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"THE TIME MACHINE"
(2002) (Guy Pearce, Samantha Mumba) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Sci-fi: A late 19th century scientist travels through the years in a time machine of his own invention as he tries to figure out why he can't change the past.
PLOT:
Alexander Hartdegen (GUY PEARCE) is a first-year associate professor at New York City's Columbia University in the late 1890s who's so busy and preoccupied with his work, experiments and theorems that he needs to be reminded by his associate, Dr. David Philby (MARK ADDY), that he's to propose to his girlfriend, Emma (SIENNA GUILLORY), that night, a point that causes his housekeeper, Mrs. Watchit (PHYLLIDA LAW), to tidy him up.

Despite his habitual lateness and distractions, Emma agrees, but finds herself the immediate victim of a robbery gone bad. Four years later, and still obsessed by the disastrous turn of events, Alexander has built a time machine that he plans to use to travel back in time, prevent Emma's death, and then allow things to play out the way they should have. Unfortunately, Alexander learns that you can't mess with time and has his quest thwarted.

He thus sets out to explore the future and lands in the year 2030 where he encounters Vox (ORLANDO JONES), an all-knowing library "protonic" linked to all of the databases of the world. Despite this fascinating find, Alexander sets out further into the future, hoping to find an answer as to why he can't change the past. A freak accident, however, leaves him unconscious with his machine sending him far into the future.

He eventually arrives in the year 802,701 where seemingly primitive, cliff-dwelling people known as the Eloi live. Two of them, Mara (SAMANTHA MUMBA), a young adult woman, and Kalen (OMERO MUMBA), a younger boy, have managed to learn how to speak English, and try to explain their ways to Alexander. As he tries to figure out this world that's so foreign from the one he left, he soon learns why there are no adults among the Eloi.

It turns out another savage race of beings, the subterranean Morlocks, feed upon the Eloi and occasionally pop out for some quick raids on the peaceful people. After they abduct Mara, Alexander then sets out to rescue her, eventually causing him to encounter their all-knowing leader, the Uber-Morlock (JEREMY IRONS).

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
Back in 1895 author H.G. Wells wrote "The Time Machine," a literary work that - long before most science fiction - must have mesmerized readers with its fantastical story of a man progressively traveling further into the future until he "lands" hundreds of thousands of years from home.

The work, of course, inspired countless other time travel novels, TV episodes and entire shows, as well as many theatrically released movies. One of them was 1960's "The Time Machine," directed by George Pal and starring Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux, which was the first adaptation of Wells' work.

While such stories are usually about scientists, explorers (purposeful and accidental) or villains wishing to benefit from knowledge of the past or future, the group of people I could imagine getting a great deal of use from a time machine would be those involved in the world of filmmaking. Not only could directors, performers and studio heads go back in time to fix or kill a critical or commercial flop, but they could also travel into the future and see how well their latest effort would be received.

Director Simon Wells probably wishes he'd had the latter before adapting his great-grandfather's work in this remake of Pal's 1960 version. For not only did he reportedly suffer from physical exhaustion while shooting the film (with an uncredited Gore Verbinski - "The Mexican" - being called in to finish the last days of shooting), but he's also likely to feel ill upon seeing some critical and public reaction to his effort, or at least the second half thereof.

Now, to be fair, Wells - who's making his live-action directing debut after directing the animated "Balto" and co-directing "The Prince of Egypt" - had the odds somewhat stacked against him from the start. While the original novel was, well, novel in its day, so many time travel films have come along since then - including the "Back to the Future" and "Terminator" pictures as well as the terrific "Time After Time" - that the basic concept seems somewhat quaint, humdrum and/or basically unremarkable.

Then there's the fact that this story - beyond one instance to the contrary - only goes forward into the future rather than traveling into the past. Again, that might have seemed fascinating long ago, but views and visions of the future have been done so many times that the overall concept is redundant and lacking in allure nowadays.

After a failed trip to the past to save his doomed fiancÚ (that doesn't play out realistically or credibly), the protagonist decides to go forward. Yet, that direction removes the far more interesting, complex and engaging notion of purposefully or accidentally changing the past in a "What if I traveled into the past and killed my grandfather before I was born" puzzle.

Accordingly, and if planning to stick relatively close to the original novel, what is one to do then to engage the viewer and make things seem fresh? Well, for starters, the effects of the first film - award winning in their day but not somewhat cheesy looking - would be updated to today's state of the art level, but then what?

Unfortunately, Wells the descendent and screenwriter John Logan ("Gladiator," "Any Given Sunday") haven't managed to do much else with the story other than modify the setting (New York rather than London) and change aspects of the Eloi and Morlock species the protagonist encounters 800,000 years into the future. The problem is, they were the least interesting and weakest part of the original film, and that's the case here, especially since most of the author's original social commentary about class structures has been jettisoned or simply ignored.

The result is a film that might sport a big-budget look and be okay for the first 45 or so minutes. After that, however, and once the protagonist ends up far away in the same place, the film becomes far too goofy, unbelievable and campy for its own good. Seemingly spawned from the same silly notion that made the remake of "Planet of the Apes" so bad at times, the majority of this film lacks the science and/or fiction that made its first act moderately entertaining.

During that part, Guy Pearce ("The Count of Monte Cristo," "Memento") does a decent job playing the professor-cum-inventor who's obsessed with technology, inventions and why he can't keep his girlfriend from being killed time and again. Those last such moments are supposed to be poignant, but end up bordering on and occasionally invading the territory known as black comedy.

Once he realizes that going back is to no avail, he travels forward where he encounters some decent but brief laughs for the viewer, as well as Orlando Jones ("Evolution," "Double Take") playing a futuristic and holographic librarian with a funny riff on H.G. Wells and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Of course, hindsight-based humor of the future is nothing new in such movies, and Pearce's portrayal of the scientist who becomes progressively less inquisitive isn't as good or convincing as that of Malcolm McDowell playing the fish-out-of-water H.G. Wells in "Time After Time's" then contemporary San Francisco.

Such moments and material seem Oscar worthy, however, when compared to what follows. Portraying the future - especially 800,000 plus years away - is always a creative chore, and while the original novel's representation of two surviving species may have seemed cautionary and exotic near the turn of the last century, it's not much more than rampant goofiness here.

Although the time-lapse effects and the storyline cause of the demise of civilization as we know it are fun to behold, the rest of the material is ludicrous. That includes some of the peaceful Eloi being able to speak English - explained by a lame detail - a battery supply of some sort that would even outlast the Energizer Bunny, and all sorts of other "science fiction" that's nothing more than substandard hooey.

Pop singer turned actress Samantha Mumba (making her acting debut) shows up in a familiar role as the self-sufficient and liberated tribal babe of the future who has no problem accepting the protagonist's story of where he came from. While she appears comfortable in the role, its built-in limitations prevent her from doing much with it or making much of an impression.

Sienna Guillory ("Superstition," "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang") is the film's most likable and compelling character, but she's removed far too soon. Mark Addy ("A Knight's Tale," "The Full Monty") likewise isn't around enough to do anything with his part, while Mumba's real-life younger brother, Omero (making his acting debut), plays the wild young boy just as you'd expect.

Faring much worse is Jeremy Irons ("Dungeons & Dragons," "Reversal of Fortune") as the omnipotent leader of the ape-like Morlocks. Sporting something of an albino rocker look that should immediately remind fans of blues performer Johnny Winter, Irons probably wishes he had a time machine of his own so that he could go back into the past and kick his agent in the rear for even notifying him of the part.

Perhaps that could have made for a better movie than this progressively worsening mess. Although it's decent for a while, many viewers will long for their turn in the machine to either go back and choose a different film or fast forward through time to get to the end of this one. "The Time Machine" rates as just a 3.5 out of 10.




Reviewed March 4, 2002 / Posted March 8, 2002


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