Gareth Carrivick’s FAQ About Time Travel has a terrific opening scene: An armada of spaceships is closing in on a big blue planet. Inside one of the ships, a British star-trooper is informing his crew of time raiders that they will go back to a point prior to their enemies’ evolution and wipe them out.
He’s salty and irritated and when he begins swearing, there’s the sound of children crying on the soundtrack. This ‘commander’ is Ray (Chris O’Dowd), a blue-collar worker at a children’s amusement park who is having a meltdown in the time-travel ride.
After Ray traumatizes a boatload of adolescents and loses his job, he and his buddies, Toby & Pete (they work in the park too as big plush dinosaurs) head out to the local pub to drown out their troubles and swap geek anecdotes while trying to hit upon that one great idea that will send them sailing into fame.
The beauty of FAQ is that the entire film takes place within the bar, and large portions of it occur within the men’s bathroom. When the trio send Ray out to get some snacks, he returns beaming. As it happens he met a girl; beautiful but spacey Cassie (Anna Farris) who claims that she is from the future and Ray is something of a celebrity—maybe even a deity—in the world she comes from. The other guys laugh it off, until one by one, they end up experiencing inexplicable ‘time flashes’ that let them see future events.
When they all emerge from the men’s bathroom after indulging Pete’s paranoia, they find that their seats at the bar have been taken—by themselves. Cassie shows back up, warns Ray of a time leak and the three geeky buds are off sprinting through different eras and alternate universes, never straying far from the pub, which now exists as an island in time from which they can never leave.
I adore time travel films and will watch them all, even the bad ones. Whether it’s a big special effects bonanzas that send me soaring through bygone eras, or clever little comedies like Happy Accidents, Back to the Future or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, I’m there. My favorites are the ones that really draw out time travel theories and paradoxes. The masterpieces of this genre—La Je’tee, its American remake Twelve Monkeys, and Primer—all create very real and specific worlds that follow their own complex rules and imagine what the mental framework of a time traveler might look like. Movies like Donnie Darko and Summer Time Machine Blues are equally compelling, but subordinate their traveling adventures to genre concerns—teen horror or a kid’s comedy flick.
Ultimately, FAQ isn’t that interested in time travel, but instead gets sidetracked by specific nerd-culture anecdotes. It doesn’t resemble the aforementioned movies and has more in common with the wild-eyed 80s teen comedy, My Science Project, a campy little ditty following a group of kids who zap themselves into history with the help of a home-made time machine.
The beginning of the movie shows real promise, and I enjoyed the very English banter between O’Dowd, Wootton and Kelly. The bar setting creates a comfortable, Friday-after-work feel that perfectly suits the movie’s light tone. The promise of mystery and adventure are teased out with Anna Farris’ ditzy visitor and Pete’s crazy vision flashes. But once it becomes clear that the movie is more interested in emulating Shaun of the Dead than creating a cohesive plot most of the intrigue dies down.
There are some really great scenes here, like Pete’s first trip to the toilet that begins with him singing Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart to empty stalls and ends with a visceral scare as he returns to the pub and finds a bloody heap of mutilated bodies. Or sequences where O’Dowd and company mingle at a party where everyone is dressed in the identical ratty hooded sweatshirts each of them is wearing. They surmise that these young future kids are their acolytes, celebrating whatever great achievement it is they have done.
Giant ants, shadowy beasties, and Editors—rogue time travelers who want to shuffle famous people off this mortal coil before they tarnish their image—show up to menace the gang from time to time. Unfortunately, the movie never slows down to really flesh out any one of those ideas. It’s just a big goofy frolic through sci-fi gags. I had fun with it, and found myself smiling almost all the way through. But when it ends, there’s a curiously empty feeling; like the film came this close to really being something special.
Still, I think it might be required viewing for the sci-fi (Ray insists that it be called SF or science fiction) crowd. Plenty of witty references and a general respect and interest in the subject matter elevate it from being just a haphazard comedy. In fact, the central section of the film where Ray, Pete and Toby wander in and out of various times and places, meeting odd people and creatures, feels like an episode of the original Star Trek.
How often did Bones, Kirk, and Spock go pecking about in time, only for one to return around the corner sporting a big beard, soiled clothes and a crazed look in his eyes? This movie understands that and a great deal else about the mindset of fandom. It earns my respect on that alone. But what if it had spent a little more time with the plot? What if it had really explored the threads it leaves dangling like so many errant pieces of silly string?
Oh, well, we will always have that conga-line bathroom scene with the Brit pack wailing “Nothing I can do….a total eclipse of the heart…”