How About Time's Time Travel Works

About Time Mary and Tim caught in the rain

Hello again, fellow time travelers! Welcome back to the lab for another installment of getting you from here to there in the now and then. And this time, I promise you, we’re sticking to the schedule. I’ve been very careful about my messages and texts for the last week after that Tenet rundown, and it looks like Future Mike doesn’t have any special assignments involving the next hot ticket at the box office. So, as planned, this week’s romp through the timeline is the utterly charming, and devastatingly beautiful About Time, from writer/director Richard Curtis.

Before we go too far, don’t forget to bone up on some of our past trips into time travel, as everything from Back to the Future to Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure has been examined in our corner of the CinemaBlend offices. It might be our past, but it could be your future, so act accordingly. Now if you’ll excuse us, it’s time to find a nice, quiet cupboard, and take off into the time traveling antics of About Time.

About Time Tim standing in the closet, about to travel

The Time Travel In About Time

If you had to describe the time travel in About Time, there’s two words that say it all: charmingly British. From the way that Tim (Domnhall Gleeson) travels through time, to the reasons why, it’s all sweetly intentioned, and rooted in the emotional journey of his character. And oddly enough, he learns about his abilities on New Year’s Day, after a very interesting family chat.

Who's Time Traveling

The ability to time travel in About Time is only available to the men of the Lake family. However, on top of seeing not only Tim, but also his father James (Bill Nighy) traveling in time, we do get to see Tim take his sister Katherine (Lydia Wilson) on one very important trip.

From When To When

Here’s where About Time starts to differentiate itself from its time travel contemporaries, as it introduces a clause that only Dr. Sam Beckett himself seems familiar with. In this particular usage of time travel, you can only go to a moment you’ve lived through before. And what’s more, you can’t travel into the future. So Tim travels back and forth through his own personal timeline, with the farthest trip being to a childhood day at the beach.

The Purpose Of Their Trip

Overall, Tim Lake is trying to change his life, and the lives of those he loves, for the better in About Time. Starting with trying to find a girlfriend, Tim eventually falls back on traveling through time to save Katherine from a particularly bad car crash. By time he arrives at the end of About Time’s story, all Tim wants to do is see his dad one last time before he dies.

About Time Tim and James prepare to travel in the shed

How Time Travel Happens In About Time

The time travel in About Time has to be one of the simplest methods ever employed in the history of temporal travel. And the key to making sure you get to where you want to go is a skill any young person can clearly master: concentration. According to Tim’s father, James, this is how you time travel:

You go into a dark place, big cupboards are very useful, generally. Toilets in a pinch. Then you clench your fists… think of the moment you’re going to, and you’ll find yourself there.

These particular conditions lead to the greatest limitation of About Time’s premise. In an ingenious twist, the Lake men can only travel through their own personal existence and experiences. Which means that technically, the vehicle/conduit of time travel in this film is literally, the traveler’s own body. So on the positive side of things, About Time doesn’t need any expensive time travel effects or vehicles to get to where it’s going. However, there is the fact that unless you’re a male member of the Lake bloodline, or one decides to take you on a trip through time, you can’t make the big jump.

There’s also the added caveat of how you, or the person that’s taking you through time, can only go places that the traveler has been before, and can remember. So before you think of killing Hitler, or shagging Helen of Troy, remember that, as James told Tim during their cozy Ted Talk on Time Travel, you can’t. Though, this also explains why Uncle Desmond (Richard Cordery) is never mentioned as time traveling, as his absent mindedness would probably scrap any potential attempts he’d make to travel back and forth through his lifetime.

About Time Mary smiling on the street

Can History Be Changed As A Result Of Time Travel In About Time?

History can absolutely be changed in About Time, but within a limited scope. Again, since you’re traveling back in time within your own body/experiences, you can only affect events that happen in moments you’ve already lived and can remember. Though that’s messy enough, as Tim discovers that you can totally overwrite experiences you’ve had, and those moments aren’t easy to get back.

The first huge example of this is when Tim goes back to save temporary roommate/playwright Harry’s (Tom Hollander) latest play. As Tim wants to prevent an actor (Richard E. Grant) from forgetting his lines during a big monologue, he alters his originally fated first date with the love of his life, Mary (Rachel McAdams). As he no longer goes out to dinner on that double date he first met Mary during, Tim finds out that he no longer has Mary’s number in his phone. Not to mention, his second first meeting with Mary is so much more awkward than their serendipitous first encounter. So while you can change history, it’s not advised as some pretty serious consequences can arise. This cannot be stated enough, as any trips past some special landmarks in Tim’s life lead to some unpredictable circumstances.

About Time Tim and Kat poke their heads out of the closet

What Are The Consequences Of Time Travel In About Time?

The other, more major change to history that Tim tries to affect in About Time is when he tries to make sure his sister Katherine, affectionately referred to as “Kit Kat,” never meets her deadbeat boyfriend Jimmy (Tom Hughes). While Tim brings his sister back to that fateful New Year’s Eve party that opens the film, and makes sure she and Jimmy never start their relationship, Tim has inadvertently set off a butterfly effect event.

Even changing events ever so slightly, so Katherine never experiences her rock bottom car accident, has its consequences. Upon returning to his own wife and child, Tim learns that if you go back past the birth of a child in the family, your actions will change the sperm that hits the egg. Hence, a different child is born, and the daughter you left at home is now a son you never had.

Not only did James forget to tell Tim about this rather crucial fact, but it’s also the reason that he and his son are unable to keep in touch through their special abilities. Ultimately, Tim retires his time traveling abilities after his third child’s birth, who just happens to be the first child born after his own father’s death. Save for one final trip before his latest daughter’s arrival, which in turn leads to one last bittersweet trip back into Tim’s childhood, he swears to never use those abilities again.

Another silver lining to this story is the fact that while Tim really shouldn’t prevent Katherine’s horrible experiences with Jimmy, and by extension her car crash, he can use knowledge from that alternate timeline to improve her life in the here and now. Remembering that his friend Jay (Will Merrick) totally has a crush on her, Tim makes sure that Katherine makes that love connection, with the same result, just in the present. Which ultimately clues Tim in on the joys of living life as a one-time experience, rather than a series of redrafts to attain a desired result. We’re not crying, you’re crying.

About Time Tim smiles contently at breakfast

Time For Another Extraordinary, Ordinary Adventure

At this point, you’re probably drying your eyes as much as we are, as About Time is a sci-fi tale of time that really reminds you how precious life is. You might not want to put those tissues away just yet, as we’re about to head back to that world where no one has gone before, with the time traveling antics of Star Trek: Generations. So you might still find yourself getting a bit misty when all is said and done on that front.

Which leaves us with one last piece of business to take care of: if you, or someone you know has a time travel film they’d want to see examined here at the CinemaBlend labs, our inbox is always open to suggestions! So drop us a line in time, and tell us which adventure you’d like to see examined through our keen intellect. Until next week, we hope that you’ve enjoyed another trip from here to there in the now and then.

Mike Reyes
Senior Movies Contributor

CinemaBlend's James Bond (expert). Also versed in Large Scale Aggressors, time travel, and Guillermo del Toro. He fights for The User.