Though I have not read the novel by H.G. Wells or seen the original
1960 film, the 2002 remake of "The Time Machine" ably stands on its
own as an entertaining, at times awe-inspiring, action-fantasy with
some heavier topics about the passage of time and the preordained
design of life and death lying just beneath the surface. Interestingly
enough, director Simon Wells is the great-grandson of H.G. Wells,
making a firm, respectful connection to the source material.
The film opens in late 19th-century New York City, where professor-inventor
Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce) is heartbroken when his beloved girlfriend,
Emma (Sienna Guillory), is murdered just after she joyfully accepts
his marriage proposal. Switch forward four years, Alexander has secretly
created a time machine that he hopes will send him back to that fateful
night so he can save Emma. When his attempt fails disastrously, he
decides to travel into the future, hoping to find the answer to why
the past cannot be changed.
After brief stops in a technologically advanced 2030 and an apocalyptic
2037--the year the moon broke apart and fell to Earth--he soon finds
himself 800,000 years in the future. The human race has since broken
in half, with the good-hearted Elois living above ground and the beastly
Morlocks lurking down below. When the lovely Eloi, Mara (Samantha
Mumba), is kidnapped by the Morlocks, Alexander finally finds his
calling, determined to save the Earth from eternal damnation.
The first half of "The Time Machine" is more successful than its second.
The movie gets off to a strong start as it quickly and poignantly
establishes the love shared between Alexander and Emma, and the sudden
loss that occurs between them. Likewise, the first two trips in the
time machine (to 2030 and 2037, respectively) are remarkable examples
of originality and technical craftsmanship, as we see everything around
Alexander change from the 1890s to the 21st-century in seemingly a
single shot. The grim sight of New York City being ravaged by the
breaking-apart of the moon is a sight to see, as well, but is over
all too quickly. This key sequence was allegedly all but completely
chopped out of the movie following the events of September 11, and
the correlation the studio saw between a fantasy movie and real life
is utterly preposterous.
When the time shifts midway through to the 803rd-century, director
Wells turns the proceedings almost into a remake of 2001's "Planet
of the Apes" remake. The Elois have more or less regressed to being
cavemen again, and none of them are treated as actual people, aside
from Mara. The creature designs for the monstrous Morlocks may have
the ability to give younger children nightmares, but for everyone
else it is unintentionally cheesy. At certain points, the flawed body
make-up looks more like people in rubber suits. For a big-budget motion
picture that otherwise has seamless visual effects, this creature
misstep puts a damper on the effectiveness of the penultimate sequences.
Even with a somewhat silly premise, the actors treat the material
with great seriousness that buoys the prestige level up a notch. Guy
Pearce (2002's "The Count of Monte Cristo") makes for a sympathetic
hero who, at the end, finally receives the answers about life he has
been searching for all along. Pearce could afford to eat a little
more (his thin-as-a-rail frame has sunken his face in), but his performance
is nicely orchestrated. Singer Samantha Mumba (in her film debut)
is an attractive presence as Mara, although she has little to do,
while Sienna Guillory is superb as the ill-fated Emma.
In supporting turns, Orlando Jones (2001's "Evolution") is surprisingly
touching as a holographic tour guide, while Phyllida Law (2000's "Saving
Grace"), as Alexander's housekeeper, and Mark Addy (2001's "A Knight's
Tale"), as his friend, lend welcome support. Only Jeremy Irons (2000's
"Dungeons & Dragons"), as the leader of the Morlock race, gets lost
in the shuffle. He is thoroughly wasted behind a white wig and makeup,
making his very appearance seem embarrassing to watch.
At 96 minutes, "The Time Machine" features many missed opportunities
(not excluding the obliteration of the moon scene), and could have
easily put its fresh premise to more satisfying use. Still, it is
that rare special effects-laden feature that actually uses its brain
and has something worthwhile to say. The exquisite, lush music by
Klaus Badelt (2001's "The Pledge") is also one of the more memorable
scores of the last year. "The Time Machine" isn't a complete home
run, but it is occasionally thrilling, nicely made, and worth seeing.
Copyright © 2002 Dustin Putman