Trancers (1984)

This is, for better and for worse, a pretty good example of what genre movies released in the '80s were actually like. Those of you born after the '80s probably think you know what the decade offered - after all, you've seen Ghostbusters, Terminator, Goonies, Blade Runner, Aliens, and a host of other films. But here's the thing: those were exceptions. Those were the movies that endured. The classics.

The vast majority of 80's movies were... not those. They were this.

Honestly, that might be generous. Trancers, an extraordinarily weird time-travel-action-Christmas-noir, is pretty good, as far as schlocky B-movies go. It's fun, campy, and inoffensive. I suspect this was trying to be a cult hit but didn't quite pull off the formula. Its weirdness feels a little too intentional, it's not bad enough to be "so bad it's good" but not quite good enough to be some sort of hidden gem. Still, it's a fun bit of '80s camp and a rare entry on our list of Christmas SF movies.

The movie kicks off a few hundred years in the future, which is basically lifted from Blade Runner, absent the production value. The main character, Jack Deth (don't bother making jokes - the movie makes them for you), is a hard-boiled detective hunting down "Trancers," zombie-like humans being psychically controlled by a criminal mastermind.

When he learns the evil psychic, Whistler, has traveled into the body of an ancestor, Deth travels after him, arriving in '80s LA during the holidays. Within a few minutes, he's met up with Helen Hunt, killed a mind-controlled mall Santa, and is in a race to find the ancestors of the leaders of the future before Whistler can off them.

I promised weird, didn't I? And before you think to ask, yes, the movie drifts into "becoming his own grandpa" territory fast, though it does so without acknowledging the creepy factor. I mean, I guess it's his ancestor's body instead of his own, but still....

The time travel rules make no sense. They can only send consciousnesses back, rather than people, but they can send equipment for some reason (he's armed with a watch that can stop time and a gun that...

Okay, when Trancers are killed, they're vaporized, and if the movie explained why, I missed it. I think they were all killed by Deth's gun, so maybe they're magic bullets or something. If so, it seems like a bad strategy, since vaporizing corpses seems more likely to upset the time stream, but what do I know?

Also, when you do kill the ancestor of someone in the future, it doesn't change the timeline, it just makes their descendants vanish in the future. Everyone remembers them up until then, they just... poof away the same moment they're killed in the past. And if you're trying to figure out what "same moment" means in two separate times, you're clearly assuming the writers of this cared more about time travel rules than they did.

But that's fine. The time travel is here to serve the fun, as are the zombified people Deth has to gun down. This is a bunch of genre tropes thrown at the screen to keep you entertained, not to make you think. And for the most part, it works. Deth is fun as a hardboiled detective, the Christmas stuff is entertaining, and the bizarre collage of genre keeps this from getting boring.

Let's talk Christmas. We've gone on at length about Christmas's relationship with time travel in the past (pun not intended). And we've also discussed how noir has often used the holidays for juxtaposition. So how does this time-travel/noir incorporate the holidays?

Honestly, I think it just sets it during Christmas so they could have the lead shoot a zombie mall Santa. I suppose it's possible they were playing off of Christmas Yet to Come or Pottersville, but there's really no indication that much thought was put into this. I can't rule it out, but I really didn't see any indication the movie was interested in exploring those (or any other) themes.

Look. This isn't a good movie. It's weird-for-the-sake-of-weird, illogical, and cheaply made. But I can't deny I had fun watching it. I can't justify recommending it unconditionally, but if you're looking for something truly bizarre for holiday viewing, it absolutely fits the bill.

Also, this features Helen Hunt before she became way too famous for this kind of thing. It might be worth it for that alone.