Time Machine, The
Reviewed by Scott Murdock
Rating: 5.5 Beans
hey should have just time-traveled to 1960 and re-released the original film instead.
I'm not going to attempt to review this movie based on how it compares to the book, as it's been more than 20 years since I read it so the details are very sketchy. Plus, I cannot stand it when people do that, as film is an entirely different medium, an entirely different art form, and should be judged on its own merits rather than on how it compares to its inspiration. However, it should be noted that in this instance some comparison to the book and to the far superior 1960 film is necessary. I also will not comment on any paradoxes or other problems resulting from time travel itself, since any story involving time travel necessarily mandates tremendous suspension of disbelief... plus this is one area where the film handles itself quite well.
Our story begins in 1899 New York (rather than London, but that's okay) when the absent-minded inventor and professor Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce) dashes off to propose to his darling Emma (Sienna Guillory), only to have the engagement cut short when she is accidentaly shot to death during a botched mugging.
Not satisfied with the normal grieving process and unable to put to use coping mechanisms that the rest of humanity has managed to use fairly successfully throughout the millennia, Alex locks himself in his lab for the next four years, frantically tinkering and calculating and experimenting until he finally achieves the means to end his grief, a time machine that he can use to go back and save his darling Emma.
Arriving back in 1899 a few minutes before the mugging, Alex whisks Emma away before 1899 Alex meets up with her and gets her far away from the scene of her murder. Yet, at the precise moment she died originally, she gets killed in a freak accident foreshadowed when it was 1899 the first time around.
In a rare case of restraint on the part of the writers, and in this case the restraint shown creates genuine implausibility on screen, Alex gives up after only one try and declares saving Emma an impossibility. That's right, after four years of toiling, his first attempt fails and he gives up. If all scientists behaved that way we'd still be banging rocks. For comic relief if nothing else we should have seen at least a few more failed attempts. It's like the writers didn't even want to try to see how many more freaky ways they could come up with to croak poor Emma.
Alex decides that he wants to know why it is impossible to change the past. Acting under the soon-to-be-discovered-to-be-incorrect assumption that his invention would become known in the scientific community and developed and researched further, Alex decides to travel forward in time in hopes of discovering if anyone either discovered a way to change the past or if not, if anyone discovered why it could not be done.
In a nod to the 1960 film, as Alex travels forward in time he watches the changing styles of clothing on mannequins in a store window across the street. He finally stops when a giant video screen catches his attention, the year he stops in is 2030.
The world of 2030 in my opinion is pretty well done. The clothing styles and level of technology seems reasonable, even the existence of a lunar colony doesn't seem too far fetched. (Of course the same could have been about the year 2000 back in 1970.) There were probably a few too many new skyscrapers in New York considering the number that have been built in the past 30 years, but I won't gripe about that too much. Only a throwaway line about resequencing DNA tarnishes this scene.
It is here in 2030 where Alex meets a holographic databank interface named Vox (Orlando Jones) who informs him that time travel is fiction (thus demonstrating that his invention went undiscovered by the scientific community) and that he himself had been declared dead in 1903, the year he began his journey though time. (Later in the film Vox will serve as the equivalent of the "Talking Rings" used in the 1960 film.)
Another important bit of information comes from the gigantic video billboard across the street from the alley where Alex's lab once stood. The billboard is advertising homes in the new lunar colony and makes mention of an expansion about to begin that will use nuclear charges to excavate a tremendous amount of underground real estate.
Unsatisfied with what he has learned about time travel, Alex returns to his machine to roll further into the future to see if he can find his information later. He only makes it 7 years (or a couple of seconds) before his machine is violently shaken. He stops to find New York in ruins and learns from an evacuation screw that the underground nuclear blasting shifted the Moon's orbit and caused it to break up. While the majority of the moon fragments remained in orbit (albeit a much lower one), the resulting tidal forces and meteor storms pretty much laid waste to the Earth and everyone and everything on it. (Incidentally it was this scene that prompted the delay of the release of this film after 9/11. I'm curious to know what has been cut as this scene seemed rather hurried.)
Escaping in his time machine, the injured Alex passes out. During his journey we see life return, an ice age come and go, life return again, and a greater amount of geological upheavel and erosion that is even remotely possible in the amount of time that passes. When he regains consciousness, 800,000 years have passed. It is here where the movie degenerates into "The Ewok Adventures on Planet of the Apes (2001)".
Alex is rescued and nursed back to health by a lovely Eloi woman (Diana Lee Inosanto) who happens to be the only person in the tribe who still speaks a completely unchanged version of English after 800,000 years. Throughout his stay all of Alex's questions are either dodged or are answered by conveniently coincidental arrivals at various destinations. We learn that English (aka "The Stone Language") is still taught among the tribe's learned because despite the passing of an ice age plus the rise and then complete erosion away of new mountain ranges, remnants of New York's buildings with perfectly readable text inscriptions from the 19th-21st centuries still exist nearby.
Before long Alex learns the truth about the Eloi society when the night-people, the Morlocks, raid the conveniently-too-far-from-home-to-reach-safety crowd of Eloi and haul a batch off for dinner, including Alex's new girlfriend. An Eloi boy leads Alex to a cave "where the ghost lives" where Alex finds a badly damaged but still-functioning Vox (must be using Energizer batteries, send in the bunny) and gets a recap of the past 800,000 years. Remembering Alex from 2030, Vox also concedes that yes, apparently time travel is not fiction after all.
Alex invades the Morlock lair, is captures, and taken to the Morlock leader (Jeremy Irons) where by an amazing coincidence he also finds his Eloi woman... the only Eloi from that day's haul that hadn't already been served for dinner.
The Uber-Morlock, with a recollection for extremely ancient history as if it had happened just last week, fills in the rest of the details about Morlock evolution and allows Alex to leave of his own free will.
Alex leaves and travels forward in time another 5 million years only to find that the earth looks like Hell (complete with a red sky) and that the only remaining life are Morlocks who live in giant skull-shaped castles that shoot flames hundreds of feet into the air for no apparent reason. Determined not to let his happen (even though he had already been shown that he cannot change the course of events) Alex returns to the year 800,000-something, rescues his girl, and turns his time machine into a temporal bomb that destroys the entire Morlock colony. The film ends on a hopeful note, with Alex apparently completely forgetting the fact that the Uber Morlock told him that there were numerous other Morlock colonies out there.
Amazingly, the time travel itself was the only thing about this movie that was consistently okay. It was the contrived situations, the hokey special effects (one person I saw it with described the Morlock hunters as not looking much more realistic than the "pooch"-gargoyle in "Ghostbusters"), and corny dialogue that ruined this film and make it a yawner. It is also in conclusion where another reference to the book and original film are necessary. In the book, it is a catastrophic war that causes the fall of civilization and the split of the races. In the 1960 film it is a nuclear war (in the 1970s I believe). The common message in both masterpieces is an anti-war theme... a message that war could eventually get out of control and destroy forever all that we hold dear. The only message in this version of the story is "never colonize the Moon."
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