If I were 13 again, I would love The Time Machine. It’s got a great sense of adventure, good-looking special effects, and an exotically beautiful female lead. Alas, the plot develops enough holes to sink the movie. The only saving grace is that the film ends before it completely sinks.
Evidence for Fate
PG-13 for action violence
Guy Pearce plays Alex Hartdegen, a Victorian-era scholar from New York whose specialty is the study of time. The only thing in the world that can distract him from his work is a date with his girlfriend Emma (Sienna Guillory).
Emma is unexpectedly killed, which inspires Alex to try his radical new invention, a time machine. He travels back to the night of her death and tries to save her, but Emma is killed yet again.
Alex is maddened by this apparent evidence for Fate. Since he himself doesn’t know why he can’t change the past, he sets his time machine for the future, where more advanced humans will no doubt be able to explain the laws of Fate.
21st Century Detour
His first stop is the year 2030. New York is still recognizable but its denizens wear futuristic costumes and buy time-share condos on the moon. Alex enters a museum where Orlando Jones plays the ultimate computer interface. He’s a program that has access to every database on the planet. He’s also a combination of comic relief and spirit guide, both R2-D2 and Obi-Wan Kenobi. He tells Alex that time travel has not yet been mastered, so Alex sets off for a couple of decades in the future.
He lands in a time of chaos, when New York is being evacuated because the moon is falling in to the Earth. (Is there a moon shot in every Dreamworks picture?). Barely escaping, he collapses in his time machine. When he comes to, it’s 800,000 years in the future.
Myst and Morlocks
The world now looks like the Myst computer games. Cliff dwellings and primitive machines are made from bamboo and palm fronds. The world is populated with friendly natives, who coincidentally still speak English (and you thought Shakespeare talked funny only 350 years ago!). These humans have beautiful coffee-colored skin, and Mara (Samantha Mumba) in particular charms our Victorian hero.
But all is not well in the future. Another race of humans, the Morlocks, terrorize and cannibalize the peaceful Eloi people. The Morlocks are impressive-looking figures, strong and muscular, but their twisted faces can’t express much emotion. The makeup budget must have been spent elsewhere, which is too bad. Without convincing expressions, the Morlocks just look like stuntmen in masks.
The movie finds its central conflict in the 800,000s. Alex must lead the Eloi in a revolt against the evil Morlocks. But when this conflict crystallized, I wondered why the movie wasted time dillydallying in 2030 and Victorian New York. (My complaint goes back to H.G. Wells’ original story, which had the same lack of focus.) The three time periods make for good adventure, but they are thematically unrelated. They are a device, an excuse to play with what-ifs and special effects.
If that were my only complaint, I’d recommend The Time Machine wholeheartedly. But 800,000 years of history gives a storyteller lots of room for finding universal truths. Throwing that all away, The Time Machine chooses a single Morlock villain, the “Uber-Morlock,” as the anticlimactic culmination of universal evil. And although the Uber-Morlock is played with deep menace by Jeremy Irons, he suffers from what Roger Ebert calls “talking villain syndrome.” Even before he’s properly introduced he starts explaining the plot to Alex and the audience.
A final complaint comes at the film’s denouement. Of course, the hero saves the day, but this hero succeeds by sheer luck. A grand explosion is exactly big enough to kill every pursuing Morlock but small enough to leave every retreating Eloi unharmed. I want my heroes to be smart, or strong, or brave, not lucky. I want a happy Hollywood ending to be earned, not freely given. Then again, if one is to believe there are physical laws of Fate, maybe intelligence, strength, and bravery are meaningless traits, no more deserving of happy endings than luck.
These complaints make it hard to recommend The Time Machine, unless you’re willing to check your brain at the door. Still, it has such a strong sense of adventure, fantastic special effects, and a wonderful, fanciful look, that watching The Time Machine can be enjoyable.