Wrong, Actually: 3 Time-Travel Problems in Richard Curtis’s About Time

There's a lot Richard Curtis gets right in his new movie. But as sci-fi fans might tell you, there's some things he gets wrong too

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Murray Close / Universal Pictures

[WARNING: This post contains plot details and mild spoilers about the new movie About Time.]

Let’s face it, any movie that deals with time travel is going to face some pretty complicated plotting issues right off the bat — the very idea of time travel itself is riddled with paradoxical dilemmas. But there are some films that manage to navigate the paradoxes without raising too many obvious red flags. Unfortunately, About Time, which is opening in wide releasee on Nov. 8, is not one of those films.

The movie’s plot centers on Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), an affable Brit who learns from his father (Bill Nighy) that the men in their family have the ability to travel back in time. All they have to do find a dark, quiet place, clench their fists and think of a time in their past — and they’ll be transported there. Tim, naturally, uses his ability to perfect his love life and marry his dream girl (Rachel McAdams).

Writer-director Richard Curtis, who’s the brain behind much-loved  films like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love, Actually, told my colleague Lily Rothman that he did work to reconcile the time-travel aspect of the film with his romantic vision, and she reveals that he did get the heart of the movie scientifically correct. As Rothman points out, Curtis’s film is more concerned with the emotional implications of time travel, rather than the geeky nuts and bolts of it.

But, what’s likely to charm the rom-com fans is almost certain to frustrate the sci-fi crowd. Here are three problems with time travel in About Time that we can’t get past:

Merging messiness

In time travel, one of two things can happen. Either the time traveler will exist separately from his past self, which means there would be two of the same person existing in one time period. Or the time traveler will merge with the past self, inhabiting his body so there is only one person. The latter is the route that Curtis goes with, though the details are unclear in the execution.

For example, when Tim goes into a closet and clenches his fists, he occasionally travels through time and merges with Past-Tim who, for some reason, is also standing in the same closet. No explanation is given to explain how Past-Tim happened to be in the closet or, more complicatedly, if Past-Tim just disappeared from what he was doing at the moment Future-Tim traveled back in time, so they could meet and merge in the closet. Even more confusing, there are a few instances when Tim travels back and merges with Past-Tim, who’s not in the closet but sitting amongst a group of people.

The movie sets up its rules – and then breaks them

Most time-travel movies attempt to avoid some of the inherent paradoxes associated with time travel by setting out very specific rules and sticking to them. About Time makes an attempt at setting up such rules, but breaks them, repeatedly, without much explanation.

The rules laid out by Tim’s father are that only the men in the family can travel back in time — never into the future — and only to a time when they were actually alive. Fair enough. But later on in the movie, Tim’s sister Kit Kat is actually able to travel back years in time with her brother, simply by holding his hands. Not only that, rather than traveling back in time and having to wait there, reliving everything that happened in order to catch up to where they started out, Tim and Kit Kat travel back to the present — or their future, depending on how you look at it. So it would seem that: (1) it’s not only the men in the family who can travel in time, and (2) they actually can travel into the future, depending on their starting point.

The Butterfly Effect exists — kind of

Early on in About Time, Tim’s father makes a passing mention of the so-called Butterfly Effect — the idea that even the smallest things you do in the revisited past will have a ripple effect on subsequent events and, in some cases, irrevocably change the course of history. That idea also jibes with a rule that Tim’s dad reveals later on in the movie — traveling to a time before your child is born will erase that child, who was the result of a very specific moment (and very specific sperm).

Tim, unfortunately, does not know about this rule until he travels back many years and accidentally erases his daughter Posy, replacing her with a little boy. Yet, without any explanation, Tim is able to go back and undo the Posy-erasure. Even more confounding, later on in the film Tim and his father travel together to a time when Tim was a little boy, which, obviously was before his children were born. But this time he’s able to return to his still-unaltered present. It’s the most confusing aspect of the film.

Which is unfortunate. Curtis has definitely created a movie full of delightful British characters, an oh-so-sweet love story and more than a few moments that tug at the heart-strings, but the sci-fi fans out there likely won’t be able to see its charms through the gaping time-travel plot-holes.