Back to the Future. The Terminator. Donnie Darko. Time travel films have long been the basis for nerd arguments and philosophical conversations, and recently it seems like there has been at least one every year that gives us something to talk about. Last year we had Rian Johnson’s excellent Looper and Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed, and next year we’ll see Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past bring together two different versions of the same superhero characters. But this year, we have something completely different: Richard Curtis’ About Time, a mostly-lighthearted romantic comedy that utilizes time travel in a different way than most films. I really loved the movie (and our reviewer did too – read his full review here), but I also loved the decisions Curtis made when it comes to portraying time travel in the film. Because this movie deserves as much love as we can give it, here are three reasons why the time travel in About Time works perfectly for the film.
Using Time Travel is Simple
I appreciate the joys of detailed setups and cathartic payoffs as much as the next time travel movie buff, but sometimes it’s nice to have the mechanics of time travel be quick and easy. Don’t get me wrong: seeing Marty McFly convince Doc Brown to help him get back to the future and watching him be at exactly the right place at exactly the right time for that famous clock tower lightning strike is practically movie geek nirvana. But in About Time, a father (Bill Nighy) explains to his son Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) that the men in their family can travel back in time whenever they want simply by going to a dark location, clenching their fists, and thinking about when they’d like to be transported to. It’s that easy. The film never explains the hows or whys, and though many movie geeks would probably love to have that spelled out for them, this movie isn’t interested in providing that explanation. There’s another added bonus to this method of time travel – because it’s so quick, Tim can (and does) use it often, many times with humorous results.
It’s Primarily Used in Service of Emotions
One of the major problems time travel films can encounter is that they can get too caught up in the sci-fi aspects of precisely how everything works, causing the audience to emotionally disengage from the characters and their conflicts. About Time doesn’t bother explaining how it works because it would rather spend its time making us invest in Tim’s journey; seeing him bonding with his father and ultimately learning how to appreciate every day as a gift increases the emotional involvement of the audience. No “end of the world” stakes necessary here. This is a small scale film with small scale problems.
Shane Carruth’s 2004 debut Primer – a movie which many consider to be one of the most realistic time travel films out there – is also a small movie, and one that’s impressive in its quest for scientific accuracy. But its narrative is so dense that it requires multiple viewings and a complicated flowchart to figure out just what the hell is going on. I was never given a chance to connect with those characters. About Time comes at it from a different angle: time travel is a device that allows Tim to go back and do relatively small things over again – have smarter conversations, help a friend in need, hang out with his dying father – all in service of character moments and emotional truth. The scenarios in which he uses time travel to try to “fix” things are ones most of us can relate to, so it’s easy for us to connect with Tim and really invest in what happens to him.
You Don’t Have To Deal With Multiple Timelines
Can having multiple timelines work? Sure. But more often than not (in my experience, anyway), films with multiple timelines result in more conversations about the mechanics, overlapping universes, and paradoxes than about the characters we’ve just spent the last couple of hours with. Yes, in the case of About Time, there are a few instances in which the “rules” of time travel in the movie aren’t adhered to in a manner consistent with how they’re originally explained, but that’s because the story continually comes back to the same major theme: the film is more concerned with its audience being on board with Tim’s journey than anything else. We’re not distracted by which “version” of Tim we’re following at a given moment (it’s always the same one), or which parts of the story we’re privy to that he’s not (he’s in practically every scene). There is one moment that had the time travel movie nerd in me squirming because it could raise the question of whether or not we’re dealing with multiple timelines. But in spite of this, About Time so clearly doesn’t care about that particular aspect of its storytelling that it actually made me respect the film even more. When was the last time you saw a time travel movie that cared this little about time travel – and where that was actually beneficial to the overall experience?
As with all movies, it all comes down to how the filmmakers executed their vision and what you value as an audience member. That’s obviously going to be different for each of us, and for me – even though I’m a big fan of time travel movies – I found this approach to be refreshingly different than the often idiotic blockbuster efforts we see at the multiplex (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, anyone?). So even though this movie doesn’t have complex paradoxes (paradi?), duplicate versions of the same person walking around, a threat of the space-time continuum destroying the universe, or a Mr. Fusion-fueled DeLorean, About Time is among the best time travel movies to ever hit the silver screen. With its laser focus on character and commitment to its lighthearted and emotional story, surely the film will win over even the most nitpicky time travel geek and go on to truly stand the test of time.
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