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'About Time' Sparks a Referendum on the Time-Travel Romance

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire November 5, 2013 at 11:18AM

Richard Curtis' time-hopping love story has critics ruminating on the history and appeal of time-crossed romances.
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Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams in 'About Time'
Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams in 'About Time'

Here's an unexpected but welcome trendlet: a spate of essays on time-travel movies pegged to the release of About Time. In Variety, Justin Chang confessespronounced and somewhat irrational taste for the subgenre, including the otherwise unloved The Time Traveler's Wife: "It is a genre whose charms I've found myself unusually susceptible to in recent years, and in some cases -- as some of my friends have told me, with the sort of kindness that usually attends an intervention -- it has managed to erode my critical faculties altogether. "

Criticism, of course, is not just the expression of personal taste but its exploration, so Chang digs deeper and comes up with a plausible, pleasingly counterintuitive, argument that time-travel movies are actually more straightforward about the obstacles put in the way of romantic love than your average romantic comedy:

The appeal of the time-travel romance is that it acknowledges the artificiality of this contrivance and dispenses with it, treating love as a fragile and sublimely irrational force of nature. When a movie would have us believe that two people are truly destined for one another, their enemy should not be their own doubts, dissatisfactions and hang-ups. (That's what real life is for.) Their enemy should be downright metaphysical. They must do battle with the space-time continuum itself.

At The Dissolve, Tasha Robinson says that About Time is "one of 2013's most creative and intriguing films, but it isn't one of the year's best." The intriguing part is the film's unique spin on time travel, here an inherited trait unique to the male members of Domnhall Gleeson's family. There's no machinery involved, and its scope is fairly limited: Gleeson can only travel back to his own past, in his own body, which means he's free to revisit his own actions but he can't kill Hitler or see The Beatles at the Cavern Club. For Robinson, this gets to the heart of what time-travel movies are about, which is the tendency to second-guess our past actions -- to wish for a "do-over" on life.

[I]t's power without competition, without struggle, and almost entirely without cost. That in itself is remarkable for a story about a superpower -- usually, the limits on a power define it, and define the story. But Curtis is engaging in a more philosophical thought experiment, examining the basic rules of the universe from a new angle by sidestepping them. It isn't the limits that interest him, it's what one nearly unlimited power could mean for a person. He isn't exploring how a character could use time-travel to re-take his choices, so much as how someone with unlimited choice might choose choice itself.

As it turns out, this is, according to Time's Lily Rothman, pretty close to an accurate description of hoe time travel might work, where "accurate" means "incredibly unlikely but not blatantly in violation of the laws of the universe":

In her book Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception (published in May), science writer Claudia Hammond discusses the possibility that our brains measure time against their own activity. The very simplified version of the theory is this: when children learn to determine how much time has passed -- not learning to read a clock, but learning to know what it feels like when about a minute has passed -- they may do so by comparing our artificial units, like minutes and seconds, to the amount of brain energy expended during those periods. So if your brain "fires" just so many times in what you learn to call a minute, the next time your brain fires that many times it feels like a minute has passed.

And while Studio System News' Neil Turitz may depart from the data when he suggests that "[a]lmost every movie with a time travel aspect to it is an automatic draw," he did track down an M.D. who endorses About Time's message that living each moment rather than obsessing over past ones is the surest route to happiness.

"Even though we cannot physically travel through time, most of us constantly travel in time in our minds, when we ruminate about the past or worry about the future," Rosenbaum explains. "In the fields of psychology and psychiatry, we speak about 'mindfulness,' the practice of staying in the present and quieting the endless chatter of our minds. In About Time, the protagonist is faced with a choice at one point: to live in the past, or to stay in the present and look forward to the future. Most of us often face this same dilemma."


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