Of all the possible re-imaginings of the story of Pandora’s Box, what could be the most terrifying? G.W. Pabst’s eponymous film is certainly creepy enough, as Lulu’s (Louise Brooks) debauchery leads to an encounter with Jack the Ripper. In Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, a Chinese box opens into an alternate realm of psychotic S&M fiends. Other versions of the consequences of human curiosity have included Gremlins, Ghostbusters, as well as Big. Wanting too much is always costly.
Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes) provides a new accounting. Here, a variation of Pandora’s Box results in a frightening battle with one’s self, in which a time travel device maximizes the possibilities of speculative storytelling. We’re not talking a metaphorical battle, as in a drama about fallen man struggling to achieve redemption. The fight is literal in Timecrimes.
The story begins in a backyard. Surveying his surroundings, Héctor (Karra Elejalde) reaches for his binoculars. In the woods an image appears — it may be object, person or a new water tower erected in the distance. Another look reveals it to be young naked woman (Bárbara Goenaga), who oddly seems to be fixed in a pose. Compelled by this theater of the lascivious mind, Héctor shoos away his wife (Candela Fernández) to continue her chores so he can have another look. The next peek turns voyeurism into alarm for the girl’s wellbeing. While Héctor’s enraptured by the lovely scene, those of us entertained by countless young women on American network crime dramas know the image can lead only to tragedy.
Thus the Box has opened, and Héctor is off to investigate. The following events are revealed so briskly that we suspend disbelief and do not demand that Héctor get out of harm’s way and call the cops, for chrissakes. After a masked assailant mauls him and leaves him for dead, Héctor wanders to a strange, dormant laboratory in which a young scientist (Vigalondo, taking a bite out of his own script) urges him to hide from his attacker in a futuristic-looking hatch.
Dear reader, what would it take for you to enter such a thing of mad science? The promise of saving a loved one? Reaching the fountain of youth? Or perhaps, getting the ultimate tan? The whirlwind of previous events leads Héctor to this threshold, which will send him to another dimension and a perspective that clarifies all this madness. (Further details will spoil one of the film’s many clever turns.) Vigalondo’s taut narrative shoves us right into the hatch-tank with Héctor. He enters to hide away from the mysterious madman, who appears to be sent by the Fates to hunt out the overly curious. His menace is of a distinct, uncanny variety: he wears a pinkish head-bandage reminiscent of both the Invisible Man’s and the Elephant Man’s.
Here appears the second step of this feverish incarnation of Pandora’s Box, an unexpected time travel device through which Vigalondo folds narrative time upon itself. The opening minutes repeat and are reconstructed as if the film reels on a Möbius strip. Yet every return feels like a new trip, thanks to a varied cinematic style and measured pacing. His struggle to right everything that’s gone horribly wrong only sinks him further into his own plight. It makes for a narrative puzzle that would have left Philip K. Dick grinning at the speculative mindplay and Samuel Beckett proud that his absurdist legacy persists. Vigalondo’s reinvention of the story takes up gothic, paranoid thriller, and fantasy/SF inspirations to play upon the nerves as much as the intellect.