The second hand unwinds ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The second hand unwinds

The Time Traveler's Wife
My rating:

I love sci-fi, always have. When I was younger, I loved it for the escapism - how could boring old reality possibly measure up to a world with spaceships, robots, aliens, time machines and alien planets? But the genre isn't only about escapism; the challenge of any sci-fi story is to marry an out-of-this-world premise with human characters who deal with that premise in real, relatable, human ways. The Time Traveler's Wife is a prime example of that - the evergreen SFnal trope of time travel is mostly employed here as a fresh spin on what's essentially a down-to-earth romantic drama.

And it succeeds - but more in the romantic drama arena than the sci-fi one.

Henry DeTamble (Eric Bana) has a singular genetic condition - he travels through time, unwillingly and uncontrollably. He often revisits significant moments in his life, and he always appears naked (his clothes don't travel with him). When he meets Claire Abshire (Rachel McAdams), she tells him she's been in love with him all her life - because as they fall in love and get married, he will frequently travel back to visit her younger self. But living with such a condition - dubbed "chrono-impairment" by geneticist Dr. Kendrick (Stephen Tobolowsky) who helps Henry - takes a toll on their relationship, especially when they try to have children.

I wish I'd read the Audrey Nifenegger novel this film was based on. According to this review, it has a wealth of little details that the movie leaves out, in favour of streamlining the plot - and the plot isn't any great shakes. I'd have to agree, but I still liked it better than that reviewer did. The romance worked for me; Henry and Claire's love for each other is affecting and effective. I also liked the fact that this wasn't your typical Hollywood love story, in which the beginning of a relationship is the end of the movie - we follow Henry and Claire through several years of their lives together, and this makes for a more mature romance than we usually see.

But there's a definite sense that the film doesn't make full use of its premise. Being able to travel through time should affect Henry's and Claire's lives in many, many more ways than are shown here, and some of the ways it does show are glossed over. For example, there are implications that before he met Claire, Henry was a lonely man, unable to live a normal life because of his condition - but this barely comes across, and the character as written (and played by Bana) certainly doesn't seem like a social recluse. During their relationship and marriage, Henry's time-hopping seems little different from an absentee husband who goes on a lot of business trips. At one point, Henry uses a trip to the future to procure a winning lottery ticket that solves their financial worries, which raises the question of why he's never done that before.

It seems the filmmakers simply aren't familiar with sci-fi as a genre. Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin is mostly known for writing Ghost, and he had it easier with the metaphysical life-after-death aspects of that movie than the time-traveling of this one. I was honestly surprised at that bit with the lottery ticket, because it's the first indication that Henry can also travel to the future - quite a few time-travel stories have made it a rule that it's only possible to go back to the past. The film works best when time travel affects the central couple's lives in real, dramatic ways, such as when Claire gets pregnant - in fact, she suffers several miscarriages because, since Henry's condition is genetic, the fetuses tend to literally disappear from her womb. (Which means they appear somewhere, or somewhen, but we never see this. Would've been extremely icky though.)

But when the drama works, it works quite well. And the acting has a lot to do with it - McAdams and Bana make us believe that they're star-crossed lovers who are - literally - meant to be together. Everyone else is pretty much peripheral, really - Stephen Tobolowsky is always fun to watch (he's a perfect "hey, it's that guy!"-type actor whom you've seen in hundreds of roles), but he's not in it much. Ron Livingston similarly has a rather thankless role as a friend of Henry and Claire, and from what I've read it seems there was a bigger subplot involving the character in the book that the movie left out.

This is the first movie in a long time that I'm giving three stars to, and frankly it's been a bit hard to review - it's not so bad that I can rant about where it went wrong, but not good enough to rave about either. I'm sure I'd have a lot more to say if I'd read the novel, but I suspect I'd probably like it less too. In any case, I did like it, and you'd probably like it more if you weren't as big a sci-fi geek as I am - probably a lot more if you like a good, weepy romantic melodrama, something I'm not immune to myself. (My feminine side, let me show you it.) Still, the next time a movie comes out that's based on a genre novel I've been meaning to read, I'm gonna make sure I read it first. Which reminds me, I need to pick up a copy of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones real soon.

Update: Rating revised to reflect my new five-star rating scale.

NEXT REVIEW: Pisau Cukur
Expectations: let's see what you got, Mr. Chauly