When I sat down to watch The Time Traveler’s Wife I was a little perturbed that I hadn’t had time to read the book. My sister spoke very highly of it and I borrowed a copy of it a couple of years ago, watched it collect dust and then gave it back, excusing myself with the familiar “I just don’t have the time.”
But after seeing the trailer for the film version, my curiosity was piqued; they were interpreting time travel on a literal level whereas I, after reading the premise of the book, always assumed it was meant as more of a metaphor for emotional distance or periodic disconnection. The story is about a relationship between a man and a woman that stretches throughout both of their lives and is punctuated by various instances of him disappearing into thin air against his will and rematerializing sometimes much later. It seemed logical that time travel was meant as a stand-in for something else.
I haven’t read Audrey Niffenberger’s book, so I can’t say one way or the other, even though I plan to read it as soon as I can lay my hands on a cheap copy (isn’t it a bitch when the release of a big movie prompts people to actually use the library?). I hope Niffenberger didn’t mean for us to interpret the time travel elements of her story literally. It’s a pain of adapting certain stories from the page to the screen; some things that seem wonderfully imaginative in a novel translate as just plain preposterous in film form, and it was hard to watch both the trailer and the completed film of The Time Traveler’s Wife without giggling just a little bit at its logistics.
Time travel has long been a wonderful pet of Hollywood screenwriters and the eager fanboys frothing at the mouth to pick apart their logic. It’s hard to say if anyone has ever used time travel well in a movie. Most of the time travel scenarios that we’ve seen play out in movies like 12 Monkeys, Back to the Future and Terminator have been dissected with such fervor that it is pretty hard to take any of them seriously if we ever did to begin with. At this point, anyone who uses time travel in their screenplay does so at their peril; they have to know that critics are sharpening their knives. Every review I read for a time travel movie spends about a third of its word count blasting the film for its flights of logic. Placing the words ‘time travel’ actually in the title? Ballsy at this point.
Does The Time Traveler’s Wife excel at all in its utilization of the form? Not really. Maybe it’s a problem of the viewer and not the film itself. All I want to do is pick a movie like this apart, and based on some reviews I’ve read, so do a lot of other critics. There seems to be a lot of “it’s completely illogical, but….”-type statements permeating the critical consensus. I’d be outraged if it weren’t kind of a justified conclusion to draw. There’s nothing in this movie that really offends me in terms of its time travel logic, but that might be because after seeing movies like Frequency and The Adventures of Keanu Reeves and the Magical Mailbox (okay, it’s technically called The Lake House, but the other title is more appropriate), I’m ready to forgive a lot of shit. Time travel works the best when it is at the center of a film, when it not only happens, but actually generates discussion and speculation (such as in Primer, the best time travel film I’ve seen at this point). It works the poorest when it is nothing more than a device, something there to enable something else to happen, or deus ex machina if you want to be a highbrow douche about it (which I do and always will).
Just like it was probably a metaphor in Niffenberger’s novel, it is a pure device in the film, which was directed by Robert Schwentke (Flightplan), written by Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost) and starring Eric Bana as the time traveller and Rachel McAdams as the titular wife, long patient with her consistently disappearing husband and long suffering from his often prolonged absences. Plot breakdown: Henry (Bana) is afflicted with a genetic disorder that forces him to disintigrate into thin air and travel to earlier or later moments in his life. These displacements leave him forever seeking clothes as he moves from one time to another. Claire (McAdams) is a woman he originally encountered when she was a little girl; one day when she is playing behind her house, she hears a man calling for her from behind a bush. He is naked and asks for a blanket. She gives him one and he reveals that he is a time traveller. She doesn’t believe him but he tells her some events in her immediate future that come true. She starts to believe him and begins to leave clothes in the forest for him to find if he ever returns. He finds himself returning to Claire throughout her life, eventually meeting her as a young woman when they are both in their twenties, although she only knows him as a foxy, worldly forty-year-old who always seemed like the perfect guy for her.
I’m gonna veer off of the movie’s emotional story and focus for a bit on dude’s affliction. A few problems:
1. It is never explored in much depth which means it provides the writers with a way of making up their own logic as they go along. Anything, no matter how strange, can happen and they can file it under the “nobody understands the illness”-card.
2. If he was going to get a time travel affliction, Henry probably wishes he got a cooler one. For some reason, he never seems to go outside the time frame of his own life span (never explored). He also never leaves the city limits of Chicago (also never explored). Sometimes he is gone for long periods of time (like when the movie needs him to be) and other times he is gone for a period of seconds.
3. I said he always arrives naked, which prompts him to quickly acquire clothes by any means necessary. But there are scenes in the movie where he acquires clothes and then predicts his own vanishing seconds later. Most of the displacements that we see seem to last only a matter of minutes. If this is the case, why not just huddle in some remote corner for a bit and wait until you go back?
4. The film never broaches the topic of what consequences Henry’s condition has on mankind. There is only one instance where he uses his condition for his own benefit (I won’t spoil it, it’s actually pretty funny) but for the rest of the film, there never seems to be any concern about what impact his actions in the past could have on the future. For the purposes of this screenplay, there seem to be no consequences.
Despite all the holes (most of which I anticipated) I still had fun placing this film’s time travel logic in continuity with other time travel films. The no-clothes thing is a nice reflection of what we see in the Terminator films, where nothing inorganic can go through the temporal vortex thingy. I also remember the issue in Back to the Future where Doc implores Marty that a paradox could occur if he ever spoke to himself. No paradoxes here. When young Henry comes forward in time to where old Henry and Claire are having a fight, he gives Claire a call so he can stay over with them until he goes back (makes you wonder why he doesn’t seem to do this more often). Later, when they have a kid, the kid (afflicted with the same thing as Henry) travels back in time to walk hand in hand with herself in the family garden as mom and dad look on proudly.
The purpose of this article was to focus on the time travel aspect of the film, but I’m happy to report that it works otherwise. Bana and McAdams are well matched here and both give performances so convincing that you truly do care about the characters. Bruce Joel Rubin brings the same gravitas and wisdom to this story that he did to Ghost; few writers understand the tragic toll death takes on human relationships as well as he does. Though the film uses time travel clumsily, it at least does it in service of a story worth telling, about a man left forever wandering and the woman who is always the light guiding him home. If you’re going to use time travel in a film, I’d appreciate it if the filmmakers actually cared about the subject. But if they don’t, and in this case they surely don’t, it is at least nice if they care about the rest of their story. It also helps if you have some naked Eric Bana. He’s a beautiful man.