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The Lake House

Year: 2006
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Alejandro Agresti
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Keanu Reeves, Christopher Plummer
Science fiction can take many forms. There's the kind where special effects wizards and pyrotechnicians collaborate to thrill and exhilarate you and marketing boffins try to sell you everything from the DVD to the pencil case afterwards.

Then there are films where the incredible and inexplicable nature of the phenomenon or circumstances takes a back seat to a drama about people trying to connect, often to fall in love. Examples are 1980 Christopher Reeve/Jane Seymour weepie Somewhere in Time or Hugh Jackman vehicle Kate & Leopold.

One of the tricks to presenting a human story in a sci-fi world is an understated approach. If you want to make time travel a flashy, exciting thing, you attach lights to the underside of a DeLorean and have it trail fire along the road as it disappears with a roar. Minority Report and little-seen Robin Williams thriller Final Cut both portrayed worlds of the near future without resorting to silver vacuum suits or meals-in-a-pill. The latter in fact was so intriguingly dour and free of computerised production design it might have portrayed an alternate universe where humanity invented digital film editing in the early 1900's.

It's an approach director Agresti wholly adheres to. The only special effect in The Lake House is the moment where lovelorn Kate (Bullock) returns home to her apartment building in the rain. We see Alex (Reeves) dragging a sad looking tree to the exact spot, having dug a hole to dig it in front of an empty city block where the apartments will be built. When we cut back to Kate, picking her things up in the rain after dropping her bag, the fully-grown tree appears during a flash of lighting. The effect is so soft and muted you'll wonder if you imagined it.

Alex, as you might have guessed, lives two years behind Kate. Or you might have seen the trailer, which gives the entire time-difference premise completely away. When he moves into a beautiful house on Lake Michigan, made completely of glass and with a tree growing through the centre, there's a note from Kate, the previous tenant.

But Alex knows the house has been abandoned for years. What's more, Kate's dated the letter two years hence. He writes back to her and drops it in the front mailbox in case she comes back - the building she's asked him to send her mail on to doesn't even exist yet.

Both Alex and Kate think the other is making a mistake, then having the other on. But the incredible reality of their situation soon dawns on them. Whether it's a wormhole through the fabric of spacetime or magic is never explained - it belongs in another movie with spaceships or flux capacitors. But they can leave each other letters in the mailbox at the front of the house and receive them, separated in time by two years.

Both Alex and Kate are in some way lost, and are crying out for each other without knowing it, and it takes two performers with the presence and chemistry of Bullock and Reeves to carry off a love story in the centre of such a discovery, but soon they've poured their hearts out to each other and fallen in love.

The next logical step is to try and meet in Kate's present, where presumably Alex will also live somewhere. But knowing the future can be dangerous and heartbreaking, and a seemingly contrived plot (a wannabe boyfriend of Kate's, a chance meeting at a party, an accident on a city street, a restaurant booking for two years time) comes together in a series of 'oh my god, that's what happened' moments that you'll love if you're a fan of red herrings.

Like all time travel movies, if you delve too far into he logic of it, you'll see plenty of flaws. If you want a good time travel movie watch Time Bandits or Donnie Darko on DVD.

It's a love story, and it's sad and beautiful and works for just two reasons; Reeves and Bullock. Despite both appearing in rubbish movies, both are bona fide screen veterans and have a much surer grip on romantic drama than last time they paired up (1994's Speed). The various contrivances of corresponding by letter portrayed by voiceovers would be silly in most films. But if you've got any romance in your soul you'll feel the desperation, hope and sadness Alex and Kate feel.

If more science fiction was made without glitz, noise and merchandising potential and was anchored to human stories where it's the character's feelings that matter, we might return to the era where science fiction was considered one of the most serious, challenging and mature genres in contemporary culture.

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