The problem with time-travel movies is that they can be incredibly difficult to write about without giving away vital elements of the plot and having potential viewers angrily shout “Spoilers!” at you. Which, granted, as problems go isn’t quite on the same level as the ‘go back in time and accidentally kill your grandfather and cease to exist’ paradox, but it’s still an issue – y’know?
Unless – what if that’s exactly what you wanted to do? Go back in time and change something so that you ceased to exist? This is the premise of new sci-fi comedy James Vs His Future Self, starring Jonas Chernick and Daniel Stern (Home Alone, City Slickers) as the eponymous anti/hero James, who travels back in time to pick a fight with himself.
James (Chernick) is a scientist, hyperfocused on his work to the exclusion of everything else. Social life, family, relationships, all fall by the wayside in his pursuit of the formula for time travel that will change everything. It’s this inattentiveness to the world that leads him to climb into a taxi where he is kidnapped by a man (Stern) who claims to be himself from the future. Future James has led a miserable life because of past James’ blinkered existence, and seems willing to go to any lengths to ensure that past James creates a different future for himself.
The change your past/change your future story has been told many times before, but perhaps not in such a comedically antagonistic manner. It’s hard, at first, to like Chernick’s James because he is so shut off, so lacking in depth and flavour. He’s brilliant but infuriating. In contrast, Stern’s James is all moody physicality, wild-eyed and unpredictable. He has learnt to be charming, but too late to get what he really wants out of life. Because, perhaps surprisingly, at the heart of this science-fiction film lies a story of unrequited love, with Cleopatra Coleman giving a warm portrayal of best friend and scientific colleague Courtney, who is intensely frustrated with James and his single-mindedness.
And so the tale unravels. It’s something of a slow-burn start, even after future James turns up, and the entire film is rather dialogue-heavy where it could perhaps have taken a few moments to breathe. Where it does excel is in the interaction and confrontation between James and his future self, with the one reluctant and clueless and the other bullish and over-eager, as they try to change their singular life in a way that will make them both happy. Stern and Chernick, along with co-star Frances Conroy (American Horror Story, Six Feet Under), bring a quietly deadpan humour to the proceedings, and whilst there is the sense that certain beats could have been tightened up slightly, overall it works well as a comedy-drama, provoking laughter across its runtime.
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The production values here are high. The story doesn’t require flashy special effects in order to qualify as science-fiction, but the visuals are nonetheless attractive: rich and warm and nicely framed. James Vs His Future Self also boasts a distinctive original soundtrack. It looks like an expensive film, created with love and care by Chernick (who also co-wrote and produced it) and writer/director Jeremy LaLonde.
Timey-wimey stories can often frustrate with their confusion about how things work, but the writers here have taken to the time to ensure that they know how their version of time travel works, that there is an internal logic to it, and this is extremely gratifying for the viewer. James Vs His Future Self is a highly enjoyable time travel story about the ability to be present, about living in the moment. Because you can’t change the past. Except when you can.
James Vs His Future Self is showing at the Glasgow Film Festival on the 4th and 5th of March, and opens in the UK via Sky TV on 7th April.