- Year: 2002
- Director: Simon Wells
- Starring: Guy Pearce, Samantha Mumba, Jeremy Irons
Sure, George Pal’s 1960 The Time Machine is a lot of fun, but it isn’t a classic in the sense that another film adaptation would be heresy. Literary adaptations like Gone with the Wind or To Kill a Mockingbird are so beloved that there will probably never be another film, but The Time Machine still had a lot of ideas to be explored. Plus, the director was Simon Wells, H.G. Wells’ great-grandson.
So what happened? Many times this movie will follow a moment of brilliance or at least competency with something that belongs in the cheesiest of bad movies. The decisions made in this movie are just so strange, but I will try my best to understand them.
Let’s get it out of the way right now—even though it’s directed by Simon Wells, this is not an accurate adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel. I broke down in my review of the 1960 film why a direct adaptation probably wouldn’t work too well, so obviously that’s not an issue in and of itself. Like that film, this one begins in 1899, but this time it’s set in New York City.
The change from London to New York isn’t really necessary as the city doesn’t really have an effect on the story, but it seems odd that all of the primary Americans are played by British actors. I’m not saying British actors shouldn’t play Americans or vice versa, but I don’t understand why they would change the location to New York seemingly on a whim and make all the British actors speak in halfway-American accents.
Guy Pearce plays Alexander Hartdegen, an engineering professor at Columbia University. When he’s not teaching, he works hard at scientific research and is often late for dates with his girlfriend, Emma (Sienna Guillroy). Movies like this and Flubber seem to think that if a scientist is doing some important research, he gets a free pass at this kind of thing. Alexander isn’t all that compelling of a character, but Guy Pearce gives such a great performance that you forget that. The story is weak, but Pearce treats it like it’s Shakespeare.
While in previous versions the lead merely invented a time machine because he felt like it, Alexander does it to save Emma. She’s killed by a mugger when she and Alexander refuse to hand over her engagement ring, and a heartbroken Alexander spends the next four years researching time travel.
Ugh this story’s been done so many times… without time travel, but still. You know the one where the leading man’s girlfriend or wife is killed and that gives him his motivation to challenge something. Sure, this plot can be done well, but it’s already the plot of basically every Mel Gibson drama ever (seriously, think about it), and it all too often gives us a female character who’s just a plot device and not a person.
Alexander travels four years into the past and goes into the city with Emma instead, but while he’s buying her flowers, she gets hit by a carriage and dies. Accepting the fact that he will not find a way to save her in the past, he travels into the future to find answers. Instead, all he finds is the 7-Up guy.
Actually, Orlando Jones is playing a hologram loaded with all of mankind’s knowledge. He stands in a museum and answers any questions of the people who walk by. Alexander asks him about time travel, which he is told is impossible. In the process though, the hologram strangely mentions H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, George Pal’s film, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical. Wait, there’s a musical version? I wasn’t aware of this, but we even get to hear a portion of one of the songs… It’s a joke. If a movie has a one-off joke about a fictional movie, it should be a bad one and not something I’d actually want to see. There would definitely be great songs, like “(Weena Almost Drowned in) Old Man River” and “Oh What a Beautiful Morlock.” Moving on…
Alexander stops seven years later, where a failed attempt at colonizing the moon has caused the moon to break up, screwing up earth’s orbit or something… because we didn’t want to do the nuclear war thing again in 2002. He then goes way into the future, ending up inevitably in 802,701.
The Eloi of this film are less childlike than the book and 1960 film, which is good, because Alexander does fall in love with one of them. It was always a little uncomfortable in the 1960 film seeing the much older George have a sort-of thing with Weena, but here Mara (Samantha Mumba) is one of the wiser Eloi and a leader. She has even learned English from the ancient artifacts.
Just like Pearce’s, Samantha Mumba’s performance is wonderful. The chemistry between Mara and Alexander is subtle and completely believable. It doesn’t just happen right away, but they grow to care about each other. I also love how Mara accepts the fact that Alexander is from the past. He tells her straight-up, she gives a look of “really?”, but he explains himself and she believes him. We don’t get any of the stupid “But I’m telling you, I’m from the past” scenes.
Before this week, the only time I ever saw this movie was a few years ago on a cable channel late at night. By this point then, I had lost interest and was really only half-watching. I have to admit, though, that this time I really got caught up in these scenes with the Eloi. The scenery, the music, and the performances all really suck you into this world. Just look at the dwellings they live in…
Or these maypole-esque creations with which they honor their dead.
For a short fifteen-minute period, The Time Machine is brilliant, beautiful film making. I was starting to question my previous issues with the film altogether. Maybe this was a film about not blaming yourself for the past and moving on, no matter how many years it takes.
This is all ruined by two words: Spitball Arrows.
Yes, the Morlocks come into the picture and herd up the Eloi with multiple weapons, the dumbest of which is an arrow they shoot with their mouth. I really hate that this needs to be an “action” scene in a movie that is in no other sense an action movie. It was so much more haunting in the 1960 film when they were literally rounded up like cattle and marched into the Morlock lair.
Perhaps this movie was just trying to please everyone, with a little romance here, some action there, all wrapped in a sci-fi shell, but it ruins the rest of the movie. The movie never again nears the greatness it had going for a few moments, but it does get more and more laughably stupid. There is in fact something worse than spitball arrows.
So you know the drill, some of the Eloi are taken underground, including Mara, and Alexander has to go and save them. He goes with Kalen (Omero Mumba), Mara’s younger brother and runs into Orlando Jones again, because it was better than straight-up putting 7-Up product placement in the movie.
Jones spouts a little exposition about the Eloi and Morlocks, because why would the audience want this done in a creative way? It’s not like the spinning rings in the 1960 version taught us anything. As Alexander goes deeper, he finds Mara’s clothes… and then a clothed Mara, which makes no sense. She is caged up in the throne room of… and I can’t make this up… The Uber Morlock.
Ever wonder what it would be like if Scar from The Lion King played The Emperor in Star Wars? Observe as Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons devours the scenery in a movie that up until this point relied on subtle, realistic acting. And I hope you loved the exposition spouting from earlier, because that’s all the Super Uber Morlock does. He gives Alexander a summary of how everything in society works. It’s not enough to have Eloi and Morlocks—there has to be a caste system within the Morlocks, where some are bred to be the hunter-gatherers while the Super Duper Uber Morlocks do the thinking.
Alexander has been searching for an answer to his question about Emma, and he gets one—a ridiculously definite one, one that wraps it up in a bow, attaches a card to it, and puts it under a Christmas tree. The Uber Driver Morlock simply tells him that since he invented the machine because of Emma’s death, he can’t save her with it. See, it’s that simple.
Is this a scene out of a parody film? If the entire plot of a movie revolves around our protagonist trying to answer one question, you don’t just have him meet someone who flat out tells him the answer. The movie gives its audience absolutely no credit whatsoever and just spells it out for us, word for word.
Ubie encourages Alexander to leave in his machine, because the past cannot be changed. Alexander gets into the machine and pulls Edgar Winter in with him for a free ride, getting into a ridiculously fake fist fight and eventually throwing him through the time bubble created by the machine. As Alexander saw earlier, this causes his enemy to rapidly age, killing him.
Millions of years in the future, Alexander realizes the Morlocks have won, so he goes back to 802,701 and saves Mara. This is great and all, but it would have meant a lot more if he tried to do it before. We get the feeling that if he could have had a life with Emma, he would have said “Screw the Eloi” and gone back to his own time. He causes his own machine to jam up and draws the Morlocks to it, killing them and destroying the machine. Permanently stuck in 802,701, Alexander begins a new life with Mara.
Thankfully, we do get a nice final image—a scene of Alexander, Mara, and Kalen blended with Alexander’s housekeeper and friend Fillby accepting he is gone. It’s a nice little shout-out to time being the fourth dimension, showing that these two events are happening at the exact same place, just during different years.
I pose the question again—what happened? For one, director Simon Wells couldn’t finish the film, letting Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski direct the final 18 days of production. I’m not blaming one over the other for the faults, but maybe it explains some of the film’s dual vision. I think there’s a bigger issue at play, though, and it may or may not be connected to the director swap. I found a copy of John Logan’s script online, and a lot of the scenes play out differently and more intelligently. After all, this is the John Logan who wrote Gladiator, Skyfall, and two Scorsese films (The Aviator and Hugo).
In the original script, the Uber Morlock is still called that, but he’s far less of an intentional villain. He basically tells Alexander that this is how society works—living like animals. There is no additional traveling into the future, there is no outright answering of questions, and Alexander goes out of his way to save Mara, finally forgiving himself for what happened to Emma. There is also a dean character at Columbia University who the Uber Morlock intentionally resembles. It wouldn’t have been a perfect film, but I sure would have liked to see it.
Well, I have to grade the film for what it is and not what it could have been, so let’s go to the final score.
Story (12/30 Points)
The motivations are less interesting than in the book, and the random stop-offs in the early 21st century don’t really do much good. The third act is basically an exposition dump, and that is just plain lazy.
Cast (23/30 Points)
Guy Pearce and Samantha Mumba do wonders with what they’re given, and you really believe their chemistry. Even Omero Mumba is good as the obligatory cute kid. I’m not a big fan of Orlando Jones, but it’s Jeremy Irons’ ridiculously over-the-top performance that brings this film to a screeching halt. Who let this happen?
Experience (18/25 Points)
The music and scenery are just gorgeous, especially when the Eloi are honoring their dead. It’s one of those scenes that just takes you to a different place, like something out of Lord of the Rings. The time travel effects are pretty nice, but the Morlocks are really tacky with both their costumes and weapons, and the CGI when they run is painfully obvious.
Originality (6/15 Points)
There’s that fifteen minute run of sheer brilliance, but everything else has been done and has been done better.
FINAL SCORE: 59%
Is it a decent film with a lot of bad things or a bad film with a few good things? You could make an argument for either. Oddly enough, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I would recommend it. It’s an interesting exercise in good actors trying to save a mediocre story—a mediocre story that was at one point a good one. After you watch it, take a look at the original script and dream of what this movie could have been.
Next week I’ll be taking a look at 2004’s Primer.