WFTB Score: 6/20
The plot: Brilliant but scatter-brained physics lecturer Alexander Hartdegen is distraught at the murder of his fiancée and constructs a machine that will take him back in time to prevent Emma’s death. The consequences of his invention go far beyond his imagination as he is flung into the far future and the middle of a war between two alien (to Alex) races: one peaceful, the other brutal and cannabilistic.
I have not read H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine so would not be able to tell you which plot points, characters and so on stem from his work and which are the product of Hollywood screenwriters; however, I can state with some confidence that were the author transported from 19th Century England to the present day and sat in front of Simon Wells’ movie, he would conclude that his great-grandson had made a complete rickets of his story.
Although we are not given an exact date, The Time Machine takes us to early 20th Century New York, where Professor Hartdegen (Guy Pearce) ignores the pleas of his friend David Philby (Mark Addy) to slow down and enjoy life as he skitters through traffic (including early automobiles) to meet his beloved Emma (Sienna Guillory). No sooner has Alex proposed, however, when a man emerges from the bushes to hold them up; in the struggle that follows, the robber fatally shoots Emma.
Jump forward – via caption, at this point – four years and the professor’s a scruffy, deranged scribbler, the despair of David and his motherly housekeeper (Phyllida Law). They believe his work bears all the traces of madness, but behind a curtain is hidden Alex’s great secret: a shiny chrome Time Machine that takes him back to Emma and averts her death, though the respite is temporary. Distraught, Alex jumps into the future, initially finding a beautifully clean New York populated by helpful holograms such as moving library Vox (Orlando Jones), but a short further hop forward reveals the disastrous results of messing about on the moon.
Alex scrambles back into his time machine and, unconscious, races 800,000 years into the future before he is brought round by helpful Eloi teacher Mara (Samantha Mumba), with whom Alex bonds. The peaceful, Polynesian lifestyle of the Eloi on shell-like structures halfway up the cliffs is threatened whenever they tread on land, as a race of violent subterranean creatures called Morlocks hunt them for food under the leadership of Uber-Morlock Jeremy Irons. When Mara is captured, Alex calls upon the miraculously still-working Vox to guide him to the Morlocks’ lair.
Movies featuring time travel are always easy targets for pedants, and to its credit The Time Machine neatly sidesteps most issues of paradox, even with the unintentionally amusing double dispatch of Emma; because Emma’s death instigated the building of the time machine in the first place (ie. if she had not died there would have been no reason to build it), because the machine exists, Emma must be dead. It’s a logic that you could argue with (perhaps he built it later as a hobby?) but does make some sense within the film.
What we don’t get is any explanation whatsoever of how the machine is built, or how it works: it just does, and we have to go along with that. Fine, but it’s difficult to believe in Alex’s amazement at Vox’s technology when he’s built a ruddy time machine!! What we get instead are glib attempts at humour such as Alex receiving correspondence from Einstein and a woman in 2030 looking at the machine and saying ‘Bet that makes a hell of a cappuccino!’ I’m not asking for a load of pseudo-science, but a scene showing some experimentation would have laid the ground more effectively.
There are, however, two real problems with the film: firstly, the story is a mess, completely failing to balance the urban science fiction of the first half with the war between divergent human races in the second. What has been a quietly diverting tale suddenly turns into a third-rate Indiana Jones adventure, and although the Morlock race is effectively brought to the screen they are a confusing bunch of people, capable of throwing darts and making great leaps but easily outpaced by a puny scientist.
Also, while the majority of the Morlocks appear to be incapable of speech, down in the depths the Uber-Morlock is a terrifically-well spoken chap. In its conclusion the film is at its weakest, resorting to a good old-fashioned punch-up to sort the men from the mutants and having the time machine itself act like a nuclear bomb when required – handy that! Such laziness aggravates minor concerns, such as whether fragments of the half-destroyed moon would still be orbiting the earth after 800,000 years or the continued operation of Vox. In addition, neither of the love stories are given time or space to become convincing, Emma barely introduced before she is taken (both times), and Mara’s attraction to Alex reduced to hand-holding.
And this brings me to the second problem. Although the script never helps the actors, in places The Time Machine is horribly miscast; Pearce is perfectly adequate in the dual scientist/action man role, but around him lie a couple of really strange choices. Mark Addy, who rose to fame as a chunky Northerner in The Full Monty, looks and sounds embarrassed to be playing an American scientist; and whilst Samantha Mumba might look the part, her chemistry with Pearce is non-existent. Her talents, such as they are, begin and end with her singing: of course, she would be a complete unknown to anyone from outside the UK and Ireland, and it’s odd that she should be chosen over a more established box-office draw.
As Emma, Sienna Guillory is pretty in a Julia Roberts-lite kind of way, but also fails to generate much heat; in her case, I would say that she is never given the opportunity. And I can barely imagine what Irons must have thought of his role as the horribly-named Uber-Morlock, but his performance in frightful white make-up and wig is his traditional upper-crust English baddie, the voice completely at odds with his appearance. It’s tosh, but Irons’ pounds- per-second of screen-time ratio must be among the best in movie history.
As Wells already had a career in animated film (directing, amongst other films, The Prince of Egypt), it was not complete lunacy to hand him a project with which he could claim unique ties; and The Time Machine always looks like a decent film, several time-lapsed sequences showing the retreat or accelerated progress of time impressing greatly. Unfortunately, when the landscape outside the machine stops evolving and the story has to wind itself up again, the film falls apart. All in all, a sad failure, and no doubt Wells would love to go back and have another go, if only he had the equipment at his disposal.