Little future in remaking perfect past

Review: `The Time Machine' is more mindless the second time around.

March 08, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

"Why can't I change the past?" is the question that sends an 1899 inventor hurtling into the future in the latest version of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. "Why can't I get back my last 96 minutes?" is the question moviegoers will ask after sitting through this travesty.

A DreamWorks/Warner Bros. co-production directed by Wells' great-grandson, Simon Wells, the movie gives us a time machine that resembles a twin-engined Mixmaster and a script that was tossed together inside one.

Wells, who co-directed The Prince of Egypt, and his screenwriter, John Logan, who co-wrote Gladiator, do their usual job of trying to rejuvenate a genre by throwing in artificial heart. Logan showed a yen for killing off his hero's loved ones when he had gladiator Maximus' family offed. Here Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce) has barely put a ring on the finger of his true love Emma (Sienna Guillory) when a stick-up man tussles with her over it and shoots her.

The first-reel killing of a beautiful gal worked wonders for Howard Hawks in Red River. Guillory is no Coleen Gray - and Wells is no Hawks. Emma registers as nothing more than a sacrificial blonde. Hartdegen spends four years after her death building a time machine so he can protect her from the stick-up artist. Instead, when he leaps back to his doomed proposal night in 1895, Emma gets crushed by a panicky horse and buggy.

The only way to react is with heartless laughter, as if Emma were Kenny being killed repeatedly on South Park.

Hartdegen's urge to alter history leads him to seek how-to books in the 21st century - and beyond. In other words, the moviemakers rely on a cardboard tragedy to make an audience feel gung-ho about Hartdegen questing forth and ultimately landing in year A.D. 802,701.

If you read the novel, you can see why moviemakers feel compelled to embellish on it. Apart from the book-end scenes of the time traveler (H.G. Wells left him nameless) telling the tale to his friends, it's a spare, pitiless nightmare. It lays out an apocalyptic image of the privileged classes drifting into the "feeble prettiness" of the mindless, indolent Eloi, who live in the sun, and the working classes degenerating into the "mere mechanical industry" of the cannibalistic and brutally manipulative Morlocks, who live underground and treat Eloi as their food supply.

The wonderful 1960 George Pal production had the wit to expand on the plot without violating it. The core of that movie was the hero's relationship with his best friend, Philby. It wasn't just a hook but a strong emotional current that energized the story as the time traveler kept discovering how loyal and valiant his stable pal could be. (Alan Young, who played Philby, has a bit part in the new version as a clerk in a flower shop.)

Pal inserted a nuclear cataclysm as the reason for the split in the human race. But the film was true to the eerie affectlessness of the Eloi: Their zombie beauty was scarier than the Morlocks' ugliness. And even when Pal's effects were primitive, they tingled, because he had thought them through from the inside-out. His time machine was like a cross between a Phoenician boat and a super sleigh, and the sequence of the hero racing through the ages was brilliantly designed, hewing so closely to his point of view that you felt as if you were gliding giddily along with him.

The 2002 edition lacks point of view, and thus, intensity. As Hartdegen leaves the 19th century, director Wells and company, in a conventional attempt to pop our eyes, move in one unbroken shot from the whirring of his glorified Mixmaster to the world outside his study, the building up of New York City, even satellites orbiting the Earth. The catastrophe that creates Eloi and Morlocks this time is the moon's disintegration due to unwise development - which Wells and Logan fail to make as resonant as either class or nuclear warfare.

The moviemakers oddly and illogically humanize the Eloi. They speak in some nouveau-native tongue and also preserve English; they may not have much initiative but they do paddle canoes and erect great wicker memorials to loved ones. They boast a Sierra Club sort of glamour, especially when the soundtrack starts pumping out South American choral music in the uplifting manner of Ennio Morricone's score for The Mission. They're simply no match for the Morlocks, who have weeded out the most aggressive Eloi in their food raids and evolved as castes, with one Uber-Morlock (Jeremy Irons) to rule each colony via mind-control.

Even in fright makeup, Irons has so much more authority than the thin and breathless Pearce that I kept wondering why he didn't have the starring role. (Irons is probably wondering why Anthony Hopkins has ended up having the sort of screen career Irons should have had.)

The Irish singing star Samantha Mumba has a pleasingly supple and plangent presence, but she doesn't yet have the acting chops to create a character on the run. Orlando Jones provides some laughs as a "photonic" library guide, a holographic figure who has memorized the contents of the New York Public Library, but his quotes from T.S. Eliot and Twain show up the verbal dross of the rest of the movie.

Overall, you have to wonder about the impetus to do the story over in the first place when all the energy has gone into making the Morlocks mighty leaping monsters like those in recent ape and mummy movies. Maybe viewers will leave with one more question: Can a grown man have an Oedipus complex toward his great-grandfather?

The Time Machine

Starring Guy Pearce

Directed by Simon Wells

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action violence

Released by DreamWorks

Running time 96 minutes

Sun Score * 1/2

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