Christopher Reeve, Back To The Future, About Time, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time: join us as we examine time travel in romcoms…

Feature Mark Harrison

Feb 14, 2018

Love is complicated enough without time travel. When time becomes a factor in a relationship, that relationship may be in trouble. In science fiction especially, time travel is a wrinkle that both brings lovers together and keeps them separate in some temporally devastating way.

Marty McFly almost breaks up his parents before they even get together, Kyle Reese falls in love with Sarah Connor when tasked with saving her life, Captain America misses out on a dance with Peggy Carter by getting frozen for 70 years (still technically time travel, if a bit low-tech), and on TV, River Song and the Doctor experience their marriage in almost opposite directions.

But just as romance factors into timey-wimey movies like Back To The Future, The Terminator, and Groundhog Day, so does time travel cross over into primarily romantic movies. These aren’t sci-fi staples, but films with a degree of magical realism, where the emphasis is on the love story rather than on the disruption to the space-time continuum. They’re about romance, heartbreak and, usually, an extremely dubious mode of transport.

For instance, released this week in time for Valentine’s Day, Netflix’s original film When We First Met stars Workaholics‘ Adam DeVine as a jazz pianist who uses a magic photobooth to try and hook up with his best friend on the night they met. For director Ari Sandel, it’s sadly not the best follow-up to his underappreciated romcom The DUFF, but the plot device of a photobooth is no more ridiculous than any other time machine. So, without a DeLorean in sight, here are some of the ways that movie characters travel backwards or forwards in time for love.

Persuading yourself back in time

The field of hypnotism is a tricky one, but in a number of movies, it’s the way to will yourself back in time. The crossover between time travel and romance in popular fiction can be traced at least as far back as Henry James’ unfinished novel The Sense Of The Past. This was adapted into a play called Berkeley Square, about a young man called Peter Standish who reads his American ancestor’s diary and becomes convinced that he will go back in time, so he does.

The play was adapted into two films, 1933’s Berkeley Square, which bagged its star Leslie Howard an Oscar nod for Best Actor, and 1951’s The House In The Square, directed by Roy Ward Baker and starring Tyrone Power. The 1970 Barbra Streisand musical On A Clear Day You Can See Forever has a woman undergoing hypnotherapy for her smoking addiction regressed back into the time of her ancestor, a nobleman’s wife in the English Regency era.

But the biggy here is 1980’s Somewhere In Time, in which Christopher Reeve plays Richard Collier, a playwright who falls in love with a dead stage actress after seeing her portrait at the hotel where he is staying. With the help of his philosophy professor and some pretty compelling evidence that he once stayed at the hotel in the year 1912, Richard hypnotises himself back in time, shedding all tokens and reminders of his past life in order to remain in the past.

It’s this mode of travel that allows him to meet Elise McKenna (Jane Seymour), but also gives the film its tragic, tear-jerking twist at the end. To get geeky about it, their romance is a bootstrap paradox of mindboggling proportions. The elderly Elise initially inspires young Richard’s obsession by handing him a watch, which he then takes back with him and leaves with her. But it’s the perfect example of a time travel film that packs an emotional wallop without stressing the science.

Passing out at a high school reunion

As timing goes, it’s probably not ideal to release a movie about going back in time to high school just one year after Back To The Future was an enormous hit. Perhaps that’s why Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married is the less celebrated of the two films, but as romantic as Back To The Future gets by the time Marvin Berry and the Starlighters play Earth Angel, the latter film focuses more on the emotional and nostalgic side of things than the time-travelling adventure.

At the start of the film, Peggy Sue Bodell (Kathleen Turner) has separated from her husband and high school sweetheart ‘Crazy’ Charlie (Nicolas Cage), and memories come flooding back at their 25 year reunion, which Charlie promises not to attend then eventually shows up anyway. On stage as the reunion committee’s homecoming queen, Peggy Sue passes out under the spotlight and wakes up at a school blood drive in 1960.

After ruling out the possibility that she has died or gone insane, she realises that she may have a chance to live her life differently. Sure, Charlie seems sweeter than the one she’s come to know, but couldn’t she hook up with tough, thoughtful outsider Michael Fitzsimmons (the lesser seen heartthrob role for Kevin J. O’Connor) instead? Well, maybe, but over the course of the film, she comes to remember exactly why she fell in love with her husband in the first place.

The film holds up as a romantic comedy, and has almost become a nostalgic time capsule in itself, for its early roles for the likes of Jim Carrey, Helen Hunt and Joan Allen. And in the centre of it, Crazy Charlie isn’t just an early sighting of Crazy Cage. Any given clip of his high-pitched performance might seem as eccentric as some of his later work, but taken altogether, he gives one of the very best turns of his career, making both his future wife and the audience fall for him again. Over time, the film itself has literally become about remembering why Nicolas Cage is so great.

Fighting for the right to nostalgia

Probably the least well known film on this list, Happy Accidents was a Sundance favorite starring Marisa Tomei and Vincent D’Onofrio in the year 2000. It’s a lo-fi comedy drama with all the hallmarks of a festival film, but it’s endlessly, breathlessly imaginative with it.

Tomei plays Ruby, a woman with a literal shoebox full of mad exes, who meets and falls for Sam Deed (D’Onofrio, playing it like a kind of proto-Mark Ruffalo.), She really thinks he might be the one, despite him telling her early on that he is a “back-traveller” from the year 2470. Framed by conversations with her therapist and friends, Ruby variously enjoys the fantasy that she thinks Sam is spinning, and feels frustrated at the ambiguity of his origins.

According to Sam, he comes from a family of “anachronists”, who fight for civil rights and nostalgia in a society that no longer enjoys sex outside of pro-creation and has otherwise broken with the ways of the past. His story is that he travelled back in time on the run from the future cops, but because the movie takes place from Ruby’s point of view, his reluctance to tell the whole story, especially after elements of The Terminator muddle things, gives off the appearance of a cheating partner. He’s come back bearing spoilers, which affects the closeness of their relationship.

Written and directed by Brad Anderson, it’s a film that wraps a compelling time travel story, with more than a few references to Doctor Who‘s Blinovitch Limitation Effect, into a Sundance-friendly romantic comedy that plays both sexy and geeky by turns. The chemistry between Tomei and D’Onofrio is really something else, and the film constantly plays its central mystery to entertaining effect.

Jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge through a crack in the fabric of time

In Kate & Leopold, Hugh Jackman plays Leopold Alexis Elijah Walker Gareth Thomas Mountbatten, 3rd Duke of Albany and inventor of the elevator. If that fictionalised character gives you pause, you’re going to have trouble with the way in which he gets from 1876 to the 21st century. Anyone would be upset to see Liev Schreiber in their home taking pictures with a digital camera, but you’d be especially cross if you lived in the 19th century.

Schreiber plays Stuart, an amateur physicist who has created a formula to forecast cracks in the space-time continuum as you might forecast the weather, and has jumped through one of them to track his great-great-grandfather, Leopold. Unfortunately, Leopold climbs up the Brooklyn Bridge (then still in construction) in pursuit of Stuart and winds up following him back to the future.

There, he falls for Stuart’s ex and downstairs neighbour, a cynical research executive called Kate (Meg Ryan), and generally gets much too comfortable in 21st century New York. In addition to the film’s dubious use of time travel, the effect of Leopold’s jaunt to the future when he should be inventing the elevator leads to an accident early on, where Stuart falls down an elevator shaft, apparently as a consequence of history being changed. It does beg the question of why the shaft would still be there, if we’re to understand that the lift might cease to exist, but this is definitely more about the romance between the title characters than the science behind it.

Ultimately, the film’s happy ending winds up glossing over Stuart getting all sorts of things wrong, not least in having at some point slept with his own great-great-grandmother before he set them up, but then these are the sorts of slip-ups you make when you literally jump off a bridge as an experiment. As always, Jackman is loads of fun as a man out of time, and this film marks his first collaboration with writer-director James Mangold, with whom he most recently made Logan. An Oscar-worthy screenplay this is not, but nevertheless, it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Finding a penpal from two years ago

Dating apps usually have a distance setting, so you can find someone who’s close by, but the snail mail equivalent in The Lake House has two people in the exact same location, separated by two years. Based on the South Korean film Il Mare, the film is about a long-distance correspondence between doctor Kate Forrester (Sandra Bullock) and architect Alex Wyler (Keanu Reeves), who live in the same house in the years 2006 and 2004, respectively.

Whether you’ve seen the film or not, it’s tough to keep the timey-wimey contortions of this one straight in your head. Kate and Alex’s continuing correspondence goes on in relative time, exactly two years apart from one another. So at one point, Alex meets Kate at a party and interacts with her without introducing himself as someone she’ll write to in the future, which can happen because she vaguely remembers it in 2006 and so he doesn’t change time.

But the film hinges on a man who dies in a traffic accident, after Kate fails to save him, and when the film becomes about saving him, even though she remembers that she didn’t – oh dear, I’ve gone cross-eyed. Even more than Kate & Leopold, the time travel mechanics of this one are secondary to the romance, with Speed co-stars Reeves and Bullock making a likeable couple separated by the weirdness of their postal arrangements. They save more on stamps than most would writing to each other over a long distance, and they leave the arguments about causality to the geekier couples who go to see the movie.

Borrowing a time-travel device off a tourist from the future

Yasutaka Tsutsui’s 1967 novel The Girl Who Leapt Through Time has been adapted many times in Japan, on TV and in movies. The most striking of these is the 2006 anime film, in which the novel’s original protagonist features as the aunt of schoolgirl Makoto Konno, who discovers the ability to leap through time after a near-death experience.

This coming-of-age story sees Makoto use her ability frivolously in order to ace tests and impress her peers, but quickly gets more complicated once her two best friends Chaiaki and Kousuke become entangled in her shenanigans. Having believed that she came upon this ability naturally, it’s eventually revealed that she came into contact with a time travel device that was misplaced by a tourist from the future, and has inadvertently stolen their leaps.

Makoto takes a run-up before each leap and lands hard almost every time she travels back, but the bigger impact usually comes when she affects her own recent history in unexpected ways. It hits all of the usual notes that these films do in terms of characters growing up, but not necessarily in the right order, and one gorgeous sequence involving multiple leaps to avoid an awkward conversation with an admirer is just one of the delights in this gorgeously animated teen movie.

How do you time travel? You just time travel…

All of this faffing aside, some time travellers have it and some time travellers don’t. Audrey Niffenegger’s novel The Time Traveller’s Wife was a book club favorite throughout the 2000s, and was noted as an influence on Steven Moffat’s creation of River Song in Doctor Who. It follows the very un-chronological romance between Claire Abshire, the title character, and Henry DeTamble, who has a genetic disorder which causes him to involuntarily time travel at random.

The 2009 film version, directed by Robert Schwentke and starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams, makes relatively short work of a complex novel, but stays true to that central conceit of a relationship played out in the wrong order, from Henry meeting his wife as a child to their struggles to have children. As in the novel, the film makes an involving and emotional study of the downsides to a superpower that many would probably choose for themselves, albeit not in the conditions that Henry and Claire have to endure.

The wish fulfilment angle on the same ability comes in Richard Curtis’ About Time, in which Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) wins the genetic lottery by not only having Bill Nighy as a dad, but also inheriting the male line of his family’s unique ability to move backwards in time within their own memory. Tim’s first thought is that this ought to be a great help in finding himself a girlfriend.

Early on, the film is about him learning that you truly only get one chance to make a first impression, by accidentally erasing his first meeting with the love of his life Mary (Rachel McAdams, again) and then scrambling to reinstate their relationship. As the film develops, it becomes a study of a time-traveller growing up, with various rules and wrinkles preventing the kind of carefree meddling that Tim enjoyed in his younger years. It’s ultimately more a film about familial love, but it’s still bursting with romance.

…but not if you’re Rachel McAdams

To date, there are precisely four films in which Rachel McAdams is the love interest of a man who gets to faff around with time, and she hasn’t got to time travel herself in any of them.

In addition to The Time Traveller’s Wife and About Time, there’s Midnight In Paris, where she plays Inez, the spoiled, cheating wife of Woody Allen’s author insert Gil (Owen Wilson) who doesn’t understand her husband’s nocturnal jaunts to the 1920s, and Marvel’s Doctor Strange, in which she’s squandered as Christine Palmer, Strange’s ex and tether to normality.

In About Time, it’s Tim’s sister Kit Kat who’s hard done by the weirdly specific rule that only male relatives can time travel, but Mary remains oblivious to it altogether. It seems the only sure way to travel back in time in a time travel romance is to not be Rachel McAdams. It’s a whole lot of bollocks that McAdams isn’t at least an A-list star by this stage in her career, but ‘the time traveller’s significant other’ is a fascinating niche in which she’s found herself.

Being passengers

But in the majority of the films we’ve covered, the lovers aren’t the Doc Brown type. They’re more Marty – passengers of time travel, usually not fully in control of their respective modes of transport. Time is a force beyond their control, which love must withstand in order to get us to a happy ending.

Whether they’ve swiped right on an old photograph or happened to meet the love of their lives outside of their own timezone, the how is never so important as the why. Like Basil Exposition tells us Austin (and us) in the second Austin Powers movie, the more romantic movies suggest that we don’t worry about those things, and try to enjoy ourselves.