Dir: Simon Wells. US. 2002. 97mins.
Almost from start to finish, The Time Machine, the new remake of HG Wells's classic sci-fi novel, is a poorly conceived and executed film, failing to take full advantage of the major technical changes that have improved the sci-fi-fantasy genre during the past two decades. As the beloved scientist Alexander Hartdegen, now remoulded as a Columbia University inventor determined to prove that time travel is possible, Guy Pearce, who looks pale, thin and rather weak, takes a career step backwards after his highly acclaimed performance in last year's indie sleeper Memento. The new version, which both narratively and aesthetically registers as a retro potboiler, is based on a novel first brought to the screen in 1960 by George Pal with a young Rod Taylor in the lead. DreamWorks's spring release, which uses as marketing hook the fact that the director is Simon Wells, the novelist's great-grandson, will benefit from a lack of serious competition in the marketplace. Indeed, occupying the top spot at the box-office, The Time Machine yielded an impressive $22.2m from 2,944 sites during its opening weekend. International prospects for this DreamWorks/Warner Bros co-production are good since it's a type of film that Hollywood is best known for.
Only one element is common to Pearce's performances in the noirish time-warped Memento and The Time Machine: both yarns play with and manipulate audiences' perception of time and space, cinema's two unique dimensions. But Pearce, who currently can also be seen in another retro remake, The Count Of Monte Cristo, may not have been the most credible choice to play an absent-minded 19th-century professor of mechanics and engineering: his screen image and forte are too modern.
Deviating from the original in several substantial way, John Logan's script (based, according to the press notes, on the book and the 1960 film's scenario) has transplanted the locale from London to New York at the turn of the century. Due to the effect of the September 11 terrorists attacks, curiously and unintentionally the hero's motivation to revisit and restore a happier past may strike a chord with contemporary audiences, both in and outside the Big Apple.
The only credible and engaging segment in an otherwise messy and unpleasing potboiler is the first one. Set in Gotham circa 1900, it depicts how Alexander's goal to prove that time travel is feasible is turned into desperate obsession as a result of personal tragedy, the loss of his fiancee Emma (Guillory) in a violent encounter with a thief in the park.
At first, a vastly depressed Alexander sinks into years of solitary life, and the efforts of best friend Dr David Philby (Addy) and pragmatic housekeeper Mrs Watchit (a staple character in such sagas, here played by Phyllida Law, Emma Thompson's mother) to cheer him up are hopeless. Driven by an urge to change the past, he devotes four years to the creation of a machine that will enable him to test his theories about time travel. At the screening I attended, viewers giggled at Alexander's failure to save again Emma's life due to the way the sequence is staged and presented.
When the past proves ineffective to restore his love, Alexander decides to venture into the future, finding himself in 2030 and then 2037. Here, the most amusing encounter takes place in an ultra-modern library, where Vox (Jones) appears as a spirited holographic compendium, reciting all of human knowledge in terms of movie history, including The Time Machine's novel and its musical version.
Disillusioned with that place and era, Alexander hurtles 800,000 years into the future, where, to his chagrin, he discovers that the human race is now divided into two categories: the hunters (Murlocks) and the hunted (Eloi). It is in these scenes that the narrative degenerates into a B-picture with cheesy special effects that recall the worst sequences of Tim Burton's own remake of Planet Of The Apes.
An appealing native named Mara (Mumba), who rather mysteriously speaks English, nurses Alexander back to health, and a romance of sort ensues between the two, rendering the tale a benevolent though still heavily colonial and pandering feel. Taking liberties with the novel, the filmmakers have transformed the Eloi from the sheeplike twoheads into ferocious jungle residents, who are engaged in a battle with the Murlocks, the cannibals who live underground.
Sinking into sheer silliness is the last reel's confrontation between Alexander and Uber-Murlock (a totally wasted Jeremy Irons). Wearing a white mask, with lips that are painted black and speaking in a bizarre accent, Irons' villain seems like a demented rock star, and a pale imitation of the heavy Saruman (played with great panache by Christopher Lee) in The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring.
Legendary author Wells, who was dubbed in his day as "the man who saw tomorrow," is the one person responsible for launching the sci-fi genre, first in literature and then in cinema. Always in print since its first publication in 1895, his novel has attained a cult classic status among its followers. The original Time Machine movie was released in 1960, a transitional time in American culture and cinema. Other landmark films of the era included 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, new films that fired audiences' imagination by standards of the time. Indeed, Pal's picture won the special effects Oscar that year.
However, four decades later, new technologies - such as CGI-oriented visual effects - have revolutionised American films, particularly the sci-fi and adventure genres. Considering that there are such sophisticated means today to illustrate visually Wells's fertile, prophetic imagination, this Time Machine is particularly disappointing.
Moreover, in 1960, America was at the end of the Cold War with the evil empire of the Soviet Union, and still suffering from the effects of Senator McCarthy's political witch-hunting, lending the film political urgency in its apocalyptic tones. But in 2002, due to both social and cinematic changes, the new Time Machine has lost its gravity, thus simply registering as yet another retro production. Moreover, the sight of a whimsical-erratic scientist, dressed in a waistcoat, tie and jacket, climbing into a beautiful, hand-crafted Victorian machine (built of aluminium and polycarbonate as a substitute for brass and glass) is neither compelling nor alluring any more.
The international cast, which includes the Australian Pearce, the very American Orlando Jones and the British Jeremy Irons and Phyllida Law, among others, doesn't impair the production the way such casts often do with their melange of accents and acting styles - but it doesn't elevate or improve it either. What truly drags this Time Machine into B (and below) level is its schlocky look (surprisingly undistinguished photography by Moulin Rouge's Oscar-nominated Donald McAlpine) and just passing production values, uncharacteristic of a major studio production.
The whole film feels like a patch work, a possibly result of major deficiencies by Wells (who previously directed DreamWorks' risible animated feature The Prince Of Egypt) and the fact that some sequences were shot by Gore Verbinski, himself not a particularly talented director if The Mexican is representative of his work.
End note: true cineastes may want to check out producer Arnold Leibovit's 1985 tribute t