Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Time Traveler's Wife

Year 2, Day 59 - 2/28/10 - Movie #424

BEFORE; I don't say this about a lot of movies, but I've really been looking forward to this one... That's probably an understatement, since I just paid the $4.99 to watch the movie On Demand, even though it will probably be on Premium cable in a couple of months - but I can't wait, I'm doing time-travel movies now, it fits in my chain here, damn it.

This is based on a book by Audrey Niffenegger which I greatly enjoyed, due to its portrayal of time-travel continuity (more on that later...) and is probably the only fiction book I've read in the last 5 years that didn't have both "Star" and "Wars" in the title...

THE PLOT: A romantic drama about a Chicago librarian with a gene that causes him to involuntarily time travel, and the complications it creates for his marriage.

AFTER: Back-to-back time-travel movies set in Chicago, excellent!

I feel I should preface this review with an explanation of why I like time-travel stories so much - my wife, for one, doesn't seem to understand my preoccupation. You see, when I was just a boy, I asked my mother, "What will I be? Will I be pretty, will I be rich?" Here's what she said to me: "How the heck should I know?"

Seriously, what kid doesn't want to know what their future holds? Then I watched a movie called "Slaughterhouse Five", about a man named Billy Pilgrim who becomes un-stuck in time and travels freely within his life, visiting key moments in his World War 2 service, including the bombing of Dresden, plus his marriage and eventual abduction to an alien zoo on the planet Tralfalmadore (where they teach him to time-travel, so it's a neat little loop). This led to me reading the complete works of Kurt Vonnegut, and then I read the "ABC's" of sci-fi - Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke - and of course I caught on to old reruns of "The Twilight Zone" around the same time.

The general consensus in the sci-fi community seemed to be, at least from a storytelling point of view, that if time travel were to be invented, it wouldn't be possible to alter the past. You could go back and try to prevent the Chicago Fire, for example, but something ironic would happen, and you might even end up causing it. Another theory tells us that since a time-traveler from the future might want to go back and kill Hitler as a baby, let's say, the fact that no one has done this might means that either time-travel will never be invented, or the past simply cannot be changed. (or else killing baby Hitler would lead to an even worse timeline somehow...)

So, this movie (and the novel it's based on) neatly avoid any time paradoxes by making everything that happens part of the same inevitable fabric of reality. For Henry (Eric Bana) time is not a straight-line, or even a pretzel folding in on itself, it's more like a bowl of pasta, with all the strands of his life on top of each other and interacting. If he should meet himself along the way, or kill his own grandfather, well, it's all part of the plan. In fact, the first time he time-travels as a young boy (leaving his clothes behind), a 30-year old version of himself is there to greet him with a warm blanket, an explanation of what just happened, and an assurance that everything will ultimately be OK.

Now, you may have heard of the time paradox in which a man from the future jumps back and gives himself the blueprints to build a time machine - in this case, who invented the time machine? Something similar happens between Henry and Clare (Rachel McAdams). Since Henry is "pulled" to important people in his life, he visits her in a meadow near her house when she is a young child. The first time they meet, from her P.O.V., she's 6, and he's in his 30's (it's not as creepy as it sounds, even though he's naked)
but the first time they meet from his P.O.V, he's in his late 20's, and she's 19, but she's known him since she was a little girl - so who met who first? And if older Henry told little Clare about their relationship, and 21-year old Clare tells 28-year old Henry about it, then it's a slight circular paradox. And I guess we'll resolve the tricky issue about destiny vs. free will later, unless you believe that the future is just as unchangeable as the past...

It's a bit of a male fantasy, to have a woman approach you in a library, say that she knows everything about you, and can't wait to get past the first few awkward dates and get to the physical stuff, which she's been thinking about for years...umm, and what was your name again? But then I suppose it's a bit of a female fantasy to have an older hunky man come visit you at random intervals and give you hints about your future marriage...sort of like that "Mystery Date" board game.

As the wife of a time traveler, Clare has to endure a lot - I won't reveal all the plot points because there are some genius-level "Aha!" moments - but for a man who's prone to blinking out, missing dates and occasional holidays is just the beginning. Except for having to explain his disappearances and cleaning up the things he drops, I suppose it isn't all that different from a relationship with a spouse who goes on a lot of unexpected business trips. But turning up naked in random locations is problematic for Henry - fortunately he keeps a set of clothes stashed at his office, he's got friends who cover for him, plus he learns how to break into stores, and run from angry mobs.

This movie didn't do so well at the box office last year, and I can sort of see why - some people might not have understood the non-linear timeline, or have spent as much time thinking about the implications of time-travel as I have. But to me this story is an allegory, since I think that we're all time-travelers - we're all moving through time, we just can't control the speed or the direction. We all face personal challenges and crises, and we're each lucky if we find someone to share our life, who manages to put up with our quirks. We all know, on some level, what our ultimate fate will be, even if we don't know the exact details about how or when it will happen. And over time, other people are going to pop in and out of our lives, sometimes at random intervals, so we all need to celebrate their presences and not begrudge their absences.

Also starring Ron Livingston, Arliss Howard, and perhaps my favorite character actor, Stephen Tobolowsky.

RATING: 9 out of 10 broken plates (1 point off for making me cry like a baby, otherwise a near-perfect film)

EDIT: Upon further review, I realized that a character from the book, Henry's ex-girlfriend, is completely absent from the movie. On a positive note, it simplifies the relationship between Henry and Clare, but on the other hand, it may OVER-simplify the relationship between Henry and Clare. The judges have ruled this to be a "push" and the original rating stands.

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