Things Will Be Different Is a Remarkable DIY Sci-Fi Indie

A simple time travel gimmick imbued with emotional complications.

XYZ Films
Inverse Reviews

A DIY science fiction oddity, Michael Felker’s Things Will Be Different is an uneasy handshake between metaphor and mechanics. It recalls the lo-fi genre stylings of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (the directors of Something In the Dirt, who also executive produced this film), but in his feature debut, Felker makes the movie his own — synthesizing highly specific influences while filtering them down to their fundamentals. It’s a time travel movie of sorts, but it’s more about a pair of estranged siblings on the run, hunkering down and waiting things out, as their regrets begin to fester.

When Joseph (Adam David Thompson) and Sidney (Riley Dandy) reconvene at a diner off the beaten path, they’re smack-dab in the middle of both a family reunion and a getaway from the law. They have rifles, bags full of supplies, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in stolen cash, but they also have a plan, involving a humdrum farmhouse in the middle of a field. Using instructions scribbled in a notebook, and seemingly mundane analog objects that can be turned and twisted — clock faces, rotary telephones, even a doorknob — they end up in a version of this rural home isolated from the rest of the world.

Perhaps it’s the past, or it could even be the distant future. The décor — a mix of late 19th century stylings and 1980s home technology — doesn’t leave definitive breadcrumbs, but the point is rarely the “when” or “where.” Rather, it’s the “what:” they’re criminals on the run, and this temporal wasteland is their safehouse until the heat dies down. However, through metaphysical messages carved on walls and other surfaces, they soon learn of a much larger web of conspiracies and causality all around them. They are, in essence, being watched through time, making the journey home all the more dangerous.

The film’s shoestring budget makes its time-travel trickery feel all the more convincing. All it takes for something to shift in the fabric of time is an item out of place, or one being introduced where it previously wasn’t, in between the cuts. Someone is speaking to Joseph and Sidney from the past or future — perhaps even both — using tape recorders stashed away in safe places, on which the siblings record their responses and receive instantaneous instructions. The quantum puzzle box in which they find themselves turns out to be something called a “vice grip” between the past and future (a “temporal pincer movement” in all but name, for all you Tenet-heads), with clues and messages going back and forth in time, with the siblings as ostensible brokers.

Things Will Be Different marks the glorious arrival of a new independent voice in the DIY sci-fi scene.

XYZ Films

The more this plot unfolds, the more they try to wrap their heads around it, and the more like Primer the movie starts to feel — the seminal low-budget time travel indie from 2004 — but Things Will Be Different takes a much more refined visual approach. It’s often withheld in its telling, presenting lengthy scenes of time passing outside the characters’ windows, all the while presenting the surrounding landscape with the frayed edges of early photo lenses, a technique used by cinematographer Roger Deakins on the modern western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This influence is easy to clock, but it also injects the film with a distinct warmth and wistfulness in the moments it eases off the pedal (while also imbuing it with an occasional sense of time and place, even though this is far from definitive).

All the while, its sibling relationship remains the central focus, with the actors establishing a naturalistic dynamic without the need for fluffy, “hey sis” exposition. These are characters who have hurt each other in the past, and in this scenario, the notions of making up for lost time and the fantasy of undoing their mistakes are brought sharply into the focus. Granted, when the film finally kicks into high gear, it also dangles a plot twist before the audience for an extended period, whose reveal is almost entirely obvious. It’s a bit of a momentum drainer, but once the specifics are dispensed with, it leads to the film’s time travel mechanics and underlying themes of remorse coming to a head in satisfying ways.

While it wraps up too quickly and a little too literally, Things Will Be Different marks the arrival of a unique new independent voice, who uses the spare parts of his mainstream influences to weave something whole new. Its atmospheric, reflective approach strips the time travel sub-genre to its bare essentials, resulting in a work where drama takes precedence, and even the most confounding worldbuilding works in the movie’s favor, forcing the characters to think and keep up and the story tries to outrun them. Each zig yields a heartfelt zag, and while it doesn’t all fit together, the film has just enough emotional reverberations.

Things Will Be Different premiered at SXSW 2024 on March 11. It does not yet have a distributor.

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