Time Travel Wins Again
Whether on screen or in novel form, stories about time travel fascinate me. Just thinking about propelling oneself back to the past or into the future revs up my imagination and keeps it humming much longer than most other flights of fantasy. That’s probably why The Time Machine, based on H.G. Wells’ literary masterpiece and the 1960 George Pal movie, delighted me --- despite its deviations from these two sources.
Even without the emphasis Wells placed on social injustice or the original film’s groundbreaking sci-fi appeal, this Time Machine took me along for an exciting cinematic ride. I quickly empathized with Guy Pearce (The Count of Monte Cristo) in the role of Alexander Hartdegen, a geeky scientist/inventor who tries to change the past after losing someone he loves. With his sunken cheeks, rumpled clothes, and distracted manner, Pearce’s Hartdegen comes across as a college professor more at home writing formulas on blackboards than dealing with everyday life. He even needs help from his housekeeper (Phyllida Law) and best friend (Mark Addy) to get "spruced up" for an important date with his sweetheart (Sienna Guillory). "You have the alluring smell of chalk," his friend teases him.
After inventing a fabulous machine that takes him to the recent past and finally to the distant future, Hartdegen surprises himself by becoming more like an action hero than a man of science. He battles gruesome monsters called Morlocks (who resemble creatures from Planet of the Apes), matches wits with the mind-controlling Uber-Morlock (Jeremy Irons), and fights to save an Eloi damsel in distress (Samantha Mumba) as well as her entire race. And just how does Pearce, the actor, make this incredible transformation? By growing longer hair and not shaving, of course.
I’ve complained recently about movies in which special effects overwhelm the characters and plot (prime example: The Mummy Returns). Because this didn’t happen in The Time Machine, I applaud its filmmakers. Yes, the special effects here dazzled me, especially in scenes showing a 19th century New York City changing dramatically over thousands of years. And the time machine itself is something marvelous to see! With spinning discs and blades surrounding a hand-crafted leather barber’s chair (like the one in the previous movie), the machine whirrs and glows with a dynamic force that practically flies off the screen.
Still, other elements of the movie receive equal attention. I loved the opening scenes of New York City in the winter of 1899. If only I had a time machine of my own to take me there! Horse-drawn carriages moving down a busy street; snowflakes sparkling as they fall on people bundled up in Victorian coats and hats; ice-skaters laughing while gliding over a silvery pond in the moonlight. This cinematic poetry showcases the old-world charm of a city right before machines change nearly everything.
Almost as impressive are the Eloi homes. High above a riverbed, the Eloi village was built entirely on the sheer side of a cliff with interconnecting bridges and walkways. Director Simon Wells (The Prince of Egypt), who is also the great-grandson of H.G. Wells, thinks these homes look like "swallow’s nests perched on the cliffs --- things of the air rather than of the earth." I thought they looked like giant baskets about to take flight. Either way, this strange village is an awesome sight.
The most amusing visual in The Time Machine is Vox (Orlando Jones), a computerized hologram programmed to answer any question on any subject. "Vox is the internet with sarcasm," Wells explains. My favorite Vox-isms include his choral rendition of a song from The Time Machine musical and his unusual Mark Twain storytelling session.
I understand why some H.G. Wells purists might find fault with this film adaptation of the classic he wrote over 100 years ago. Screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator) moved the setting from London to New York, added an emotional reason for inventing the time machine, and focused on action-adventure, not philosophical ideas. And yet, this movie poses two timely philosophical questions. Can science and technology be carried too far? Which is more important --- machines or people? Not bad for a film made primarily to entertain.
(Released by DreamWorks/Warner Bros. and rated "PG-13" for intense sequences of action violence)