The James Clayton Column: The romance of time travel

In light of Richard Curtis' time-travel rom-com About Time, James looks at a few other temporal romance movies...

(Note: this column contains mild spoilers for some films about time travel and the writer of this article is worried about causing catastrophic ripple effects with his advance knowledge of things that have not yet been experienced. If you find any traumatic spoilers and are offended by them simply let the author know and provide precise, exact details and he’ll happily travel back to the period in which he was typing the piece and adjust accordingly.)

(Note 2: the author has already travelled back 16 times to re-edit this column to appease picky readers. Please stop asking him to do this and leave him alone so he can use his time travel powers for fun things like hanging out with Nikola Tesla, participating in the Punic Wars and leaving Game Boys in Aztec temples so a doomed race gets the chance to play Tetris before Conquistadores wipe them all out.)

The Richard Curtis time travel movie? It’s About Time. I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen for a while (ever since Love Actually, actually). Sir Richard is Britain’s leading producer of romantic comedies but he needs something fresh to secure his status. He also needs something edgy to offset all this excess cosiness and riding over the edges of known, comprehensible science is definitely edgy.

His films are not my preferred cup of tea, and I tend to find Curtis’ movie works a touch too twee and tied up in awkward Middle Englishness for my taste. To get me interested and drinking it down smooth there’s got to be something else spicing up the familiar formula (inept and embarrassing Brit fop lead, American dream girl, kooky friends, radio-friendly pop soundtrack, etc).

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That something is time travel because time travel is the answer to every problem. Fans of Doctor Who and anyone who’s seen the denouement of the first Superman movie knows this. Bitter regrets rankling at you? Time travel! Struggling with your history homework? Time travel! Impatient and bothered by present circumstances and want that tantalising future now? Time travel! Want to ride a woolly mammoth? Time travel!

Turn to films – the most accessible temporal displacement channels – and you immediately find that when time travel is utilised as a plot device everything becomes way more interesting and potentially exciting. See, for instance, how it has been used repeatedly to bring fresh life to old franchises and kept them going on in compelling fashion – see Men In Black III, the Back To The Future films and look ahead with interest to the upcoming mutant ensemble timestream convergence of X-Men: Days Of Future Past.

On a more human level it does a lot intellectually and emotionally for viewers and for the characters themselves, as you will discover below if you continue reading this article. (That’s a hint to the future where you’re going to experience something that will at that moment be present but yet was written in the past. See! Time travel! Isn’t this brilliant?!)

All filmmakers need to do is some perfunctory physics research during pre-production. They then select their type of time – is it ‘tensed time’, ‘tenseless time’ or something informed by obscure theories of cosmic strings or special relativity? – and work out a way of moving between different points in/of time at will.

Once you’ve got a base theoretical model that makes sense and is believable enough for casual spectators you’re free to go wild. There are potentially no limits to what you can do with story elements as long as you stick consistently to the configured rules of your universe.

Even if there are impossibilities and illogical paradoxes occurring – and anal academics subsequently slamming the movies as pseudo-scientific shams – my enthusiasm for this kind of material remains undiminished. If anything, the perplexing problems and plotholes of these pictures makes me even more interested and I enjoy them whether they handle time travel in, say, cerebral style, for comic effect or as a high concept action blockbuster proposition.

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I’m fascinated by the idea of journeying through time (or in defiance of ‘regular’ time) and I realise that this interest flows in confluence with my pop cultural preferences. My favourite novelist is probably Slaughterhouse-Five scribe Kurt Vonnegut (the man who wrote “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time”) and my top two films of 2012 were Looper and Safety Not Guaranteed so I can only come to the conclusion that I’ve definitely got a thing for time travel.

It stimulates me in several ways and I’m turned on when someone turns the clock backward or forward. This discovery has made me realise that my dream date would probably involve some kind of extreme advanced technology and chrononaut capering. And then we embrace on the very edges of science and kiss as we crack the sensible laws of physics and together share the most orgasmic mind, body and soul experience imaginable. I think I love you, whoever you are, wherever you are, whenever you are. Next time I’ll take you out to the Coliseum so we can watch gladiator battles together. (The rebuilt Coliseum on the Mars colony of 2234 is pretty spectacular, by the way.)

If you, imaginary blind date, can’t stretch to crossing the timespace continuum then we can at least go and see About Time now that it’s in cinemas. I had Pacific Rim and Only God Forgives down as my perfect first date movies for this year but I accept that other people probably want to go for something more conventional. With that in mind, About Time gets the honour of being the best romance film currently in theatres and I recommend it to couples, singles and those who both love and loathe Love Actually.

Curtis’ fresh feature is sweet and witty but it’s elevated, in my opinion at least, by the time travel element that forms the core. I repeat again, everything is better with time travel. It’s also true that time travel is romantic as I hope my dream date vision has clearly illustrated. (I’m waiting for you with a stash of 22nd century aphrodisiac sherbert in the steam pool of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, 598 BC if you want extra proof.)

Figure this kind of material to be cold and unfeelingly intellectual and you’re in error. If you line up all the films you’ve seen in this sub-genre and actually consider the chrono-trigger happy characters who lead them you find that, for the most part, they’re actually a highly romantic bunch.

There are exceptions, of course, and you don’t have to go far to find selfish villains using time travel technology to be perverse (Héctor in Timecrimes) or for personal gain (prescient gamblers and stock market fixers in the form of Biff in Back To The Future II, the Primer guys and the villains in Timecop). We’ll ignore those immoral misanthropes though and instead look to the good guys, because you’d rather go on excellent adventures with Bill and Ted or the dwarven Time Bandits than the bogus dudes from Primer.

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For now – though ‘now’ is feeling like a nebulous phrase, erm, now – I’d like to concentrate on these characters and this concept in romantic terms and lay out the reasons why I find time travel films so touching. A significant part of it lies in the fact that time travel tales make you conscious of time’s passage and encourage you to reflect on lifetimes and your own fragile human mortality.

Time is the ultimate adversary so time travel is a victorious rebellion against a cruel, destructive system. Love triumphs over death and decay if you can master time and the chrononauts from numerous movies manage to prove that love truly conquers all by crossing the timespace continuum to achieve romantic resolutions.

These heroes are all ultimately doing it for love and for the human spirit, even if they are forced into the ordeal and get slightly lost along the way. (Think McFly! What the hell are you doing with your mother?!)

I raise you Kyle Reese, shining white knight from a post-apocalyptic future here to kill the Terminator and make sweet love to Sarah Connors so that the human race may survive. Similarly, observe how in Source Code Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) manipulates his mission in a timeloop until he’s manufactured an alternate reality in which he gets to go on a date with Michelle Monaghan. There’s also Jean-Claude Van Damme in Timecop, striving to protect his pregnant wife in a happier pre-widowhood past.

Kenneth of Safety Not Guaranteed wants to go back and save his dead ex-girlfriend and the enigmatic narrator of La Jetée wants to share memories with a woman from a world soon to be ruined. Note how Bill Murray’s jaded weatherman comes to see Groundhog Day as a gift and uses it to woo Andie MacDowell and you see the true heartwarming power of time travel.

They’re sentimental, amorous souls are movie timetravellers and I’m tearing up just thinking about Old Joe (Bruce Willis) clinging on to the fading photo of his Chinese lover as he fights to prevent Young Joe altering his happy future. And then Austin Powers is shagging in several time periods so there’s sex as well, baby, yeah.

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That brings us to About Time which upholds the tradition and presents us a timetravelling hero of real heart and generous spirit. Without giving away details, Domhnall Gleeson’s Tim uses his time travel powers in similar fashion to the aforementioned trans-temporal amours – he seizes the opportunity to be the best human being and the best lover he can be.

About Time made me go all sappy and I left the cinema existentially uplifted, high on thoughts of love and the fragile beauty of life. It touched me and films themed around these things always do for such is the romance of time travel. Now, I’m free tonight, tomorrow night and several nights several centuries ago. How about you come and see About Time with me or, even better, join me for an excellent adventure across several sweet timestreams?

James Clayton is with Nikola Tesla in 15th Century Tenochtitlan. They’re playing Nintendo games, enjoying exotic romantic encounters and providing electric weaponry to the Aztecs so really everyone benefits from this time travel trip. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter. 

You can read James’ last column here.

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