This article appeared in Issue 24 of Frontier, the Australian science fiction media magazine
Though H.G. Wells is synonymous with the time-travel genre, he did not invent it. Prior to the publication of his novel "The Time Machine" in 1895, dozens of writers had written stories involving protagonists who travel into the past or the future, with one of the earliest ones being L.S. Mercier's "Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred" from 1771. This would soon be followed by some of the best loved entries in the genre, including Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle" from 1819 and Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" from 1834. Despite getting out of the gate a century late, Wells' contribution was to evolve the genre by introducing the use of a machine that would allow characters to travel through time. Prior to creation of this literary device, time travel had often been a one-way trip, accomplished with characters either falling asleep or dreaming, such as in Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court". With Wells' new storytelling wrinkle, the possibilities in the genre had vastly expanded. Wells, if he were alive today, would have been very proud to see how his influential novel has become the foundation for all time-travel stories since then (including the staple of many a "Star Trek" episode). Unfortunately, Wells would probably also be shocked by how his work has been bastardized in the new movie "The Time Machine" by his own great-grandson, director Simon Wells (whose previous work includes co-directing "The Prince of Egypt"), who dumbs down the material into another effects-heavy-but-intellectually-light popcorn flick.
"The Time Machine" begins on a good note by addressing some of the shortfalls of the original novel. Instead of a nameless hero, we are given Professor Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce of "Memento"), a somewhat absent-minded and eccentric inventor living in New York at the tail end of the Nineteenth Century. However, when his fiancée Emma (Sienna Guillory) is murdered, he spends four years in his laboratory building a time machine that will allow him to go back in time to save her. Unfortunately, he learns that he cannot alter the past and decides to travel into the future to find out why, and ends up in the year 802,701.
There, he finds a very simple world dominated by two species: the Eloi, who live a peaceful existence above ground, and the monstrous Morlocks, who live underground and terrorize the Eloi. Alexander is befriended by an Eloi woman named Mara (Irish pop singer Samantha Mumba), and when she is abducted by the Morlocks, he ventures into their vast underground lair to rescue her and to bring an end to the Morlock reign of terror.
For the first half, "The Time Machine" is a fun diversion as Alexander explores the capabilities of his new contraption. Thanks to the latest in CGI technology, we see cities and geography change around the time machine, including a brief stop in the 21st century where Alexander witnesses a cataclysm befall the Earth. The first half also benefits from some welcome humor, such as a run-in with Vox (Orlando Jones of "Evolution"), a computerized card catalog with an attitude who proffers the soundtrack to Andrew Lloyd Webber's fictional "The Time Machine" musical and even manages to throw in some "Star Trek" references.
However, the script by John Logan (who also scribed "Gladiator") quickly runs out of steam by the time Alexander meets the Eloi. In Wells' original novel, the point of the Eloi and Morlocks episode was a counter-argument to the belief that the future would be a technological Utopia, where the inventions of man would vastly improve the quality of life. In addition, Wells was an avowed anti-Marxist, and the splitting of the human race into two species was his vehicle for criticizing the Marxist doctrine of class struggle, with the Eloi standing in for the aristocracy and the Morlocks being the worker class. True, the Eloi had an idyllic existence, being clothed and fed by the Morlocks, but this utopian existence came at a heavy price-- no different than the ideal Communist state.
Unfortunately, the film eschews this fascinating subtext and sociological exploration for some high-flying and highly implausible action sequences, dumbing down the original source material à la the "Planet of the Apes" remake from last summer. And given that this is a science fiction film, where it is very important for audiences to make the leap of faith to believe in the impossible, it does not help when the filmmakers insist on serving up the implausible. The first sign of trouble is when Alexander fails to save Emma by altering history. Inexplicably, he gives up after only the first try, and makes the supposition that he will be able to find out why by going into the future. Once in the future, in addition to finding a server that still works and English still being spoken after almost a million years, Alexander comes up with an unexplained and anti-climactic scheme to destroy the Morlocks that reeks of deus ex machina, is able to stay ahead of galloping Morlocks (even while climbing up a sheer wall of rock), and finally outrun a 'time explosion' (which is interesting, since time travels at the speed of light).
With the intellectually challenged script, it is not surprising that the film's performances are run-of-the-mill. Guy Pearce is passable as the time-travelling hero, though he seems to jettison his eccentricity a little too quickly once he has ventured into the future. Guillory and Mumba are certainly easy on the eyes as the film's romantic leads, but that is about all. Jeremy Irons ("Dungeons & Dragons") makes a now-you-see-him-now-you-don't appearance as the only Morlock who talks (and is a splitting image for David Bowie in Jim Henson's "Labyrinth"), while Jones steals the show with the film's best lines.
Though Simon Wells gets sole directing credit for "The Time Machine", he was actually replaced halfway through the shoot by Gore Verbinski ("The Mexican") after suffering from exhaustion. Like the goings-on behind the camera, "The Time Machine" also suffers from a split personality. Though it is borne of the literary pedigree of one of the most influential works in science fiction, and does manage to occasionally instill wonder in the viewer, overall, the latest filmed incarnation of "The Time Machine" is a jumbled and uninvolving mess. For a better interpretation of the source material, rent the 1960 George Pal version instead.