The ethics of romantic time travel

Contributed by
Feb 28, 2018

I certainly didn’t begin watching a cheesy Netflix Original romantic comedy starring Adam DeVine expecting to walk away with any feelings of substance. But, as a sucker for time travel stories, like my beloved Doctor Who—or the Back to the Future series, which served as the origin of my geekdom—it’s hard for me to skip any entries in this sci-fi subgenre. I'm in for any story that steps off the platform of hard science fiction into the realm of more science fantasy, toward a world full of metaphors for battling regrets by changing history, either real or personal.

This particular entry, When We First Met, stars DeVine as Noah, a dorky white boy yet also nightclub jazz pianist (seriously). Noah has spent the last three years obsessing over the one who got away, his crush Avery (Alexandra Daddario), with whom he shared what he feels was the absolute most perfect first date in history, which resulted only in a hug goodnight and then losing her forever after she then met the actual love of her life the very next day. After some heavy drinking and a magical photo booth, Noah is transported back to the day—wait for it—when they first met and is given the chance to re-do that seemingly already perfect date and this time, actually win Avery for himself.

If this all sounds familiar, that’s no surprise. We have now entered one of the more popular tropes of romantic stories in the time travel genre. Essentially a case of extreme wish fulfillment, these stories involve a male protagonist given the chance to woo a lady love interest repeatedly, with the ability to tweak and adjust moves to slowly try to win her favor. In some cases the protagonist can control these time jumps, like Noah’s photo booth, or Domhnall Gleeson in the British magical realism comedy About Time. Or sometimes they can’t, like Bill Murray in the most popular time-loop story ever told, Groundhog Day. In either case, the wish is very clear: the power to actually replay the moments that normally only do so in your head.

Where this fantasy runs aground though is that, when it works out perfectly for the character, it completely negates the free will of their potential partners. Despite being arguably the most charming of the three films and possibly the deepest, dealing with concepts of losing loved ones, helping the lives of those around you an ultimately living each day to the fullest, About Time does the least amount of work addressing the ethics of this dilemma. Gleeson’s character’s entire marriage to Rachel McAdams in the film wouldn’t be possible without his repeated manipulation of their early courtship through time travel, including erasing a potential boyfriend from McAdams’ character’s life.

Groundhog Day, on the other hand, addresses this issue directly. Rita, Andie MacDowell’s character repeatedly rejects Phil Connors’ looped attempts to telegraph out the perfect courtship of her, even calling him out for keeping an encyclopedic knowledge of her for future attempts as what it is, obsessive stalking regardless of nonlinear life situations. It’s only when Phil is either honest with her about his situation, or focuses instead on improving himself and his own life on his last, perfect day that he is both freed from the time loop and is able to win Rita’s heart. The movie does veer into rough territory earlier in the story when Phil is able to use his time loop to seduce a one-night-stand, Nancy. The film largely leaves any moral ramifications of that behind, assuming that Phil’s sins are erased as the day resets. It’s notable that the stage musical adaptation of Groundhog Day gives Nancy a song to address exactly the fact that this particular plot point did not age well in an otherwise classic film.

And that’s what struck me as so surprising about When We First Met. Despite a premise that screamed out at being more of the same, a cookie-cutter entry in this subgenre, it impressively chooses instead to subvert it. Rather than giving Noah the keys to living his ideal life, Noah’s attempts to change the past only end up leaving everyone, himself included, worse off and unsatisfied with their lives. Rather than a story about wish fulfillment, it’s a story about not dwelling on the things that happened in the past and realizing that fixating on someone and idealizing them isn’t actually love.

For a genre that is so anchored in the jettisoning of mistakes and regret, it was refreshing to see a movie about living with the so-called flaws that already happened and instead finding the things that are actually right for you moving forward. About Time tries to make this same point, but only after Gleeson's character is given the ability to make major changes that allow him to live the perfect life that no longer requires time travel.

In a life full of regrets, it can be easy to fantasize about changing the ones that linger—but it’s never that simple, is it? You either accept the person you’ve become and do what you can to make the most of it, or you grow stagnant, dwelling only in memories and well wishes for what could have been. It’s nice to be reminded of that sometimes.