In 1960, director George Pal created a rather quaint film version of H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine" which was such a product of its day that now its doom-saying 20th Century nuclear war and its 800th Century society of idyllic, primitive blonde imbeciles seem far more like silly cinematic nostalgia than legitimate futurism.
Hollywood style de jour strikes again in this year's equally time-stamped yet curiously engaging remake, starring Guy Pearce ("Memento") as Alexander Hartdegen, Wells' late-19th Century intellectual aristocratic who travels through time in a handsome Victorian-era Rube Goldberg contraption of brass, glass and spinning dials.
Directed by Wells' great-grandson Simon Wells, the 2002 "Time Machine" opens with a modern movie motivational gimmick: It seems the murder of his true love drives our hero's desire to fiddle with temporal physics. After an obligatory failed attempt to turn back the clock and save her, Alexander heads into the future, hoping to somehow understand why he can't change the past.
As in the book and the 1960 version, Alexander watches the world change in fast-forward as he speeds through time. He can see the sun become a glowing golden streak across the sky from the windows of his laboratory, which is demolished as skyscrapers are built up around him. In an illustrative strokes of genius, the passage of decades is shown in one pull-away shot that flies backwards into the sky, passing an early propeller airplane, then a passenger jet (at a higher altitude, of course), then a satellite in orbit, then a commercial space shuttle on its way to a Moon colony.
When Alexander slows his time machine down, he comes to a halt in the 21st Century, where everyone wears Nehru jackets and he discovers a sarcastic interactive hologram (Orlando Jones) in the New York City main library, which was built where his house once stood.
The film spends a whole lot of energy trying to be cutely glib with its sidekicks-and-zingers moments (the hologram makes H.G. Wells references -- get it?), which is one of fashionable screenplay contrivances that will limit the shelf life of this "Time Machine." In an earlier scene, one of Alexander's colleagues at his university -- where he was an eccentric, chalk dust-on-tweed professor -- razzes him about corresponding with "that crazy German patent clerk" (a young Albert Einstein -- get it?).
That kind of mechanically clever script writing seems to be a priority. Meanwhile, huge chunks of the plot seem to have been left on the cutting room floor, especially once Alexander finds himself 800,000 years in the future following another amazing, landscape-altering time-travel sequence that shows the Earth renewing itself after a man-made global disaster.
The nuclear war of the 1960 "Time Machine" has been replaced here with something so jarring and visually spectacular it will leave you in awe. In its aftermath, millennia later, remnants of humanity have evolved into two races -- one of which literally feeds off the other.
Without much explanation of how he turns from a stuffy, absent-minded academic into a strapping movie hero, Alexander befriends then defends the Eloi, an aboriginal tribe that lives in a beautiful village of sconce-shaped huts built into a cliff side. He becomes especially close to the beautiful Mara (African-Irish pop singer Samantha Mumba), whom he soon must save by venturing into the underground realm of the Morlocks -- a Ray Harryhausen-inspired mutant race of growling, gray-skinned monsters that run on all fours and make a habit of hunting the Eloi in sequences that look suspiciously like "Planet of the Apes."
This last 40 minutes of the "The Time Machine" is so conspicuously abbreviated that I'm willing to bet in six months the DVD will be released with a director's cut that's a half hour longer.
Alexander has a nightmare about the Morlocks that he's told is shared by every Eloi, but there's no follow-up on that development. Even though the Eloi scream and run when the Morlocks attack, no rationalization is offered as to why they've never tried to defend themselves. (In the '60 film they were as feckless and passive as bunnies, but not here.) A clearly significant direct connection is implied between Alexander and the Morlocks that is never mentioned again ("I am the inescapable result of you," says their pasty, brainiac-bred leader played by Jeremy Irons under pancakes of white makeup). What's more, no reason is given for why the Morlocks don't (or can't) eat something other than the Eloi.
Yet even though these and many other story elements are heedlessly chopped out of the picture, Wells finds time for more of the librarian hologram gimmick. Alexander discovers the program in the underground ruins of the library. Inexplicably, he's powered-up and ready to disseminate plot information and read "Tom Sawyer" to Eloi children.
Perhaps this erratic editing and untidy storytelling can be attributed to the fact that Simon Wells had some kind of breakdown on the set and was replaced by director Gore Verbinski ("The Mexican") for the last few weeks of shooting. Perhaps Alexander's abrupt change of personality when he arrives in the distant future -- going from starched Victorian patrician to scruffy vanquisher of sci-fi demons -- stemmed from Pearce having two different directors as well.
Fortunately, Pearce is a good enough actor that this dichotomy is only a minor distraction. And fortunately, "The Time Machine" is enough of an intellectual popcorn pleaser that it's stimulating and entertaining in spite of its obtrusive shortcomings.
Run time: 96 mins
In Theaters: Friday 8th March 2002
Box Office USA: $56.7M
Box Office Worldwide: $123.7M
Distributed by: DreamWorks SKG
Production compaines: DreamWorks, Warner Bros. Pictures, Arnold Leibovit Entertainment, Parkes/MacDonald Productions
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 29%
Fresh: 43 Rotten: 107
IMDB: 5.9 / 10
Starring: Guy Pearce as Alexander Hartdegen, Samantha Mumba as Mara, Phyllida Law as Mrs. Watchett, Laura Kirk as Flower Seller, Josh Stamberg as Motorist, Sienna Guillory as Emma, Max Baker as Roboter, Mark Addy as David Filby, Jeremy Irons as Über-Morlock
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