Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 01 September 2010
Source Warner Home Video DVD
Categories Favorites: Time Travel
Tell me about the future. Tell me about the year Two-Thousand and Six.
Time travel movies are traditionally a conglomeration of action and science fiction. They often prescribe fantastical procedures by which time is transcended, and are explosive, bombastic, highly dramatized explorations of physics and moral responsibility that result from the manipulation of chronology. And they are ultimately highly iconic films, hosting an array of imaginative vehicles, mad scientists, and accessories that remain prominent in cinema’s robust spectrum.
The Lake House’s contribution to this spectrum is a mailbox—a mailbox that is a time machine. Now let’s ruminate on this fact for a moment: a mailbox. An ordinary and therefore un-time-travel-movie movie prop, made of ruffled aluminum, atop a wooden post, affixed with a red metal flag to denote outgoing mail. No human being will fit inside, which posits a time travel conceit that I find unique: only paper correspondence or, in one case, a scarf may pass through its interior portal two years into the future or past. Once this conceit is described, you wonder - when one character reaches inside it - if somebody’s hand will magically pop out. You wonder if this hand will have a really futuristic watch…
This mailbox associates two very beautiful forlorn lovers, two years apart: Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, who specifically as a pair are such a novelty that you’re not likely to remember their characters’ names. The span of their chronological arrangement - she is in 2006, the present; he in 2004 - is resolutely undermined by the twelve years that have elapsed since we last saw this very beautiful pair of actors in each other’s arms in a movie—or furthermore the seventeen years since we last saw Keanu dudeing about in a time machine. Once their names register delicately in focus in the title credits, or even once Bullock’s gaze of illustrious melancholy establishes the tone in the opening shot, whatever this movie is about is secondary to its utility to group Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock back together in another against-all-practical-odds romance.
The film benefits from this anticipation to see Reeves and Bullock again as it is expressly about reconciliation, and as such it is the least fantastical or explosive time travel movie I’ve ever seen. It diminishes its conception of time travel so demonstrably that, by its end, it becomes purely a romantic drama, probably among Bullock’s least dippy romances and qualifiedly Reeves’ least elaborate science-fiction film. The aforementioned mailbox has no apparent electronics, nor, for this matter, is its miraculous capability outlined or even questioned at all. It simply works - and it’s apparently untended by any mailman - so reconstituting their romance becomes the sole purpose of the film’s narrative.
Regarding this romance - and I should note that The Lake House is in a very straightforward manner about a man and a woman suppressed by the apparently unreconcilable hurdle that is the two years between them - it is rather obvious that she (again, in 2006) could simply find him once she falls in love. Or he, in 2004, could approach her and, even without her reciprocal attraction, pursue her, assured by her future admissions of interest. The Lake House does not explore these options, which would deflate its dramatic suspense entirely - the chronology of the film is in accordance to the two years it takes him to catch up with her - but for it to so casually sidestep these possibilities is chief among its many permissible contrivances.
There’s also that universal engenderer of sympathy: a dog. Only the dog, as with Marty’s fading photographs or newsprint headlines in the Back to the Future movies, transcends time. It’s never clear how, but it is conspicuous that the same dog inhabits each of the film’s dual timelines—and not only this, the dog is equally familiar with both characters. Bullock, for instance, is departing the titular lake house (at which the magical mailbox is positioned) and this dog, preternaturally cognizant of her future or past disobediently refuses to follow her and instead plants himself bark-ready in front of that mailbox, knowing that Keanu is finishing a letter that will arrive in moments. He knows this because he is with Keanu, two years prior.
What impresses me most about The Lake House is its heedless datedness, because time travel films so often strive to obfuscate their datedness. Even though they’re often bastions of the most contemporary or sophisticated special effects, with many of them depicting futures so outré as to be considered artfully abstract and undateable, they are all dated, and most of them are defensive of this. The Lake House is unpretentious entertainment in this regard, disinterested in portraying scenarios other time travel movies have done before and better.
Perhaps I overpraise this aspect, and granted its time period could have remained ambiguous, but years and, more often, timestamps are regular benchmarks in time travel films. How often in the entire duration of the Back to the Future trilogy does the camera scan across an array of fluorescent seven-segment indicators, orientating us firmly in time—a time that is sometimes very different from our own? Time travel movies are generally characterized by a fantasy for the distant past or future, and it is both curious and remarkable for one to so markedly center on the present.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure1989
The Time Machine1960
Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea1977
The Spirit of ‘761990
Flight of the Navigator1986
Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time1991
Peggy Sue Got Married1986
Time After Time1979
Somewhere in Time1980
Back to the Future1985
Back to the Future Part II1989
Back to the Future Part III1990
Unidentified Flying Oddball1979
The Lake House2006