It may have taken NASA until 1969 to put men on the moon, but moviegoers had been travelling there since 1902, thanks to Georges Melies’ Le Voyage dans la Lune. To modern eyes, the footage looks like cardboard and plaster, but contemporary audiences sat in rapture, enthralled by its otherworldliness. Most of us cannot afford to leave Jamaica’s shores, but for six hundred dollars, we can travel around the world (this week’s destinations include Venezuela (Up) and South Africa (District 9)).
The tricks of the camera and the soundstage have always fascinated us, and so the people who make movies have always strived for new ways to fascinate—remember The Matrix (1999)? But in an age of ubiquitous special effects, where hundred-million-dollar budgets are a dime a dozen, and the Internet makes us all explorers, mere spectacle is not enough.
Thus The Time Traveler’s Wife, while indulging in one of cinema’s oldest tricks—making people vanish—recognizes it must also tell a good story. Clare Abshire (played by Brooklyn Proulx and Rachel McAdams, bewitching as always) grew up as many little girls do, dreaming of the man—tall, strong and handsome—who would appear one day. In Clare’s case, however, those days are many, since her husband, Henry, who can travel through time, keeps appearing and disappearing.
The film slowly opens the possibilities of its central gimmick. Henry DeTamble (Eric Bana, the most striking librarian in the history shelves) can’t control his transcendent transportation, leading to moments opportune—escaping a car crash—and not so opportune—getting to the church in time becomes a double entendre.
The Time Traveler’s Wife raises as many questions as it settles, with Clare telling Henry about memories he has yet to experience. It doesn’t explain why Henry, though altering timelines, never seems to change them. And it never tells us how or why he is able to blast from the past back to the future and home again.
But the grey matter doesn’t matter, because The Time Traveler’s Wife isn’t about the time traveller—it’s about his wife, and by extension, about all American wives (and if Jamaican women can find points of connection, that’s an unintended bonus). The film stays with Clare even when her husband does not, showing her eating alone at a table set for two, and lying alone in their king-size bed, and waiting, too often, for too long, for her husband to come home.
In this way, The Time Traveler’s Wife provides a commentary on the modern middle-class marriage, with two careers and two cars and one too many evenings spent at the office. Even by our relatively equal standards, men usually earn more than their wives, and spend more time doing so, leaving women feeling as if their husbands are unintentional time travellers, subject to the arbitrary dictates of the company and the stock price.
Hollywood will always take us to long-gone ages and faraway places, but The Time Traveler’s Wife serves as a timely reminder that its greatest power lies in stories of the here and now.