The writer of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, as well as the writer-director of Love Actually might not seem like the kind of artist whose work would be featured on Cult of Whatever. After all, we try to focus on…well, “cult” entertainment, genres that once were considered niche, whose devotees were considered “uncool,” but which now have become the mainstream movers-and-shakers of the entertainment world. A schmaltzy romance movie rarely fits into such a subculture.
In this case, however, it’s fitting. About Time is not just a shmaltzy romance movie. It certainly has romance and it packs lots and lots of schmaltz but it’s a worthy addition to the subgenre of “cult entertainment” for a few reasons. Number one, it’s a sci-fi movie (just not a fully-committed one). Number two, it’s a sci-fi movie that failed to leave a lasting impression in the cinema or even on home video. On a budget of twelve-million it made almost ninety-million; it wasn’t a failure in that regard, especially considering how lightly (and terribly) it was marketed, but compared to writer/director Richard Curtis’ other works (Love Actually grossed a quarter of a billion; Notting Hill over a third of a billion), it was considered a disappointment.
It also stars more than a few actors that genre-fans will appreciate, including Domhnall Gleeson (Black Mirror, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Ex Machina) and Bill Nighy (Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, Shaun of the Dead,…countless other things). And, as if it needed any more cred, the movie was disastrously marketed, with an ad campaign that—in the grand tradition of so many “forgotten classic” genre movies—made it seem like it would be one thing when really it was something else entirely.
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I don’t know what that was, but it wasn’t About Time.
What is the movie, really? It’s a sci-fi movie with genre-actors, that was badly marketed, and was quickly forgotten. It’s exactly the kind of movie this site loves!
And like all good sci-fi movies, the gimmick is merely a tool used to compliment a story about the human condition, not an end unto itself. Though I suppose we should mention the elephant in the room: It’s not really a sci-fi story as the time-travel gimmick at the heart of the plot features no technology or other-worldly device…
21-year old Tim lives a relatively uneventful and slightly unfulfilled life, with a lack of a girlfriend being his most pressing and discouraging problem. His father is carefree, loving (without being overtly sentimental), playful in his early retirement. His sister is a bit of a mess, but kind and joyous. His mother is strong, the obvious bedrock of the family; not mean but rarely one to smile. Other than his lack of a relationship, Tim’s life was fine; mundane, but fine.
Then his dad sits him down to tell him the family secret: All of the men in their family have the ability to travel in time.
Again, there’s no “science” involved here. The movie is wholly uninterested in making sense of it. The method of travel consists entirely of: “go to a dark place, close your eyes, clinch your fists, think of when you want to go, and *poof* you’re there). The two very specific catches we’re given initially are that you can’t go forward in time, past the moment of your “present,” and you can only visit a time that you personally remember (so no going back to “kill Hitler or shag Helen of Troy”). The dad also handwaves the next logical question, which is “the butterfly effect.” He’s gone back and forth through time hundreds if not thousands of times and he’s never stepped on a bug and ended up causing the extinction of the human race, etc.
Once the pieces are in place, the story is free to use its gimmick to explore something about humanity, like all good science-fiction ought to do. In Tim’s case, he uses his talent to find and marry the perfect woman. This is where About Time soars. Other—lesser—films would have gone for the cliche-filled rom-com plot, with “boy meets girl, loses girl, wins girl” tropes left and right. Instead About Time tells its romance story almost entirely drama-free. This movie isn’t about Tim and his wife.
It’s about Tim and his father.
Throughout the second half of the film we learn the limitations of the time travel power. Another secret is revealed in shocking fashion; if you have a baby, and journey back in time before that baby was born, any changes you make will have a mini-butterfly effect, causing the identity of your child to change. Tim journey’s back before the birth of his daughter, to help his sister out of a messy relationship, reveals this: When he returns, he does so to find his sister happy and healthy…and a baby boy waiting to greet him.
The lesson his father teaches him is: The birth of a child is such a tremendous and life-changing moment, a person who travels through time—for whom time is irrelevant—will “mark the time” by it. We hear that lesson and we think it’s about Tim and his new child, but really it’s about Tim’s dad and Tim. Slowly the movie peels back the layers, revealing a story about appreciating the moments we have, because—in reality—we can’t go back and try them again. We only have the life we’ve been given.
If Wrath of Khan can be about “life and death” and be considered one of the great genre movies of its era, then About Time can be about “live every moment with carefree joy” and be considered one of the best, overlooked gems, of this era of genre-heavy entertainment. If you’re looking for a film to share with a special someone this Valentine’s Day, a movie to serve as a gateway to other, deeper, “cult entertainment” films, consider About Time, a movie which deserves way more love than it got in 2013.
10/10 – Emotional and sentimental without being too sappy or preachy, About Time deserves a place in the library of anyone who loves good, clean “morality-play science-fiction.”