second-guessing slate’s sci-fi shorts selections, day 3

I ragged a lot on the first two shorts I reviewed for this series, which has been picking apart Slate.com’s list of 2012’s best sci-fi shorts. Today, though, I’ve got one that has a lot more going for it.

(Check day 1 and day 2 at your leisure.)

The following doesn’t summarize the film, so you may just want to watch it above and then jump into my analysis. (Spoilers ahead, of course.)

In sum, I find that Tempo uses its sci-fi tech well but also serves up an emotionally gratifying story. Harp, the scientist hero, functions well here as an everyman thrown into peril and making the best of a crap situation. The story is compelling, and it helps that Seth Worley, the director, makes the introduction of the invention a natural part of the plot via the rough documentary footage that begins the short.

The clapboards in the doc have labels, so we’re already picking up the nuances of the “time cannon” (a label I made up because it looks like the t-shirt cannons they use at baseball games). We see both its slowing and speeding functions, but also its regrettable effects on living targets. This strategy — familiarizing us with the time cannon by documentary — is fairly organic to the story, unlike the methods of yesterday’s short, Memorize.

With the details of the device already established, it’s easy to make sense of the action when Harp uses the time cannon for the first time against the thugs invading his lab. When he shoots the time cannon at a bullet, it slows down enough for Harp to dodge it. From there, he uses the cannon in a series of clever ways, like speeding a baddie up so the guy flies into a pillar, or slowing an explosion down to a snail’s pace.

And, like a cherry on top, our hero even gets in a good line before the creep leading the gang is dispatched unexpectedly.

Granted, this little film is far from perfect. Before the action starts, the tone of the short is confused, suggesting that we might be in a romantic comedy or that the time cannon is going to be used for yuks. Also, the scene where Harp and his partner demonstrate the technology to a potential investor is implausible: How is it that only two people made an incredible scientific and engineering breakthrough by themselves, and why are they struggling to keep the interest of some random schmuck?

For each of the shorts I’m examining in this series, I’ve been trying to figure out the value of the sci-fi aspect — does it resonate with a bigger theme or idea, or is the hypothetical technology just a reason to show us cool stuff? The Tempo filmmakers have done the latter, but they also nod toward the former by introducing the question of weaponization for the time cannon. (In the movie it’s not called a “cannon,” but yeah, its form makes it look weaponized already.) That’s a big issue with real consequences for society, and it naturally leads us to ask more generally if tech advances are a net boon or bane for humanity. A hint of this is about as much as we can expect from a film as long as Tempo, and that’s what we get.

Anyway, overall Tempo is a win.

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