‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ movie review: Eric Bana, Rachel McAdams sci-fi romance

Half-disguised as sci-fi, Robert Schwentke’s The Time Traveler’s Wife is one of the better romances of recent years; touching and affectionate and plenty sentimental but never manipulative. And the hero happens to travel through time, randomly, to events in his past or future, while the love of his life is locked into a more or less normal existence.

In that, it’s similar to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. And for me anyway, while it doesn’t match up to Button on the technical side of things, it provides the emotional kick that I found the Oscar-nominee lacking. Still, in both of the films the sci-fi premise feels like a gimmick that only distances the films from their audiences; we can relate, but only so far, and the stories could have easily been told using a more reality-grounded premise.

The Time Traveler’s Wife opens with a young Henry DeTamble riding in the back seat of a car, his mother driving. There’s what appears to be an accident, but Henry suddenly finds himself back at home, watching another version of himself with mom and dad. Moments later, he’s back at the scene of the accident, his mother dead in a fiery inferno. 

He’s comforted by an older version of himself (played by Eric Bana), who wraps the young time traveler in a blanket (Henry can’t take his clothes with him when he travels – a nice thought, but so much screentime is dedicated to him scrambling in search of clothing that I wish they left it out. Time travel is a big jump to accept, I think we could take some clothing too)

Many years later, Henry runs into Clare Abshire (Rachel McAdams) while working at a public library. He doesn’t know her, but she sure knows him: an older version of Henry has been visiting Clare throughout her life. They’re destined to be together, of course, and soon get married – Henry disappears at the wedding, but his older self is nice enough to swoop in and fill in. Predictably, time travel creates some complications for their family life.

Few movies can be successful as both sci-fi and romance; even something like the Richard Matheson-written Somewhere in Time was less than fully satisfying. Fewer films still can successfully incorporate time travel without inviting plot holes; it’s a sci-fi writer’s favorite device, but logically speaking, it never really feels right.

Schwentke’s film, based on the book by Audrey Niffenegger, succeeds as a romance; surprisingly so, given such an offbeat premise. But it’s a mess of incoherence as sci-fi; Schwentke, perhaps wisely, treads carefully, giving us the events fast and loose without really considering them.

It’s when you consider the time travel that things start to fall apart. When Henry travels, he does so in progressive fashion (he never goes back further in time than he has before), for no real reason other than it would screw with the plot if he did (towards the end, this forward progression is abandoned and he travels forward and back in time without much rhyme or reason – and Henry has the opportunity to screw with the plot, but never does.) 

All this time travel, and the past and future are always perfectly flush, everything happens as it should; you might think that Henry could change the future by his actions in the past (and logically, he should be able to, right?) but no – we progress as if fate has sealed the timeline.

And sure, fate is good fodder for romance. Not so much for science fiction. Go into The Time Traveler’s Wife with an open mind and you may not be satisfied with the results. But go in with an open heart and you’ll be swept away.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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