I am standing outside the movie theater, waiting to purchase my tickets. I have just sat down in my seat. I am in front of my computer, watching Carl Sagan explain the concept of the fourth dimension to me. The movie begins. I have just finished my review. The woman at the box office is borrowing my phone to pull up my ticket information. Tribeca has just announced that they will be showing The Fourth Dimension at the festival. Christine has commented on my review to tell me she really wants to see Val Kilmer’s performance. As someone who can only perceive three dimensions, I am only able to view these events in chronological order. As someone who is familiar enough with Watchmen to badly ape Alan Moore’s writing style, I see all of it unfolding at once.
There are two questions: what is the fourth dimension, and how does it tie into the movie of the same name? The fourth dimension is the existence of space-time. As we perceive the world around us in three dimensions – height, width, and depth – so is it theorized that a being from the fourth dimension could perceive time in much the same way. As humans, our view is limited and we are only able to see our current point in time. The future is a mystery to us; the past exists as only a memory. If a being exists in the fourth dimension, it would be able to view the passage of time in much the same way as we can view the three-dimensional aspects of the world around us. They would see what used to happen, what is happening, and what will happen, and understand it in much the way we understand that a ruler is twelve inches from point to point. That is the fourth dimension.
How does it tie into the movie? Surprisingly well. The Fourth Dimension is not a single narrative, but rather three short films. One features Val Kilmer as a motivational speaker (named, appropriately, “Val Kilmer”) and bounces between his current engagement at a community center and his nighttime activities with a young woman. The second features a Russian scientist who has discovered a way to view into the past and doggedly continues his research alone at the cost of his personal life. And the final film follows four young punks as they enjoy looting and frolicking through a town that has been evacuated in anticipation of a flood. There are no threads connecting these three films – no overlapping characters or shared moments in time – but they each play with the idea of the fourth dimension in different ways.
The first film starts with humor, which is an excellent way to tackle a heady topic. The motivational speaker Val Kilmer stands in front of a group of poor and desperate people and tells them that they must exist in the fourth dimension. There are shades of Frank ‘T.J.’ Mackey in Kilmer’s performance – down to Kilmer’s repetition of the phrase, “Oh momma, oh momma” – and anyone who attends the movie solely for the purpose of watching Kilmer cut loose will not be disappointed. His character knows nothing about the fourth dimension, but he understands his audience, and repeats nonsensical phrases with reckless abandon until the crowd around him picks up the chant. Is his character supposed to actually represent the actor Val Kilmer? Unclear. The quiet scenes between Kilmer and an anonymous girl with cornrows suggest a younger version of Kilmer that exists simultaneously with the adult motivational speaker, and Kilmer appears to reference his own acting career to others in the movie. “I was doing that, and now I’m doing this,” he enthusiastically tells two bystanders while on a bike ride. The first short film is absurd and not entirely coherent, but worth the price of admission for Val’s performance. If you are a fan of Kilmer, then you will go into the movie anticipating liking his performance and already knowing that you did; a bit of fourth dimensional criticism if ever there was one.
The second film is the most serious and heartfelt of the three, and toys with the scientific concept of the fourth dimension in greater detail. A man who has invented a machine to peer through time lives on the top floor of a battered building in the projects. He was a renowned scientist who was given his country’s version of the McArthur grant, but it becomes clear that his life stopped moving forward after the death of his wife. He continually tries to use his machine to catch a glimpse of historical events, but the machine refuses to give him anything more than momentary glimpses at the periphery. Meanwhile, the girl upstairs is nursing a crush and trying to get him to come out for a cup of coffee. It is not exactly a new story to present someone incapable of moving beyond the death of a loved one, but given the context of the film (and the performance of the actors), it gains added power. More so than any other character in the film, Grigory has caught a glimpse of the fourth dimension. He is able to view the past, present, and future at the stroke of a few keys. However, his grief causes him to focus only one one aspect of time-space – the past, or more specifically, his past. It’s a bite sized tragedy with a scientific bent, and it resonates.
The final film is by far the weakest of the three, though not entirely without its moments. Four friends – youth with a chip on their shoulder and a desire to watch a small corner of the world burn – tear their way through an abandoned town. It’s a mood piece, much like many of the other films in the festival. With no real strong characters to latch on to, I just let the film drift lazily through its moods and enjoyed the fact that someone was wise enough not to try and stretch it into a full-length feature of its own. Solid acting, good cinematography, and no real script to speak of – whatever message this film had about the fourth dimension was lost behind the haze of been-there, done-that.
The Fourth Dimension may be strange and disjointed, but it is also ambitious in places and delightfully bite-sized in its storytelling. It may never see anything resembling a commercial release – and has probably limped its way onto the Netflix Streaming catalogue as I wrote this – but I found it strangely charming and it would probably be awarded the Bronze Medal in my own personal Tribeca award ceremony. The quality of the first two films – both as an absurdist comedy and a sad tale of love lost – cannot be denied. But don’t take my word for it – glimpse along your timeline to the point where you watch it yourself, and we’ll discuss (in the present) my past and your future. As I’m saying this, forget I’m saying this, but then, do it. Ok?