My enthusiasm for time travel movies is unending. Even after watching Simon Wells’ adaptation of novelist H.G. Wells’ famous novel, “The Time Machine,” I am still enthusiastic about the genre and look forward to the next one to come down the pipe. Which is a good thing, since Simon Wells’ The Time Machine is a very flawed movie and would rank somewhere between good and atrocious in the annals of time travel movies I’ve seen.
What’s most disappointing about The Time Machine is just how much it ignores its amazing premise — a 19th century inventor, seeking to undo the loss of his beloved fianc’e, builds a time machine — and instead decide to turn the proceedings into a slam-bang action film. Not a good idea.
Guy Pearce, fresh from the exhilaratingly original Memento, dives back into the big budget studio arena. Pearce is Alexander Hartdegen, an eccentric professor who can’t cope with the death of his beloved, hence the building of the time machine. Pearce plays the character well, at least in the first 40 minutes. His Alexander exudes all the traits of a professor just short of being labeled “absent-minded.” Alexander is a gearhead in a time before there were such people. He’s enamored with all things mechanical, which doesn’t quite fit in with his romantic love interest, Emma (Sienna Guillory).
Movies like The Time Machine, which opens in 19th century New York, is able to include ironic statements that only a writer like John Logan (Gladiator), a man from the 21st century, can provide. There are little gems like a supporting character calling someone Alexander has been communicating with via letters “a nutcase working at a patent office in Germany.” That fellow is, of course, Einstein. There’s also a short but amusing sight gag about a mechanical toothbrush.
The Time Machine is an effective time travel movie when it, well, decides to focus on the time traveling. When Alexander realizes that he’s unable to save his beloved no matter how many times he goes back into the past, he resolves to “find an answer” to this dilemma by going into the future. This results in him accidentally being thrust 800,000 years into the future, where he ends up between the Elois, a peaceful and idyllic race of people, and the Morlocks, an underground-dwelling race that uses the Elois as a food source.
The movie’s second half, focusing on the battle between the Elois and the Morlocks (calling it a “battle” isn’t accurate, since the Morlocks herd the Elois like scared cattle) is not all that involving. Everyone knows Alexander will inevitably face off against the Uber-Morlock for the life of a new love interest, a woman who will replace his beloved Emma, and hence make his search for an answer irrelevant because he’ll have learned to care about someone else and “let go of the past” or something along that line.
The Uber-Morlock is played by Jeremy Irons in heavy white makeup and some spine prosthetics. Irons shows up with 20 minutes to go, stays for 10 minutes, and cashes a nice paycheck at the end of his (probably) one working day. Way to go, Jeremy.
Director Wells and writer John Logan are unable to decide rather they want to make a thoughtful film about time travel and the inevitability of death, or a quick, briskly paced “adventure” movie. They decided on the latter, which is a mistake, because The Time Machine would have worked best as a thoughtful movie about life and accepting death.
For instance, early on in the film when Alexander goes back in time and tries to save Emma, only to see her die yet again, we are told this isn’t Alexander’s first trip back. But of course we are told, and not shown. This could be bad plotting on the part of Logan, or a lot of scenes of Alexander’s earlier adventures into the past (and his failed attempts to save Emma) were left on the editing room floor.
The movie’s big draw for mainstream audiences (as correctly guessed by the ads) is the 2002 CGI and computer effects, which aids the filmmakers in giving the film’s time travel aspect some nifty images. When Alexander travels through time, he enters a glowing sphere where he, and the machine, is sealed off from the flow of time. This allows him (and us) to see the outside world as it continues onward in normal time, only in fast-forward. A spectacular effect involves Earth going through 800,000 years of geological changes in a few minutes, including morphing mountains, swelling oceans, and the coming and going of a second Ice Age.
Good effects aside, The Time Machine is a highly uneven film that refuses to see and exploit its inherent possibilities, and instead is intent on giving us an adventure film that is, sadly, lacking in adventure. Sure, the Morlocks are appropriately ugly and nasty, the Eloi’s city-on-the cliff looks neat, and Alexander’s time machine certainly twinkles and shines, but what else is there? The answer is not much.
For time travel lovers, at least the first 40 minutes was highly entertaining, if just a little clumsy in execution. Actually, The Time Machine reminds me of a souped up episode of “Star Trek: Voyager,” which is not saying much for this big budget studio film.
Simon Wells (director) / H.G. Wells (novel), David Duncan (earlier screenplay), John Logan (screenplay)
CAST: Guy Pearce …. Prof. Alexander Hartdegen
Samantha Mumba …. Mara
Omero Mumba …. Kalen
Jeremy Irons …. Ãœber-Morlock
Orlando Jones …. Vox, #NY-114
Mark Addy …. David Philby