Films are wonderful vehicles for wish fulfillment, so it makes sense that time travel gets as much play as it does as a genre device. Great films use a variety of character motivations to justify the decision to tinker with our past or the past of others, and to its credit, Relive swings hard at a somewhat new take on time travel as a storytelling exercise. Sadly, it misses.
The two central characters of Relive are teenage Ashley (Storm Reid) and her law enforcement uncle Jack (David Oyelowo). Ashley’s parents aren’t always very present in her life, so she maintains a close relationship with her uncle, a straight-laced cop in L.A. who sees himself as a surrogate father figure for Ashley over his own brother (Brian Tyree Henry). The explanation for this silent, but visible resentment ends up muted because only a small morsel of the film devotes time or weight to Henry (contrast this with his less-is-more impact in last year’s If Beale Street Could Talk and Widows).
After a horrific tragedy that mysteriously takes Ashley’s life, Jack discovers he can communicate with her past self via cell phone, and thus the case begins, where he must find a way to work with Ashley to prevent her death. Unfortunately, this means a majority of the film is spent with Jack shouting confusing instructions to his terrified niece, who has no idea what’s going on because he won’t fully explain something he doesn’t seem to truly understand himself. It’s a fine idea from a creative standpoint, but not one that’s all that enjoyable to watch.
Worse, when the film finally gets to its big reveal, a “So what?” moment forms in who the real villains are and why, mainly because the “why” is shockingly vapid and hard to accept as logical based on what’s been set up and staged. This is a complex film with Inception-level rules, minus the cohesion, so the result is a film that never quite adds up and distracts from what would otherwise be solid performances from Reid and Oyelowo.
Jacob Aaron Estes directed and wrote Relive, and it’s clear he wanted to follow up his 2011 film The Details with something just as inventive but with a drastically different tone. Both films are a bit maddening for the same reason, where ideas are at the forefront, but substance is only suggested. The two leads go through a journey that is far removed from the circumstances driving them apart, and it’s hard to truly narrow down what lessons either of them need to learn aside from a surface-level proverb about trust and perseverance, perhaps. At 107 minutes, this story needs a bit more revelation and introspection to justify its modest length.
Still, it’s not hard to recommend Relive to film buffs who will likely respect the brazen experimentation at play. The premise itself is a bit tired, but the time travel wizardry at least tries to bend some rules and give audiences a new prototype for films that blend newer technology with established movie magic. Considering Jason Blum helped produce the film, I wouldn’t be surprised if he empowers another filmmaker to give this tweak on time travel another go in the near future. But for now, this is one call you may want to miss.