The Time Machine (2002) Review
H.G. Wells's novella (first published in 1895) is one of the founding texts of English-language science fiction. George Pal’s 1960 film adaptation (the Region 1 DVD of which Raphael Pour-Hashemi has reviewed here), starring Rod Taylor as the time-travelling protagonist, is a perennial favourite of little boys of all ages and both sexes – and I certainly watched it several times during my teens. Watching a childhood favourite again in adulthood is a dangerous exercise, but in this case the film holds up more or less. The first half of the film has considerable charm, and excellent Victorian atmosphere, and the time-travel sequence is still a tour de force. However, the film bogs down in its second half, with the Eloi coming over as rather drippy proto-flower children. Incidentally, neither that film nor this remake have included Wells’s bleak epilogue, where the traveler reaches the very far future: life on Earth has ended, save for crablike creatures scuttling along a beach.
The 1960 version won an Oscar for its special effects, though with the advances of forty-two years a remake would seem inevitable. An extra selling point is that the director is Wells’s great-grandson. (Gore Verbinski stepped in to complete the film after Simon Wells fell ill and gets prominent thanks in the end credits.) This time round the action starts in turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York rather than London – which seems rather pointless given that the principal cast is Australian or British. Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce), a science professor, is engaged to Emma (Sienna Guillory). But she is killed in a mugging incident. Four years later, Hartdegen, who has been secretly developing a time machine, goes back to save Emma…but fails. (This plotline is original to this version, and rather confuses Hartdegen’s motivation.) Deciding to travel into the future, he first stops in 2030, when the Moon has been colonised. Orlando Jones appears as a holographic knowledge base in a museum, who tells Hartdegen of both the Wells novel and the 1960 film – how’s that for self-referentiality? Further up the time line, the Moon has been destroyed and chunks of it are raining down on New York (including the World Trade Center before tactful editors intervened) and elsewhere, destroying most of life on Earth. Fast forward to the year 802701, and the human race has evolved into the placid Eloi (who, rather conveniently, have not only preserved the English language but a twentieth-century accent) and the predatory Morlocks.
The Time Machine is certainly a good-looking film, courtesy of Donald McAlpine’s Scope camerawork. As with the earlier film, the Victorian atmosphere is well caught, even if it’s a little too obviously dependent on CGIs. Alan Young, who played Mark Addy’s best-friend role in the original, turns up briefly as a flower seller. However, the far-future part of the film is less successful, particularly as Wells’s political subject is missing. The big setpieces, such as the Morlock attack, are decently done, though the fact that the Morlocks look similar to Orcs is unfortunate (and probably coincidental). Unfortunately, this half of the film is a little too familiar, with an overblown special-effects-laden finale. Samantha Mumba can’t do much as Mara, the Eloi with whom Hartdegen falls in love. Jeremy Irons’s role as the Chief Morlock, with albino makeup laid on thick, is really just an extended cameo during the last ten minutes or so. (And he can speak twentieth-century English too.)
The Time Machine isn’t a bad film, it simply becomes a rather ordinary one. With the exception of Orlando Jones’s scenes, there’s little in the way of wit in John Logan’s screenplay, and certainly not much of the original’s charm. However, a point in its favour is its economy: it’s all but unheard of for a major-studio film to have a two-digit running time (and that includes the credits), so well done for that. However, I doubt that this Time Machine will be many people’s fond memory in years to come.