I’ve seen a lot of time travel movies over the years, but none have made me seriously consider the issue of time travel until I started watching “About Time.”
I think the charm of the movie is watching the disaster unfold as socially awkward, disarmingly frank but also very creepy and strange “Tim” (Domhnall Gleeson) uses this miraculous, super hero ability to try and get a girlfriend.
With a complete lack of common sense and general social cues, he stumbles around stalking/insulting/manipulating “Mary” (Rachel McAdams) until he wins her heart. He repeats her own opinions back to her word for word. He makes sure she never meets her boyfriend.
On the surface a romantic story, I find the sinister aspect of the tale more convincing: given enough time and enough motivation, and assuming you could wipe someone’s memory clear and keep attacking until they submit, it’s very possible to make someone love you.
Once invited into Mary’s bed, he uses his time travel ability to turn one love making session into three.
Things are going well until Tim runs into Charlotte. His experience with Mary has slightly improved his confidence, but not his game. After screwing up several times, he decides to let sleeping dogs lie. But then she sees him first, and actually asks him out. She even wants to sleep with him.
Somehow he resists the urge to have sex with her, then go back in time (to when it never technically happened). If it were me, instead of letting Charlotte break my heart and waiting around for Mary, I would have used my time travel skills to live my whole life in an eternal summer fling with Margot Robbie.
Tim decides instinctively to marry Mary (the only girl he’s dated; his first conquest) and the rest of the movie highlights their abnormally mundane and boring lifestyle.
They are boring even in their most intimate moments. Neither especially clever or witty, nor daring and adventurous. Both bookworms with no imagination.
Both strange and self-conscious.
They’re even tacky; I’m used to my fictional characters being well dressed, having immaculately planned sets. I’m used to cinematographic eye candy. Everybody in “About Time” looked like they grabbed their clashing, mismatched outfit from a Salvation Army bin.
But that’s the point.
It’s about real life. It rains. Bad things happen. This message isn’t even subtle:
“Suddenly, time travel seems almost unnecessary. Because every detail of life is so delightful.”
Sure there are big situations which call for some tweaking. When his sister gets in a traffic accident, because she’s depressed over her asshole boyfriend, Tim erases years from her life – just about everything she is – and when they return to the present everything is fine and she’s in a healthy relationship.
Except: his daughter has disappeared, and been replaced with a baby he doesn’t recognize.
So he goes back again, and lets his sister crash and almost die.
The message reinforces his wife’s earlier comment: “Real change only happens if you change yourself.”
Which means: you can’t use Time Travel to change the big stuff, like learning life’s lessons by going through the challenging bits.
The remainder of the movie: Family. Cancer. Kids.
Trying on dresses till you go crazy.
Boring shit that happens – because it’s the boring shit that makes life meaningful; that can’t be improved upon with Time Travel.
The Father-Son time travel legacy passed on in this family: Just get on with ordinary life, living it day by day like anyone else. But live each day twice, so you can really enjoy it the second time.
So Tim tries this for awhile.
He does his boring legal work. 9 to 5 at a job he doesn’t love.
Awful meetings. Paperwork.
Takeaway food for lunch. Earning a wage.
Riding a subway (and being annoyed by other passengers.)
Then he deliberately goes through the whole, terrible, soul-crushing, mind-numbing day again to appreciate the beauty of life in the small things.
Are you freaking kidding me?!
Yeah I get the point.
Appreciate where you are in life. Don’t try to change anything.
Just go for the ride. Positive attitude trumps all.
But it feels fake and moronic – forced enthusiasm over tiny things that were frustrating the first time around but become cute and fun the second time.
With time Tim learns he doesn’t even need the extra day, because he’s learned to pay attention and to enjoy each day the first time around.
“Now I don’t time travel at all. I just try to live each day as if I’ve deliberately come back to this one day. To enjoy it, as if it were the full, final day of my extraordinary, ordinary life.”
That’s not a philosophy for time-travelers. That’s a philosophy of desperation, of need – it’s a coping mechanism for those with truly no choice, forced to live small, sheltered lives, doing boring work, being a cog in the machine, having no freedom or control. Which is why, although “About Time” is daring, brave, and a solid effort, it’s also very stupid, and incredibly selfish.
It’s selfish because with that power, and that amount of time, he could have improved the lives of millions of people. He could have won the lottery (many times) and given away billions of dollars to feed the poor.
He could have written new legislation or gotten involved in politics that could have dramatically changed the world. He could have invented new technologies or started a movement that changed how we all live our lives.
Whether or not Tim is capable of enjoying each day like it’s his last is besides the point – a better question is, couldn’t he be doing something better with his time? It’s a lot like the scene in Goodwill Hunting when Matt Damon tells Ben Affleck that construction work is solid, honest work, and Ben says, “You’re sittin’ on a winning lottery ticket and you’re too much of a pussy to cash it in. And that’s bullshit `cause I’d do anything to fuckin’ have what you got! So would any of these fuckin’ guys. It’d be an insult to us if you’re still here in twenty years. Hanging around here is a fuckin’ waste of your time.”
Just like Matt Damon, Tim could be doing simple work and living a simple life.
While Matt eventually chooses to make use of his gift and move on to new things, Tim chooses the other path.
He watches his kids grow up. He picks them up after school.
But his Buddhist-like acceptance of his average life only comes from his knowledge that it is fully, 100% his own choice, and that he has absolute power to change it if he wants to.
It also doesn’t hurt that he has a stable job. That his parents own a huge house on the waterfront, and he has a house of his own. That his family is healthy. That his wife is charming and cute, and never irrationally mean or cruel. That they don’t fall out of love or get on each others’ nerves, or find themselves attracted to other people.
The movie’s moral implications are, none of those things matter – but of course they do.
It’s great that he’s happy with his already pretty awesome life (which he orchestrated with Time Travel powers that we regular people don’t have), that he’s found love, that he has a wonderful family. But his moral preaching sounds condescending when applied to our own lives.
Firstly, because most of us do not have the magical powers to make our lives perfect; and secondly, because most of us would still prefer to live with enthusiasm and passion rather than Tim’s carefully controlled, almost fictional and scripted reality.
Best man wasn’t great? Try it again and choose another. Had a fight with the wife? Wipe the slate clean and bring home flowers. It’s a lot like Adam Sandler’s universal remote in “Click” – with a similar moral implication, except while Adam learns he shouldn’t mess with Time and should just enjoy life, Tim uses Time Travel to get what he wants (Mary) and after that relies on it less and less.
Tim’s happiness may come from his lack of ambition, but most of us want more – and telling us we can’t or shouldn’t, that we should be content with what we have – is restrictive and unnecessarily negative. Even if life is pretty good, why not do new things, challenge yourself, travel, take risks? Why not try and get a promotion, buy a bigger house, learn a new language, meet new people.
Tim is choosing the opposite of all of that. He’s created a paper-cutter perfect life and just wants to stay inside playing with his dolls.
If you could really choose to change your life, would you pick exactly where you currently are, right now? Are you happy with your house, your family, your job, your possessions, your health, your mood, your surroundings?
(If so – good on you. Just repeat to yourself “I am exactly where I choose to be. I love my life. Everything is getting better and better. Everything is working out perfectly.”) That’s a positive philosophy, it can’t hurt and it can do some good.
But even then – why not try something new? Why not try to grow, to learn, to see and do, to accomplish, to create?
I don’t see “About Time” as a moving, positive romantic story about learning to enjoy life in the small things and spend time with people you care about.
I see it as a mass-societal experiment in brainwashing the world’s work-force into accepting their stations without challenging the status quo. (Especially in a period of heavy social and economic instability.)
Here’s my interpretation of the movie (and life)
We all have super powers. We are able to take action. We are able to change things.
Time Travel is basically just creativity – the ability to see something you’d like to change, something you’d like to experience a little better, and make it so.
The movie tells us;
“We’re all traveling through time, all we can do is do our best to relish this remarkable ride.”
But that’s bullshit – we aren’t tied up in the back of a boat with no control over the destination.
Everything we do changes our future experiences.
We are the captains of our own ships.
If the waters are rough, there aren’t any fish and the view is depressing, we can research alternative destinations and plot a course to get there.
We can outfit and upgrade our ships however we want, or buy a new one. We can customize just about everything. We can invite people to join us on the journey or kick them overboard and forge ahead alone if we need to. We can even get drunk, wreck the ship on a deserted island and starve ourselves to death.
But we only get ONE chance. No repeats, no do overs.
Which means, don’t make stupid mistakes.
Err on the side of taking action, but don’t do so randomly or without a clear plan.
Unlike Tim, who’s only pretending to live each day as if it’s his last – for us it’s actually true. It’s the ONLY time we EVER get to experience that exact day. We can’t go back and redo it. This moment, right now, is ALL we get – and we’ll never have it again.
Take a long, deep breath and think about what that means to you.
Acknowledge those you love. Say heartfelt goodbyes. Let people know you care about them. If you like someone, tell them. Be friendly and kind and loving. Be contagiously enthusiastic and thoroughly generous. Make it your mission to improve the mood of everyone whose path you crossed today.
In the words of William Penn: “I expect to pass through this life but once. If, therefore, there be any kindness I can show or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”
But don’t spend a single second wasting time on something you’re not passionate about!
Don’t spend months in a boring routine going to a job you hate. Don’t watch 500 hours of sitcoms. Don’t passively accept and look for a way to endure (abide with positivity that which you cannot change) a mediocre existence.
Use your powers.
You don’t need to be stuck in the same boring days. You don’t need to be doing anything, ANYTHING you find boring, annoying, frustrating or objectionable. You don’t need to put up with loud, obnoxious people who suck happiness away from you.
Choose a future. Go somewhere dark. Imagine it in your mind, and clench your fists…
My rules for Time Travel
1) Since you are one of the lucky ones with the ability to time travel, gather as much success, money and influence to yourself as you can, so that you’ll be in a position to help others.
2) Instead of appreciating everything – even the stupid, boring crap – make every day a truly thrilling adventure.
3) You can be anything you want, but you have to know where you’re going. You can’t get there if you don’t know where you want to go, or how to get there. Research! Learn! Find people who have done it and study them, make friends with them, follow in their footsteps.
4) Don’t just focus on what makes you happy. Focus on providing something of value that other people need or want; create something of worth.
Ready? Let’s practice!
Where will you be in six months? What will you have accomplished and achieved? How will you have elevated your worth and your power to contribute to the lives of those around you? How will you have created more freedom for yourself through higher income, reduced spending, or relocation? What major steps will you have taken towards your “bucket list?”
See yourself exactly as you want to be in six months’ time. Happy, radiant, friendly, generous, successful. See yourself quitting your job, moving overseas, getting engaged or whatever else you’d like to be doing. Picture it in detail. Feel the positive emotional flow through your body as you experience this future reality.
Clench your fists and say “This, or something better, is coming to me now.”
Do this everyday and you will find yourself making small and subtle changes to steer you into your new future.
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.