The most recent film adaptation of H.G. Wells” 1895 sci-fi classic “The Time Machine” is a mindless rehashing of the original novel.
While the book used the tale of time travel and a horrifying future as a cautionary tale about the dangers of industrialization and a parody of class division, director Simon Wells (H.G.”s great-grandson) boils this complex tale down to a cheap action movie, in what will inevitably come to be known as “Planet of the Apes” syndrome, abandoning the intricacies of the story for special effects.
The film stars Guy Pearce as the brilliant, absent minded Alexander Hartdegan, a physicist who, through his correspondence with a “crazy German bookkeeper/patent clerk” named Einstein (get it?), has begun work on a time machine. His fiancee, Emma, was killed by a mugger in Central Park, and Alexander has vowed to travel back in time to save her. After his first attempt to save her fails and she is killed again, he decides to go to the future to find out why he cannot change the past.
After conversing with a hologram named Vox (Orlando Jones) in the New York Public Library in 2030 and witnessing a disaster brought on by over-colonization of the moon a few years later, Alexander is accidentally hurtled over 800,000 years into the future, to a world where the human race has split into two species: the Eloi, an idyllic, brown-skinned, pseudo-Native American people who live on finely crafted cliff-side dwellings and the Morlocks, a vicious subterranean race that hunts the Eloi.
The representations of these people disregard the more subtle, political connotations that the book contains: the childlike, decadent Eloi (the leisure class), and the underground, proletarian Morlocks have been replaced by an appealing and intelligent (if nave) people and dread-locked killer apes who can jump 20 feet in the air.
Alexander immediately meets Mara (Samantha Mumba), an Eloi woman who happens to speak perfect English (Apparently, this dead language has been handed down over 8,000 centuries using fragments of New York street signs). After she is kidnapped by the Morlocks, Alexander follows her, eventually discovering the Morlock lair, which looks like a Snake Mountain/Castle Grayskull hybrid. There he meets the ber-Morlock, a chalk-faced telepath played by Jeremy Irons, and Alexander must then fight to save Mara and the Eloi.
With most bad action movies, you could trim 20 or 30 minutes and improve the movie significantly. However, “The Time Machine,” at 96 minutes, hurries through the main part of the movie, hastily moving through the film”s cooler moments in what seems like a rush to get to the end. This is exacerbated by the painfully long beginning of the film, in which Alexander”s relationship with his girlfriend is documented. And like Tim Burton”s aforementioned “Apes,” the entire part of the film dealing with the future plays like one big climax,with very little rising action.
Part of this problem could be due to the fact that directorial control was handed mid-production from Simon Wells (whose main credits include “The Prince of Egypt” and “An American Tail: Fievel Goes West”) to Gore Verbinski, who was responsible for “The Mexican.”
There are some breathtaking action sequences and visual effects, such as the ultra-time-lapse sequences in which Alexander watches skyscrapers constructed, canyons eroding and glaciers ravaging the landscape. Additionally, the conceptual art used for the time machine itself is imaginative in its retro-futuristic look sort of a combination between Jules Verne and Terry Gilliam”s “Brazil.” (On a technical note, as brilliant as Alexander is, he neglects to make the simple addition a seat-belt or any type of harness to the time machine, which would have prevented the entire future incident.)
Unfortunately, the casting of the film and the pitiful screenplay leave the visuals as the only bright point in the film. Jeremy Irons apparently didn”t learn his lesson from his unfortuante part in the “Dungeons and Dragons” debacle in his acceptance of the role of the ber-Morlock.
Guy Pearce is just too good for this film, and it shows, for he tries in vain to bring serious and reasonable emotions, such as those he displayed in “Memento” or “L.A. Confidential,” into a film that has no soul and a character that has no depth. He plays a character who professes to be a genius yet can”t figure out time paradoxes that Marty McFly could decipher. He should have taken a cue from Irons, for at least the formerly great British actor knows when to play it over-the-top and when to abandon all subtlety and cinematic dignity.