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Time Gentlemen, Please for: The Time Machine

01/04/2002. Contributed by Mark R Leeper

Buy The Time Machine in the USA - or Buy The Time Machine in the UK

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Mark R. Leeper slaps a couple of bucks down at his local multiplex to bring you this film review of the 2002 remake of HG Well's classic, The Time Machine.

CAPSULE: Not a remake. Not a sequel. The new film THE TIME MACHINE is a comment and a play on the ideas of the 1960 film and on the novel. The movie seems a little slight and rushed, but it is not at all bad as a short science fiction story. Guy Pearce was the wrong actor to cast as the Time Traveler, however.

Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4)

The Time MachineTHE TIME MACHINE has already had one reasonably accurate film adaptation. George Pal's 1960 version made some modifications of the plot of the Wells story, but they were relatively small. The film caught much of the spirit of the book.

Any plans at this point to remake THE TIME MACHINE would probably have been a mistake. It would be tough to compete with happy memories of the earlier version. Happily, though few critics seem to have noted it, a remake is something that the new film THE TIME MACHINE is not.

It does not make any attempt to tell the same story. In fact, there are references in the dialog to both the novel and the George Pal film, indicating that it takes place in our world. It is our world that the film assumes is destined to have a future much along the lines that Wells predicted.

This sort of thing is not uncommon in written science fiction, but rare in a film. [In fact I just recently read THE SPACE MACHINE by Christopher Priest, which is not a sequel but plays with ideas from both THE TIME MACHINE and WAR OF THE WORLDS.]

In this new film a late 19th century American scientist, Alexander Hartdegen (played by Guy Pearce), suffers a great personal loss by chance and devotes four years to inventing a machine that will take him back in time to change the past. He only partially succeeds.

To his frustration he finds that he can change the past only in minor ways. In frustration he decides to visit the future. There he finds that future man has made a huge blunder destroying civilization as we know it. Knocked unconscious as he is escaping further into the future he overshoots his destination and finds himself in 802,701 A.D. and as Wells predicted, humanity has split into Eloi and Morlocks.

This film inherits the ideas of Wells legitimately. It is directed by Simon Wells, a great-grandson of H. G. Wells and who prior to this film has directed only animated films like BALTO and PRINCE OF EGYPT. Guy Pearce, our Time Traveler, has been in some interesting films including LA CONFIDENTIAL, MEMENTO, and THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, but he is not the most expressive actor.

After a promising start in which he plays the curious scientist to the hit, his face goes impassive and he just does not convey much emotion to the viewer.

In the 1960 film the Time Traveler was played by Rod Taylor who was much better at showing his emotions. Taylor's Time Traveler was on an emotional quest: he had the passion to escape to a better future free from war.

After the promising start Pearce plays his role as coldly intellectual and his quest is to answer a technical question: why cannot he change the past? That is bound to be less engaging to an audience. The viewer never really cares a lot about what happens to him. The film has several small tributes to its origins.

In the Time Traveler's house is a photo of H. G. Wells as a young man. If one looks quick one can catch Alan Young, Philby in the 1960 film, as a florist. The Time Traveler watches the mannequins change in a store window as he moves through time much as he did in the 1960 film.

The real star of any visual version of THE TIME MACHINE has got to be the title device itself. The machine has to be complex enough that it looks like it might work but not too complex to be assimilated by the eye or too threatening. An instant Hollywood icon was the mechanism created for George Pal and the 1960 version with its spinning dish and its antique chair. [Recommended is the documentary on DVD of THE TIME MACHINE that tells how the 1960 film's machine was created.]

This film obviously borrows from that design. It replaces the one dish with three. Two dishes are behind and above the cockpit, spinning in opposite directions. One is in front and below. The dishes look like Fresnel lighthouse lenses.

The antique chair is there much as in the 1960 film as is the control panel with the crystal lever. The new control panel has a nice dial display on brass rods looking like something out of a century old calculating machine. The one thing that looks a little strange is some steam gauges.

Somehow I am not sure the world is ready for a steam-powered time machine. ("I stopped the machine at 205,356 AD and got out to stoke the boiler.") But the machine has a sort of 1800s "steampunk" feel.

Then there are the inhabitants of the future. Wells described the Eloi as fair-skinned. These Eloi are light brown as if all races had blended to one color as well they might over 800 millennia.

The Morlocks when they attack come up right out of gravel pits, grab victims and drag them down into gravel pits. It is a fairly scary image borrowed from the 1956 horror film, THE MOLE PEOPLE. I am not sure it made sense in that film and it makes even less sense here. The implication is they are going to an underground cavern, but how the Morlocks can get there without the gravel spilling into the cavern I cannot imagine.

The chief Morlock (called an Uber-Morlock) is played by Jeremy Irons looking like Elric of Melnibone. I was prepared not to like THE TIME MACHINE and found that if one is really interested in time travel stories, this new film is a pleasant surprise.

It does not try to replace the original THE TIME MACHINE, it instead makes itself a companion piece. Add TIME AFTER TIME and you have a really good science fiction triple feature.

I rate the new film 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.

Open note to Roger Ebert (non-spoiler):
You ask in your review why the Time Machine stays in one place rather than at a particular set of coordinates in space with the Earth flying away from under it.

I had puzzled that one myself, but years ago decided it makes sense. The Time Machine is a physical device that creates a field in which funny things happen with time. Like most matter we see, it has been captured by Planet Earth and is carried with it. It is not immovable, it just is not moved relative to the earth.

People do not move it because it moves through their time too fast for them to see. But the pull of gravity is instantaneous and binds it to the earth just the same way it binds us. In the 1960 film the machine even moves a little relative to the Earth when the traveler hits the brakes too suddenly.

Then the forward movement in time gets dissipated into gyroscopic motion in three dimensions. The machine spins around and topples to its side.

A plane moves forward in the sky, but it still maintains it momentum and travels pretty much with the Earth. (And thanks, by the way, for mentioning me on page 433 of your new book THE GREAT MOVIES.

Mark R. Leeper

Copyright 2002 Mark R. Leeper

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