We subsequently returned to it with a more complete look at this enjoyable but temporally complex and frustrating film. It is indeed a temporal disaster, not sticking with a consistent set of rules, but it is still an enjoyable movie.
In republishing the analysis here, we have included the original quick survey as the first section, followed by the original article series.
Back in November, we took the opportunity to catch About Time in the theatre. It was an enjoyable film, with some interesting insights, but laced with problems. As we have done before with Men in Black III (before doing a fuller analysis) and more recently with Free Birds, we are presenting a brief temporal analysis based on a single viewing, to be expanded in the future when the film is available on video.
On his twenty-first birthday, Tim is told by his father that the men in their family have always been able to travel to moments in their own past and alter them. He thinks it's a gag, but tries it, and is able to make less of a fool of himself at the recent New Year's Eve party. It appears to be the same system as with Butterfly Effect, of taking over his own body, except that apparently his body vanishes from wherever it was and is instead wherever he was when he left the future. Exactly once he takes his sister with him (he undoes that trip because of other consequences), so we know he can take others but does not choose to do so.
He attempts to use the ability to win the heart of a gorgeous girl spending the summer with them, fails to do so, and so learns that time travel does not guarantee that you can get someone to fall in love with you. Then he chances upon another girl, Mary, and gets her phone number. Arriving home, however, he learns that his landlord/housemate, a playwright, had a disastrous opening of his new play when the lead actor forgot his lines in the climactic scene. He decides to fix this, traveling back to prod the actor to review the lines, only to have the other actor forget his, so he makes another quick trip back to provide cue cards for him, and so wins the play brilliant reviews. However, he then no longer has Mary's phone number. Using what he remembers from their conversation, he tracks her down; but it takes about a week during which time she has met her new boyfriend at a party. He travels back to the party to interfere with that meeting and win her for himself (repeating comments about her favorite artist she had made to him in their now non-existent previous meetings), and eventually they marry and have a daughter. He uses his time travel mostly to correct little things, in short hops of a few minutes.
The film deserves kudos for catching the genetic problem, as Tim discovers that if he changes his life (and it is always his life he is changing) before the conception of his child, he gets a different child. This prevents him from interfering with his sister's relationship with the bad-boy boyfriend she met at that same party, and forces him to help her solve her dependency and alcoholism in the present. It does not carry its own logic through to other people, but does suggest that his time travel is thereafter limited. He uses it periodically to visit his father, who died after Tim's second child was born, until he finally says good bye (and makes a daring trip back to his own childhood for his father's last wish) before the birth of his third child. Ultimately he discovers that he does not need the time travel, as life, with all its foibles, is good enough the first time through, and sometimes the bad things that happen are needed to bring the good.
It is a warm and comfortable movie, although it is laced with problems--how does Tim know to change a past he has already changed, and how does he manage to restore a history he has undone? The two events are incompatible with each other, as the theory (Niven's Law) that makes the one possible makes the other impossible. There is also the mystery of what happens when he commandeers his past self, and what happens when he returns that self to its own control, but it does not appear that there is sufficient information in the film to answer those questions.
Again, it was an enjoyable film, and as long as you don't try to figure out the time travel problems it is worth watching.
When it was in theatres last fall this film caught our attention, and at the beginning of the new year we took a quick look at the time travel elements; it is now available on video, so we are looking a bit more deeply at the problems. A brief summary of the storyline is covered in the second of those linked articles, so we will dispense with it here.
The essential time travel element is that the central character and narrator Tim is told by his father that all the men in their family have always had the ability to time travel. It is very like what we know of Butterfly Effect, in which it is evident that Evan's father had the same ability (and in Butterfly Effect 2, where it appears that Nick's son may also have the condition). Here, though, Tim specifically asks about butterfly effect problems, and his father gives him the fairly non-committal answer that so far they've never had a major problem. He does fail to mention one problem that falls into this category, which arises later in the film, but we'll get to that.
This tells us that time travel has been happening for generations within this family, and that there have been probably hundreds of trips to the past, most of which were intended to change the past and succeeded in doing so. We thus need to determine whether there is a credible time travel theory in which this is possible. It is patently obvious that fixed time theory does not work here; we see Tim and his father change the past several times. We considered in connection with the Butterfly Effect franchise whether such a system would work under multiple dimension theory, and found it problematic; it is more so here.
When someone travels to the past in another dimension, whether a pre-existing parallel universe or a newly-created diverging one, he leaves the present universe and never returns to it. In this case, he does not duplicate himself, because he uses the body of his doppelganger. He does abandon the universe in which he started. In the Butterfly Effect franchise, that meant he was creating a lot of horrible universes. In this case, though, we have the obvious problem that there are two people altering the past, neither of whom is aware of changes made by the other. If Tim's Dad left for another universe, Tim would be aware that his Dad had left. It seems rather evident that they are changing their own histories, and the histories of those they know in their own world.
We thus need some form of replacement theory. That allows us to change history in our own universe. However, we have some serious complications to consider if that is the case.
The first trip we see is made by Tim on New Years Day, immediately upon being informed by his father that he can travel to his own past. He chooses to travel to the party of the previous night, and being there with foreknowledge of how he made a fool of himself at the party he adroitly avoids doing so the second time through. This becomes our first real information about how it works and what happens.
It should be noted that to do this, Tim enters the hall closet, makes the jump, and exits the from the hall closet into the party; when he has finished his visit, he re-enters the closet and returns to the same closet in his own time. Some of those details will be important later; what matters for now is that he leapt to the past and returned to the future, and that when he did so he altered his own history such that he never made a fool of himself at the party the night before. We, though, must trace that history.
In the original history, Tim made a fool of himself at the party, and still regretted it the next day. Then his father told him that he could travel to his own past and alter it, and although he did not believe it, his test scenario was to undo the embarrassment, at which he succeeded. He then skips the intervening events and returns to New Years Day.
However, he does not cease to exist in the past. Rather, the version of him for which it is still New Years Eve apparently abruptly finds himself in a closet with no knowledge of what has happened for the past ten minutes, the very ten minutes when the countdown reached zero and the new year began and everyone celebrated. He did not embarrass himself, but he probably decided something was wrong with him. The next morning he is not thinking about how he embarrassed himself the night before, because neither he nor anyone else remembers him having done so. His father tells him of his unsuspected ability, and if he has any reason to go back to the party it is to find out why he had that blackout, and what he was doing at that time. He cannot, however, undo the cause of his embarrassment, because he is unaware of it--although probably he would be less enthusiastic about the New Year and more circumspect in trying to observe the events around him, so probably he would not embarrass himself if he made the same trip.
The complication is that it is not very likely that he would do so. There are probably hundreds of times he might prefer to revisit, and the specific impetus for him to travel to last night has been erased. That means there is no reason for him to make that trip, and so he does not make it (he makes some other trip instead), and thus his doppelganger, not having the benefit of foreknowledge, stumbles into the embarrassment he had undone. We are probably at this point trapped in an infinity loop, and that means the movie has ended. Of course, as we noted, there have been hundreds of such trips made by his relatives, most of which will have suffered the same fate as this one, and so we cannot have reached the present.
One way to save this is to use the common understanding of Niven's Law, and so to suppose that once a time traveler has altered the past he need not in the new version of events make the trip to alter the past, because once he has changed it it remains changed. Objections to this view have been made elsewhere, but if we allow for the moment that in this film that rule applies it becomes an issue to which we will have to return later.
There is another significant issue with this particular alteration to the past that we will have to consider, pertaining to Tim's memories.
On his first trip to the past Tim entered the closet, traveled to the previous night's party, undid his embarrassment, then went back into the closet and leapt back to the future. What is significant in this is that he changed his own history, but he did not live through the altered version of history; on the other hand, he was present for the altered version, and did live through it. His father is unaware when he begins to tell Tim of his ability that he has done this already, a different version of Dad having talked to a different version of Tim from the one who has, sequentially speaking, already left from the future, altered the past, and returned to the future a few minutes from now. The Tim to whom he gives the speech is equally unaware of this. Neither of them have any memory of Tim's embarrassment of the previous night (the problem we just addressed). It is not certain what that other Tim remembers about the party. Clearly he does not remember having had this conversation with his father this morning, because for him this is the first time through.
Again as noted, we do not know where this Tim went to test the ability. However, that other Tim returns. He remembers living through the party twice, once as an embarrassing disaster and then again corrected. However, he will only have remembered going to bed once, awakening once, talking to his father once, and going to the closet to test the ability once. Meanwhile, there is--or until this moment was--a version of him who does not remember any embarrassment at the party, remembers going to bed last night and getting up this morning, having a conversation with his father which was not in the least tinged by his recollections of the embarrassment of the previous night, and going to the closet to make a trip somewhere to alter the past in some way that our Tim did not consider. What is particularly significant is that this doppelganger Tim was certainly thinking something that morning, and since our Tim was thinking about an embarrassment which that other Tim never experienced, the other Tim was thinking about something different.
So we come to the issue at hand, which is what our Tim remembers of the life of the other Tim. We get the answer eventually, that he has no memory of the events that he skips when he leaps forward in time; but then, where do those memories go? What becomes of the version of Tim that lived through those moments?
That issue becomes more significant in later trips, but it is already present here.
We confront our next issue with our next trip, when Tim goes back to talk to that gorgeous girl who visited over the summer, Charlotte.
We come to the second reported trip to the past, and already we have two inconsistencies when compared to the first.
On Tim's first trip to the past, he went into a closet, traveled back a matter of hours, and emerged from the closet in the past. He then did what he wished, re-entered the closet, and traveled back to the future, emerging again from the closet.
The second trip is inspired by Charlotte, the cute girl spending the summer with Kit. She asks Tim to put suntan lotion on her back, and he spills it, so he runs away to go back a few minutes and fix the problem. We do not see him enter the closet, but assume that is where he goes; however, he does not exit from the closet. Rather, he simply appears as himself where he was at the moment he has targeted.
This is more consistent with the Butterfly Effect/Quantum Leap concept of time travel, and our objections to it have already been voiced (concerning what memories each version of the time traveler has of the events). The problem here is that it is inconsistent. We do not always see his departures and arrivals, but we do see other arrivals for which he remains in the closet while traveling to the past. With this one, when he becomes his previous self he does so where his previous self was. This creates fewer problems in one sense--after all, if we are to assume that on the first trip Tim replaced himself at the party, how did his doppelganger wind up in the closet, and did someone see him vanish from the party to get there? Having Tim take over his self wherever he was at the time is in some ways less problematic as a time travel method. The objection is not that it was done that way, but that it was done that way only sometimes, and done differently other times.
The other inconsistency is less problematic; it only demonstrates an aspect of the process that might not have been anticipated. This time he does not return to the future--he simply lives through those moments again, doing it right the second time through, and stays with the timeline. It makes sense for him to do it that way this time, because it is a very short time, the time of his original departure probably arriving before he is finished with the correction. It will matter, though, in later situations.
This might be one of the most peculiar changes to history Tim makes, and it is only his third trip.
Mostly because he cannot work up the nerve, Tim never raises the "love thing" with Charlotte until it is almost too late. When he does, on her last night with them, she shuts him down cold, saying that it was a bad idea to wait until her last night. He takes her advice to heart, goes to his closet, and comes back one month sooner, when she has been there a month. This time she stalls him, suggesting that it would be better for him to ask her on her last night.
This he takes to mean that she has no intention of taking him seriously, and she is trying to put him off gently. He already knows what she says on her last night, and it did not work. But then, did he change history, or did he not change history?
In the original history, he never verbalized his interest in her until the last night she was there. Thus when he asks her on the last night, she brushes him off with the objection that he should have asked her sooner. It is, in that circumstance, a reasonable objection--he could have brought up the subject sooner, and he never did.
Now he asks her after the first month, and it is she who suggests that he ask her again on her last night. What is going to happen? He seems to think that what she did on her last night in the original history is what she will do this time, but this time is different. She cannot say that he should not have left it to the last night, because this time he did not do that, and she suggested that it would be a good idea.
Looked at from a different perspective, this time in mid July Tim asks Charlotte if she might be interested in him, and she says in effect that she might, she does not yet know, but they should talk about it again just before she leaves. That gives him hope, and a reason to talk to her again about it on her last night; it also means she really should expect that he will approach her again on that last night, and she cannot tell him that it was a bad idea to wait so long because this time it was her idea.
So perhaps in this history he does not ask her on the last night, because he already knows what she is going to say--but then, he doesn't know, no matter how we configure the matter. Assuming that the version of him that lives through that last month after that conversation is aware of the conversation, it will have given him hope and incentive to talk to her, because he does not know about the conversation still in his future. Assuming that this past version of him does not remember the conversation (because it was the future version who was in control of his body at that moment), he has no reason not to make the same move his other self did, and talk to her on her last night. Either way, he is going to have a different conversation with her, one coming from the history in which she, at least, remembers having told him to talk to her about it on her last night.
He might even get a different answer. That is, the answer has to be different, even if it is a different excuse, but she might decide to suggest they write to each other and see where it goes, or that she'd like to see him maybe next summer if nothing happens before then. She cannot say what she said the first time, and it is ridiculous for Tim to expect that she would, because he changed history and deprived her of that answer in the process.
So again the new trip gives us a new problem.
The next two trips are connected to Harry Chapman's play, but they are themselves part of perhaps the most dramatic event in About Time. Harry is Tim's landlord, a past companion of Tim's father, and a bitter and sarcastic person on nearly every subject.
For some unexplained reason, Tim does not go to see the opening of Harry's play, but instead goes with "Dodgy Jay" to the restaurant Dans Le Noir, where meals are served (as you will have gathered if you understand a little French) in darkness, by blind waiters. They are seated with Joanna and Mary, whom they cannot see in the dark. Joanna is aggressively outgoing, Mary shy and self-deprecating. Tim manages to be quite funny, and the only embarrassing thing he does is put strawberry mousse in Mary's eye in the darkness, which she laughs off as a new experience. They connect on the curb outside, where Mary puts her phone number in Tim's phone while Joanna dumps Jay and drags her friend into a waiting cab. Tim returns home, that is, to Harry's place, elated at finding such a wonderful girl who seems to like him, and finds Harry raving more than usual, because of the disaster that befell the theatrical debut of his new play.
It seems that the lead actor, in the midst of the critical final scene, completely forgot his lines for half an hour while the audience waited in silence. Harry anticipates that the forthcoming reviews will be entirely about the Alzheimers moment of a great actor--called "Sir Tom", thus knighted--with nothing about the otherwise brilliant play.
Tim says he'll see what he can do, which Harry derides, but soon Tim is standing in the doorway of Sir Tom's dressing room suggesting to the ire of the actor that it might be worth a quick review of the lines in that difficult scene, which despite being offended by the suggestion Tom makes. He delivers the scene perfectly--only to have his co-star at that moment forget his own response. This time, though, Tim is in the audience, excuses himself, and suddenly is in the wings with large cue cards. The play is saved, Harry is complaining that Tim left during the best moment, and we are handed a significant collection of problems.
We already are not certain where he appears when he vanishes, which is compounded by the fact that his doppelganger is seated next to Harry in the audience and will have to remove himself well before the final scene to prepare the cue cards (find materials and a script and get in position) unless of course he simply vanishes, teleported to wherever Tim starts, which is just as problematic as well as inconsistent with the suntan lotion trip.
The same rule that prevents him from being in his seat in the theatre because he is preparing the cue cards also keeps him out of the restaurant, so that he is not meeting Mary. At this point we have the interesting detail, well-considered, that the memory in his phone has been erased--or more accurately, that the phone number Mary entered was never entered and thus is not in the phone's memory. We are thus challenged with the question of why that meeting with Mary is not erased from his own mind, but the answer would seem to be that his memory traveled with him to the past, and his phone did not. Thus the phone to which he returns never went to the restaurant, but the mind which makes the trip with him does remember that, as well as being in the theatre at the same time temporally but later sequentially. At this point, the film must be commended for catching that detail, although in sooth the juxtaposition of the two events was an obviously intentional contrivance to create the phone number problem.
For Tim, the new problem is how to find Mary, without her number or her last name, and stymied by the fact that she never met him.
As the story takes its next twist, it is difficult to decide whether the writers' view of love is highly optimistic or terribly jaded. Within a week of not meeting Tim, Mary is totally in love with someone else, Rupert, whom she met at a party at Joanna's. Tim leaps back to crash the party under the pretext that he is a friend of Mary (Joanna is surprised to learn that Mary has a friend besides her), uses Rupert's angle to draw Mary away from the party before Rupert arrives, throws some words about Mary's idol fashion model Kate Moss which he got from Mary in the previous history, and Mary seizes him like a drowning man going for a lifering, and soon they are together in bed at what is clearly her invitation. She is totally in love with Tim, and has never met Rupert.
The jaded view this suggests is that if you want someone to fall in love with you, you simply need to find someone who is ready to fall in love with someone and become the right person in the right place at the right time. If you are not there, she will fall in love with someone who is and never give you a second look.
The optimistic view is even less romantic, in a sense. Just as the girl (or guy) of your dreams might fall in love with someone else because you missed the opportunity to be there when she was falling in love, so too there is someone else out there who will fall in love with you if you manage to be the right person in the right place at the right time. You might miss the perfect person, but then find someone else who is perfect.
In fact, that seems to have happened with Tim. Charlotte, who rebuffed his advances over the summer, returns. He sees her when he is at the theatre, and tells Rory how totally perfect she is while trying to avoid her. She now changes her mind, stating outright that she made a mistake. (We might think it was now the right time for her, and again Tim is the right person in the right place.) Tim decides against the liaison--but we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Having removed Rupert from the picture, Tim consummates with Mary what we take to be his first stumbling sexual experience; she tells him how the bra works. He decides that he did not do really all that well, so he excuses himself, goes back to the starting point, and repeats it. He then decides that he can do better yet, so he goes back once more for a third attempt at a first time. He does wonderfully well, apparently, and then announces that he is going to sleep. She teases him about once being enough, he responds that it's not exactly fair, and there is a hint that he is exhausted from having done this thrice. Yet he has not done it thrice; his body has done it once. He remembers doing it thrice, because he remembers the histories which he has erased, but if he is exhausted after the third first time, it can only really be because he exhausted himself on that time.
It then must be observed that Tim stays in the past, letting time carry him back to the moment of his departure. He did this before, with applying the suntan lotion, but in that case it was a matter of repeated minutes. This time he relives several days. Whatever he originally did in that time he now has never done, but since most of that entailed trying to catch Mary at the Kate Moss exhibit all he has lost is the time he spent with Kit, which now he remembers but she does not.
There is another notable detail in what we just covered, but if you missed it we will address it next.
We have covered Tim's second and third first meetings with Mary, and the fact that having thought their "first time" was less than adequate he went back and redid it--twice. That raises another issue we saw in the Butterfly Effect films: what happens if a time traveler returns to the same moment in the past again, intending to do something different than he intended the previous time?
It is in some ways more complicated in this case, because we are relying on that uncertain interpretation of Niven's Law, that once he changes the past it remains changed. It is inherent in the process that an arrival in the past which changes the past erases the departure in the future that causes the change, but does not thereby eliminate the arrival in the past. When Tim learned of the disaster which was the play, he traveled back to prevent it, but then in the new history he did not have any reason to travel back to prevent it because it had been prevented. Where we would expect an infinity loop the film gives us a stable history, which it can only do by assuming that the changes made by the time traveler, once made, are not dependent on the time traveler departing from the future--he arrives in the past even though he does not depart from the future.
Of course, the problem is what happens if having arrived in the past and having altered the past, he then does depart from the future aiming for the same moment in the past--and more, if he does so intending to change a history he has already changed. Logically, his other time traveling self is already there. We have that problem with divergent dimension theory, in which the fact that the time traveler does not have to leave the future to arrive in the past leads inevitably to the conclusion that if he does leave from the future he duplicates himself in the past.
In this case, though, we have insufficient information. In The Butterfly Effect, Evan Treborn experienced blackouts, unable to remember the events of those times when his future self was in control of him (although as we suggested it makes more sense for them to be separate problems); the absence of such blackouts became serious problems for the sequels. In this case, we do not know what Tim experiences when his future self takes control of his body, or what he remembers of those events if his future self then returns to the future. Clearly Tim is erasing the departure and seizing control of his past self; that he then does so again and seizes control of himself from another self who had previously done so is strange but not more incredible.
He does this again when he once more encounters Charlotte. He comes close to doing so when he takes Kit back to the same party, but seems to leave before he arrives, so it probably is not a problem that time.
We will touch on one more little trip this time, because of the mistake it erases. Mary announces to Tim that her parents are visiting from America, soon enough that he needs to don some pants. She tells him that as far as they are concerned he does not live there, that if it comes up they are having sex but not a particular popular abberation. He jokes about how that could never arise, the parents enter, she almost immediately tells them that Tim actually lives there with her and he immediately adds that they are definitely not engaged in that particular practice. This he erases. I mention it because it is another trip to the past, with all the problems we have already identified, but also because it recognizes an aspect of human psychology that experts have only recently recognized: if you attempt to remember not to mention something, it increases the probability that you will mention it almost to a certainty. Thus the worst thing you can do before a conversation is tell someone "Don't say anything about..." unless you want to ensure that they mention it in some way. Tim, though, erases the blunder, and Mary tells them how much she loves him.
Next we return to Charlotte.
The social faux pas is one of the fundamentals of English humor. Brits dread saying something embarrassing or offensive in conversation, and so in many of their comedies characters do exactly that. Tim falls victim to this as he encounters that goddess among women, the girl who rejected him, Charlotte, when Mary declines his invitation to the National Theatre and he takes Rory (a.k.a. Roger) instead. He sees her, steels himself, and then steps into his first embarrassment when Charlotte introduces Tina as her "girlfriend". Charlotte is quickly offended at the misunderstanding when Tim casually suggests she is gay. He excuses himself, restages the scene, and this time suggests that she ought to be careful with the use of that word "girlfriend" lest someone think she is gay--which raises Tina's hackles because she is gay. So he redoes the situation again and attempts to avoid the encounter entirely, but Charlotte notices him and descends upon him and Rory with Tina in tow. The meeting goes well--too well, in fact, as moments later Charlotte has discarded Tina, invited Tim to dine with her, and cold-shouldered Rory out of the invitation, then over dinner suggests that she may have been mistaken in rejecting his previous interest in her, and attempts to lure him into her apartment. He declines the invitation, saying that there is something else that he has to do at exactly that moment. He races home, awakens Mary, and tries to ask her to marry him, but she is not pleased at being awakened and shuts him down before he has had a chance to say more than a few words.
True to form, he decides to back up and try again, this time to do it right. He hires a band to play in the outer room, brings a ring for her finger, and kneels beside the bed and awakens her. She puts the pieces together and realizes that he is proposing--no mention is made of Charlotte's impact in this decision. She accepts, and thanks him for not making it too big of a production; he steps into the other room to "turn off the music", and quietly dismisses the band.
The difficult part in this really is, when did he get the band and the ring? He might have gone back a couple hours, vanishing from the theatre and erasing his meeting with Charlotte, and rounded up a band, but it's late, and twenty-four hour jewelry stores are rather unusual. He might have gone back to that afternoon and erased most of his day, or even just part of his day, to get the ring--but then, where did he keep it, and why did his doppelganger not propose sooner? For that matter, having decided that he did not want to encounter Charlotte and he did want to marry Mary, why did he not simply go back to that afternoon, get what he needed, and propose then? He has already demonstrated that he has no objection to reliving a few hours, and whatever kindness it was that gave him theatre tickets he could easily forego the show on the grounds that he had decided to propose to his now fiancé. (He has already joked that visits to the National Theatre are a good opportunity to sleep.) Particularly since he already knows that awakening her when he gets home late from dinner after the show is a bad idea, and he has to travel back some time to get the ring (not to mention the musicians) anyway, why did he then return to this moment to pop the question?
He apparently did not think through it clearly. Of course, that is one of his recurring faults, that he does not think through what he is going to do before he does it. Somehow, an impulsive person with time travel abilities seems a bit dangerous. Of course, Tim is at heart a very kind person, so if he is aware of having done damage he attempts to repair it.
If you have lost count, we have covered ten trips to the past. There are as many still ahead, but not quite so many issues, so we are more than halfway through.
The wedding could go down in a book of wedding disasters--an outdoor wedding and reception hit by a sudden deluge driving everyone and everything inside. Tim does not change it, because Mary (who does not know that it could be changed) says she would not change anything about it. She also does not know that one thing has been changed, and changed several times. Rory was originally chosen to be the Best Man, but his toast was a disaster, so Tim went back and picked Harry instead, whose toast was offensive, so he goes back again and chooses Jay, whose toast is even more offensive. In the end, Tim's father serves as Best Man, and offers a heartfelt toast, three trips to the past to get someone in the spot who far from ruining the event will make it truly memorable.
Yet this time it is Tim's Dad who is unhappy with his own toast, so he goes back from later in the reception to redo it. Tim asks him not to change anything, but he changes it anyway, and says some wonderful words about the men he has loved which were an excellent part of the script, and the more so by the suggestion that they were what he decided he should have said, and so he went back and said them.
How, though, does Tim know this?
Tim is the narrator; he tells the story from his own experience. We understand that when he travels to the past, he remembers the events of the history before he changed it, and any events he experiences while he is in the past including the entire altered history if he does not then skip back to the future. He has no memories of events in the altered history if he skips them, but he is aware that they are changed due to his intervention. However, ordinarily when his father travels to the past Tim is not aware of the event, nor of the erased version of history. Why, this time, would he remember his father's original speech as well as the altered one?
Of course, this time his father discusses his intention to change the speech before he does it--but how would that matter? We have an original history in which Dad makes the speech, then in the aftermath tells Tim what he should have said, and that he is going to fix it because he can. Dad travels back to the dinner, makes the revised speech, and whether he lets the clock run or jumps to the future, in the aftermath his doppelganger in the new history will have nothing to say about revising the speech--it has already been revised. Thus the only history Tim remembers includes the revised speech and does not include any suggestion by his father of making that revision.
Certainly under the rules of time which seem, loosely, to apply in this film, that is a perfectly possible version of events. What it is not is a version of events which could be known by the viewpoint character who tells the story of what happened in his life. The film has in that sense broken its own rules--not its time travel rules, but its literary rules.
Time passes. Posy is born, daughter of Tim and Mary. We are at a party, possibly the child's first birthday. They are awaiting the arrival of aunt Kit-Kat, but her boyfriend Jimmy arrives alone. He had had a fight with a somewhat intoxicated Kit, who left to drive herself to the party and seems to have taken an unintended detour to an emergency room via ambulance.
Tim does the obvious: he travels back a few hours and drives over to bring Kit to the party himself, arriving late and excusing that with the claim that someone told him she would not be fit to drive herself. Thus he prevents the accident, but he remembers it, and it motivates him to do something to change Kit's life. Others agree that she needs help, based on her excessive drinking. The problem, he decides, is Jimmy.
We learn something else about this time travel ability, something that neither we nor Tim had any reason to expect would work and probably of which none of his progenitors were aware: if he holds someone's hands he can take them with him to the past. This changes our perception of what is happening significantly--there is no reason to think that the ability to slip out of your body in the present for an instant during which you make significant alterations to the actions of your past body and then return to your future body would include the ability to take this passenger who would similarly slip out of her present body and into her past body and return with you, simply because the present bodies are in physical contact with each other in the same space. Yet he attempts it expecting it to work, and succeeds. He thus takes Kit back to that same New Years Eve party at which in one sense it all started.
Getting past the part about returning to the same moment again, we find that the same principle that apparently applied to Mary (you will fall in love with someone when it is the right time) also applies to Jimmy, whom Kit sees pick up someone else at the party when she is not in the right place. We might complain of the double standard, that it was a fortuitous thing with Mary but a vice when it was Jimmy, but Jimmy does seem to be a creep, and Kit immediately guarantees that the creep who never loved her never will--she clobbers him and storms out to return to the future.
We again have that problem that things change but our time traveler seems to replace the version of herself who would have remembered the change--she is apparently living with Jay in this timeline. We never learn how that is working, though, because when Tim gets home and pulls Posy out of the high chair, she's a boy. This was the butterfly effect problem of which his father was apparently aware but failed to mention, and it is only one of the several complications that arise surrounding this trip and the next, which we will address next time.
When Tim returns from taking Kit back several years, the child he fathered in the interim has changed from his daughter Posy to a son never named in the film. His Dad probably should have mentioned that, but he has the explanation ready, and it is very definitely a butterfly effect problem: if you change your past even just a bit before you conceive your children, you change the very complex moment in which sperm meets egg forming zygote, such that the genetic makeup of the child is altered. In short, you become the father of someone else instead of the child you know.
It is a simple aspect of the genetic problem in a very logical application, but it raises a lot more questions concerning that same problem. To simplify them, what hypothetically happens if Tim's Dad travels back to a time prior to the conception of Posy? We already know that the actions of time travelers in the past can change the lives of other people--Rupert never found Mary, Kit lives with Jay instead of Jimmy. The problem with butterfly effects is that they involve ripples of change, that one small change in this has a massive impact on that which did not seem to be connected to it at all. We readily accept that the time traveler could return to a future in which his children are different, but could he return to a future in which someone else's children are different?
Obviously it is possible. How many children were born over those few years to people at that party besides himself and Kit (who did not have a child in the original history, but might in this one)? How did that event impact people in their lives--who called her girlfriend to tell her about the fight at the party, so that the girlfriend put her boyfriend off for half an hour and wound up with a daughter instead of a son? Has Posy changed a dozen times outside Tim's knowledge because Dad made trips to the past?
This barely touches on the issues which usually concern us in the genetic problem. Jimmy was dating Kit. We do not know that he was faithful, but we have every reason to believe that were he not dating her he would be seeing someone else. That other girl would be missing whatever relationship she would otherwise have had, and the ripple passes through the world such that dozens, perhaps hundreds, of couples are shuffled within a few short years.
This is a danger that confronts every trip Tim or his Dad makes to the past. The trick is, under the rules portrayed here, only the time traveler himself would be aware of the change--finding that Posy is a boy surprises and confuses Tim, but for Mary the child has always been a boy and she has no idea who Posy might be. Still, it might be wise for Tim to keep a database of the relationships of people he knows and the names of their children--as we saw with the phone number, the memory in the database will be updated to match the changing history even though his own memory never is.
Tim recognizes the difficulty he would have bonding with the boy who is not his daughter, and so makes another trip to the past to fix that. That raises more issues.
Tim has made a mistake, and undone the existence of Posy; he wants his darling daughter back. Thus he needs to avoid changing history prior to her conception, and that means he has to find a way to prevent himself from making the change he has already made. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else, the film fails in its time travel elements, not because it does not make sense to do it that way, but because it appears to violate the rules that it has established for itself.
To recall events, Kit was in a serious accident almost certainly due to her intoxication, and Tim traveled back to prevent her from being in that accident, driving her to the birthday party himself. Then, because of his concern about her safety, he took her back to the New Years Eve party where she met Jimmy, and prevented that meeting--but also interfered with his own past prior to Posy's conception, changing her genetic identity sufficiently that she's a boy. He needs to undo the trip he made to the party. He decides that the best way to do this is by undoing the trip he made to prevent the accident. The theory is that if he alters history by not preventing the accident, in the revised history he will not travel back to take Kit to the party, and instead will have to work with the injured Kit to get her to change her life in the present.
The first issue, really, is how he prevents himself from preventing the accident. The film has clearly been relying on a version of Niven's Law by which once a time traveler has made a trip to the past, the impact of that trip remains in effect. Thus although he might try traveling back to the moment when he left to go back in time to transport her, the version of him existing at that moment in the present history in which the accident never occurred never made that trip.
More complicated yet, that version also has been erased, and so has Kit's accident, because when he traveled to the party with Kit he initiated a history in which she was not with Jimmy but ultimately with Jay. Thus she is not at home drinking and fighting with Jimmy because she has an entirely different life, and not only is there no moment from which Tim departed to drive her to the party, there is no moment when she got behind the wheel drunk.
This further applies to the moment he decided to take her to the New Years party. This is not the Kit he worried about saving; he cannot find the time in this history when he did that, only the time when he arrived at the party--which does not help, because he will again have changed his own past at that party, and will not have recovered his daughter.
There is one possible answer, which in itself raises another set of issues. We know that Tim has the ability to travel to any moment in his past that he remembers. He does not remember the history that he created unless he stayed to live through it; he remembers the history that he erased. It thus is not impossible that he could travel back to the morning of the birthday party and prevent himself picking up Kit, directly. That would restore the history in which she is in the accident.
It is not clear, though, that it would prevent him from making the trip to prevent the accident; it seems he would have to make that change separately. Further, he will have to do so by stretching what the ability has done so far: he will either have to come forward and stop along the way, or stay long enough to prevent himself from making the trip. If he prevents himself from preventing the accident by going to that morning, and then skips back to the future, his self in the newly restored history will have the motivation to make the trip to save Kit as he did; if he prevents that self from making the trip and then comes to the future, he has not prevented the outcome, because he has already made the change he is trying to undo. The only way it might work is to travel to the morning to prevent himself from driving Kit to the party, then skip to the times after the accident when he went back to prevent himself from going back, without coming to the future between those trips.
We do not see him do it, so all we can say is it was very complicated and it is not entirely certain that he could have done what he did.
Kit was in an accident, and Tim made a trip to prevent the accident; then he made another trip to prevent Kit from being in her terrible relationship with Jimmy. However, the consequence of this trip was that Tim's daughter Posy is never born. Tim thus decides that he needs to prevent himself from making that trip so that he will not alter the conception of his daughter. We do not see how he does this, but we worked through what we think he must have done in order first to prevent himself from preventing Kit from being in the accident, then to prevent his earlier self from making the trip to prevent her from being in the accident.
Yet even now it does not appear as if, accomplishing all this, he will be successful in his objective.
As we have noted several times, the time travel theory of the film relies on the assumption that if you make a trip to the past and alter the past, the past remains altered as if you had arrived even if you never, in the altered history, depart from the future. Tim is undoing the trip he makes to prevent the accident in the expectation that it will then undo the trip he makes to the New Year's Eve party to undo Kit's relationship with Jimmy--but in this movie time does not work that way. Looked at it from the other direction, he has already undone that trip without undoing its consequences. Follow the logic.
Kit had an accident; Tim went back a few hours and prevented the accident, and then she never had an accident and he never made the trip, but that did not matter because since he prevented the accident he does not have to prevent the accident--it has been prevented. He then, because of the accident which only he knows ever happened, took Kit back to the party so she could see Jimmy find someone else. Only Tim and Kit remember the original history, but one of the consequences in the new history is that Posy was not born, replaced by a boy. Tim wants to prevent that change; he thinks that the way to do this is to prevent himself from making that trip to the past with Kit. Our issue, though, is what trip that would be. When Tim and Kit leapt to the past and changed the party, they undid Kit's connection to Jimmy (she is with Jay now), and so they undid the accident; therefore Tim--the Tim in this history--never prevented the accident and never took Kit to the past to break the connection to Jimmy. Under the time travel rules that ordinarily apply in this film, that does not matter, because once the past has been changed it remains changed despite the fact that the time traveler does not depart from the future to make the change. Thus the trip which Tim is trying to prevent has already been prevented, and preventing the trip did not undo the consequences of the trip.
If what Tim is trying to do here could work, then the entire story collapses--every time he has traveled to the past and changed the past he has prevented himself from making such a trip, and in so doing has undone what he did. Why should it be that in this one time only he is able to undo what he did by preventing himself from making the trip? It is not even as if he did so directly, as he did in preventing himself from preventing Kit's accident. It is simply that, as in every other case, he has changed the events of history that led to his decision to make the trip, so that he would not make the trip. Yet he always does exactly that, so either we have that same result, of undoing what he had done, every time, or we cannot get to it this time.
Inconsistencies like this demonstrate that authors have not really thought through their theory of time. It seems to work in whatever way best supports the plot at the moment, not in any way that is consistent from one event to the next.
What do you do if you can travel to your past and change what you did? One thing Tim does is travel back from his father's funeral, and several times thereafter, to when his father was still alive. The first time he does it, he comments that he has plenty of time. Yet the way time travel works in this film, that should set off our alarms.
In the beginning of the film, when Tim has discovered that his Dad is not playing a terrible joke on him, he asks what to do with the ability. Dad says that for him it was always about reading, and we imagine at that moment that he lives through a day, then goes back to that morning and relives the day simply reading whatever his present book is. Yet that would be a recipe for disaster: he would be undoing whatever he had done.
The solution for Dad is simple: each day when he rises he announces that he plans to take the day off, calls out of work, spends the day reading, comes to the end of the day and before going to bed goes back to the morning, gets up and undoes his day off by doing whatever he ought to have done. Since he retains the memories of the erased history, he remembers his reading; since he has undone the lazy day off he can now go to work or do whatever is expected, with no one the wiser concerning his reading habit.
Unfortunately for Tim, it does not work quite that way for him. He has left the funeral, and certainly whenever he returns it will be the same moment he left--but in doing so he has disrupted whatever he was doing at that moment in the past. If he was at work, or in court, or home with Mary, or watching Posy, or whatever else he might have been doing, he is not doing that, preventing himself from keeping his obligations, such that in the new version of history those tasks were never done. There are two plausible solutions, neither of them promising.
Tim could have set aside hours of time when he did nothing, or at least made note of those times when he was doing nothing he could not erase with impunity, and then targeted those times for visiting his father. There is some foolishness to this--if he and his father were both available, he could as easily have spent that time with his father as returned to it. He could, perhaps, have erased times his younger self spent with his father and replaced them with times spent when older, but it is not clear that there is an advantage to this. In any case, there is no evidence that Tim was ever organized enough about his time that he could do this.
He could, then, do something like what we proposed for his father's reading times. He could go back, destroy his day completely by spending it with his father, then before returning to the future return to the beginning of that time and relive the part of the day he had erased. He would then remember those added times with his father, and not completely disrupt his life in the process. Of course, his father would not remember them--the times Tim spent with him would be erased. Perhaps that is not important; perhaps what matters is not that Dad spends that time with Tim but that Tim can spend it with Dad. Yet unfortunately we know this is not what he is doing, either. In his last visit to his father, his father recognizes that it will be the last visit of his son from the future--and that means that his father is aware of the previous visits, and thus that Tim did not erase them.
Perhaps, though, there is a third possibility. Twice in the film we see two people go back together--once Tim taking Kat, again at the end when he goes back to his childhood with his father. Perhaps when Tim spent hours with his father, they went back to the beginning of the time together, each preserving the memories of that time together, each then doing what he should have been doing with that time. It is a workable solution, and one they might have recognized; it simply is not suggested in the film.
We are not quite finished, however.
What would happen if one time traveler traveled back to a time that interfered with the acts of another time traveler?
We never see this in the film, yet it must have happened many times--we know that Dad lived every day of his life twice, spending it first reading and then returning to live his regular life. Tim also made trips to the past, some of them reaching back several days. It would seem that sometimes what one of them does must interfere with what the other does. But let's tackle an obvious example, from the wedding.
We know that they put the wedding plans together quickly, because Mary was already pregnant; Tim chose Rory to be the Best Man. The toast was a boring disaster, so sometime after the toast but presumably before the end of the reception Tim slipped away from the party and went back probably to the night when he decided on Rory, and changed the decision to announce that Harry would do the honors. Harry was rude and crass, so again Tim makes the trip and chooses Jay. Jay decides it's time to be ribald and embarrass everyone, so there is one more trip, and Dad is now the Best Man giving the toast.
We do not know when Tim makes the change, but the impression we have is that he does so at his first opportunity following the toast. Thus when we see Tim and Dad talking at the reception, when Dad decides he can do better, we have good reason to think that this is at a moment after the last trip Tim made to make his father the Best Man. Yet when Dad travels back to change the toast, that trip takes him to a moment before Tim made that trip, and rewrites all the history thereafter.
This is the same problem we addressed when Tim attempted to prevent himself from taking Kit to the past, but with a new wrinkle: if history changes such that the time traveler never departs from the future, does that undo his arrival in the past? This instance must be particularly confusing for Tim, though. Forward to the reception following the second version of Dad's toast, and Tim will remember Rory's toast and the trip to change it to Harry's toast, and the trip to change it to Jay's toast--but when Dad erases his first toast and replaces it with another, Dad also erases Tim's memory of the first toast and of the decision to replace Jay with Dad. He will remember making the first two changes, and he will remember that Dad wound up being his best man (when it came to the toast--what he remembers of events before that we do not know) but not how it happened that Jay was not the one who delivered the toast.
Or will he? We again have the problem of what the time traveler remembers, only this time when another time traveler is involved. That Tim remembers all versions of the toast suggests that he went back far enough to change the best man and then came forward only as far as the time of the toast, so he could hear the altered version also. We have seen that neither Tim nor his dad remembers events in altered histories they never experienced. When Dad travels back to redo his toast, he must erase the history in which Tim made the trip to appoint Dad to do the toast--and while we have been generally accepting the idea that once a history has been changed it stays changed, that still leaves Tim wondering how it was that his father delivered the toast when his memory is that Jay was to have done it.
In fact, now Tim should not remember Jay's toast; possibly Tim would not remember any of the toasts except perhaps Rory's and Dad's, because his father has erased every history in which Tim changed who gave the toast.
No answer seems to make sense here; the film, wonderfully warm and enjoyable, does not withstand scrutiny well.
We have one more part ahead.
Previously we mentioned in passing that the last time Tim visited his father they together went back to Tim's childhood. They did this so that Dad could once more walk on the beach with his young son, and that son now grown could be part of that experience. They do it despite the danger.
That danger is that a very small change in the past can create small ripples that will do things like prevent the births of children--of which Tim now has two with the third on the way. It must be right in the forefront of their minds, because the reason Tim cannot return again is that once his third child is born he cannot travel to a time before the birth without the risk of undoing the child's existence, returning to a different child or no child at all. Yet this trip takes them back before the other two children were born, and risks undoing them (not to mention thousands of others).
Perhaps they think that if they go back far enough their impact will be minimal. After all, if you drop a stone in the water, the farther the ripples are from the center the weaker they become. However, butterfly effects are exactly opposite this: they increase in impact over time, much like a dominoes array or an uncontrolled nuclear reaction.
Perhaps they think that they can do this without changing anything. There they might be closer to the mark. After all, every day, rain or shine, year round, Tim's family had tea on the beach. It's fairly probable that they could pick a day when they went for a walk together on the beach, skipping stones on the water, and replace one such walk with another. We don't know what memories their doppelgangers have of the events that have been altered by their future selves, so we would have a hard time guessing how this impacts history.
As we have seen throughout the series, About Time is fraught with temporal disasters and inconsistencies, fails to follow its own rules, and leaves us puzzling over whether anyone gave any thought to how time travel was supposed to work in the story. In all, it was convoluted and inconsistent, a temporal nightmare. Yet it is still a warm and sweet story with a good lesson. It is worth watching, but not for the time travel elements.
In passing, I would again mention our temporal admiration for Rachel McAdams, who was The Time Traveler's Wife in the film of that name, and the time traveler's fiance in Midnight in Paris, and once again gets to be the time traveler's wife here. Maybe next time she'll get to be the time traveler herself.