This latest attempt to translate H.G. Wells’ novel, The Time Machine, to the movies isn’t bad, but then again, it isn’t really all that good either — meaning that 2002 is still shaping up as the year of indifferent movies. It’s unlikely that this effort will ever reach the quasi-classic status of the 1960 George Pal version, despite the fact that it’s better and more convincingly made. The reason for that is a little vague perhaps, but it may just be that it’s precisely the fact that this one is better made and more convincing, thereby lacking the quaint charm of the earlier version. The plot remains the same — more or less — with inventor Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce, Memento) creating a machine that allows him to travel in time, ultimately propelling him 800,000 years into the future. Actually, the film starts off well with Hartdegen — presented as a love-struck visionary, very much along the lines of Fredric March’s Dr. Jekyll in Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — creating his machine in order to travel back in time to prevent the murder of his fiancee (Sienna Guillory) on the night of their engagement. The flaw in his concept is that even though he can go back, he can’t prevent her death (“I could go back a thousand times and watch her die a thousand different ways”), so he ventures into the future in an attempt to find out why he can’t effect the past, only to ultimately end up in the very distant future after the human race has split into two groups — the Eloi and the Morlocks. And it’s predictably right here that the movie gets into trouble. The Eloi (altered from the blue-eyed blondes of the Pal film to a dark-skinned race) live in the sunlight, while the Morlocks live in a subterranean world. Said Morlocks work at some kind of mining/smelting operation that looks like it’s out of a bad production of Wagner’s Ring cycle. They also hunt the Eloi for use as boxed lunches. This could be terrifying stuff — and Hartdegen’s discovery of the Morlock “butcher shop” is pretty damn creepy — but it’s lost in a sea of so-so CGI monsters who appear to have escaped from a video game … and not a terribly impressive one. The Eloi are more believable — but not much more exciting — living in hanging-basket houses that would warm the heart of an avid Pier One shopper, while mindlessly waiting to be Morlock meat. (It’s interesting to note that 800,000 years from now, a nice dried floral arrangement counts for much in the realm of decor. Martha Stewart would be proud.) This doesn’t even take into account the incomprehensible change of Hartdegen from a wide-eyed innocent with his mouth perpetually agape at everything he sees to a tight-lipped action hero. Probably, it doesn’t much matter. The Time Machine’s strong points — and there are a few — don’t have much to do with narrative logic. The film picks up speed and interest considerably upon the long-awaited appearance of Jeremy Irons as the Uber Morlock. Painted white with long white hair — and looking for all the world like a badly aged Edgar Winter — Irons is a preposterously hammy delight, coping gamely with pages of dialogue that attempt to explain the whole movie (including why Hartdegen can’t alter the past.) He alone seems to realize that he’s in a wooly-headed sci-fi flick and plays it accordingly. Orlando Jones is also good as a computer-generated librarian who remembers everything and is the repository of the contents of every book ever written (the last book he recommended as a functional librarian has special relevance to local audiences). When Jones starts singing selections from a make-believe Andrew Lloyd Webber musical version of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and turns himself into his own backing chorus, the film seems witty and neatly self-mocking, but the idea never goes beyond a mere touch. Several things about The Time Machine are perplexing in this manner. Why does Alan Young (yes, the Alan Young from Mr. Ed) — a survivor from the cast of the 1960 version — receive screen billing for a cameo bit as a florist with four words of dialogue and maybe 10 seconds of screen time? Was there originally more to his role? We know that director Simon Wells (great grandson of H.G. Wells) was replaced for 18 days of shooting by Gore Verbinski, but Wells strangely receives solo directorial credit. Why? The list could go on. The best that can be said of The Time Machine is that it’s not horrible, boasts a nice first half, has a handful of clever touches and a great scenery-chewing villain. Whether or not that’s enough reason to see it is a matter of individual taste.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke