The Time Machine
Screenplay : John Logan (based on the novella by H.G. Wells)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Guy Pearce (Alexander Hartdegen ), Samantha Mumba (Mara), Orlando Jones (Vox), Sienna Guillory (Emma Mark), Addy (Dr. David Philby), Phyllida Law (Mrs. Watchit), Omero Mumba (Kalen), Jeremy Irons (Uber-Morlock)
When H.G. Wells published the complete text of his novella, The Time Machine, in 1895, it was the first time such a concept had appeared in a fictional story. Time machines and time travel are, of course, now a standard element in science fiction, from Star Trek to Back to the Future (1985). But, for Wells and his readers, it was a unique new literary device that opened up a whole range of possibilities.
Of course, Wells, who is often considered the father of science fiction, was a deeply pessimistic thinker, a man obsessed with humankind's technological capabilities and sure in his prediction that we would eventually destroy ourselves. Thus, it is of little surprise that The Time Machine was a profoundly bleak work, deeply rooted in Victorian-era class ideology that saw in Marxist terms the ever-widening separation of the economic classes that would eventually lead to the collapse of human society.
When The Time Machine was turned into a movie in 1960, much of Wells' ideology was dropped as director George Pal essentially turned it into an adventure story with anti-nuclear-war overtones. The latest screen incarnation, however, doesn't even take the story that deep. Scripted by John Logan (Gladiator) and directed by Simon Wells—whose previous experience working in animated films (he co-directed 1998's The Prince of Egypt) was probably less important in his getting this gig than the fact that he is H.G. Wells' great-grandson—this version maintains Wells' late 19th-century setting, but all pretenses of allegorical or social meaning are completed discarded in favor of the kind of adventurism and romanticism that is more generally associated with that other great father of science fiction, Jules Verne. More specifically, Logan introduces the plot device of romance to kick-start the narrative, but it turns out to be a fatal mistake because it doesn't hold up as the movie progresses. Rather than driving the narrative, the romance turns out to be simply a distracting means to an end.
The Time Traveler is a young Columbia University professor named Alexander Hartdegen (Memento's Guy Pearce), an affable, slightly absent-minded fop who can still turn up the heat with his girlfriend, Emma (Sienna Guillory), with his guileless sincerity. Unfortunately, Emma is killed during an attempted mugging, and Alexander disappears into himself for four years, during which time he invents the time machine of the title. His romantic goal is to go back in time and stop Emma from being killed. He succeeds in doing this, but it is of no avail because apparently Emma is predestined to die young—if it isn't at the gunpoint of a mugger, it's beneath the wheels of a carriage (which, incidentally, is when the movie first shows signs of cracking because Emma's second death is unintentionally hilarious when it should be profoundly disturbing).
So, desperate for answers, Alexander decides to propel himself into the future in order to find out from advanced humanity's knowledge why he can't change the past. His first stop is New York City circa 2030, where he finds that all the books in the New York Public Library have been replaced by Vox (Orlando Jones), a virtual knowledge storehouse who exists as a three-dimensional hologram encased in upright glass panels and offers to answer any question put to him (his casual dismissal of Alexander's probing into time travel is a bit strange, given that Einstein's theories made time travel a pertinent scientific inquiry decades ago).
Alexander is then projected hundreds of thousands of years into the future, and this is where the movie ends up spending most of its time. The basic conceit here is direct from Wells: The world in the year 802,700 is divided between two species, the gentle, agrarian Eloi, who live above-ground in a kind of Edenic paradise, and the nasty, troglodyte Morlocks, a twisted species that lives below-ground and preys on the Eloi as food. The Eloi are strangely reticent about all this—they don't fight back against the physically powerful Morlocks because they have essentially accepted their role in life as potential dinner.
Of course, this rather labored set-up was, for Wells, purely allegorical, with the Eloi representing what the leisured classes would become and the Morlocks representing what the working classes would become ("eat the rich," literally). Naturally, none of this comes out in the movie, especially given the romantic tone that had been established (but is now dropped) around Alexander's erstwhile desire to resurrect his dead fiancee—or at least to find out why he cannot. Luckily for him, he falls in love with an Eloi woman named Mara (Samantha Mumba); but, unluckily for him, she is taken by the Morlocks, which forces Alexander to become a superhero rescuer. This allows for the movie's most guiltily pleasurable moment, when Alexander comes face to face with the Morlock leader (Jeremy Irons), a bleach-white monstrosity who conveniently tells Alexander everything he needs to know in a haute, flippant tone before they fight to the death. Even if the movie itself does not become one, this sequence is sure to become a camp classic.
Put together with heavy doses of not-quite-great special effects, this new version of The Time Machine simply never takes off. It offers plenty of stunning imagery—the moon breaking up in the sky above, eons of geographical development in rapid motion as Alexander time-travels, a hellish far-distance future in which the Morlocks dominate—but it all seems remote and emotionally distant (not to mention intellectually vacant). Perhaps this is because the filmmakers were trying to take what was essentially an ideological treatise disguised as a sci-fi story and turn it into a moving parable about humankind's control of its own fate. The movie's own position is clumsy and unsure, and it's hard to get a grasp on exactly what the filmmakers were trying to say.
In some ways, I feel the desire to applaud Simon Wells for attempting to resurrect one of the classics of science fiction. The production design is top-notch—the elaborate time machine itself, a wonder of wood and brass and levers and gears, is almost believable despite its general absurdity. Yet, the film as a whole is scattershot and confused, full of wondrous images and nothing coherent to say about them.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick