In the latest film version of H. G. Wells’ classic novel The Time Machine, a scientist from the late 19th century travels 800,000 years into the future, encounters a world where humans have evolved into two distinct races, battles with cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers and flees through a network of caverns for his life.
So much for the final 30 minutes.
There’s a strange disease that afflicts Hollywood film-makers looking to adapt or re-make classic stories. It has to be “contemporary,” they fret. It has to have an emotional resonance. We can’t simply trust whatever it was that made the original great. By God, we need something a Method actor will be willing to sink his teeth into, something we can rhapsodize about in the press notes as the thing that drew us to the project.
Wells’ The Time Machine was a grand, simple adventure, but that wasn’t enough for his great-grandson, director Simon Wells. The book’s unnamed Time Traveler had to have a “motivation.” The new film had to make some kind of statement. And as it turns out, it did make a statement: If you waste an hour of an adventure film before actually getting to the adventure, you’re going to have an incredibly dull film on your hands.
The “motivation” part of our story comes when the scientist, a Columbia University professor here dubbed Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce), tragically loses someone dear to him. Determined to change those tragic events, Hartdegen commits himself to creating a machine that will allow him to go back in time. But he discovers that although his machine works, the tragedy appears inevitable. Seeking answers for this apparent paradox, he then travels into the future.
Unfortunately, he might as well be taking Amtrak to the future, considering how long it takes for him to get there. We first need to establish the relationship that will haunt our hero, watch him turn into a hermit feverishly scrawling calculations on blackboards, and send him on his first unsuccessful trip into the past. Then there’s a quick jaunt to one of those generic, antiseptic back-to-the-near-future cityscapes where all the men walk around in Nehru jackets—a jaunt which serves primarily to set up jokey references to the original George Pal version of The Time Machine, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Martha Stewart. Through it all, Pearce emotes as though he were channeling William Shatner, or perhaps wishing he actually had the short-term memory defect that plagued his Memento character so he wouldn’t have to remember being in this movie.
At long last, Hartdegen does reach the world of the Eloi and the Morlocks after an ill-timed bump on the head—and a spectacularly rendered world it is. Illuminated Eloi dwellings cling to a canyon wall like phosphorescent barnacles, and Morlock caves descend into pools of human remains. It’s eye-catching stuff, but the film scarcely gives you time to absorb any of it. An animation veteran making his first live-action feature, Simon Wells—or perhaps Gore Verbinski, who replaced an exhausted Wells for the final 18 days of production—shoots everything as though he were running out of time to tell his story. The action scenes are so frantically edited together that they could have involved leopards chasing wildebeests for all a viewer can tell.
What The Time Machine lacks is any understanding of what its audience is there to see. The written-by-committee screenplays studios impose on these big-budget productions almost invariably fail to provide meaningful characterization, yet those same studios insist on plodding through tedious back-story before giving us the goods. Is there any reason we should feel strongly about Hardtegen’s connection to the Eloi Mara (Samantha Mumba), or not laugh out loud at her ability to speak the centuries-dead English language fluently?
H. G. Wells had the good sense to realize that his readers didn’t really care what the Time Traveler’s name was, or whether he was tormented by personal demons—they cared about what he’d find when he got to the year 802,000. While undertaking some misguided mission to give the story texture, the makers of The Time Machine forgot to make it exciting. While shifting distractedly in your seat, your primary thoughts about time could be how much of yours is being wasted.