The Time Machine
2002, PG-13, 96 min. Directed by Simon Wells. Starring Guy Pearce, Jeremy Irons, Samantha Mumba, Orlando Jones, Mark Addy, Yancey Arias.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 8, 2002
It's rarely a good sign when a production's original director calls it quits 18 days before the end of shooting and has to be replaced. That was the fate of Simon Wells, though, who ceded the reins to Gore Verbinski (The Mexican) after being diagnosed with “extreme exhaustion.” What's more, the “exhausted” director (who here makes his live-action debut after a career in feature animation) is no less than H.G. Wells' great-grandson, which in hindsight may be why this version of great-granddad's landmark sci-fi/futurist novel The Time Machine seems to have arrived onscreen with precious little of the elder Wells' stunning imagery and Swiftian proclivities intact. As it is, it's a zippy 96 minutes of mediocre special effects, hoary dialogue, fluxing accents, and -- worst of all -- silly-looking Morlocks. The story utilizes somewhat more of Wells' original manuscript than George Pal's revered 1960 version, but not much. It also adds a love story of sorts to the mix, which is what prompts the absent-minded professor in question -- Guy Pearce's Alexander Hartdegen -- to build the infernal contraption to begin with. The rest of the story is likely already known to anyone over the age of 10: Hartdegen travels forward in time, eventually coming to rest some 800,000 years in the future where he discovers humanity's bisected evolution in the sheep-like Eloi and the cannibalistic, mechanically inclined Morlocks -- subterranean monsters who here look like a cross between Christopher Lee in The Lord of the Rings and the Oddworld video game characters. (William Tuttle's make-up in the 1960 film won an Oscar, something this film won't have to contend with.) David Duncan and John Logan's script -- which has transported the setting from London to New York City -- is frenetically paced, so much so that it feels as though huge swaths of necessary exposition have been dynamited in favor of bolstering the manic pace. There is, strangely, not one single scene of Prof. Hartdegen at work on his time machine. When confidant and friend Dr. Philby (Addy) arrives in his study to see what's up with the reclusive genius (four years after the precipitating romantic tragedy that sets the story in motion), we get the classic shot of blackboards awash in figures. From there it's into the machine and off to the past before heading, uh, back to the future. There's none of the expected dramatic buildup to that initial voyage, and the film repeatedly comes up wanting in both explanations (the final act is a shining example of how not to resolve a sci-fi film) and character development. Watching The Time Machine, you'll know exactly what's going on, but you won't have a clue as to why. To his credit, Aussie actor Pearce (Memento) manages to make the most of his role, arching his eyebrows ever skyward in an actorly approximation of befuddled curiosity and looking appropriately rugged when necessary. Jeremy Irons, sadly, as the “uber-Morlock,” is wasted entirely; trapped beneath pounds of latex and greasepaint, he comes off as The Simpsons' Mr. Burns on a good hair day, though far less threatening. The film's two saving graces are the time machine itself -- a gorgeous, whirling array of burnished copper and blazing light -- and the CGI-created rise and fall of New York City (and then the continent itself) as the professor speeds into the future. Those lovely touches aside, this Time Machine pales in comparison to the Pal/Tuttle collaboration, with its richly Technicolor glow of honest-to-goodness, gosh! wow! sci-fi fun.