Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann is another example of low-budget 1980s science fiction, that vastly populated classification of films that I love as guilty pleasures (though I don’t really feel any guilt about such things). Timerider was released in 1982, and stars Fred Ward as the title character, motorcycle racing star Lyle Swann. Unlike a lot of low-budget science fiction films, it’s not really the budget that hurts this movie; by using a time-travel story, the creators of the film easily escaped the need for dedicating any significant effort into the special effects. No, this movie falls into cheese solely based on the characters in the film. A great movie could have been made with this concept; instead, we get a movie that is just fun enough to enjoy and just goofy enough to laugh at — the perfect balance of 1980s cheese.
Timerider opens up with Lyle Swann doing some test rides of his motorcycle in preparation for a big motocross race the next day. He decides to go off the beaten track and do some exploring in the desert. Unbeknownst to him — or apparently anybody else — a team of researchers are conducting a scientific experiment nearby. Led by Dr. Sam (Macon McCalman), they’re about to transport a chimpanzee in a metal canister back in time, then retrieve it. The canister isn’t the time-travel device, it’s just to keep the chimp from running off; the time-travel device is a few pylons that generate an energy field between them. You can see where this is going.
We’ll just mess around with the fabric of reality, out in the open, near a popular sporting event, without telling anybody. What could go wrong?
Swann rides into the area just before it gets activated, and back out of the area just before the recall notice is sent. The research team just barely has time to realize they might have sent someone back in time that they didn’t intend to send. Whoops! It takes them a while to determine just when he went to and how to retrieve him; in the meantime, Lyle is stuck in 1877 and running afoul of the people in that time. He almost immediately encounters Porter Reese (Peter Coyote) and the Dorsett brothers Claude and Carl (Richard Masur & Tracey Walter), the leaders of a band of outlaws. While most of the people of 1877 have no idea what to make of the man in the red suit and helmet and the strange thing he rides on, Reese is smart enough to realize it’s a machine and not a monster, and he decides he wants it for himself. A machine as fast as that could be real useful to an outlaw (he of course has no way of knowing it’ll run out of gas eventually.)
Swann winds up in a Mexican village, where the people panic (apparently Reese is the only person who can spot a machine and put 2 + 2 together; locomotives had been around for the better part of the century, but apparently a smaller contraption must be demonic.) The leaders of the village are a con man priest (Ed Lauter) and a woman, who buy contraband and re-sell it; these two, at least, are wary but unafraid of Swann, due in part to the woman spying him swimming earlier. After hiding him from the outlaws, the woman, Claire (Belinda Bauer) forces him to have sex with her at gun point; there’s not a lot of point to this except to show that she’s a take-charge kind of girl, and apparently we’re supposed to overlook the fact that this is rape, as she’s portrayed as a sympathetic character throughout. (Though to the writers’ credit, Swann is initially taken aback; on the other hand, he’s pretty OK with it afterward.) They share a tender moment afterward, talking about books, and his medallion, an heirloom acquired by his great-something-grandmother that she stole from his great-something-grandfather when they parted after a brief affair. Again, you know right away where this is going.
Sadly, the movie ends before we can see Lyle figure it out.
Perhaps the funniest part of this film is the fact that Lyle never seems to figure out that he’s time-traveled. He just thinks he’s in some backwards Mexican village. All the outlaws, the two U.S. marshals (L.Q. Jones and Chris Mulkey) that are tracking down Reese and his gang, the references to the Civil War… all of this strikes him as strange, but not once does it dawn on him. He’s surprised the marshals aren’t familiar with glow sticks, energy bars, motorcycles, or motorcycle helmets, but he just seems to think that’s because they’re “out west”. Each and every time they marvel at some minor technological wonder of his, he is surprised anew. While “I’ve traveled through time” should seldom be your first guess on why things are strange, it’s still pretty amazing that he goes through the entire movie without putting it together. It’s not like he didn’t have enough hints.
The acting in this film is actually fairly decent; not spectacular, but none of the actors were embarrassing themselves here. Fred Ward, as Swann, was probably the weakest link here, as he came across fairly wooden, but this may be as much the fault of the writers as Ward. After all, his character was a definite dim bulb, and there wasn’t much in the way of characterization beyond that. In fact, none of the characters get anything in the way of development, all being rather two-dimensional.
The characters are flat, and the plot is simplistic, but there’s enough goofiness in the concept and its execution to leave a pretty enjoyable movie. The basic concept could certainly have been done better — and if someone were to announce an attempt at a serious remake I’d be interested in seeing it — but if you’re all right with some 1980s cheese (and really, who isn’t?) you could certainly do worse.