The grandfather paradox is in full swing this week!
Timerider, subtitled The Adventure of Lyle Swann is overlooked early-80s, time travel film that is actual
The trailer depicts an unwilling participant in a time travel experiment, sent back to the old west, and not completely understanding what is going on. Lyle Swann, a motorcycle rider, complete in leathers and high-tech helmet, interacts with folks in a past time who don’t understand what he’s about either. It’s a fish out of water story. How does he get home, and why is there a time experiment in the desert?
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
The film starts with a voice over of a public relations person explaining to the press that International Computel Corporation is about to launch its 16th time travel experiment where they plan to send a monkey back to 1862 and then return her. Elsewhere, motocross rider Lyle Swann (Fred Ward) is competing in the Baja 1000, a cross country race, in Mexico. He is chided for using second hand parts on his bike and not having a big sponsor. He misses a turn and gets off his path, but spies what he thinks is his flag marker. It’s actually the location for the secret experiment. He rides past the pylons just as Dr. Sam (Macon McCalman) and his team activate the time machine.
To Lyle, nothing appears to happen and he rides away. The scientists bring the monkey back and realize that a man on a motorcycle had gone back as well. They begin trying to figure out where and when he is. They figure that he arrived on November 5, 1877 and start resetting the system to get him. Lyle, thinking he’s still in the race, arrives at a campsite of an old Mexican man, who is so shocked at the appearance of a man in red leather, with a helmet, and riding a motorcycle that he dies of a heart attack. Lyle buries him in the morning and continues on his way.
Porter Reese (Peter Coyote) and his gang are riding across the desert with their loot. He kills one member of the gang who threatens him, and the Dorsett brothers, Claude (Richard Masur) and Carl (Tracey Walter), raid the corpse. They come upon Lyle as he finishes a swim in a nearby lake. He scares them accidentally while trying to ask for directions and then rides off when they shoot at him. A woman, Claire Cygne (Belinda Bauer) observes this and reports back to Father Quinn (Ed Lauter) at San Marcos. Lyle is chased by Reese’s gang into town, but Claire and Quinn hold them off. She shoots Carl’s nose off in the process. Swann doesn’t understand why people are being so weird.
Ben Potter (LQ Jones), a US Marshall, shows up with his deputy, Daniels (Chris Mulkey), to bring Reese to justice. Claire forces Lyle to strip at gunpoint and they make love. He tells her about his necklace that was handed down from his Great Grandmother, which is supposed to bring him luck. Quinn warns Reese to back off since a Marshall is looking for him, but he doesn’t listen and steals the motorcycle from the mission. Claude grabs Claire in this raid as well, as payback for shooting his brother in the face. Potter, Daniels, Quinn and Swann all head to the canyon where Reese and his gang are holed up.
The heroes stage a nighttime raid to get the bike and rescue Claire. Potter kills a couple of the gang, which shocks Swann who still believes he’s just in a backwoods area. Potter calls Reese out personally, aiming to take revenge for the killing of his boy, but Reese shoots the lawman in the back. Lyle devises an idea and throws some flares he has into the camp, before heading in on his bike, confusing everyone. He grabs Claire and they head out. Daniels is shot in the escape and dies later on the way back to town. Reese and the remainder of the men follow. He really wants that machine back.
Claire, Quinn, and Swann end up being trapped at a cliff. The bike is out of gas, and they run low on bullets, but Swann detects a radio signal that he tries to tap into. As the gang approaches, Quinn and Claire use their final bullets and prepare for the worst. Suddenly a helicopter flies up over the cliff. Reese, scared, shoots the pilot and the out of control aircraft knocks the bike apart and it crashes into the ravine. Its tail rotor catches Reese turning him into just a pair of boots on the rocks. The gang scampers away. Lyle jumps on the helicopter as Dr. Sam says they must leave without anyone else. Claire snags the necklace from him, as Lyle remembers his story about how his Great Grandmother stole the necklace from his Great Grandfather as the helicopter flies away.
“Claire, do you realize how weird everything you just said to me was?” – Lyle Swann
History in the Making
In the annals of sci-fi, motocross, time travel films, Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann stands out as the best film by a long shot. Directed by William Dear, Timerider became his breakout film. He would go on to write and direct Harry and The Hendersons, direct an episode of Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories, and write The Rocketeer. He would also go on to direct the cult classic sci-fi film Repo Man in 1984. It was also the first film in which Fred Ward would play the leading role. He of course would appear in such classics as Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins and Tremors. But the real jaw-dropper that not many people realize is connected to the film is Mike Nesmith.
Mike Nesmith is probably better known as the guitarist for The Monkees. But at this point in his career, with a Monkees reunion still at least four years away, he turned to working in film. He probably didn’t need to work, as his mother had invented a handy office supplement called Liquid Paper, which was able to paint out mistakes on typewritten pages, and the family certainly had money. Previously he had co-written the Monkees 1968 movie Head, but this film was co-written by him and Dear, co-produced with two others as well as scored. He even has a brief cameo as a race official near the beginning of the film. Just a bizarre sort of connection to a film that is already pretty strange.
So far, the time travel films that Sci-Fi Saturdays have looked at, as well as ones that have passed by have all been pretty benign, starting with the first major time travel film, 1960s The Time Machine. This has a character from the 1800s traveling into the far flung future. So far as to not recognize Earth or society as we know it anymore. Eight years later was Planet of the Apes which also involves travel to the future, with a twist. And then 11 years after that Time After Time; another forward moving traveller, in this case coming to the present day. These films have no real paradoxes about them. They are all clean time travel stories that evolve naturally. Even the end of Time After Time with Amy returning to the past with Wells isn’t especially paradoxical since she belonged there based on historical knowledge. The only real film with any sort of paradoxical or chaotic resolution was La Jetée.
Timerider marks potentially the first time travel film, and certainly the first widely released time travel film, to deal with the grandfather paradox, which is very similar to the predestination paradox (as shown in La Jetée), also known as causality. Before this is revealed as the central issue with the film, it may appear that the film is going to deal with future-tech, the motorcycle, being left in 1877 (which there will be pieces of). But by the end of the film, this is the least important aspect of the paradox. This paradoxical idea had been around for decades in stories, first being explored in a 1944 sci-fi tale called “Future Times Three.” In short, the protagonist travels backwards in time to interfere with his grandfather becoming his grandfather, or in this case, becoming his own great-grandfather. The paradox exists since if Swann never time traveled, how would he have been born, but in order for him to have been there, he must have time traveled. A loop of epic proportions! The film does a nice job of foreshadowing this “twist.” It makes sure the audience is familiar with the story that Lyle’s pendant came from his great-grandmother and that she stole it from his great-grandfather, so that when Claire rips it from him at the end of the film all the narrative pieces fall in line. Additionally, for the astute viewers, Claire’s last name, “Cygne,” means swan in French. So she is literally Claire Swan(n).
The film also is part of the growing world of sci-fi films adapting itself into other genres. Except for a portion at the beginning of the film, Timerider is really a western, in the same way that The Final Countdown was a war film. A western which happens to have a motorbike in it as the MacGuffin to drive the story forward. Since Lyle never truly realizes he has time traveled, he’s not interested in changing things, or history to suit himself. He’s not looking for a way out. He’s just trying to finish his race, but gets swept up in the action between the outlaw, the marshalls, and a strong, beautiful woman who captivates him.
Timerider has little in terms of exploration of the human condition. It’s more concerned with showing lots of POV shots of motocross action in the desert–like a lot, and feeding the whole “fish out of water” aspect with Swann’s trip. Since the film takes place in the barren deserts of Mexico, when Lyle time travels, there’s no marker to indicate any change. He keeps riding as if it’s nothing. When he meets Claire, and the townsfolk, he believes he’s run into some strange commune or something. She mentions the Civil War, but in his mind (obviously not terribly smart) he hears it as “a civil war,” as in a local Mexican war. Part of the charm of the film is the fact that he doesn’t realize the time shift, and as such doesn’t try to exploit being a future man amongst people that don’t know better.
Reese makes mention of wishing that General Lee had had “that machine” during the war, as it would have helped the South win. And that becomes the main conflict in the film. Reese sees the motorcycle as a powerful device and wants to get control of it to help his gang, and himself. The audience of course recognizes that a motorcycle in 1877 would cause a massive problem. Luckily, the villain gets his comeuppance, and the motorcycle appears to be destroyed. At least as far as this film is concerned.
As with Time After Time, this film also deals with women’s liberation. Except that it’s not the modern liberation of a 1970s or 80s woman. It’s depicted in an 1870s woman! Claire is a strong woman for any time period, but particularly in the old west, where depictions from the time usually portrayed women like something out of Little House on the Prairie. She tells Lyle of growing up with two brothers who taught her to shoot and ride. And then when trouble came she could use her body or her gun. She chose the latter. Claire also tells Lyle that she knows her own mind. Quite a sophisticated notion for a western film, but one that fits with the overall theme of the time traveling heroes family.
The Science in The Fiction
Time travel films rarely explain the nature of the time travel. That is until 1985’s Back to the Future. But Timerider does give a little more that previous films, at least in the way that it is depicted. The Computel Corporation is running a series of experiments about time travel. There have been 15 tests prior to this, which is a great way to introduce the prospect of time travel. It’s not the first time, and the audience never sees the previous ones, but it allows for that flexibility on numerous questions such as how does this work. Obviously the specifics of the project were worked out before this time, but the film shows that it is some kind of localized field that pushes the rider back in time. It’s also not as an exacting science as other films have shown. There appears to be a gradient to the time traveling, as they initially think that Lyle went back as far as 1875, but then “find him” in late 1877.
Obviously the process is not instantaneously repeatable, as they had to power the devices up again after the first trip, and miss returning Lyle home by a few seconds. The film then ends with Dr. Sam and the helicopter grabbing Lyle and flying off with him without any actual resolution. It seems as if the film might be ambiguous about the return of the crew, but upon careful examination the answer is already in the film. As the crew is prepping the rescue mission, a technician speaks to Dr. Sam, and informs him that they have set them “for [a] three hours search and return.” Obviously some sort of automatic homing signal that will pull them back to the present when the timer runs out. Something that could have added a little more tension at the conclusion of the film if that timer was made more apparent.
The Final Frontier
I’m here to remind you that November 5th is a red letter date in the history of science. Not only is it the day in 1877 when Lyle Swan arrives in the old west, but it’s also the day in 1979 that HG Wells arrives in San Francisco in Time After Time, and the day in 1955 when Doctor Emmett Brown invented time travel. Quite a coincidence. It’s almost as if these filmmakers were all watching each other’s films in order to add easter eggs.
Timerider may not be as well known of an 80s time travel film as Back to the Future, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, or The Terminator, but it is still an essential part of the continued growth of sci-fi to include other genres, new twists and ideas from other fiction sources, and the inspection of current social norms as part of the narrative.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.