The Time Machine (2002)

D: Simon Wells
S: Guy Pearce, Samantha Mumba

Well intentioned but pretty terrible adaptation of the novel by H.G. Wells directed by his great-grandson but otherwise of no real interest. Victorian scientist Guy Pearce (LA Confidential) invents a time machine which he uses to visit various points past and future in a vain attempt to understand why he cannot save the life of his beloved (murdered by a mugger in the present). His journeys eventually take him far into the future where a peaceful race of people called the Eloi are hunted by an evil subterranean race known as the Morlocks. For no particularly apparent reason, the time traveller gets involved in this struggle and tries to change things. One possible explanation for his sudden show of strength is the romance which springs up between him and Eloi Samantha Mumba (representing, as she does, a chance to undo what is done and save the girl after all), but there is not much of a relationship to speak of, and certainly not enough to explain why and how the sickly, wimpy scientist suddenly becomes a leaping and bounding action man. Contrivance and low-concept are the order of the day here, with, action adventure heroics and set pieces taking precedence over whatever conceptual and thematic material which is supposed to underlie all of it.

Alarm bells ring upon viewing the peculiar accreditation for an "earlier screenplay" to David Duncan, author of the cheerfully vapid 1960 adaptation directed by George Pal. Duncan did not necessarily solve the narrative problems of the original novel by his weighting of the action in the traditionally heroic mould. Special effects and costume designs really stole the show, and the square-jawed heroics of Rod Taylor had more camp value than anything else. The final credited scriptwriter for this version is John Logan. With credits like Gladiator and Any Given Sunday under his belt, we might have expected something with a little more punch. Alas, Logan abandons any heady intentions of exploring the potential development of humanity towards its twilight hours in terms of social treatise and follows the quick and easy path to dumb adventure. The result is a foregone conclusion.

On the level of performance, Pearce looks seriously ill throughout most of the running time, so much so that it becomes distracting. The pale, wan boffin may be suffering with grief and temporal jet lag, but there is something dispiriting about his dead skin and sunken features. It is difficult to root for him, and even more difficult to believe it when he suddenly starts trouncing Morlocks with muscular abandon. Irish pop star Mumba has very little to do. She fulfils a primarily decorative function; filling the screen with skin which, especially in contrast to Pearce's, looks alive and glowing. Despite an earnest performance (and a sweet smile), she has no character to speak of. The resultant vacuum of personality between she and Pearce leaves a hole in the centre of the film which nothing else rises to fill.

The supporting roles are performed more effectively, although the character development is equally poor. Mark Addy (The Full Monty) plays the traveller's friend, later to document his speculations as science-fiction novels (in jokes like this abound: only a few are funny: see Nicholas Meyer's Time After Time for a more effective set of gags in a much more effective movie). Phyllida Law has one of those thankless Victorian servant roles, but she does it well. Orlando Jones is kind of fun as the voice of a 21st century computer. Omero Mumba (Samantha's little brother) fares better than his big sis, and Jeremy Irons is kind of interesting as a bizarre looking "Uber-Morlock".

The problem is that really this entire episode from the life of the time traveller was always the least interesting part of the book (great in concept, less so in execution), and it has defeated the previous attempts to film it in the same way. Whatever Wells may have wanted to say with this section of the story is said quickly, and the narrative and thematic value of the incident is limited to the revelation of the relationship between the Eloi and Morlocks. Extending the plot by having our hero intervene smacks of a lazy endorsement of a pre-Vietnam American jingoism which really needed rethinking, not retreading. The social and racial ironies also seem to have been lost on the filmmakers, who concentrate on unfolding the plodding narrative as if it were laden with suspense and excitement.

To be fair, the special effects are predictably solid, with some nice scenes portraying the time journey and there are some quite witty moments which document the rise of twenty first century civilisation. The creature effects for the Morlocks are genuinely menacing and the film on the whole has obviously had plenty of money thrown at it. Some of the action scenes featuring the Morlock hunters are done well in terms of action dynamics, but the internal logic of the world collapses when these creatures of the night (the night is even named after them) attack in broad daylight. This kind of tiresome inconsistency runs throughout the film, and when it rises to a largely unexplained climax (just how was this time explosion going to spread throughout the world underground without affecting the surface, eh?) and presents a finale which attempts to be faintly elegiac, the audience is left feeling taken for granted.

The Time Machine is ultimately a cookie-cutter blockbuster which may appeal to younger viewers, but which has enough violence and gruesomeness to freak them out in the absence of parental guidance. It is hardly worth wasting their wits on it.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.