Sunday, December 11, 2022

40 Years Ago Today: Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann

Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann (1982) is a droll and perhaps even inconsequential low-budget time-travel movie from the great year of 1982. Unlike many time travel films, however, this William Dear movie doesn't revolve around the future of humanity or some other Earth-shattering event or crisis.  

Instead, Timerider's approach is notably restrained, even low-key. 

The film -- which opened theatrically in December of 1982 and later became a staple of cable television in the 1980s -- is an almost mellow "fish out of water" Western adventure involving motorcycle racer, Lyle Swann (Fred Ward), as he travels back in time to November 5, 1877, fights some nasty bandits, and beds a super-hot woman, Claire (Belinda Bauer) who turns out to be, well, the "great matriarch" of his own genetic line.   

Timerider is a minor epic at best, perhaps, yet features moments that any aficionado of low-budget cult movies is certain to enjoy and remember with affection.  The movie just kind of rolls along from one situation to the next with humor, even if the whole thing doesn't ever coalesce into being a truly "great" or classic film.

"As far as I'm concerned, this place is history..."

In Timerider, the vaguely sinister corporation "International Computel" plans its sixteenth experiment in time travel, but the first one involving a living life form.  In this case, that life form is a rhesus monkey.   

Unfortunately, Lyle Swann is racing in the Baja 1000 at the same time as these unusual time experiments in the Mexican desert are slated to occur, and is zapped into the year 1877...along with the monkey.  

Once in the past, Swann takes an unusually long time to realize that he has traveled back in time over a century, even though the unwashed locals consider the red-suited rider "El Diablo," and his motorcycle a "fire horse."  

Soon, a gorgeous female adventurer, Claire Cygne, falls for Lyle, and shelters him from a gang of bandits, led by the diabolical Reese (Peter Coyote).  Reese and his partners in crime (played by Tracey Walter and Richard Masur) are bound and determined to steal Lyle's futuristic machine for their own nefarious purposes.

When Claire is captured by the bandits, Lyle joins up with a "padre" (Ed Lauter) and two U.S. marshals to take down Reese and his gang.

"You're the strangest woman I've ever met..."

In some important dramatic sense, Timerider is a quart-low on both anxiety and ambition.  

The film boasts what we would no doubt consider a lackadaisical pace in today's hyper-accelerated media environment.  The first several minutes of Timerider simply showcase Lyle riding his motorcycle in the picturesque desert to vintage 1980s synthesizer music (courtesy of producer Michael Nesmith).

And yet despite the lack of a driving pace, there's ultimately something pretty refreshing about Timerider's laid-back attitude towards, well, everything.  

Timerider doesn't push hard in any sense, and so the movie, at times, plays as extraordinarily funny, especially in the numerous culture clash or "fish out of water" scenes.  The low-key approach means that we discover the film's sense of humor for ourselves, and Timerider feels more rewarding because of that sense of personal discovery.   

Specifically, the director, William Dear, boasts a quirky and dynamic way of dramatizing critical moments.  One composition, involving the after-effects of a bandit's unfortunate encounter with a whirring helicopter propeller, is especially memorable and amusing.  All that remains are the bad guy's (shredded) boots...

In addition, Fred Ward and Belinda Bauer share some electric romantic chemistry in the film, and each time their two characters get together (*ahem*) and stop talking about the plot, the film dramatically picks up.  The relationship between Lyle and Claire represents the heart of the film, and watching these scenes, it's a wonder to me that Bauer was never a bigger star.  It's not just that she's absolutely, drop-dead gorgeous.  It's that Bauer's screen presence conveys a fetching brand of cunning intelligence and individual strength.  

Without a doubt, Claire is the most intriguing and interesting character in Timerider, a woman who, after the Civil War, was left to fend for herself.  She had to decide whether she wanted to "use her body," or "use a gun" to survive the West.  She picked a gun, and in the course of the film, Claire demonstrates her gun-fighting skills by shooting off a bandit's nose.  

But in Bauer's capable hands, Claire is capable, sexy, smart, and more than a little mysterious, especially in her final, almost inscrutable gesture.  That action, in a sense, creates a new world (or at least, sets one in motion...).

If Claire is mysterious, strong, smart, cunning, gorgeous and supremely hot beyond all reckoning, Lyle Swann isn't as carefully presented.  Fred Ward -- in slick long hair and wearing a red jacket that make him look like Michael Jackson in the Thriller video -- is a fine actor, and does a capable job playing Swann.  However, the movie never lets Swann be as smart as he should be.  Basically, until he meets Claire, Swann is given to saying things like "What the hell is the matter with everybody?" and asking if he can use the nearest telephone.  The script plays him as dumb, clueless, and out of it.  The gun holsters, the cowboy hats, the horses, and the general lack of technology all around him never seem to sink in.  In fact, it's unclear during Timerider when precisely Swann realizes he's traveled back in time.  Claire mentions the Civil War, and Swann writes her off as "crazy."

The movie has some difficulties with plausibility too. Swann's motorcycle never runs out of gas until the end of the movie, for one thing, which doesn't make a lot of sense given all the riding he does.  And there are occasional moments of  incompetence to boot. In one close-up shot of considerable duration, for instance, you can clearly see the cameraman's reflection in Swann's motorcycle helmet.  Oops.

In terms of theme, Timerider plays lightly (and again, almost casually) with the notion of a motorcycle showing up in the Old West and shocking the hell out of folks.  The locals react in fear and horror to the noises and lights of the 20th century vehicle, and in one of the film's funnier moments (played absolutely straight, again), an old bandit dies from fright when Lyle Swann shines a flashlight upon him.  Other culture clash moments are equally amusing (and underplayed), such as the instance wherein Swann offers a U.S. marshal (Chris Mulkey) an energy bar to perk him up.

I suppose the quality that most distinguishes Timerider is the cast.  Here, we've got Fred Ward, Belinda Bauer, Ed Lauter, Chris Mulkey, Peter Coyote (E.T.), Richard Masur (John Carpenter's The Thing), Tracey Walter (Blade Runner) L.Q. Jones, and in a small role, Miguel Sandoval.  Talk about a great B-movie assortment of actors, huh?   They are all well-directed here, because every performer underplays perfectly, so that the film's sense of humor emerges naturally, rather than feeling as though it was extruded by committee decision-making.

I had planned to also write  here about the ways that Timerider is a variation on Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name films, explicitly involving a "stranger" who rides into town, battles the bad guys, metes justice, and sets things right. 

That broad story is certainly a template for this film, but Timerider perpetually and purposefully de-mythologizes the tale.  Lyle is just a "dude" on a bike, not an enigmatic hero, and he never really seems to get a good sense of what's happening around him, or even why it is happening. I believe that this almost anti-heroic approach was intentional: a kind of deconstruction of the Western myth that reveals, perhaps, how circumstances make the man, not how a hero uses his innate qualities to achieve a positive outcome.  In other words, Timerider appears an early (but notable) inversion of the Campbell Monomyth or heroic journey.  Here, Swann may be destined for an heroic quest, but he's more like an innocent bystander on his own journey, rather than a deliberate mover and shaker.  He's a timer-ider, not a time-driver, if you get my drift.

If Timerider deliberately de-mythologizes the Western format, it does likewise for time travel movies.  Part of the common time travel aesthetic is "not changing the past" so as to "ensure the sanctity of the present."  Timerider takes the alternate point of view that instances of time travel are already factored into our existing history.  Lyle had to go back in time to bed Claire Cygne and therefore his assure his own birth.  Had he not gone back, he wouldn't exist.  To put it another way, Lyle doesn't change history by his presence.  His presence is already part of the established equation.  His journey, though seemingly accidental, is pre-destined.

The film's final revelation, that Claire is actually both Lyle's ancestor and also the mother-to-be of his child (!) is a bit weird, I'll readily admit, but it also exposes Timerider's ethos regarding time travel.  Essentially, the film is a re-iteration of the old canard about going back in time and accidentally marrying your grandmother or killing your grandfather.  Timerider plays the joke -- like just about everything else in the film -- as a long, shaggy dog story. 

Time travel fans will also note that Lyle's good luck charm -- a necklace -- represents a paradox (like Kirk's glasses in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home). Lyle travels back in time and Claire takes the necklace from him.  She then passes it onto her children, who pass it on to young Lyle, their descendants.  Given this "loop," where did the necklace originate? Or rather, who made it?  Another question: why do so many time travel movies select the date of November 5th for temporal adventuring?   Timerider shares this date in common with Time After Time (1979) and Back to the Future (1985) apparently. 

I don't think that Timerider has the answer to those questions, or any other important question about time travel, frankly.  Instead, what the movie suggests is that -- through dumb luck and fate -- we sometimes ride ride right into...our destiny. Nothing wrong with that idea, and Timerider never takes itself, or its ideas too seriously. In fact, this genre flick from 1982 is like a nice, cool breeze blowing by you in the desert. 

Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann is a pretty enjoyable - if ephemeral -- experience.

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