The Time Machine

 
Robin Clifford 
Laura Clifford 
Dr. Alexander Hartdegen is a brilliant inventor, mathematician and physicist and a little absent minded. But that does not mean that he isn't head over heels in love with his beloved fiancée. A tragic moment in time takes Emma's (Sienna Guillory) life and Alexander secludes himself to find a way to bring her back. Four years of effort pay off and the scientist invents a way to crack the time barrier in a new millennium interpretation of the classic H.G. Wells science fiction tale, "The Time Machine."
Robin:
Animation director Simon Wells (great-grandson of H.G. himself) make his break into live action with John Logan's adaptation of the 1960 screenplay (by David Duncan) in the George Pal classic version of "The Time Machine." There is a built-in audience of fans of the '60 flick that will bring us to the theater out of curiosity, alone. Comparison to Pal's film, rather than Well's original story, is a given and, as with last year's "Planet of the Apes," scrutiny of the modern retelling is bound to happen. Since I was one of those knocked out by '60 film when I was a kid, I, too, shall compare.

The most endearing quality of Wells-the-younger's remake is the obvious and deeply felt homage to the George Pal classic. It does not achieve the level of complexity and depth that the great science fiction director-producer accomplished back when F/X were crafted rather than computed. Nice little touches that will mean something to us devotees to the original are sprinkled throughout the film even as it tries to cut new ground. Watch for, briefly, the dress shop and for a very small cameo perf by Alan Young, who had a couple of roles in the Pal work. There is a quality in the story telling and social commentary in the 60 film - there is, for instance, a strong anti-Cold War statement about nuclear destruction in one of the more numerous stops the hero of that film (coincidentally another Australian, Rod Taylor) makes. Logan's script lacks the depth of its predecessor, making this "The Time Machine" (lite).

The new "Machine" makes an effort to gain some distance from David Duncan's 50's-era script and introduces the love angle as Alexander's motivation to traverse time. It is set in the same era, the turn-of-the-19th century, but is transplanted from London to New York City, which fits, from a Hollywood viewpoint, since NYC would be a high-tech Mecca of the time. The scientist is motivated to solve the time travel enigma when Emma is slain by a thief. But, when he invents his machine and goes back in time to save her (and his) life, he realizes that he can't change the past as Emma is killed yet again (in the film most unintentional comic moments). Hartdegen takes his machine and heads into the future to find the answers to his question of "what if."

Alexander takes a couple of timeouts on his journey into the future - once in 2030 with a brief follow-up a few years later - that are used to set up some of the plot devices that would be useful later in the story. One interesting bit of fun is the intro of Vox (Orlando Jones) as the holographic librarian that has all of the world's knowledge at the tips of his cyber fingers. The high tech look coupled with a sassy perf by Jones make for one of the film's several notable supporting performances. One or two more stopovers along the way in the inventor's journey into time would have helped flesh things out a bit more.

The meat of the story, in both versions, is the hero's arrival 800000 years in the future. The Eloi are a cliff-dwelling people who wish to live in peace but, through many millennia of evolution, have become victim to the Morlock, underground dwellers that rely on the beautiful Eloi as their main dietary staple. When (and I really mean "when") the inventor arrives he is subjected to the chaos of one of the Morlock attacks on the helpless Eloi and witnesses the beautiful Mara (Irish pop star Samantha Mumba doing a solid job in her debut on film) taken by the ugly Morlock hunters - of course, the romance is duly set up before the attack to give our hero reason to go under ground to rescue the future Eve to his Adam.

The screenplay does a solid job in interpreting the time travel paradox - if you went back in time to kill your grandmother to stop some heinous event then you would never be born to invent a time machine to go back in time to kill your grandmother.... Alexander heads into the future to get his answers and he sees that he must stop the cannibalistic attacks of the Morlocks and bring education, enlightenment and true freedom to the Eloi. Along the way in his quest, the doctor meets the Uber-Morlock (Jeremy Irons) a pasty faced subterranean dweller that has evolved to the top of the caste structured Morlock society. Irons has a commanding presence as the psychic leader that can give Alexander the answer he seeks. This role could well have been comical in a lesser actor's hands, but Iron's delivers a creepy perf that makes the skin crawl. What is unfortunate, and a problem that holds the film back, is star Guy Pearce. He is two-dimensional and evokes almost no empathy, which is a shame considering the good supporting cast.

This is a sci-fi, high-tech F/X-driven drama and the makers deliver some interesting effects along the way. The time machine, itself, is a flashy update to the buggy that Rod Taylor rode and there are more flashing lights this time around. The fast motion time-passing sequence, as Alexander hurtles into the future, is visual eye candy. The worker/hunter Morlocks, developed by Stan Winston Studios, are nasty, ugly, fast moving creatures that are far more formidable than those in the Pal film. The filmmakers use the terrifying power of the Morlock race, and Alexander's need to destroy it, to come up with a very different solution from that of the original.

"The Time Machine" does not have airs about being better than the original film and wear its admiration to the George Pal film prominently on its sleeve. It dares to be different by introducing dramatic angst into the sci-fi equation (though Guy Pearce is not involving as the hero/romantic figure) and providing a collection of three-dimensional supporting characters. And, it still captures the essence of H.G. Wells. I give it a B-.

Laura:
In turn of the century New York City, absent minded professor Alexander Hartdegan (Guy Pearce, “The Count of Monte Cristo”) is spruced up by his housekeeper Mrs. Watchit (Phyllida Law, “The Winter Guest”) before he goes to propose to Emma (Jessica Lange lookalike Sienna Guillory).  But tragedy strikes and the bereft Hartdegan is determined to undo what has been done and so he spends years using his intellect and correspondence with a patent clerk named Einstein to create “The Time Machine.”

Based on the H.G. Wells science fiction story that George Pal first brought to the screen in the 60’s, “The Time Machine” is directed this time around by the author’s great grandson Simon Wells (“Prince of Egypt”).  While forty years of special effects development take the cheese factor out of this version’s visuals, overall the effort is a disappointment.

The film’s first major problem is its ham-handed handling of its motivational tragedy.  When Hartdegan succeeds in returning to the time before his fiancée’s death, he soon learns that it’s an event he can’t alter.  The second death scene shouldn’t inspire titters, however, and this one does.  A carriage accident may as well have been replaced by the proverbial 2000-pound weight.  The man who spent years going back in time gives up on his endeavor after one try and decides instead to go future hopping to find out why he couldn’t prevent Emma’s death.

Hartdegan boards his machine for a longer journey and we’re treated to changing seasons and the botanical growth and shrivelings that creep across the conservatory glass in retro stop-motion spurts.  In 2030, he finds a new addition to the story inside the city’s library.  Vox (Orlando Jones, “Evolution”) is a database hologram with attitude who frustrates Alexander’s demand for time travel schematics with information on H.G.  Wells and Pal’s earlier film.  When Hartdegan attempts to jump forward, he’s halted a mere 7 years later to find the earth being destroyed by a fragmenting moon.  He barely escapes arrest, but is knocked out clambering into his vehicle which progresses forward for 800,000 years.

He awakens to find himself being cared for by Mara (Irish pop star Samantha Mumba) within a colony of cliff hugging pod dwellings.  His puzzlement over where the older Elois have gone is answered one day in a horrific attack by the Morlocks, which hunt down Elois as food and take Mara to their underground dwelling.  Hartdegan travels into the underground Morlock mining community to find Mara in the clutches of Uber-Morlock (Jeremy Irons, “Reversal of Fortune”), an intellectually evolved being who controls the hellish society.

While Vox is an inspired addition, this adaptation by Josh Logan (“Gladiator”) is curiously lacking in time travel and doesn’t generate any excitement until the last journey’s already been taken.  The final segment, with its powerful and fast moving Morlocks, offers some thrills, but logic isn’t its strong suit.  The ‘stone language’ taught amidst New York tablets inscribed with Brooklyn Bridge and Tiffany and Co. smacks of “Planet of the Apes” while the hideous, human hunting miners recall “Battlefield Earth.”  It makes little sense why the Elois need to live dangerously suspended along cliffs when we’re shown that Morlocks have no problem climbing.

Guy Pearce’s stilted performance does little to distract the audience from the film’s problems.  He gives his character no humor or warmth and seems incapable of projecting wonder, something a time traveler should have in good supply.  Thankfully Orlando Jones perks things up in the few scenes he’s in and Samantha Mumba has nice presence as Mara.  Phyllida Law is underutilized as Mrs. Watchit yet still injects some much needed character into the Victorian segments which find Mark Addy (“The Full Monty”) adrift as Hartdegan’s friend Philby.  Samantha Mumba’s young brother Omera plays Mara’s younger brother Kalen like the feral boy of “The Road Warrior.” That Jeremy Irons’ character should set one to thinking of “Battlefield Earth’s” Travolta is not a good thing.

The wall to wall chalkboards of Hartdegan’s laboratory were configured by a mathematician to ensure accuracy, but this “The Time Machine” needed more time at the drawing board.
C+

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