The Time Machine

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE TIME MACHINE

5/10

USA 2002 : Simon Wells : 96 mins

Manhattan, 1903. Scientist Prof Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce) is devastated when his fiancee Emma (Sienna Guillory) is killed by a thief. Throwing himself into his work, he eventually perfects a time machine and travels back to the fateful night to prevent the murder. He seems to succeed, only for Emma to be killed in a freak accident. Grief-stricken again, he plunges into the future -spiralling forward through the centuries to the year 802,701. What was once New York is now a lush jungle environment populated by the peaceful Eloi tribe – and a savage underground race known as the Morlocks.

Director Wells is (we’re told) a descendant of H G Wells, author of the original Time Machine novel, but his version of the story is much less faithful to the book than George Pal’s so-so 1960 movie. Most notably, the whole ‘Emma’ subplot is an invention of screenwriter John Logan. But it’s a good one, bringing this Machine closer in tone, at least in the early stages, to the unashamedly romantic likes of 1980’s Somewhere In Time (in which Christopher Reeve travels through time not by mechanical means but, engagingly, through sheer force of will) and 1979’s Time After Time (still the best example of sub-genre, audaciously featuring Wells himself as the hero).

For the first hour or so, The Time Machine works surprisingly well, thanks in no small part to a couple of stunning FX set-pieces showing the rapid evolution of the city and then the whole planet. The Eloi-Morlock stuff is, however, much more by-the-numbers. It’s not so much that we’re back in the dodgy agrarian=good, industrial=evil terrain of Lord of the Rings – this Machine has no pretensions at any kind of deeper political or psychological concerns. The main problem is that too many scenes knock off Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes update, with repetitive sequences featuring vicious, lolloping simians chasing downtrodden humans through the jungles of a future Manhattan.

And it all ends very quickly with a convenient big bang, one whose source emphasises the nagging question the film never bothers to answer: just what powers Hartdegen’s seemingly miraculous contraption? An nudge-nudge reference to Albert Einstein (among a flood of early exposition) is supposedly meant to indicate some kind of nuclear fission at work, but the last thing Wells and co want us to do is to dwell too long on any of the plot points. Such as the miraculously handy ability of some of the Eloi (and Morlocks) to speak English – we’re told that teacher Mara (Samantha Mumba) picked up the language from surviving fragments of engraved masonry. If so, she’s amazingly fluent – and with a soft Dublin accent as well. Pop star Mumba, of course, is Irish – for a major Hollywood production, The Time Machine is oddly light on US actors. The only American with much to do is Orlando Jones as a know-all hologram whose technology miraculously (and handily) seems impervious to time and decay.

While Pearce is stuck in a thankless role – initially a breathless boffin, later an ass-kicking action hero, with a scruffy spell in-between when he looks disturbingly like Jamiroquai’s Jay Kay – Jones and Irons (a suave, white-haired, Vincent Price-ish ‘uber-Morlock’) have enough witty lines to keep things watchable, even in the ropey second half. And at a lean 96 minutes, The Time Machine never risks outstaying its welcome – though this is perhaps more by accident than design: an exhausted Wells handed over directorial reins to Gore (The Mexican) Verbinski for the crucial last month of the shoot, which perhaps explains why the bog-standard action finale seems to belong to a different movie altogether.

27th May 2002
(seen 22nd May, Warner Village, Newcastle)

For a different perspective read Adam Maxwell’s review here

by Neil Young
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