Julia Sweeney), meanwhile, is overwhelmed by the fast pace of (normal) life, but making half-hearted stabs at domesticity as though she feels she does have to do it all, serving repulsive-looking microwave meals for dinner but dumping the different food groups into larger bowls so the Gibbs clan can eat “family style.”
The kids, while amazed, are pretty comfortable with the technology, giggling over it and using it for pranks. An adult-oriented reading of the plot might see the kids as being incapable of understanding the power they hold. I prefer to think that these kids are more able than their parents to navigate a speeded-up world by virtue of their openness to it: Zak attends school, picks up chicks, and makes enough money on E-Bay to buy his dream muscle car. He zips around on his bicycle and moves among various roles—obnoxious older brother, rebellious son, potential boyfriend—with lightning speed.
Seeing as he’s in high school, becoming someone’s boyfriend is especially important to Zak. What’s surprising is that his love interest is Francesca (Paula Garcis), a recent arrival from Venezuela, and an unusually smart, self-assured female love interest for a high school movie. (This in itself may be a sign that times are changing.) Francesca rejects boys who don’t interest her; if telling them to “Go away” doesn’t work, she kicks them or throws a drink at them, or both.
Even better, Zak is not cowed by her aggressiveness, but actually likes Francesca this way. He encourages her to be physically active and mentally strong, to take the lead, or just do what she needs to do. Francesca even instigates some of their Hypertime adventures, including a silly scene in which they make Zak’s best friend, Meeker (Gariyaki Mutambirwa), appear to be doing some amazing dance steps and record spinning during a DJ contest, while Meeker’s nemesis does sloppy ballet. This is much better than altering space and time for warfare or global domination.
All this said, for a movie about messing with time, Clockstoppers is quite linear and conservative. It won’t make anyone’s head spin like Christopher Nolan’s Memento, or even the Back to the Futures. It doesn’t question race stereotypes, narrative conventions, traditional nuclear families, or heterosexual romance. Still, it respects its teen protagonists, and its treatment of Francesca, in particular, makes Clockstoppers worth the time.