Time Travel Thursday: Time Freak (2018)
Time travel tropes8
Butterfield and Turner7.5
Matthew Turner | On 26, Dec 2019
Director: Andrew Bowler
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Sophie Turner, Skyler Gisondo, Aubrey Reynolds, Will Peltz
Watch Time Freak online in the UK: Netflix UK
Wondering how to fill the time travel gap now that Travelers and Timeless have been cancelled? Then transport yourself no further than Time Travel Thursdays, our column devoted to time travel movies on Netflix. It’s on Thursdays.
Writer-director Andrew Bowler expands his Oscar-nominated 2011 short film for this entertaining time travel comedy that has something to say about relationships. Pleasingly, the film fully embraces and engages with its sci-fi concept, making it one of Netflix’s better time travel movies.
The film doesn’t waste any time getting to the time travel action. A photo montage over the opening credits establishes that Stillman (Asa Butterfield) is a genius college student and that he’s in a happy relationship with Debbie (Sophie Turner), until suddenly he gets a text that says “We need to talk” and she breaks up with him when they meet up. As she dumps him, we see the scene play over and over again, Groundhog Day-style, accompanied by a computer-like tone (like an error message), and we realise that Stillman has already invented a time machine, which he’s controlling via his phone, a bit like hitting the jump-back-10-seconds button on Netflix.
When nothing works, Stillman grabs his slacker best friend Evan (Santa Clarita Diet’s Skyler Gisondo) and explains his plan: with the aid of his time machine, the two of them will jump back in time (landing in their own bodies, so going for the Quantum Leap approach rather than Back to the Future II) and fix everything that went wrong between Stillman and Debbie over the past year, in chronological order, in the hopes that the “We need to talk” text will disappear from his phone and they’ll stay together. But nothing’s ever that easy where time travel is concerned.
It’s interesting to see which time travel tropes the film embraces and which it rejects. For one thing, this isn’t a film that’s concerned with alternate timelines, since whenever Stillman and Evan disappear from a situation, that moment simply ceases to exist, although there’s a moment towards the end of the film that raises questions in that regard. Similarly, the film isn’t remotely worried about the traditional consequences of time travel – at one point Evan leaves himself a video message that’s effectively from his future self and nothing bad happens. There isn’t even a consequence from using time travel for selfish gain, such as making sure that Evan wins an ultimate frisbee championship.
That’s not to say the film doesn’t have a conscience. Instead, the script focuses more on relationship-related issues such as control, jealousy and selfishness, as well as the importance of learning from your mistakes. In that respect, the film is surprisingly unsympathetic towards Stillman, who’s actually kind of a dick, throwing a strop when his friends laugh at his favourite sci-fi movie – he knows they’ll hate it, but still makes them rewatch it over and over, hoping for a different reaction – and leaving Evan trapped in a nightmare time-loop situation in an elevator for hours (or possibly longer), just so he can relive a perfect moment with Debbie.
Fortunately, Butterfield (kind of Hollywood’s go-to guy for likeable weirdos) is an appealing enough actor that he can make those moments work without losing too much audience sympathy. He also generates strong comic chemistry with Gisondo, even if the romantic chemistry between him and Turner isn’t quite there.
For her part, Turner doesn’t get all that much to play with (at least until the final act) and you occasionally suspect she took the part just to be able to showcase her musical skills (she plays guitar and ukulele and has two singing scenes), but she still makes Debbie a believably complex individual rather than a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
The film’s saving grace is Gisondo, who lights up every scene with his own unique comic energy and delivery. He’s very funny here, delivering lines such as, “Dude, that sounds like the worst birthday since the year my Mom hooked up with that clown” and having an amusing subplot of his own with “Blue Ribbons Girl” (Aubrey Reynolds, sadly under-used).
Bowler’s script zips along nicely and continually finds ways to keep things interesting, throwing in a number of complications along the way, such as the time machine freezing or losing the ability to go back. The one complaint in terms of unexplored story elements, is that Stillman never thinks to go forward to see if they have a future, instead obsessing over fixing the past.
Ultimately, the film turns out to have a little more on its mind than frothy rom-com fun – the final act takes a darker turn than expected and there are surprising revelations. That’s in service of a couple of worthwhile points about relationships and life in general, although the film doesn’t quite have the guts to end the way it should, which lessens the impact a little.
As a side note, the film is also known as Time After Time (that’s the title that appears on screen), but since that’s also the title of one of the all-time great time travel movies (a 1979 classic in which Malcolm McDowell’s H.G. Wells pursues David Warner’s Jack the Ripper to present-day San Francisco), it’s probably just as well they changed it.
Time Freak is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.