Images copyright Warner Brothers.
Eric Bana has problem. He witnessed a horrific tragedy that he could not prevent, then unexpectedly traveled through time. He will now spend the rest of his life trying to get revenge on… Wait. Sorry. Wrong movie. Unlike Star Trek, my wife actually wanted to see this one.
No, in this movie the time traveling is more of a recurring issue, and it’s not revenge he seeks but love. Ever since he was six, Henry DeTamble (Bana) keeps disappearing and showing up in some other time and place. If that sounds like a great problem to have, it isn’t. He cannot control when or where he goes and, apparently, he cannot change anything important when he gets there. What’s more, he always arrives naked, so he spends much of his time running and hiding and stealing clothes. In fact, his life pretty much sucks until the day a beautiful and intelligent artist named Clare (Rachel McAdams) suddenly drops in and claims she’s been in love with him all her life. Trouble is, he’s never met her before.
So begins The Time Traveler’s Wife. It hasn’t gotten great reviews, but how could I dislike something that combines time travel and romance? Ok, so I hated Somewhere in Time, but this I loved. It’s sweet and original, and occasionally quite funny, and it explores some very interesting themes: free will and destiny, hope and mortality, love and tragedy, and much else. True, the plot could have been stronger and the characters better developed, but that’s a perennial problem with films adapted from books; there is also one very poorly placed flashback and more nudity than I needed to see, but most of the film’s weaknesses are only noticeable in hindsight–so go see the movie first, then come back and read this. (And in case you’re still tempted to read on, here’s a major spoiler warning. Seriously, you’ve been warned.)
After the break, my full review:
First, the time travel. The film doesn’t go out of its way to explain how it could be possible, and a lot of reviewers seem to think it’s blatantly absurd, but the hint of an explanation it offers is rather interesting. It seems Henry, like an epileptic, has a problem with his Temporal Lobe. That sounds like a bad pun, but his condition actually is a lot like epilepsy, including the fact that alcohol and television can set it off, and since Temporal Lobe Epilepsy has been associated with both strong emotions and paranormal experiences, it is not that much of a stretch (as far as science fiction goes) to posit a genetic abnormality that causes “temporal seizures.” Such would at least help explain the unpredictable, but not wholly random, nature of his jumps. We’ll come back to this in a bit.
One question not answered by that explanation is whether Henry can change the past once he gets there, or whether it’s like that great LOST catchphrase: Whatever happened, happened. On the one hand, Henry repeatedly tries to prevent his mother’s death and is unable to do so, and a major story arc involves Henry accepting that he too will die. That both deaths are not only inescapable but also senseless (which really bothered me at first–what, no heroic self-sacrifice?) only makes their inevitability more poignant. If Henry must learn to overcome the fear of death, it is appropriate that he should have to face it at its ugliest
That this is not mere fatalism, however, is implied by the fact that there are a great many things Henry can do, in both the present and the past. Whatever his inability to prevent his mother’s death, nothing prevents him from breaking down doors to steal clothing, introducing himself to and eventually marrying the woman he loves, buying a lottery ticket with numbers glimpsed in the future, getting an older version of his wife pregnant, even visiting his family after death. It would be hard to argue that these events are not significant–some of them seem at least as consequential as death–so why can he do them while traveling through time, but not save a life?
The film doesn’t explain, but that is probably a good thing. After all, we ourselves face the same tensions: some events appear to be within our control while others are completely beyond us. By leaving Henry in a similar situation, the film preserves a necessary paradox in its treatment of free will and determinism. In fact, for the key question of whether Henry can change the past, the answer seems to be a clear no. To be sure, his time-traveling has numerous and sometimes major consequences, but no matter how much he jumps around within it, there is only one time-line and his actions all fit within it in one way or another.
Thus, he doesn’t change anything when he visits the young Clare in the meadow–the meeting had already happened, even if he hadn’t yet experienced it personally–as attested by Clare’s memories upon their first meeting as adults. It is not as though there were an earlier time-line when Clare lived out her life in some other way, all of which was erased by Henry’s coming; the first and only time she lived Henry was there, and their later actions simply fulfilled what was always going to happen.
Similarly, Henry cannot change his mother’s death no matter how many times he goes back, because she has already died, for him as for everyone else. But he can buy a lottery ticket with numbers he learned in the future, because that also had “already” happened–that’s why Henry knew what house to buy with the winnings; he had seen it already on prior jumps. Looked at from this perspective, everything that happens–for good or bad–was inevitable and predetermined long before Henry, Clare or anyone else performed the actions that led to them, in whatever time.
Yet viewed from another angle, both Henry and Clare do get to choose what they will do in each moment they live through. The older Henry would never have visited the younger Clare in the meadow at all, much less spoken with her as he did, if the older Clare had not sought him out herself. That is, if she had not chosen to introduce herself “first” (in his time-line), he would never have met her at all, and never visited her as a child. And, since he did not go back to the meadow for the first time until after he chose to marry her (on the day of their wedding, which clears up what might otherwise have been very creepy), she too would never have known him if he had not chosen her “first” (in her time-line).
In this way, each was chosen before they even knew the chooser, yet (paradoxically) each also stands in the position to freely choose whether to pursue the relationship, or prevent the cycle from ever beginning. Thus their freedom does not contradict but in fact fulfills the destiny that has already been determined for them. Absent the usual constraints of temporal causation, neither freedom nor determinism can be collapsed into the other–both exist in one eternal circle–which is about as good a picture of the classic paradox as I have seen.
Yet that still leaves the question of why Henry travels to the times and places that he does. His jumps are unpredictable, but are they truly random? Here is where the connection between Henry’s jumps and Temporal Lobe Epilepsy becomes important, as the latter is associated not only with the paranormal, but also with strong emotions. As we are told explicitly, Henry’s jumps exhibit just such a pattern, usually bringing him to times and places with which he has a strong emotional connection. So he returns to his wedding again and again, and to his mother’s death “hundreds of times.” But he doesn’t go back to visit Clare until their wedding day, and he only jumps forward to meet his unborn daughter after he allows himself to care about her (which took some time–after several miscarriages he had hardened his heart). In short, his love determines where and when he goes. As he later tells Clare:
It’s like gravity–big events pull you in.
It is love that connects him to these events so strongly. His love for his mother and wife and daughter are his center of gravity, so to speak, returning him again and again to the key moments of their lives. Not only does this imply that there is a meaning behind Henry’s jumps; it suggests that love is actually more fundamental even than time and space, which is not too far from the classic Christian claim that creation depends on the self-giving love of God.
But how can that possibly be believed of a world so filled with the kinds of senseless death that Henry has had to face? Here also the film has an answer, as even his own death cannot prevent Henry from coming back once more to his family. In that final scene we get just a fleeting glimpse of the fundamental truth of the Christian faith: that the “gravity” of love is stronger even than death itself.