review by Cynthia Fuchs, 8 March 2002
What's this "we"
The new film
version of The Time Machine is misconceived from jump. A
philosophical dilemma dressed up like an action picture or maybe a
romance, it's part Planet of the Apes, part Star Trek,
and part One More Inexplicable Choice by Jeremy Irons (whose
appearance as the hoary ‹ber-Morlock -- horrifically white,
bony, and mean -- reeks of his role in Dungeons & Dragons).
Based on H. G. Wells' prescient science fiction tale (written way
back in 1894), the movie raises all kinds of great questions
concerning the dangers and thrills of time travel (Can one
individual's misstep alter the planet's future? Is fate fixed? What
happens when you go back, knowing the future? Will Orlando Jones
still be hawking stuff in 2030?), but backs off from every one.
Just as the
philosophical dilemma angle gets short shrift, so the action angle
is also in trouble. One problem is that the time machine doesn't
actually move: built by Victorian scientist Alexander (Guy Pearce),
it is an elaborate chair (that looks a little too dentist-like for
comfort) adorned with levers, wheels, and glass pipes. The concept
-- not a bad one -- is that time travel is not spatial but, well,
temporal, which means that once the machine starts whirring and
whooshing, it remains stationary inside a strange little bubble,
while the world bucks and changes around it. This means, of course,
there's lots of blue screen work and digital effects, all darn dull
gets out of the contraption, there would seem to be room for
movement, exploration, and adventure. Or even, you know, science
fiction as deliberate social or political allegory. But where the
novel concerned itself with urgent class questions as these
persisted into a post-apocalyptic (and of course, metaphorical)
future world, the 2002 film is kind of la-de-dah about the whole
science-fiction-allegory thing. This Time Machine is written
by Josh (Gladiator) Logan, and partly directed by Wells'
great-grandson Simon Wells: his previous credit is co-directing
DreamWorks' animated film Prince of Egypt, and, following
troubles on the set of Time Machine (last minute rewrites, a
large cast of extras and oversight by the producers), he reportedly
succumbed to "exhaustion," replaced in the final months of shooting
by Gore Verbinski. The result is a disjointed, abbreviated film that
guts the novel's urgent class analysis, in favor of an "emotional"
trajectory, combining a little sensitive guy romance thing, a
cautionary tale thing, and finally, an action-hero-saving-the-day
begins the film as a socially awkward scientist, bumbling and sweet,
with a penchant for pocket watches and professorial vested suits.
Pearce brings a beguiling mix of intelligence and angst to the role
(he's not so stiff as Rod Taylor was in George Pal's 1960 film), as
well as an emotional curiosity. His girlfriend Emma (Sienna
Guillory) inspires him to be passionate, and if he's a little green,
he's also mostly endearing. When his marriage proposal ends in
disaster (that is, her murder by a mugger who is also very
unprepared and awkward), he dedicates himself to building a time
machine so that he can go back in time to put that situation
right, or better, avoid it altogether.
proves impossible (for reasons that aren't well explained,
especially as they are supposed to convince this "scientist")),
Alexander starts whining to his best friend, the suitably worried
Dr. Philby (Mark Addy, who must surely be tired of playing sidekicks
to waffling heroes by now): "Why can't one change the past!?" Philby
looks about as flummoxed as you might, probably considering all the
reasons why "one can't" do such a thing (like, maybe, economies of
matter, energy, and Joan Collins, as in: "He knows, doctor, he
knows"). But Alexander decides to go look for an answer, but
going into the future (why, we'll never know). He sends his machine
forward to 2030, where he meets a holographic New York Public
Librarian named Vox (Orlando Jones), who stores all of human
knowledge for all time and is willing to regurgitate at any moment.
Though Alexander learns that he has made a little historical
footnote of a name for himself in the future, he also doesn't have
an answer to his question. And so he pushes on.
At this point,
the film just lets go of all sense of direction or focus. Alexander
whooshes forward to a Blade Runner-ish, about-to-destroy-itself NYC
(2037) and then, when the explosions all around him rock his machine
and knock him out so he hits a lever with his head, he hurtles
forward 800,000 years. Unconscious when he lands, Alexander is
fortunately rescued by Mara (Samantha Mumba), a conveniently
English-speaking member of a really friendly community.
Post-apocalyptic but also prelapserian, these folks are called the
Elois. They live in translucent pods on the sides of cliffs (looking
"toward the light") and dress in soft, earth-toned outfits. They're
gentle, spiritual (though they have what appear to be collective
nightmares), and naÔve-seeming tribal types, played by actors cast,
as the press notes have it, "to reflect the evolutionary path on
which it appears humanity is heading." Put bluntly, the Elois are
beige-brown-black. In addition to Mara, the only other Eloi with
more than two lines of dialogue is her brother Kalen (Omero Mumba,
who is, as it happens, Samantha's very own little brother, and an
aspiring hiphop artist currently working on his first CD).
nightmares forewarn, however, the Elois' edenic existence is plagued
by monsters called the Morlocks. Where in the novel, the oppressed
Morlocks were fighting back against the elite Elois, here the
Morlocks are languageless and apparently quite dumb and crude, not
to mention sincerely ugly: skull-eyed and smashed-nosed. Though they
live underground, they pop up occasionally (literally, as the sand
swirls and sucks around whatever temporary holes they make) to steal
Elois for slave labor and food. But when the Elois mournfully bow
down and accept this as the way of the world, Alexander fumes and
yells. "Sometimes," he exhorts, "We need to fight!"
Um, what's this
"we" stuff, white man?
this is where the film's time-traveling class analysis has landed,
in the brutal conflict between the pasty-white slavers and their
exploited and abused "resources," the "exotic" (so-called by
producer David Valdes) Elois. When Alexander heads down the hole to
rescue a "stolen" Mara, he encounters the Uber-Morlock (the only one
with speech, again conveniently, English), who offers some
pseudo-rational drivel concerning slavery and cannibalism, but
nothing that helps to pull any of the film's ongoing illogic
together, as narrative or ideology.
discussion of time travel, dreams, and morality, the Uber-Morlock
shows Alexander his ugly back (nasty-looking spine exposed), as if
this explains his imperialist-capitalist egomania, but really, he
has nothing new to say, even though he's supposedly living some 800
centuries from now. While the Uber-Morlock goes on about his sorry
state and Alexander contemplates the depressing end of his own
ingenuity, Mara's locked in a cage, waiting to be saved. You would
think that maybe, just maybe, the future would bring a new story.
Click here to read the
interview with Samantha Mumba.
PG-13 - Parents
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.