I anticipated this film with something approaching boyish eagerness. DreamWorks is involved, and they do high quality stuff; the director is said to be the great-grandson of H.G. Wells, the progenitor of the project. Jeremy Irons is in it. The trailers made the film seem imaginative and entertaining. And I’m nostalgic about the George Pal original.
And as with another remake, the recent Planet of the Apes, you probably won’t feel the price of a ticket was wasted: the film is briskly-paced, nicely photographed, enlivened by vivid imagery, some flashes of imagination, and good performances.
But it’s a bad-aftertaste film, at least to me. Another one of those movies you walk out of asking questions. “But what were those darts if they weren’t poison darts? Oh, were they for marking, you think? Yet when you see them flying from Morlock blowguns, don’t you think of poison darts? Aren’t there elements of unconscious racism in this film? What happened to his concern about his doomed fiancée? Why would going to the future answer his questions about the paradox of her death in the past?” Mostly this stuff doesn’t surface in the mind while the film is on, since the film is so fast-paced, and has its share of involving plot turns. Still, you feel something missing.
This version of The Time Machine uses some elements from Wells absent from the earlier George Pal film, and innovates when it feels like it. An Edwardian-era inventor, ably played by Guy Pearce (lately the villain in yet another remake, The Count of Monte Cristo) is motivated to build a time machine when his darling fiancée is killed by a mugger. He travels back to the fateful hour, saves her and finds she’s doomed after all, killed in some other fashion shortly after, as if Time simply insists on killing her that night. He then travels into the future to try to find out why she had to die. I never picked up on an explanation as to why traveling to the future would be expected to answer his question though it is eventually answered pretty well.
After a look at a fairly believable early 21st century, a few decades on from our own era, the next time jump shows our hero the catastrophe that will precipitate the separation of humanity into two primary species, the Morlocks and the Eloi. In one of the film’s more imaginative moments better than the clichéd nuclear war scenario of Pal's film a fatal mining misstep on the moon causes Luna to break up, wrecking the Earth sufficiently to drive much of humanity into underground shelters. This subterranean strain of humanity devolves into two versions of Morlock an intellectually powerful telepathic version personified by Jeremy Irons as a long haired albino (looking from the front rather like Elric of Melnibone), and the ape-like dead-white warrior Morlocks controlled by the brainiac caste. The strain of humanity surviving on the surface of the Earth undergoes a melting-pot blurring into a noble-savage brown race, vaguely Polynesian, with lots of Maori-like tattoos and basket weaving craftiness. They have, quite improbably, preserved English as a Second Language after 800,000 years, evidently so Pearce’s inventor can handily communicate with them. Injured during the time-stopover at the Lunar cataclysm, our hero finds himself nursed by a gorgeous Eloi, played delightfully by the exquisite Samantha Mumba.
He’s mystified by their passive submission to the Morlocks. Another effective idea, nicely realized, is showcased when our hero is briefed on the situation by an artificial intelligence living on in a decaying computerized museum display.
A mission to rescue Samantha Mumba’s Eloi girl from the underground warrens of the Morlocks leads the young inventor to a subterranean slaughterhouse and a nastily graphically-depicted offal pit that brings us to a horrific realization of the fate of the Eloi in the clutches of the Morlocks. More background comes from the pallid, big-brained CEO of Morlocks, and it would be a distasteful info-dump if not for Jeremy Irons’ delicious performance in the role. He makes it exotically palatable.
Warning: a spoiler for the climax, so I can set up a discussion of the film’s many disappointments...
Our hero drags the supreme bad guy on a trip through time, yet partly outside the protection of the time-machine, so that we see the Top Morlock aging and rotting away, disintegrating in seconds. Pearce’s inventor then returns to the time of his Eloi friends, rescues the girl, sets the time machine to (apparently) overload and explode, which explosion destroys the underground warrens and the Morlocks. Pearce and his beauteous Eloi of course escape the cleansing blast in the nick of time, as it were.
Trouble is, the time machine’s overloading and exploding, if that’s what it is, destroys the Morlocks rather like the way Jeremy Irons’ villain was destroyed, at least visually, so it appears to have been done with time travel somehow which makes no sense. In the absence of a time-travel explanation, we’re left with the ‘overload and blow up’ hypothesis.
This typifies the problems with the movie. Visual cues are often muddled and confusing. One of the great disappointments of this film is the moment when our hero travels into the future for the first time. In the superb George Pal film, time travel (or simply time considered in a continuum of relative acceleration) is wonderfully illustrated. In that film, the changes are carefully paced: cracks and holes appear in window panes; the sun whips rhythmically past. The mannequin across the street changes its clothing, second by second so that decades of human fashion trends are played out before our eyes in moments. All this is methodically but fascinatingly directed by George Pal but in the remake, for example, the mannequin is glimpsed only very briefly; the flowers blooming and decaying seemed blurry and visually unconvincing; the changes are hurried, overlapping, confusing. This should be the first great sense-of-wonder thrill in the film and it’s largely wasted.
The characterization doesn’t track any better than the ideas; the first twenty minutes of the film are emotionally engaging, but after the hero heads into the far future, he entirely forgets about his original motivation, which was all about finding some way to save his sweetheart from the time paradox. He was emotionally wounded early on they made that quite clear but we never see that wound heal; it simply vanishes for no good reason at all. He forgets all about her, and being caught up in the Eloi’s dilemma isn’t reason enough.
A few lesser caveats:
The white hyper-educated inventor, like a joke on Colonial imperialists, has to rescue the passive little brown people: he has to restore manifest destiny to the too laid-back Eloi. It’s purely unconscious racism, but I found it depressing.
The moments at the end when two times are shown co-existing unawares in the same spot are engaging, but just once I’d like to see a time travel story acknowledge that the Earth moves through space over time and if your time machine does not also move through space your trip to the future or past will put you in interplanetary vacuum.
The make-up, mask-prosthetics, and matte paintings are of uneven quality, sometimes on the edge of fake-looking. With Warner Brothers and DreamWorks behind this, there’s no excuse for such shoddy work.
But those issues are minor; the main problem is directorial blurriness, and the failure of the story to track emotionally. The lack of consistency in characterization loses our sympathy, leaving us without satisfying storytelling impact. We enjoy the trip, but we don’t find it memorable...
Here’s my list of great Hollywood time travel movies: George Pal’s The Time Machine; Time after Time; Somewhere in Time.
Notice anything missing?