Time travel in About Time

I looked this film up on Wikipedia after it was done, and Wikipedia said it was a "romantic comedy-drama". "Comedy!" I thought. "That's what that was."

This film is bad. Giving it genre labels seems too much like praise, because this film is barely anything. It angered me, and so now it must anger you.

About Time is a story about a upper/middle class British family with no characteristics at all. I won't go any further in my own description of these people because the opening narration of the film itself is about as damning an indictment as it gets. These are people whose defining traits are drinking tea on the beach, and watching films together outdoors, in the rain. The most interesting person in the family is the daughter, Kit, who is perceived as outgoing and quirky due to her "purple T-shirts and bare feet".

Already that's two strikes: extremely dull characters, and telling instead of showing. Character personality traits shouldn't be handed to us in narration, they should reveal themselves naturally through dialogue and interaction. This is extremely basic stuff. This superfluous narration persists through the entire film and it never gets better and it never gets delivered with the slightest fraction of intensity or emotion. This is a film which literally has the main character wake up one morning, "not realising it was the day that would change my life forever". You can't do that! You can't tell the audience to be excited, let alone in a humdrum half-smirking monotone!

Three strikes, if you count the cinematography doing everything in its power to mute those purples, to the extent that you'd never catch that Kit even has a theme colour unless you were looking for it.

At the beginning of the film, the son, Tim (Tim/time, get it? Get it?) is told by his father that all the men in his family are able to travel in time - specifically, to unwind back along their own their own timeline to events in their past. The more exciting possibilities of this ability (wealth manipulation) are instantly jettisoned and Tim proves his terminal dullness once again by deciding to use the power to get a girlfriend ("the mothership").

A friend of Kit's, Charlotte, stays for summer. Tim finally finds the nerve to approach her on the very last day, and she turns him away, because come on, man, get your act together. He goes back in time one month and tries again and she turns him away again - this time, I assume, due to his apocalyptically poor choice of words. (When flirting, do not allude to cancer.) At which point Tim gives up on her entirely, which seems like a strong move. I think Charlotte might be the best character in the film because she seems to dimly perceive the time shenanigans Tim is pulling on her, and messes with him just because he deserves to be messed with.

Tim travels to London "in search of a future" and falls into a job as a lawyer without apparently doing anything, his legal training not having been mentioned prior to this. He moves in with a foul-mouthed and irascible playwright friend of his father, Harry. ("It's always nice to have family connections when you're a new kid in town.") I think this character is supposed to be lovable, but that deserves big scare quotes.

Tim goes on a double date, and despite his continuing murderously bad dialogue (MAKE IT STOP) gets the phone number of an American girl named Mary. That night, he discovers that Harry's play's opening night flopped because the lead actor dried up. Tim goes back in time and saves the play, but in doing so loses Mary's number and in fact never meets her.

Rather than reschedule the double date - or, for that matter, notice that London is a city of millions - Tim decides to track Mary down. There is an art exhibit where he knows Mary will eventually show up, so his master plan is to (ditch work? and) wait there for her, apparently for days. He then, even though he should know that she has never met him before, confronts her by name. This is extremely creepy and strange behaviour, and several characters in the film remark on this, including Mary herself, yet somehow Tim just keeps waffling on and on, and she just smiles and laughs until eventually Tim is following her and her friends around the exhibit, uninvited, for no reason.

At this point Tim discovers that, in the intervening few days, Mary has acquired a boyfriend. Tim immediately demands the precise date and time where they met, leaves the group, goes back in time, gatecrashes the party, intercepts Mary before the prospective boyfriend even arrives, and uses Mary's own art opinions to seduce her.

Charlotte reappears, messes with Tim's head some more and invites him to bed, but he decides he's in love with Mary. Tim proposes (waking Mary up and getting her to accept while she's half-asleep), they get married (on a miserable wet day, which everybody apparently enjoys immensely) and they have a baby girl named Posy.

At this point we're about halfway through the film.

Kit, Tim's sister, has her own relationship take a turn for the worse. She ends up in a car crash which nearly kills her. Tim goes back in time several years to fix this, but on returning to the present, he discovers that his child is now a boy.

I really hope I'm not reading the film correctly, but I'm pretty sure that this is what actually happens next: Tim goes back in time again and undoes those changes, restoring his daughter and the car crash, leaving Kit in the hospital again. Kit, oblivious to what just happened, is left to escape her relationship and fix herself in the present instead, the hard way.

The baby thing establishes a hard limit on how far back in time Tim can ever go. From this point onwards, he's not omnipotent.

Time passes, and the whole family learns that Tim's father has terminal cancer. Since Tim has another child on the way, a time is rapidly coming when Tim won't be able to go back in time again without losing the child. (Nor can his father retroactively quit smoking without undoing Tim himself.) This means Tim has a limited amount of time left with his father, even using time travel.

They make the most of their remaining time together. Weeks later, Tim's father dies, and the new kid is born.

Following his father's advice, Tim spends a long while living each day twice - once like a normal, stressed human being, and a second time taking joy in everything he missed. (So, doing all of his work twice, I assume.) Eventually Tim stops using time travel entirely, and just lives each day "as if I've deliberately come back to this one day, to enjoy it, as if it was the full final day of my extraordinary, ordinary life."

The end.

*

Miscellaneous observations:

Lamentably slow pacing drains all of the potential comedy out of even the potentially funny lines.

The time-travelling ability is a secret, known only to the men of the family - so, nearly all the relationships in this film are predicated on lies, even before any actual time-based relationship manipulation takes place.

Tim's father explains the time travelling ability instead of proving himself with a compelling demonstration. Tim immediately tries it out, displaying nearly no scepticism and requiring no advance proof of this extraordinary claim.

Tim's mother is rude, but not in a funny way, she's just rude.

The family has a lovely but slow and forgetful Uncle Desmond, who presumably has the same time travel power as all the other men, but never mentions it. Are his dull wits the result of too much time travel? Or has he not even been told he has this power?

The play within the film, so amazingly well-received with cheers and standing ovations and a glowing review, actually stunk.

Girls are into Tim, for reasons which are absolutely unfathomable given the things he says and does.

A restaurateur cheerfully attempts to look up the names of his customers to give to Tim, and only plot necessity stops him.

A quote from Mary Schmich's essay "Wear Sunscreen" is misattributed to Baz Luhrmann.

There's a sequence where Mary is trying on dresses for an increasingly exhausted Tim, and not even the slightest attempt is made to drag any comedy or originality out of this classic set-piece.

Tim must be in a darkened room before he can travel through time. Separately, there is also an extended sound-only sequence set in a pitch-dark restaurant staffed by blind waiters. The latter sequence exists for no reason at all, as no time travel happens there.

And all of this, incidentally, is before I get to the actual time travel content.

The actual time travel

About Time is a textbook example of a film adopting and clearly outlining a model of time travel which is suitable for its needs, and then throwing its own self-imposed rules out of the window when it's convenient.

The mechanism for time travelling is wholly uninspired and stupefyingly uninteresting to watch; Tim has to go to a darkened room such as a cupboard, clench his fists and focus on an event from his past. Seems as if Tim could have discovered that all by himself years ago, but he only gets told at the age of 21.

Tim can only travel back along his own timeline... except that when he arrives in the past, instead of just waking up in his own body wherever it happens to be, he wakes up in his own body in the cupboard. This is slightly anomalous. Does he just disappear from wherever in the rest of the universe he was standing, or does the universe smooth all of this out for him?

It's explained that Tim can only go backwards, not forwards; however, the very first thing Tim does after going back for the first time is to return to the present, to the conversation he was having with his father. Apparently this conversation remains in place, and the universe merges the disparate timelines somehow?

Only the men of the family have this ability, it's explained. Later, Tim decides to take his sister Kit back in time in order to fix her relationship in the past. It just works. Even a single line, "I have no idea whether this is possible, but it has to be worth a try!" would satisfy me here, but no, Tim just does it, assuming that it'll work, and it does just work.

The rule about not travelling back to before a child's birth is actually pretty smart, and a great way to introduce limitations to your time travel model in a way which drives drama instead of constraining it. Even though we have time travel, we have limited time - this is rad! The implementation doesn't make sense, though. It would make more sense if the critical moment was the moment of conception. But that would make the plot harder to make work, because you don't have the nine-month ticking countdown.

This rule is also introduced shockingly late - Tim's father already knows the rule, but somehow forgets to explain it until Tim has accidentally lost Posy. (Tim's father's reaction: "Okay. Interesting.")

Then, Tim is able to get Posy back again, somehow.

Then, Tim and his father snag a few final extra hours on the beach together, decades in the past, while Tim is a young child. Even though we just explained that we can't do that. Even though this very rule is the only reason why Tim and his father have a limited amount of time together in the first place!

And the crowning achievement of dullness is that at the end of the film Tim just stops using time travel entirely, because he's not really gaining anything from it. I realise that About Time isn't a story about shattering the human world with radical new science, and I realise that using time travel to win lotteries and warn the world about natural disasters isn't within the scope of this film. But even at Tim's level, family level, "street level", the lack of imagination demonstrated is mind-boggling.

Conclusions

The notion that Tim's unwatchably dull, pedestrian life story has been in any respect "extraordinary" is sort of insulting to me. But, given how much unacknowledged money and privilege the family apparently has (beachfront property in Cornwall, and also time travel), so is the notion that his life is "ordinary".

The model used is fine, but it could use a lick of paint to make it more elegant, and it would be nice if the film had more respect for its own rules.

Overall, About Time lacks any kind of kick. I think it's supposed to be charming and sappy but it inadvertently demonstrates something we already know from numerous other sources, that time travel is a tremendously powerful tool which can be abused in surprisingly creepy ways... even, it seems, by rom-com writers.

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Discussion (13)

2015-04-13 05:03:14 by DanielLC:

"The implementation doesn't make sense, though. It would make more sense if the critical moment was the moment of conception. But that would make the plot harder to make work, because you don't have the nine-month ticking countdown."

What would make sense is that going back before conception would change the child, but until the child is born it doesn't matter. Until then, you just know whether the child is a boy or girl. And even if you care about that, it's not hard to fix. Once the child is born, you'll get attached and not want to change it.

2015-04-13 11:13:22 by Morgan:

So wait, hang on: he has a baby girl, Posy. He travels back in time and changes things, and then discovers that instead of Posy he's had a baby boy, name not specified. And so he undoes his changes to get Posy back.

So if Posy was worth preserving, even with events that hospitalize his sister riding along with her, why doesn't the unnamed boy from a better timeline merit any consideration?

2015-04-13 14:58:05 by alexanderwales:

Yes, I found this movie to be supremely lazy - I only watched it because, like you, I'm a sucker for time travel movies. I just do not understand how this is the script that they ended up with. Did no one think for even a few minutes about the film they were making? And yes, in addition to being lazy, it's also not a good movie.

2015-04-13 15:38:51 by Jeremy Bowers:

"So if Posy was worth preserving, even with events that hospitalize his sister riding along with her, why doesn't the unnamed boy from a better timeline merit any consideration?"

I think a lot of alternate universe or time travel stories founder on this unexamined assumption that the timeline we know and the people we know are automatically the "right" people and the "right" timeline, and any deviations other than perhaps minor unambiguous improvements to the hero's past & present are automatically bad.

The word "unexamined" in my point is very important. If there's no objective measure of "goodness of a timeline", "It's the one I know" is as good a metric as any other. If the writer examines the assumption and understands it, it's not automatically bad. But the unexamined assumption often produces weird reactions by the characters and casual assumptions from the writer about what the audience will think about what's going on that are often, I think, one of the key differences between a well-written time travel story and a hack job using a tool they aren't really qualified to use.

This is especially true under a Back-to-the-Future like model where there appears to be "one true timeline" and rewriting it is doing almost inconceivable moral violence to basically the whole of the future universe. Having done something bad and destroyed the entire timeline you came from and created a brand new one in its place populated with people for who knows how many generations, what moral right do you have to erase those people just to spin the wheel one more to *try* (and quite probably fail) to return to the timeline you came from? It's the sort of question that any sane moral calculus probably just throws an exception for. Time travel is crazy stuff, man.

2015-04-15 12:48:02 by Anonymous:

This approximate model of time travel - sending consciousness back as long as desired - was explored with much better execution in a set of books, Peter F Hamilton's the Void trilogy. The idea of losing children by going back to before their conception was likewise used as an interesting limited factor in those - and the characters exploited the time travel much more thoroughly than the writers of About Time.

As problematic as Hamilton's books are, they still had nowhere near as many problems as this movie. Thanks for watching it so I don't have to!

2015-04-15 19:09:14 by Jymbob:

*Looks at the poster*

"From the creator of Love Actually, Notting Hill, Four Wedd..." I'm out.

2015-04-16 14:53:15 by Joe the Rat:

Hell, it sounds like Slaughterhouse Five did a better job with the concept, even with a complete lack of control by the protagonist (on many levels), and it was pretty much just there to tell a nonlinear story. The aliens were fairly interesting, though.

So it goes.

2015-05-22 02:48:07 by Nathan K.:

So if Tim goes back in time twenty years, wouldn't that scramble the genders of everybody in the world younger than twenty?

Or does it only apply to his own children for some reason?

2015-06-23 05:49:31 by Dmytry:

The way I understood the time travel to work, is that you go back to a point in your own personal history. So for example I go back to when I was 10, then I go back to right before I gone back to when I was 10.

2015-06-23 05:59:23 by Dmytry:

So basically the mechanics when he goes back and forth for the first time is such:

Upon getting told about your time travel ability, you go into the closet, clench the fists and picture a moment when you were 10. You go into that moment. Then, to continue the conversation with your father, you do the closet routine and picture a moment when you left your father to go into the closet - or the moment when you just went into the closet - bam, you're 21 again, and you can continue talking with your father - and your changes to the timeline were undone as well.

It's actually a surprisingly consistent and well defined model. It's as if you had a videogame and hit the save button every second (saving into a different file every time, e.g. 1, 2, 3 ...), and you could load any such savegame.

2015-07-08 01:11:39 by Chrozayis:

For those interested the game "Life is Strange" follows a similar time concept with the main character being able to turn back time by up to about 15 minutes at will

2015-07-15 16:41:30 by Wyrframe:

«I think a lot of alternate universe or time travel stories founder on this unexamined assumption that the timeline we know and the people we know are automatically the "right" people and the "right" timeline, and any deviations other than perhaps minor unambiguous improvements to the hero's past & present are automatically bad.»

Stargate: Continuum (one of two TV movies following the series) deliberately dealt with that. A character whom our mains all know and respect (but he doesn't know them at all in this timeline) shoots down their plan, calling them out on the arrogance of what they're asking to do ("restore" the timeline), and posing the question of "assuming we let you, assuming you succeed... what happens to this timeline, this world?"

2015-07-22 19:46:01 by Anonymous viewer:

You got a few significant details wrong:

1. Tim did not meet Mary on a double-date; he just happened to be seated next to her at the pitch-dark restaurant and struck up a conversation. He had no prior connection to her and did not know anything about her except her name, appearance, and interest in Kate Moss.

2. Tim's father died after the birth of Tim's second child but before the conception of his third child. Had Tim resisted Mary's suggestion that they have another child, he could have continued to visit his father.

3. Sweet but stupid Desmond is Tim's maternal uncle so presumably does not have the time-travel gift.

On the other hand, I agree that some odd things were left hanging:

1. The meeting in the pitch-dark restaurant comes quite soon after we have learned that Tim can time-travel in a dark room and have seen him use it to manipulate relationships with women. I think we are supposed to surmise that Tim could have used his power to optimize his first conversation with Mary but chose not to.

2. Waiting around for a week for Mary to show up at the Kate Moss exhibition was an odd tactic. Maybe he did not care about his job. Maybe he was not needed at work. Or maybe he can do things like this routinely because of his time-travel ability. If he would rather do something else than go to work, he just goes, then travels back to that morning and goes to work instead. So perhaps his plan was to wait at the exhibition until Mary showed up, remember the date and time, then live that week more normally and only go to the exhibition at that particular time--presumably he could get away for a couple of hourse.

3. I commented to my wife that the dress-changing scene was long and went nowhere. Tim literally sits in the bedroom for about three minutes of the movie (probably fifteen or twenty minutes of actual time) watching Mary try on a series of dresses each of which he praises only to see her return to the first one, while--as we learn later--their toddler daughter is destroying a manuscript in the office. My wife pointed out that Tim may be in the habit of using his power to indulge in lazy parenting. If he would rather do something other than watch the children, then he just does it. If something bad happens, then he just goes back in time and fixes it. You can see he is trying to do this when he learns of the manuscript's destruction.

The last couple point to another weakness in the movie's account of time-travel. It's not completely clear whether, in each of Tim's time-travel episodes, he travels back in time and then lives his way back to the present, or whether he jumps back to the present. Or rather, it's clear that he sometimes does the latter, but it's not clear whether he has the choice of doing the former and whether he ever uses that choices. His father's "live each day twice" advice suggests that he actually does it the long way. On the other hand, the execution is a bit odd. If you know you can do things over, why be fearful the first time and confident the second? It rather seems the other way around: you could be fairly reckless and experimental the first time, knowing that you could do it over.