Sticky Fingers of Time, The (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Movie-goers and critics alike have come to associate science fiction motion pictures with noisy space battles, grotesque aliens, and budgets that excel the GNP of a small country. Often, these sorts of films are characterized by scripts that could have been written by grade-school kids, featuring characters that would seem shallow in Saturday morning cartoons. As a result, something like writer/director Hilary Brougher's debut feature, The Sticky Fingers of Time, comes as a proverbial breath of fresh air. To be sure, this is science fiction, but it's light years away from the usual fare.

Travel in this film does not take place in space, but in time. The characters in Sticky Fingers, as a result of "an act of will," have the ability to pop from one time period to another, sometimes involuntarily. There's one important caviat: they can't live the same moment twice, and, as a result, can't meet themselves (this neatly eliminates one of the ugliest temporal paradoxes). One character likens living a "non-linear" life to eating a pie: you can consume the slices in any order, but you can only eat each one once.

The Sticky Fingers of Time doesn't feature any special effects, and, quite frankly, it doesn't need them. The literate script is character and situation-oriented and often shares more in common with film noir than with science fiction (setting the film partially in the '50s and using black-and-white cinematography for those sequences contributes to this). Brougher's screenplay shows uncommon intelligence - she never underestimates or insults her audience by elucidating the obvious, and leaves a number of mundane explanations up to the viewer's imagination. Sticky Fingers also doesn't resolve every issue that it raises, but that's part of its charm. It has become commonplace (and boring) for films to tie up every loose plot strand into a tidy package. The fun of this movie isn't reaching the end; it's the trip taken to get there.

The film opens in 1953 New York City, with a barefoot woman sitting at a typewriter, starting work on a potboiler novel that she has entitled The Sticky Fingers of Time. She's not sure exactly what she's going to write, but she has an idea. Time has five fingers: the past, the present, the future, what could have been, and what yet may be. Her name is Tucker Harding (Terumi Matthews), and she's about to become more acquainted with the intricacies of time than she ever dreamed possible. It turns out that, as a result of her exposure to radiation when she observed an H-bomb test, Tucker has become a "non-linear" individual - a fact that she discovers when she suddenly and unexpectedly jumps forward to 1997.

Meanwhile, in contemporary New York, another time-traveler, Drew (Nicole Zaray), is contemplating suicide. Her life is a mess, in part due to all of the time trips she has taken without her conscious knowledge. Meeting Tucker, who is lost and confused in her new surroundings, and Tucker's former lover, Isaac (james Urbaniak), changes Drew's life. She is drawn into an intricate web with strands that criss-cross between 1953 and 1997, and becomes involved in trying to prevent a murder and alter the course of history. Of course, someone is intent upon stopping her - the mysterious and sensual Ofelia (Belinda Becker), who has her own agenda.

One of the best things about The Sticky Fingers of Time is the casual, almost-offhand manner in which it presents time travel. After Tucker jumps for the first time, she is understandably disoriented and baffled by what has transpired, but she reacts to the situation without histrionics, in as calm and rational a manner as is possible. (At one point, she wryly remarks to Drew, "I've had a long day.") Brougher also gives us a glimpse into the mundane aspects of the time travelers' culture - how, for example, they come home in the evening and expect dinner to be on the table. Ultimately, they have the same kinds of problems we do. Mistakes, once made, cannot be undone - only remembered.

Time travel stories can often be difficult to follow, but, by using black-and-white photography for the 1950s scenes and color for the 1990s sequences, Brougher gives us a visual clue to the era. Of course, that doesn't eliminate all sources of confusion. It's possible for an individual not to know someone in the future whom they encountered in the past (because the "past" incident came after the "future" one), and vice versa. As Isaac remarks (in what is sure to be the most often-quoted line from the film): "That's what happens with non-linear chicks - you get [grief] for things you didn't even do yet."

Brougher's sense of style is very much in evidence. The Sticky Fingers of Time comes across more like a mystery than a science fiction yarn, and this is primarily due to the director's decisions about the look and feel of the movie. Her presentation of one crucial event is so forceful that it surprises us even though we were expecting it. Overall, the pacing is just right, with no long, drawn-out pseudo-scientific explanations offered for the "hows" and "whys" of time travel. Like the body-swapping in Prelude to a Kiss, it's the act, not the mechanics, that matters.

The cast is comprised of largely-unknown performers. James Urbaniak presents Isaac as an ambiguous individual, both in terms of his moral fiber and his allegience. Belinda Becker is suitably ethereal as Ofelia. Nicole Zaray does a good job conveying the restlessness in Drew's soul. And Terumi Matthews is delightful as the hard-bitten, fatalistic Tucker. The chemistry between Matthews and Zaray is tangible, emphasizing an element of uncommsumated desire in Tucker and Drew's relationship.

Rather than being hampered by her nonexistent special effects budget, Brougher turns it into an asset by focusing on characters and their relationships. Viewed alongside the Sundance hit Pi, another no-money science fiction effort, The Sticky Fingers of Time shows what can happen when film makers devote their efforts to telling a story rather than sketching caricatures before handing the project over to ILM. The tag line for this summer's biggest release boasts that "Size Does Matter," but The Sticky Fingers of Time exposes how shallow that thinking is.

Sticky Fingers of Time, The (United States, 1998)

Director: Hilary Brougher
Cast: Nicole Zaray, Terumi Matthews, James Urbaniak, Belinda Becker
Screenplay: Hilary Brougher
Cinematography: Ethan Mass
Music: Miki Navazio
U.S. Distributor:
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence, Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1