Cinematic Releases: Paradox

Chris Jordan reviews the new indie time-travel thriller, Paradox, starring Death Proof's Zoë Bell and Empire's Malik Yoba

"I'm regenerating! ...oh wait, wrong
time-travel story." 
Of all the sub-genres of science fiction, the time-travel thriller offers some of the most fascinating narrative possibilities, right up alongside the extraterrestrial-contact story. The way that time-travel tales allow narratives to fold in on themselves and causal logic to warp opens the door to imagination-bending, twist-filled storytelling that can ratchet the complexity of conventional thrillers up a few notches. But by the same token, the sub-genre really puts filmmakers to the test: the internal logic of a time-travel plot can be notoriously tough to keep consistent, and sloppy time-logic will surely cause your script to stumble and draw the ire of sci-fi fans (I'm looking at you, Timecop). As such, it's always very cool to see a smaller indie film step up to the challenge of this sub-genre and try to do something unique and clever with it, since it presents a not insignificant risk. Paradox is the latest indie to try and tackle this most headache-inducing branch of sci-fi, with a plot all about causal loops and the difficulties of trying to change known outcomes. It explores this premise in the context of a small-cast claustrophobic murder mystery, making for a genre mash-up with quite a bit of potential. Its potential isn't fully realized: the film has undeniable low-budget flaws, and an uneven script that isn't as strong with its dialogue as it is with its time-bending thrills. But at its best it is quite effective, and it builds to a legitimately strong and suspenseful third act. While far from perfect, its stronger qualities certainly make it worth a look for fans of the genre who are willing to cut it some slack for its flaws.

The film follows, in almost real time, the staff of an underground research facility, who are about to run the inaugural test of their newly-completed time machine. They successfully send a member of their own team one hour into the future... but the celebration of their achievement is cut short when he returns with the alarming news that an hour from now they've all been murdered by an unknown killer. They have less than 60 minutes to test the ultimate time-travel dilemma: can they solve the mystery of their own future killings and find a way to escape the fate they know is coming, or does their knowledge make it predetermined? A murder mystery depends on the ability of its twists to thrill and surprise, and a time-travel mystery doubly so, so no more should be revealed about the story, but needless to say it has some tricks up its causally-looping sleeves. The script is fascinated by the concept of future-knowledge and the consequences of looking ahead, and it tackles these topics more in the thrill-centric vein of The Terminator or Looper than the more intellectual vein of Primer. But that said, it takes its story to some pleasantly high-concept places, and it keeps solid track of its internal logic to make sure all the pieces fit once the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff has settled. When it starts really getting into the meat of the time-travel-paradox plot is when it finds its footing and discovers what it's really good at. It creates and sustains a pretty strong momentum in the second half, keeps us in suspense, and pulls a couple pretty unexpected changes of course.

"Ok, if I explain it one more time will you
stop asking me what Primer was all about?"
Unfortunately, the first half of the movie which sets up the twistier parts of the plot is dragged down by what it's not that good at: specifically, dialogue and character development. This movie has some pretty cheesy and pretty clunky dialogue which rears its head now and again to pull the viewer out of the story. Some expository scenes (like when one of the scientists explains the concept of a time-travel paradox) feel rather awkward and too on-the-nose, and some moments of character development end up making the cast look too exaggerated, or underwritten beyond one or two obvious personality traits each. Also, the script on at least three occasions commits the fourth-wall-breaking act of directly quoting an instantly-recognizable line from a popular movie (“Game over, man! Game over!”), which is a big pet-peeve of mine as it totally pulls me out of the film at hand. The story remains interesting enough to keep the viewer reasonably involved throughout, though, so it's not a deal-breaker if you're feeling forgiving; this is a case of a solid plot let down by script that needed a few more drafts. Fortunately, it more or less overcomes this limitation as the second act builds steam, when it can shift focus away from dialogue-heavy scenes and onto the thriller elements that it's good at. If you can stay on-board until this shift starts to happen, it's a lot of fun from there on out.

The acting is mostly passable to good-but-not-great; most of the cast members do a decent job with the material they're given, but most of them also get stuck with lines that would be very hard to deliver convincingly. The standouts are the two top-billed stars: actress/stuntwoman Zoë Bell (Death Proof and every Tarantino movie since) and Malik Yoba (Empire, Alphas). Bell is clearly a talented actress, and brings more depth to her character than the script really gives her. She too struggles to overcome a handful of poorly-written lines, but her performance is good enough to show that she clearly deserves better material with which to really show her range. While the claustrophobic setting doesn't allow for too much action, she also gets at least a couple chances to show her strong physical presence as a stuntwoman. Malik Yoba fares the best as far as good dialogue is concerned – probably because his mysterious character, the head of the project, is a man of few words for most of the first act. He gives a very good performance, full of genuine mystery and multiple layers, and he has a commanding gravitas which anchors all his scenes. While the movie made me realize how much Zoë Bell needs better roles, Malik Yoba is the one who ultimately carries the troubled first part of the script, and gives weight to the stronger second half.

"I can't believe they cast Joseph Gordon-
Levitt as my younger self too...
This Hollywood whitewashing is out of control."
Paradox is written and directed by Michael Hurst, who has been around for over a decade, making indie and low-budget thrillers and horror films. His debut feature, 2000's New Blood, boasts the impressive cast of John Hurt, Carrie-Anne Moss, Shawn Wayans, and Joe Pantoliano, but since then his more recent films have included made-for-TV/DVD sequels to established horror franchises, like House of the Dead 2 and Pumpkinhead 4 (which, to be fair, are reviewed as significant improvements on both House of the Dead and on Pumpkinhead 2 and 3, for whatever that's worth). Given that context, one can't help but see Paradox as the signal of a return to form; trying to move away from B-movie horror sequels and back towards more intelligent and prestigious thrillers. In that goal I would say he is at least mostly successful. He still needs to polish his skills as a writer of character development and dialogue, but when it comes to crafting stories he clearly has some smart ideas, and as a director of suspense-thrillers he certainly knows what he's doing. The strengths of the latter half of the film show that if he keeps on this current trajectory and keeps honing his skills, he can make a really good movie; it would just be wise for him to work with a co-writer to improve his dialogue.

Yes, Paradox has problems which betray its low budget and B-movie roots, but its strengths are compelling enough, and its high-concept goals are ambitious enough, that it's hard not to be a bit forgiving of the flaws. Once it finds its groove it pretty effectively sweeps the viewer along on a suspenseful ride through its twists and turns, and I wound up having a much better time than the first act led me to expect. Go into it with guarded expectations and the patience to forgive its cheesier qualities, and there's plenty for fans of time-travel thrillers to enjoy.


- Christopher S. Jordan