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With: Guy Pearce, Samantha Mumba, Jeremy Irons, Orlando Jones, Mark Addy, Phyllida Law, Sienne Guillory, Omero Mumba
Written by: John Logan, based on the novel by H.G. Wells and the 1960 screenplay by David Duncan
Directed by: Simon Wells
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of action violence
Running Time: 96
Date: 03/04/2002

The Time Machine (2002)

1 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Killing 'Time'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Time Machine isn't the first time Hollywood has made mincemeat out of a classic novel, but it is, to my knowledge, the first time it was done by a member of the author's family.

H.G. Wells' great-grandson, Simon Wells (he was born some 15 years after the writer's death in 1946), helmed this new embarrassment, his live-action debut after directing animated fare such as The Prince of Egypt and Balto. The younger Wells has been quoted as saying that he took the class-struggle satire out of the original Time Machine story because he didn't think it was relevant today.

I guess intelligence isn't necessarily passed down through the genes.

In H.G.'s original story, the Time Traveler builds the time machine and travels 800,000 years in the future, where he finds two races of people, the Eloi and the Morlocks, both descended from humans. The Morlocks live underground and can only see in the dark. The Eloi live comfortably on the surface, playing and relaxing all day -- but they're basically just food for the Morlocks. The Time Traveler falls in love with an Eloi named Weena whom he saves from drowning, but loses her later to the Morlocks. He leaves in despair and travels forward to see the end of the world before going back home and disappearing forever.

This new movie tacks on a moronic prologue in which the Time Traveler, now named Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce), proposes to a girl and immediately loses her to a mugger's bullet. He builds his machine simply to travel back in time to try and save her -- but finds that it's not possible.

Using his machine (which shoots beams of bluish light) he instead goes 800,000 years into the future, this time for no other reason than to ease his despair. In this movie, the Eloi he meets there are smart and self-sustaining. They build their own houses on the sides of cliffs and provide their own food, and they look a little like those annoying kids from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. They got there because man accidentally blew up the moon somewhere in the middle of the 21st century.

One very pretty Eloi, the Weena character now renamed Mara (Samantha Mumba), rescues Alexander and nurses him back to health after his bumpy landing. She speaks English and even teaches it to the other Eloi. Yet, for all their knowledge and skill, they're still unable to fight off the Morlocks, who now travel during the day (for no discernible reason). In addition, the movie glazes over the reason why the Morlocks hunt the Eloi at all. Apparently, reckoning with the concept of cannibalism is too much for this tame movie. This isn't even taking into account that, in the movie, the future still has edible animals -- birds and reptiles -- which are not part of the future in H.G. Wells' book.

Orlando Jones (Evolution) stars in a needless role as a computerized informational hologram from the New York Public Library of 2030, which somehow lasts 800,000 years. Also, Alexander picks up a young friend, a child Eloi named Kalen who follows him around and worships him. (The soundtrack is filled with awful chanting-children music that would work better in a Lord of the Flies picture.)

It gets worse. Alexander confronts the Morlocks' leader (Jeremy Irons) -- a character invented for this movie -- who speaks English and spells out his evil plan. But Alexander escapes and sets off a giant explosion that kills all the Morlocks (but not before he outruns the fireball) so that he can live happily ever after in this peaceful new future.

Basically The Time Machine is stripped of all the ingenuity and observations that made the original story worthwhile. What's left is pandering stupidity, a movie that talks down to us and is loaded with lapses in logic. If, for example, Alexander is such a great fighter (he grapples with several Morlocks) then why couldn't he take out the one measly mugger who started all the trouble?

This movie's creators don't even seem curious about time travel. Even light entertainments like the Back to the Future and Terminator movies managed to cook up some beautifully thought-out time paradoxes. This one forgoes any such science-oriented elaborations in favor of a more "personal" angle (This Time It's Personal!). But the "human" elements Wells and screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator and Bats) offer here are reeking clich├ęs. Poor great-grandfather H.G. is probably rolling over in his grave.

George Pal's 1960 film of The Time Machine has its dumb moments too, but it retains the novel's thoughtful, scientific angle. Rod Taylor's scientist in that movie is at least curious about the future -- though Guy Pearce is a far better actor than the poor stiff, wooden Taylor. Fortunately, both movies contain inventive, interesting special effects. One dazzling sequence in this new movie shows time moving rapidly forward as the camera pulls back from Alexander's lab, to the city skyline, to outer space.

But, really, if I could invent my own time machine, I'd go back in time and get my two hours back.

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