A Sense of Time

Oh, plot holes! Let me count thy ways! About Time (2013; streaming on Amazon Prime) is one of my brother Mark’s favorite movies (recommended and discussed in this episode of Saints and Cinema). Time travel is the engine by which the plot moves—I’m usually a big suspension-of-disbelief guy—but I had a little trouble with the “rules” of time travel in this movie. The father (Bill Nighy, great as always) tells his son Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) that the men in their family are able to travel back in time—though “not forward, obviously.” All they have to do is stand in a dark place, hold their hands in fists, and think of the moment to which they want to go, and voila! they will be there. The “Butterfly Effect” is cleverly discarded by the father (I don’t think we ever learn his name) telling Tim that he’s traveled through time a lot, and nothing has ever been messed up.  

Yet, sometimes they are able to travel forward in time, because Tim regularly travels back to the future, whence he began. Sometimes traveling back and then forward again does change things, particularly with regard to children. Once, Tim goes back in order to prevent something bad from happening to his sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson). When they return, his sister immediately recalls what has happened in the meantime, namely, whom she is dating. But when Tim returns, his toddler daughter is now his son. He doesn’t recall that, but discovers it. His father tells him that if he goes back prior to a child being born, that changes which sperm fertilizes which egg, so the child must be different—or something. Additionally, when he goes back to help Harry (Tom Hollander), the depressed, alcoholic playwright who is a friend of his father, he no longer has Mary’s (Rachel McAdams) number in his phone, because he wasn’t at the restaurant to meet her and get her number. But at other times, his time travel doesn’t seem to affect anything at all.

But the biggest hole is when Tim wants to spend a few more minutes with his dad, who has died. So just before the birth of his third child, after which he can apparently not go back again (although the child is already in the womb?), he spends some time with his dad playing ping-pong. Then they decide to travel back together to a time when Tim was a child and they spent time on the beach, skipping stones, and walking together. That moment was not only (obviously) before all the events in the film, but also before the births of all of his children. And yet, when he returns, he’s still married and all his children are the same age and sex.  

But with all of that out of the way, I barely cared about all of those issues. Because this film is clearly not about the mechanics of time travel. (And what movie about time travel has ever met with the approval of physicists?) There are a lot of movies that are concerned, either as a major or minor theme, with how we need to treasure each moment of our passing lives. This may be the most effective of them. Humor is abundant and the writing avoids clichés. It is regularly surprising, especially when compared with mainstream Hollywood rom-coms (and this is from the director of Love, Actually). The relationship between Tim and Mary is central, since Tim is the central character and narrator, but it doesn’t overwhelm the other familial relationships in the film. Nearly everyone in the film is fully rounded as a character, individuals with their own cinematic selves. 

While taking stock of minutes, and hours, and days, because they pass far too quickly, is the major theme, this is more than just a typical romantic comedy. There is, as well, a genuinely moving meditation on extended family as well, and generational ties. The father-son relationship is inverted from its usual movie disfunctionality into something profound and affecting. And Tim’s relationship with Mary (apart from the unfortunately typical fall-into-bed-on-the-first-date and cohabitation) is upheld, even when Tim has a chance to “go back” in the present time and rekindle an old relationship. 

The inescapable movement of time and the brevity of life, no matter how many times we are warned by those older than we are, is a truth that comes clear only as we ourselves move closer to death’s inevitability. A movie constructed around the fantastical element of time travel can actually affect how we live our real lives, in which we have no opportunity to go back and correct first impressions or misspoken words. There is this moment, and this moment, and this moment only as they come, one after another. This is why I think that, ultimately, the plot holes do not matter to the film as a whole. Ignore the mechanics and take in what Tim is trying to do. 

At the same time, Christians have a different relation to time than do those who believe that death brings an end to our lives altogether. When we are too entangled with the present moment, and how much time we get in these bodily lives, we can easily lose track of the telos, the end or consummation, of our lives. Since we have only ever lived these lives, they seem real to us, while any life after death can easily seem less than real. This is concrete; that is abstract. This is physical; that is “spiritual.” But as with so many things, that way of thinking gets it exactly backwards. What is to come is more real, more concrete, more physical than anything we experience in this age. Resurrection life is not more intangible, not more tenuous; it is, instead, firmer and more fundamentally real, as real and tangible as Jesus’ resurrection body. These are the things that, we rightly recognize, are passing away. But what we cannot see, St. Paul says, is eternal. 

About Time can certainly teach us not to take for granted the moments we have with loved ones in this life. But there is a greater Time that encompasses everything that happens here, that perfects and restores it in Christ. Sometimes we assume there is no time in the eternity of the resurrection life. While I obviously do not know for sure, I am not sure that is correct. Did not the Creator establish His creation to exist within time? Apparently, that was His good intention. Though He exists—is Being—apart from and outside of time, which He created, that does not mean He intends us to live outside time. Though we might imagine eternity to be a shapeless mass of timeless existence, is it not death that makes time something fearful and produces anxiety? It is not time that is the problem, but the limit that death places on time. And the time is coming when time will have no limit. Death will be no more. Limited time will be subsumed within time unlimited, this creation will be subsumed within the new heavens and earth, our lives will be subsumed within eternal life, and our families will be subsumed within the Family of God in Jesus Christ. And I think we will all say that it’s about time.