by Thom Yee
There isn’t a day (and sometimes not even an hour) that goes by that I don’t wish I could go back and do things right. That’s what makes time travel such a tantalizing thought and why I’m a firm believer that time travel can make any story better. No matter how poorly rendered, no matter how inconsistently portrayed, no matter how broadly unnecessary, thematically disconnected or logically unfulfilling, time travel is just too compelling an idea to pass up.
Back to the Future is an exciting movie, but it’s propelled by and gains direct meaning from the ticking time bomb of getting Marty’s parents together before the lightning strikes the clock tower. Superman the Movie makes less sense, but is still slightly more intriguing with the notion that Superman can reverse time by reversing the Earth’s rotation. Even the Star Trek reboot would have been weaker without Spock Prime and the new timeline (though his presence in the sequel is perhaps the biggest symbol of what was wrong with that movie).
If you’re a long-time reader of ours (and I’m almost sure you’re not [if you exist at all]), you may have noticed that I’ve kind of changed my stance on time travel since the early days and my review of Looper. Even though I’d still prefer that movies earn the proper use of time travel, About Time helped to convince me that it’s almost always helpful. None of which is to say that every time travel movie is good, just that they’re better than they otherwise would have been. Nothing can change the core of a bad script and a poor production (even if those creators may wish they could go back in time and redo the movie) and nothing can take away the inherent quality of a strong script, a proper schedule, and talented producers and cast, but time travel always helps. I love the idea, the implications, the rules that have to be individually and explicitly established. I love that spot of sci-fi just being injected into stories that don’t necessarily call for it.
That’s squarely the space where About Time lies. Despite its name, it’s not really a time travel movie at all.
In one crucial and fundamental way, About Time is a very different movie than the trailer suggests. Let’s take a look:
About Time follows Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), a romantic young man driven by his search for love above all else. Things like finding meaningful work or gaining financial security are entirely peripheral, perhaps because, like his father (and his father and so forth), he’s also a time traveller. Though he’s rejected by his first love (Margot Robbie), he soon finds real love when he meets Mary (Rachel McAdams). Then he pretty much just lives his life — he grows up, moves into a reasonable house and has kids, all along using his time travel powers to make sure that all the small things go perfectly, even if most everything would’ve gone okay anyway. He goes back in time for the perfect New Year’s kiss. He goes back to make sure his first time in bed with his future bride goes right. He even goes back to make sure he doesn’t accidentally mention oral sex the first time he meets Mary’s parents (however that happened).
If there was one word I would use to describe About Time, it would be ‘lovely’. About Time is perfectly lovely, from protagonist Tim to his love Mary, to bitter playwright friend Harry. Everything about it is just so nice. Watching it is like listening to your best friend and his girlfriend (and you love them both) telling you that they’re getting married, and it’s so clear that they’re madly in love that you’re completely without a hint of jealousy and so entirely happy for them. And, for me at least, you’re feeling all of these impossibly, deeply romantic things even though you’re a heterosexual male.
It’s a hard movie not to fall in love with, not only on the surface, but for all that it means underneath. The movie opens with a brief on every member of Tim’s immediate family, each of them archetypal and true to some sort of idealized world, from his strong, knowing mother to his retired English professor father to the younger sister that everyone loves dearly to confused, but beloved Uncle Desmond. It’s an idyllic life the family shares somewhere in the English countryside, where they enjoy tea on the beach and movies every Friday. All of that is an outright fantasy, but there’s enough truth in every one of those pieces that not only do you believe it, you almost cherish it. We find out early on that Tim’s father was a university professor who retired early and always seemed to have time to spend with his family, no doubt because of his time travels. When you think about it, there’s something almost unbearably sweet about the idea of a time-travelling father who chooses to use his gift mostly to spend more time with his family, an idea almost antithetical to the idea of being a father (at least in my experience). There’s something massively reassuring in a mother who truly knows best, a younger sister who’s everyone’s favourite, and an uncle who offers as much help as he needs. And they all love the wife you chose and everyone utterly adores each other? We should all be so lucky, if only we’d realize how artificial the reasons and walls and barriers we’re always erecting between and around ourselves truly are.
But back to that trailer. When you watch it, it’s everything I’ve just said about the movie, but it’s also a movie about time travel being a character’s undoing. When Dad tells Tim that “I never said you could fix everything… not without consequences,” and Mary tells Tim, “We’ve never met before,” that’s a movie about a guy with a problem and, usually, a hero’s journey back to the world he knows as his time-travelling machinations have unravelled all around him. But that never happens. The night Tim first meets Mary is also the night his father’s playwright friend Harry’s opening night goes horribly wrong, and when Tim goes back to fix that, he also loses Mary (because this time he chose to be in the other place over meeting Mary). That sounds bad, but Tim uses a little ingenuity, what little he learned from his first meeting with Mary, and a lot of time travel, and he’s back on track with Mary in little more than… maybe ten minutes of story time?
Truth be told, it’s disturbing how easily and without a hint of morality that Tim uses his powers to get Mary back. He literally cheats, using his future knowledge to gain favour in a conversation with Mary and lead her around the guy he found out would wind up dating her instead, because surely Tim must be the better choice. Just imagine if a traveller kept going back into the past to course correct history so that you always end up with him, no matter how hard you resist (if you’re aware of what’s happening at all). That’s a horror movie in different creative hands. The moral implications are something that the movie never comes close to touching, and even though what Tim does with his powers is generally not too selfish and usually feels right, it’s hard to know how much of that feeling is informed by the overall charm of the film rather than impartial observation.
In fact, the weirdest thing about the whole movie is that there are no real problems. At one point I assumed that the way Tim haphazardly and wrecklessly uses his powers would lead to some sort of destablization of the time-space continuum, and maybe he’d wind up in a nightmare-ish, fractured mirror version of his world (where, among other things, he never met Mary). At least then there’s a lesson involved, but that never happened either. Just about the worst thing that ever happens to Tim in the entire film is he misses the train once in a montage scene that’s also impossibly romantic.
There are red herrings all over the place, including Tim meeting Mary’s parents for the first time, Tim being tempted by his first love (Margot Robbie) when they later meet again some time after Tim and Mary have moved in together, and the family’s problems with Kit Kat (their nickname for his younger sister) and realizing that time travel can’t (or at least shouldn’t) solve all problems, but none of it builds to a problem that isn’t solved one to two minutes later. Tim is far from experiencing his own hero’s journey, and the closest thing to a character arc in the movie is Tim growing up, living a charmed life that also (and almost incidentally) involves time travel. No catastrophic logic or causality explosions and nary a Skynet in sight.
Normally that would be a problem, but About Time is so endearing and genuine that you might not notice that until after you’ve watched it.
If you want to get meta about the whole thing, the lesson that About Time teaches us may be that expectations aren’t always right. It’s natural for audiences to assume that there will be some quest or journey based purely on the supernatural mechanics of the story, but its quest is entirely in the realm of the real, it’s journey the one we all hope to live as we travel forward, time travel powers or not. It’s a life that most of us have the opportunity to live if all we do is commit to being happy, stay on the brighter side, and be incredibly fortunate. It’s a movie that gets overly sappy, overtly sentimental and is fairly self-indulgent, but it’s never directly bad. It’s a completely unbalanced, romantic fool of a movie, and like that kind of fool, it rarely finds time to tackle any real problems.
About Time is about love, on a romantic, parental, familial, and even platonic level. It’s about loving each other, even if we never really meet and will never meet again. It’s a story about loving life. For people like me, that’s not usually the kind of story that works. We prefer our stories more cynical, more hard-edged, grittier and harder to know.
Luckily, there was also some time travel. And that makes any story better.
About Time final score: 8.5
On the Edge
-It’s funny how you look at this gawky, British redhead and automatically thing Weasley, and of course it turns out he played Bill Weasley in the last two Harry Potters.
-Seeing Margot Robbie in another recent film reminds me of some classic lines from what’s almost the opposite of this movie:
- “I would f*ck that girl if she was my sister.”
- “I would let that girl give me f*cking AIDS.”
-Still, I totally would’ve gone for Rachel McAdams too (as if she were some horrible consolation prize or something).
-So that’s two movies in which Rachel McAdams marries time travellers.