Today, I finally saw About Time, which at least one IMDb user called a combination of The Butterfly Effect and Groundhog Day. Billed as being from the creator of Love Actually, Notting Hill, and Four Weddings and a Funeral, the description on IMDb goes like this:
At the age of 21, Tim discovers he can travel in time and change what happens and has happened in his own life. His decision to make his world a better place by getting a girlfriend turns out not to be as easy as you might think.
Actually--and SPOILERS minor and major may be coming, so if you've an urge to see the film, go see it before reading any further--"getting" the girlfriend is fairly easy, but there is a lot more going on afterward, which is what pushes About Time, in my opinion far above many a romantic comedy. Hell, like Four Weddings and a Funeral (which stars Andie MacDowell, coincidentally), About Time has some quiet somber moments and a couple rather painful decisions on the part of its protagonist. The suggestion that About Time is a mix of The Butterfly Effect and Groundhog Day is apt because the film has the light romanticism of the latter and some of the harsh consequences of the former.
I mentioned last night that O'Reilly's death in Groundhog Day wasn't such an emotional beat for me anymore, but it occurs to me now that the situation around it still affects me; in particular, I mean the simple fact that O'Reilly still dies on that last February 2nd that we see. He dies every February 2nd at 8:02 in that alleyway (well, every February 2nd except when Phil takes him to the hospital). While people dance just a couple blocks away, he succumbs to age or the elements or what have you and he dies. And, we don't know who O'Reilly is, who he was. He's just a homeless old man we've seen a few times and who Phil has seen even more. Though Phil cannot ultimately save O'Reilly from dying, I think it's important that Phil tries to save someone we don't really know--
(The only other life he saves is Buster, who we've seen speak numerous times earlier in the film; we may not know much about Buster's life outside the Inner Circle or Groundhog Day, but we certainly know him better than we know O'Reilly.)
--because that demonstrates quite readily Phil's attachment not just to notable characters that we know he knows. I mean, if Bill the Waiter were the one dying, or better yet Doris, that would be a far different scenario than O'Reilly dying. Phil responds to the nurse at the hospital, when she says, "sometimes people just die," with a simple rule: "not today." In screentime, it doesn't take long for Phil to realize he is not as powerful as he thinks he is in keeping people from dying, but that's kind of the point. Before, Phil was manipulating the time loop to satiate shallow, selfish urges; now, he is still manipulating the time loop but to satiate some greater urge, the urge to good.
But, the harsh consequence of learning which battles he cannot fight means Phil must attend the Banquet and play piano and dance and be the local hero while O'Reilly dies or has died in the alley.
There's a similar harsh consequence in one segment of About Time that is worth mentioning--and obviously, hereafter come some SPOILERS. Tim, the protagonist, has a sister called Kit Kat. She's a bit flighty, a bit younger and naive than her years. She has a boyfriend who isn't good for her and she has a tendency to lose every job she gets. Tim, who has told no one of his ability to time travel, not even his wife (see, SPOILER), tells his sister after she has an accident driving drunk and he proceeds to take her back in time with him--
(And, the fact that he can take someone with him is perhaps one detail of About Time that could easily go away. It raises the question of why he would never share such a thing with his wife at least. Still, the segment with his sister is quite sweet at first and then quite tragic... but let's get out of the parenthetical for that.)
--to a New Year's Eve party years before (the party seen in the trailer for the film and the party Tim has traveled to the very first time he traveled) to keep her from meeting her boyfriend that night. At this point in the film, we've already seen there are consequences to some of Tim's traveling--for example, when he travels back in time to help his playwright roommate/landlord/friend fix the disastrous opening night of his latest play, he inadvertently keeps himself from having met Mary (who he will eventually marry, but that isn't much of a SPOILER as they show the wedding in the trailer). So then, he has to figure out how to meet Mary again, first in an awkward sequence at a museum where he comes across a little creepy because he knows her name, then at the party where she recently met another guy who she's now dating. But, back to Tim's sister. They travel back to the present and she's quite cheerful to recall that she's got a nice guy in Tim's friend Jay and they've been happily together for a while now. Everything seems all well and good until (and BIG SPOILERS follow) Tim returns to his home to find that his infant daughter has become an infant son. Turns out--he learns from his father--traveling back before a child is born can alter who that child is because there is so much chance involved in which sperm gets through. So, like Phil letting O'Reilly die in the alley, Tim lets his sister have her bad relationship and her drinking problem and her accident that nearly kills her so he doesn't lose the daughter he's come to know and love.
A similar issue comes up at the end of the film when, after his father has died, Tim uses his ability to travel back and visit with him. But then Mary wants a third child--time has passed since that first one, with a second in the interim (obviously)--and this means that Tim will no longer be able to travel back to visit his deceased father.
But, the great message that comes out of the film comes after his father has died. Something his father tells him to do is to travel every day. Live each day normally, with all the tensions and anxieties, then travel back and do the same day as closely as before, but this time, knowing what's coming, Tim can stop to appreciate the details. And, what was a bad day is now far better. Like Phil Connors, Time can be the change in a constant day (but one day at a time instead of one day indefinitely). There's a great notion here as far as enjoying life--but of course we can't follow this practice because we cannot time travel back like Tim can--in addition to what Tim's dad did with all of his extra time--he read book after book after book. But, it gets better. See, at a certain point, Tim, married, with three kids, tells us he doesn't travel anymore. What he does, though is live each day as if he had traveled back in time just to experience this day.
It's a powerful idea, especially taken hand in hand with Nietzsche's eternal recurrence, which I've written about numerous times before. I would suggest a combination: 1) live each day as if it were the specific day you had time traveled to, as if it's the most important day you have and 2) do with that day only things you would be willing to do again and again and again. I'm certainly not suggesting that eternal recurrence is real, but it's a great way to look at the present. If something isn't worth doing again, why do it once? In that light, there are moments I'd travel to if I had Tim's ability, moments I would want to fix. But, I don't think I'd want the time loop Phil Connors has. There's this moment in About Time, after Tim has explained how he lives each day twice, where he's on a train with his wife and kids and he says some days he doesn't repeat. I forget the phrasing in the voiceover, but the implication was that a perfect moment is perfect perhaps because it's fleeting. For me, a few moments like that come to mind right away, lying in a park in San Francisco, a motel bed in Winnetka... but I don't want to think about such things right now. But, I think that I believe both Tim's approach to each day and the value of what is temporary are both valid. That's why I like his solution later; living each day for each day, paying attention to all the details, all the beautiful things you might miss because you're on your way to work or school.
We like to ask why bad things happen, why people die. But, I think that's what makes life great. That it will end, that it could end anytime--that means we should be living in every moment. We should be enjoying it. But, like Phil Connors learns, that doesn't mean we should be taking advantage of it; it doesn't mean we should be exploitative or selfish. Doing for others often is far more enjoyable than doing for oneself. And, if we operate under the assumption that eternal recurrence is real, then the key is to do only the good things, the things worth experiencing again and again if it came to that. But, because we will only experience each moment just the one time, we must also embrace the present.
Today's reason to repeat a day forever:
(That was purposely left blank. Right now, I'd rather just live life time traveling like we all do, forward, one second at a time.)