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.
©2002 by Dustin Putman