I love time travel movies so it’s strange that I’m only seeing Trancers now for the first time. This story of a man from the future going back in time to “save the world” from an evil villain was certainly overshadowed by a much similar movie that came out the very same year, and let’s face it, a better movie, The Terminator. With an even lower budget, and dodgier script, Trancers had only stars Tim Thomerson and Helen Hunt to compete with the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Bien and Linda Hamilton.
Producer/Director Charles Band valiantly tried to step into the marketplace abandoned by Roger Corman, but unfortunately the marketplace no longer really existed and thus Charles Band became a straight-to-video producer and Trancers is one of those rare films of his that did get a little bit of a theatrical release.
The story starts off in the year 2247, where police trooper Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson) is checking out a local diner in the off chance there could be a trancer inside. A villainous psycho named Whistler (Michael Stefani), that Jack supposedly killed years ago, had the ability to turn weak willed people into murderous mind-controlled zombies and Jack has made it his life’s mission to track down and take out all those remaining trancers.
At the diner he finds a low life looking patron that Jack thinks could be a trancer, but it turns out that it’s the kindly old black waitress who is the trancer. We learn that when a trancer is triggered they go from mild mannered to zombie make-up applied psychopath in a heartbeat. So anyone is a potential threat.
After frying the trancer Jack is confronted by his boss McNulty (Art LaFleur) who orders him to get back to his regular job and to stop this one man war obsession with trancers. Jack does the only thing a rogue cop could do in this situation, he tosses his badge to McNulty and quits.
Deth’s retirement is cut short when McNulty and some troopers drop by to interrupt his diving on the sunken remains of Los Angeles to tell him that Whistler is alive and targeting members of the council chairmen. This should be impossible, as the High Council is located in mountain fortress, but Whistler has used a drug that allows one to travel back in time and enter the body of one of his ancestors and then simply track down and kill an ancestor of a council member which will result in all of their descendants ceasing to exist. Once the council is out of the way, Whistler has an army of trancers ready to swoop in and take over Angel City.
Jack volunteers to take the drug that will send him back to 1984 where he will inhabit his great-great-grandfather, a journalist named Phil Dethton, while tracking down Whistler who is in-turn occupying the body of police detective named Weisling. Before Jack leaves 2247 he incinerates the body of Whistler so the sonofabitch will have no body to return to. This displeases his bosses who wanted to put Whistler on trial for already making one of the Council chairmen cease to exist.
Jack finds himself in the bathroom of Phil Dethton who has just had a great night of sex with a punk rocker named Leena (Helen Hunt). Doing his best to cover for the fact that he has no idea who Leena is or how to navigate Los Angeles circa 1984 he takes Leena to her job as mall Santa helper. Lucky for Deth it turns out that Santa is a newly turned trancer and immediately tries to kill him, which aids in proving to Leena his crazy story about being a time traveling cop. I myself have tried, and believe you me it is a tough sell.
The rest of the film consists of Jack Deth and Leena wandering around Los Angeles trying to track down the ancestors of the two remaining council members before Whistler and his trancer flunkies can kill them. Overall, the fish-out-of-water element of the movie works well, as Tim Thomerson can pull off the world weary Dashiell Hammet character perfectly and Helen Hunt can easily handle her comic role as slightly ditzy punk girl (though we are talking very lite-punk rocker) and the action though of a low budget nature is effective enough.
What does fail is any moment dealing with time travel. Now the idea of using a drug to send your mind back in time to an earlier ancestor is quite clever and nicely dispatches the need for a time machine, but what they fail to even comprehend (or apparently care about) is the cause and effect of time travel. When Deth is first hired to go on this mission to stop Whistler, Chairman Spencer (Richard Herd) describes his fellow councilman, as well as his descendants, as disappearing before his eyes after Whistler killed his ancestor. However, killing the man’s ancestors should result in the man never having been born, meaning no one should have any memory of him ever having existed. Killing someone in the past should have an immediate effect on the future, and the only way this would work is if Whistler left a bragging video explaining how there used to be three council members, and now there are only two.
So the time travel element fails but then so do most of The Terminator movies, with only the first one’s closed loop holding up quite well. With a plot that makes little to no sense and with low budget’s cheesy effects this move should have been relegated to the video dustbins, but somehow the cast pull this off (I don’t give much credit to Charles Band here) as Thomerson and Hunt have great chemistry together, and the supporting cast with the likes of character actors Art LaFleur and Telma Hopkins as the time travel engineer gel beautifully.
Science Note: Jack Deft has a cool watch that extends one second to ten seconds for the wearer and uses it a couple of times to save the day. First to evade a firing squad of trancer cops and then secondly to catch a falling Leena; that he should have taken the time out of evading the firing squad to put a bullet in Whistler gets a pass as the script has Leena ask Deth why he didn’t kill Whistler and he tells her he didn’t have time to save her and get Whistler. *bullshit* But I won’t let slide the fact that while time is frozen apparently gravity is localized. Jack should not have been able to slide down a wire to get under a falling Leena, because with time frozen so is gravity and thus would not allow Deth to travel any faster than how she was falling.
As a time travel movie it doesn’t quite work, but as a fun 80’s action film it’s worth checking out. Even with its plot and technical failings the cast do not hold back and all deliver terrific performances.
Movie Rank - 6.5/10
Charles Band is no Roger Corman and even taking his low budget into account the film has some serious problems, but lucky for us Tim Thomerson and Helen Hunt manage to bring the entertainment levels to acceptability.