Earlier this week, Variety chief film critic Justin Chang wrote about time travel romance films in response to the new Richard Curtis movie, About Time. It’s a fair reading of the genre, focusing narrowly on Somewhere In Time, The Lake House and The Time Traveler’s Wife (which like About Time stars Rachel McAdams). These are all cinematic equivalents of the time travel romance novel (two are actually adaptations), of which there are hundreds of examples, and they’re all pretty sappy, whether they have sad or happy endings.
Of course, they’re concentrated on not only love stories, but ones putting the ideas of destiny and its obstacles to the extreme of temporal distance. So either concluding in a final parting (death) or union (finally getting together forever), there’s going to be a great sentimental power breaking through the tension at the end, a power that probably leaves its audience in need of a tissue.
But those four movies, including the latest, hardly represent the full extent of time travel romance in the movies. It’s just that most of the others are concentrated on the time travel narratives over the romantic. Still, they feel the need for those love interests, and the love story elements are always very interesting given the plots. See some notable examples below.
Of all the movies that seem distanced from the sappy stuff, James Cameron’s franchise-starting sci-fi classic isn’t really that far off from the “chick lit”/”chick flick” variety. Traditionally, time travel romance novels deal in fantasy over sci-fi and often have a present-day heroine to whom a time-traveling hero arrives. That’s the case here, too, and that protective hero even dies in the end while saving her life. How much more romantically tear-jerking can you get? But because the movie is focused more on the sci-fi stuff — what the couple’s lovemaking means for the fate of the future rather than for their hearts — it’s not sappy at all.
About Time’s premise has been compared to that of Groundhog Day because they both involve a guy who keeps repeating time in order to woo the girl just right. Groundhog Day isn’t thought of as much as a time travel movie, because Bill Murray’s character has no control over the plot. He’s not intentionally using some machine or power to fix his romantic situation through his own free will. In that regard it’s more about the lovers’ being fated to be together. Yet the movie is played first and foremost for comedy, to the effect that it’s rarely even labeled a rom-com, especially by its hardcore fans. Also, as far as the romance goes, it’s always been a bit weird how Andie MacDowell’s character is more like an Andie MacGuffin than a character who gets any say or awareness of the matter of love that’s happening to her.
Back to the Future Part III
A lot of time travel movies that have a romance component involve a love interest being rescued. We can include movies that aren’t primarily about time travel, such as Superman: The Movie with its Earth rotation cheat. While the first Back to the Future has a love story at its center, the hero is not a part of the romance except as an accidentally incestuous obstacle. It takes until the third installment for a true romance to kick in, for Doc Brown, who sort of winds up ultimately being the primary character of the trilogy (Marty is more like the narrative filter through which we view Doc’s life), and his arc is completed with the destruction of the time machine after finding love in the Old West.
The Time Machine
There are very different themes at play depending on whether a hero goes back in time and saves a woman who would die or had historically died (The Terminator; BTTF3) or he goes to the future and saves a woman who represents (with him) the future of humanity. The 2002 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel spells it out more that the traveler and his Eloi love interest are together in the end. I prefer the 1960 version, where there is a romantic connection between the hero and Weena, but maybe not enough that we’re even sure his hinted return at the end is for her or to teach all the Eloi, or both. And open endings are never really sappy.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Who knows what kind of royal lineage was destroyed and what Butterfly effects this caused, but who cares so long as Bill and Ted get the hot 15th century princesses in the end, right? Hardly romantic at all, the women here are mere objects, souvenirs of a temporal vacation. Rufus apparently saves them from being married off to “horrible” men but delivers them to these idiots, who are pretty much still strangers to them. And they have to adapt to a time five hundred years from all they know. But I guess, like the fact that Bill and Ted are the saviors of the world through their music, informed to us as just how it is, the destiny of these couples is just what must be. Sometimes destiny isn’t as enchanting as it’s made out to be.