2002, DreamWorks & Warner Bros. Directed by Simon Wells and Gore Verbinski. Guy Pearce, Samantha Mumba, Jeremy Irons, Orlando Jones, Mark Addy.
Decent Films Ratings
|?Teens & Up|
Content advisory: Some fantasy battle sequences and other violence; fleeting grisly imagery; scantily clad women.
By Steven D. Greydanus
What’s the deal with time travel lately?
First we had Kate and Leopold, a fairly dopey romantic comedy in which people jump into time rifts but never seem to fall out of them, elevators stop working for reasons that make no sense at all, and someone sees herself in a photograph before the photo could possibly have existed, even on the movie’s own time-bending rules.
And now we have another cinematic take on H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, directed by Wells’s great-grandson Simon Wells (The Prince of Egypt) — who owes everyone in his family a big apology. The Time Machine is so sloppy that it makes Kate and Leopold look like Back to the Future. It’s also pitiful entertainment, succeeding neither as spectacle, as action-adventure, or as love story.
Time travel, when done right, speaks to the longings of the human heart to escape the confines of time and space, to see the wrongs of the past set right, redeemed. (Frequency is a good example of this.)
The Time Machine is time travel done wrong — way wrong. The setup: Guy Pearce (The Count of Monte Cristo; Memento) plays Dr. Alexander Hartdegen, an 19th-century scientist who spends years researching, developing, and building the first working time machine after tragically losing his fiancée Emma (Sienna Guillory) to a mugger’s bullet.
With his machine, Alexander returns to the eve of Emma’s death, intercepts her before she can be killed by the mugger, and spirits her safely to another location. Then, he turns his back for a moment — and she gets killed again — this time in a freak traffic accident. It’s like a scene out of Monty Python. When the film’s presumptive love interest is killed, and the screening audience cracks up, it’s a bad sign.
Wait, there’s more. Emma’s second death prompts Alexander to conclude that he "can’t change the past," and specifically can’t save Emma’s life. "I could come back a thousand times," he murmurs, "see her die a thousand ways."
Huh? This guy is a scientist? What kind of scientist concludes that a coin that comes up heads twice in a row will never come up tails? More importantly, what kind of man works for years to save the love of his life, then gives up after one try?
How can Alexander even ask "Why can’t I change the past?" — when he manifestly has changed the past? He stopped Emma from getting shot by the mugger, didn’t he? That’s not changing the past? Granted, the "new" past is no better, from Alexander’s point of view, than the "old" one, but it’s still a change, isn’t it? Mightn’t another change save Emma’s life? Or is it his view that there’s some sinister, cosmic power gunning for Emma on this particular evening?
To try to learn the answers to these questions, and because it’s what the movie is really about anyway, Alexander decides to check out the future, on the theory that our enlightened descendants may have insight into the deepest mysteries of temporal mechanics and bad screenwriting.
As his gizmo rockets him into the future, he watches as the world around him changes at lightning speed: Ivy grows up the walls of his greenhouse, skyscrapers construct themselves around him, and people and things whip about him like the Flash, almost too fast to be seen. (Some things, like airplanes and satellites, inexplicably don’t go really fast, allowing us to get a good look at them and appreciate the passage of decades and centuries.)
I am thinking: If Alexander can see stuff around him moving at super-speed, shouldn’t everybody else be able to see him and his gizmo looking frozen like statues? After all, he’s sitting right there, not moving at all, relatively speaking, isn’t he? So why does it seem that he’s invisible to the world? Maybe it’s another one of those things we must just hope they can explain in the future.
Not much chance of that, though. After a stopoff in the Manhattan of the future (where they still don’t know anything about temporal mechanics), Alexander winds up in a dystopic far future in which civilization has fallen, due in part to the destruction of the moon, caused by ill-planned human excavation. The smartest person Alexander meets in this world is the cerebrally gifted leader of the Morlocks (for those not familiar with the story, Morlocks are predatory, subterranean creatures who prey upon the peaceful, surface-dwelling Eloi).
This Morlock leader (Jeremy Irons), telepathically reading Alexander’s questions from his mind, offers Alexander the closest thing he ever gets to an explanation why he "can’t change the past." Supposedly, it’s because Alexander only built the machine because Emma died; therefore, if he saves her, he’ll never build the machine, and if he never builds the machine, he can’t save her.
Now, that’s a perfectly respectable time paradox — but what does it have to do with Emma getting killed in two completely unrelated ways? It would be different if, after saving Emma, the future-Alexander were to try to return to his time-machine, only to find it missing, and then begin to fade away himself, like Marty McFly at the end of Back to the Future. But it doesn’t explain why that carriage had Emma’s name on it.
The kicker is that all this absurdity stems from a storyline that isn’t even in the original book or the 1960 film version. The whole Emma subplot was added to make the hero’s quest a romantic one (rather than a merely scientific one) for today’s post-Titanic audiences. Yet how "romantic" is it, when Emma drops out of the story forever after the first fifteen minutes? In her place, we get an Eloi babe (Samantha Mumba) who says something to Alexander about flowers, prompting him to looking meaningfully at her, as if to say, "You like flowers just like Emma did! Maybe you can take her place in the story and in my heart!"
Maybe, just maybe, I could get past all this, if the film at least worked as a futuristic action romp. But it doesn’t. The characters don’t matter a whit, and the action isn’t exciting, clever, or compelling.
The hero repeatedly does stupid things that the movie doesn’t recognize as stupid. In one scene, the villain allows Alexander to get into his time machine and leave; but Alexander wants to rescue the girl from the Morlock caverns. He could easily return to his own time and come back with firearms (or stop off at an intermediate time period and come back with serious weaponry); but instead he elects to engage the villain hand-to-hand, even though he’s already proved he’s no action hero and the Morlocks are tough as nails. (This scene had me wondering: How do you sucker-punch someone who’s telepathic? Does it make sense to fight someone who can mess with your mind enough to give you hallucinations?)
Then, after freeing the girl, instead of using the time machine to spirit her to a safer time and find another way of returning her to her people, Alexander rigs the machine to set off a sort of temporal explosion that will age into dust everything in range, then heads out to get the girl past the entire Morlock army and out of the tunnels before the explosion goes off.
Is he forgetting that it was ill-planned explosions beneath the moon’s surface that destroyed civilization? Didn’t he himself look up at the shattered moon and say "We went too far"? And now he’s setting off an uncontrolled, untested temporal explosion under the surface of the earth? How does he know he won’t destroy everything for ten miles, or all of North America, or the whole planet?
Even as mere eye candy, The Time Machine is largely a
wash. True, the time-travel effects themselves are dazzling, and
a couple of the settings (notably an all-too-brief glimpse of a
futuristic Manhattan skyline and the charming cliffside dwellings
of the Eloi) are worth looking at. But the Morlocks look like
Orlando Jones has a small role as Vox, a saucy hologram first seen in the futuristic Manhattan, before the fall of civilization. Later, though every building in Manhattan is destroyed without a trace, Vox miraculously survives, still manifesting through upright panes of glass that are now cracked and fragmentary. (Can anyone explain to me the scene in which Vox’s hand inexplicably extends beyond the edge of his glass boundaries so that he can touch a nearby skull? Anyone? Anyone?)
Vox remembers Alexander from having met him