Monday, September 7, 2009

That Restless Feeling - The Time Traveler's Wife


I’ve always been fascinated by novels and movies about time travel. I love H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, and I’ve read it several times. I hadn’t heard good things about the recently released The Time Traveler’s Wife, the adaptation of the bestselling novel by Audrey Niffenegger, but being a sucker for any story with the time travel element, I went to see it.

The story is simple: Henry (Eric Bana) has a genetic anomaly that causes him to vanish unexpectedly and to appear at different points in his life. Through his travels, he falls in love with Clare (Rachel McAdams) at different points in her life, and they become soul mates despite Henry’s rather irritating condition, which means he could walk from one room to another in their apartment and, poof! He’s gone. Another problem for Henry is that his clothes can’t time travel with him. He always appears at different points in time, sans garments. This means he has to break into a store or a car, steal clothing, and get chased by security guards. Very clearly, the film is about Henry and Clare’s love for each other, a love impervious to the ravages of time … travel. It’s not really about time travel, a big disappointment for a sci-fi fan. What’s the point of a time travel story if it doesn’t take you to a crucial historical event in the past or a strange future world?

I’m guessing this story works better as a novel than a film. As a novel, the focus is more thematic and conceptual, and the writer can better manipulate elements depicted in the film that come off as nothing less than ridiculous. Eric Bana has to spend much of his time naked, embarrassed, looking around desperately for the nearest fig leaf. And his appearances at different points in Clare’s life are enough to make you squirm uncomfortably. When Clare is a little girl, Henry appears in a bush – naked – and she doesn’t seem to have any problem talking to a naked man in a bush. When Clare is eighteen, a much older Henry steals a kiss from her. But they’re married in the future! It’s all kind of confusing.

The Time Traveler’s Wife reminds me of the kind of B movie I used to catch on television on weekdays when I was home sick from school. A bad movie could easily turn into a weird experience that’s kind of interesting as I drifted in and out of a delirious drowse. That’s how I felt about this movie. The deadpan acting, the plotline’s inexplicable logic, the offbeat music (that maudlin rock song played for their wedding dance is amazingly bizarre), the spookiness of it all when their fetal child inherits Henry’s genetic syndrome and starts time traveling from the womb! – all these elements sort of induce delirium even if you don’t have a fever.

Reading this story as a novel, you’re more inclined to follow it thematically. In that way, this is a touching story about the history of a relationship from youth through marriage and parenthood – until it is severed by Henry’s death, caused by the film’s most ridiculous plot point. I can’t tell you. Okay, you probably won’t see this movie, so I will. SPOILER ALERT! Get this – Clare’s gun-toting Republican of a father, opposed to the marriage from the beginning, mistakes Henry for an elk and pots him!

Thus, I found myself enjoying this movie only on a thematic level. Not only is The Time Traveler’s Wife about a relationship, but it’s about a man with a restless nature – and that kind of reminded me of myself. Henry is the kind of guy who has to come and go. He’s not content staying with secure sameness. He is called to time travel. Similarly, I find myself called to uproot and go, from time to time, and I can’t resist the call. My wife and I enjoy our family vacations, but I have to go off by myself as well. For many summers that meant a camping trip in the Sierra Nevada with my younger brother. This summer it was a solo road trip from Montana to South Dakota, Nebraska, and Wyoming. Once I’m tied to my teaching job, that restless urge takes me to many movies (last year – eighty times), the moviegoing experience being the easiest way I can travel far, far away in more or less than two hours. I always come home to wife and kids – whether it’s a few hours or a week later – and what I get from camping or a road trip is probably close to what I get from going to the movies: a change of scenery, exposure to something new, an experience that promotes fresh perspectives and new inspirations. It’s unfortunate when that cinematic excursion is into a ridiculous film like The Time Traveler’s Wife, but a disappointment like this one never stifles that restless urge to go. After all, I could always go see Inglourious Basterds a third time tonight to replace that bad experience with an exhilarating one. I think I will.

6 comments:

FilmDr said...

Inglourious Basterds for the third time?!

The Time Traveler's Wife sounds a bit like the first Terminator in the way you can't travel in clothes. Doesn't the time traveler ever run into younger or older versions of himself? How does Rachel McAdams do given her time away from acting?

Hokahey said...

FilmDr - Thanks for the comment. Yes, I just got back from seeing Basterds for a third time tonight. That's great filmmaking.

As for this one -

Yeah, the time traveler runs into himself at different ages - like Spock meets Spock in Star Trek. Now, right from the start, time travel is impossible, but a time traveler meeting himself at a different age seems to defy the laws of physics and all realms of believability. That's a time travel element I always dislike.

McAdams is charming - I don't consider her a great talent. But she does better in her role than Bana in his.

Jason Bellamy said...

Enjoyed this review. I had a feeling this was probably the case:

"I’m guessing this story works better as a novel than a film. As a novel, the focus is more thematic and conceptual, and the writer can better manipulate elements depicted in the film that come off as nothing less than ridiculous. Eric Bana has to spend much of his time naked, embarrassed, looking around desperately for the nearest fig leaf. And his appearances at different points in Clare’s life are enough to make you squirm uncomfortably."

That's a shame. The trailers for this film are somewhat enticing because they do boil it down to more thematic elements, rather than focusing on those strange time travel wrinkles and overlaps. When a trailer is more thematically focused than the film itself (and I say that just based on your description), that's a problem.

P.S. I saw Basterds for a third time yesterday. My admiration grows. That is a movie that takes you somewhere!

Hokahey said...

Jason - Thanks for the thoughts. Funny thing is - I'm still thinking about Time Traveler's Wife thematically - mainly about the idea of a man whose restless nature takes him away from his family; the reasons for that restless nature can be interpreted in so many ways (a creative person's devotion to his passion, for example). But I'm not thinking about the film itself - acting, dialogue, images - as a memorable experience.

IB is another thing entirely, and it was well worth a third viewing. During the second viewing I felt distracted by trying to catch bits I had missed and by correcting my visual memory of it. Third time, I settled in and just enjoyed what I was seeing. I love the scene in the tavern cellar - and this time I just sat back and enjoyed the performances - and I noticed how tremendous Kruger is when she gets to speak her native language (as opposed to being in National Treasure).

Craig said...

I have returned from the future to report that "The Time Traveler's Wife" is considered the greatest movie ever made. Genius is never recognized in its own time. Not that that will entice me to see it.

Hokahey said...

You never know what's going to be forgotten or still remembered in the film world in the future. But if film critics of the future consider this movie a classic, I despair.

Thanks for traveling back to post this comment, Craig, but be careful. Don't run into your current self. Despite what happens in sci-fi movies, I think that would cause some sort of cataclysmic disaster.