Its flimsy, fantastical cotton-candy premise may dissolve under close scrutiny, but even then The Time Traveler's Wife is about 10 times better than it looks. It's too bad, then, that this well-made, occasionally plodding genre picture with sci-fi trimmings has been largely derided and dismissed as foofaraw while the alpha-male ultra-violence of District 9 has been widely celebrated.
The ubiquitous Eric Bana stars as Henry, a man who has been bouncing back and forth in time since he witnessed his mother's death when he was 6 years old. Rachel McAdams plays Clare, the girl Henry eventually marries — and the girl he has been visiting in a meadow during his involuntary travels. When twenty-something Clare meets adult Henry, he has no idea who she is, but she's giddy and trembling with glee at meeting the man who's stayed roughly the same age while she has grown up. Their first evening together is tinged with melancholy; for her, it's the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, while for him it's just one more stop on an endlessly rotating carousel of past experiences.
After this undeniably strange meet-cute, The Time Traveler's Wife recasts and revives such well-worn romantic plot conventions as wedding-day jitters and first-child anxieties through a series of provocative rhetorical questions. At what age were you the "best" version of yourself, and which version would your spouse like the best? What would it be like to meet your wife when you were an adult but she was a child? What would you say to the 10-year-old version of your unborn child?
Throughout the film, the time-traveling scenarios remain goofy and inventive. At one point, Henry disappears right before he's supposed to be married, only to reappear at the altar as an unshaven, grey-haired man. Meanwhile, his younger wedding-day self is whisked back to the meadow to chat with his future bride — who can't be more than 9 years old.
Because Henry can't alter the outcomes of the past events he witnesses, his time traveling has more in common with A Christmas Carol (and Chris Marker's short film La Jetée) than with Back to the Future or Groundhog Day. He can only haunt these patches of time against his will, which lends special poignancy a few choice lines: At one point he says of his mother, "I've watched her die hundreds of times." It's as though Henry's memories and emotions literally transport him to another place and time, except he isn't allowed to know the full significance of these locations until much later.
As fascinating as the film is, it felt incomplete somehow. So in an inversion of the inevitable book-to-film comparison, I kept thinking about what Audrey Niffenegger's book must add to the movie. There are too many occasions when the actors' long, unblinking, passionate gazes fail to convey the psychological nuances that can be caught and sifted through on the page. And pictorially the movie is nothing special, aside from one startling image of a fading handprint on a glass windowpane that speaks plaintively about the lead character's plight.