Science Fiction Round 65: ARQ
ARQ is how you do a cool time-travel film on a budget. (It’s available on Netflix; I recommend it.)
In a structural sense, it reminds me of the plot of Achron, albeit with a much smaller scope.
I’ll be spoiling the whole thing, so I hope you watch it first.
The expository parts of this film were beautifully done. The characters show what they know and think about the world, without giving a point-by-point explanation intended more for the audience than the people around them who already know all this stuff. Even better, as we loop through the Goundhog Day-like story, we see it from different angles — picking up a little new information each time. The different clips of the news broadcast were particularly well done.
The Bloc? Torus? We don’t know exactly who they are, or how their respective histories brought them here. But we do get enough information from the reactions of the characters to the names, and from the news broadcasts in the background, to get a sense of where they stand and what the stakes are. There was no excessive bloviating; just enough make you want to know more, and worry about the fate of the world.
Characters Are Smart
In contrast to a lot of other shows, none of the characters does anything utterly foolish to move the plot forward.
When Renton, the central character, starts remembering the attack on his person, he responds differently. When Hannah behaves in ways he didn’t expect in an earlier loop, he adjusts, and discovers that she’s in league with the other guys.
When he realizes that one of the attackers is working with Torus, his former employer, rather than the Bloc, like Hannah, and sure to be after the ARQ, the device he invented, he takes that into account.
When the Torus infiltrator starts remembering what happened in earlier loops, he accounts for the others remembering as well when he decides what to do. He sets up traps for the others, and tries to engineer a situation such that if he loses out, the timeline will loop again, and he will get another try.
The whole thing is masterfully plotted.
Evening Out the Wibbley-Wobbley
This is a rare setup where the time travel is both frequently used and (almost) self-consistent.
Renton and Hannah eventually discover that the time loop is local, and that they’ve been looping through the same few hours in sets of 9 different loops, after which the whole thing resets to the beginning.
Memories and records of earlier loops are explained as being part of the ARQ’s internal data core and its effects on things like the electromagnetic parts of brains. When the 9-loop sequence resets, all that remains are a list indicating that each loop happened, and a video from Renton and Hannah at the end of the last set of loops, trying to send a message out that they need to do something differently next time, so that Torus doesn’t get the ARQ.
The only part of this that isn’t consistent is the accelerating-time effect. Time within the loop accelerates, particularly when they start getting close to the end. This is shown by having clocks in the house move forwards more quickly.
But, if time were actually moving more quickly in the loop, nobody in it would feel it. Human biological processes wouldn’t move at a different pace; they would be moving faster, too, just like the clock. If time in the loop were actually moving more slowly than time outside, and the clock depended on an outside signal to keep time, then that could make sense as the clock speeds up to match its signal.
Unfortunately, that explanation isn’t consistent, either. Renton explicitly says that time is moving “faster.” Worse, there should be time dilation effects on communication between those affected by the loop and those outside of it. The news broadcasts coming in, and the Torus operative calls, should all be either slowed down and lower pitch (if time in the loop is moving more quickly) or faster and higher pitch (if time in the loop is moving more slowly) relative to what is normal. There should be a sort of time-dilation induced Dopper effect.
This leads us to the question: what happened in the end?
Unlike Achron, the story ends with a bit of hope. In this final sequence of loops, Renton records a slightly different message, and after the last reset, Hannah sits up in the bed, gasping… as if she remembers, instead of forgetting like all of the other times.
So, perhaps they get out of the loop and save the day, in the end. But the film leaves us with the tension of wondering whether or not the ultimate ending will be a good one — perhaps a nod to how, in our real lives, we don’t know the end until we get there.