Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Time Machine (2002) — Dishwater: 10, Wells: 0

Concluding my recent spate of H.G. Wells-a-palooza — after The War of the Worlds, Things to Come, and the 1960 version of The Time Machine — here's my take on the 2002 interpretation (a very loose, big-money, high-gloss Hollywood interpretation) of the latter title, the one starring Guy Pearce, and the DreamWorks/Warner Bros. title Jeremy Irons leaves off his résumé.

Not that this yawner deserves as many pixels as I give it here. It's as forgettable as last week's dinner napkin. All the same, I like to be a completist about these things.

Mostly, though, there's a curious subtext that rises to the surface of this movie like a chewed-up shark fin — and as you know by now, I do like getting all subtexty.

So although you didn't ask, here's the first and only The Time Machine 2002 F.A.Q.

So, it's based on that H.G. Wells guy's book, right?

Yes and no.

Mostly no.

DreamWorks' PR system generated buckets of self-congratulatory flapdoodle out of this being "H.G. Wells' The Time Machine." True, the estimable Mr. Wells' great-grandson Simon directed most of the film (before a reported on-set meltdown), and its marketing trumpeted that fact as if it were the authoritative stamp of burning-bush authenticity. Bosh and bollocks. Other than the words "Eloi" and "Morlocks," a superficial take on the novel's spine of Darwinian social division, and the fact that there is indeed a time machine, there's little here that Herbert George would call his own.

Simon Wells did okay work helming The Prince of Egypt, but hiring him for The Time Machine was a DreamWorks gimmick that put him in over his head. Gore Verbinski took over the last weeks of shooting because of Wells' "extreme exhaustion." Guy Pearce's pretty but empty-headed romp through the eons goes better with Raisinettes and a Coke than with H.G.'s grim class-struggle parable. Proclaiming this to be H.G. Wells' The Time Machine is like trying to pass off a bowl of Coco Puffs for a gourmet Godiva gift assortment.

(Simon Wells' next title will be the Disney animated Mars Needs Moms next March, and although it's based on a book by Berkeley "Bloom County" Breathed, the trailer pretty much dashes any hope there.)

But I just want to see a movie, so what does all that matter?

Not much, really. It matters only if you're a fan of the book or otherwise looking for a faithful adaptation. Let's face facts: As a Hollywood product, the novel's more thoughtful purposes are as "audience friendly" as a congressman speaking about privatizing sanitation services. It all comes down to expectations, and sometimes a big bowl of Coco Puffs hits the spot.

The Time Machine is entertaining in that paint-by-numbers boilerplate Big Mac way that every summer since the late '70s redefines the term "no-brainer." On that level it works fine, though the scenes that should be the most exciting — the Time Traveler saving the docile, surface-dwelling Eloi race from the monstrous subterranean Morlocks — are actually the most tedious, so the movie is sluggish even for a summer popcorn-cruncher. The good news is that visual-effects wonks who demand simply to be gobsmacked by digital technology will find plenty to enjoy here, because 2002's The Time Machine is often visually striking.

Is this a remake of that old 1960 movie?

Funny you should ask. The opening credits tell us that it's "based on the novel by H. G. Wells," but pay attention through the closing scroll and you'll notice the dirty truth that it's "based on the screenplay by David Duncan," who scripted George Pal's 1960 adaptation — another simplistic rendering, sure, but one that benefits from a sense of wonder and charm that this new version sorely lacks. Watch both and you'll see that this one owes more to Duncan/Pal than to Wells. According to Writers Guild of America rules, the script is credited to (in this order) H.G. Wells, David Duncan, and (here's who had the easiest job of it) John Logan (Gladiator, Star Trek: Nemesis).

Incidentally, the flower shop proprietor in this movie is played by Alan Young, who played Filby in Pal's version.

What's it about?

If you mean thematically, we'll get to that shortly. If you mean "What's the plot?"....

It's 1903 New York. Dr. Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce) is a Columbia University professor of Applied Mechanics and Engineering who, while exchanging letters with Albert Einstein, maintains nonconformist ideas and attitudes. A nervous, tightly-wound young man, he sputters through a marriage proposal to his beloved Emma (Sienna Guillory) moments before she is murdered with a gun in a street robbery.

Despondent, for four years he sequesters himself away to build a time machine that can take him back in time to prevent the murder. The machine works, but fate prevents him from saving Emma. Desperate to know why the past can't be changed, he abandons his own time and seeks his answer in the future.

In 2030, he stops in at the New York Public Library, where Vox (Orlando Jones), a "photonic" holographic data-retrieval system, tells him that time travel is not possible and makes silly Star Trek jokes.

Undaunted, Alex sprints ahead to 2037, to the moment when New York and the entire planet are being clobbered by a moon destroyed by nuclear-based drilling operations. Knocked unconscious inside his machine, Alex speeds forward through the ages.

Eventually he discovers that the lunar cataclysm was the hinge in human history that split human evolution into two distinct races — one evolved from the few survivors who remained above ground (the Eloi, primitive and peaceful cliff-dwellers), and another who sought safety below Earth's surface (the horrific, animalistic Morlocks).

Some 800,000 years in the future, Alex is nursed to health by this version's Weena-substitute, Mara (Samantha Mumba), a young Eloi woman.

The Eloi are food for the Morlocks. Morlocks look like Orcs by way of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and are bred into subspecies of Hunters, Spies, etc. Alex enters the Morlocks' techno-hell warren (think Mordor) to rescue Mara. There he encounters the Über-Morlock (Jeremy Irons), who possesses telepathy and mind-control abilities as well as an articulate intelligence that allows him to engage Alex in Evil Villain dialogue. He answers Alex's question regarding the past's immutability by giving Alex a load of stoned-in-the-dorm-room Time Travel 101 paradox philosophy that Alex — a first-class scientist who built a time machine, for crying out loud — accepts without testing.

In a snit, Alex propels himself far enough further into the future to see the results of Morlock victory, returns to Mara's time, rescues her, and changes the future by blowing up the time machine and skeletonizing a couple hundred Morlocks, thus forsaking a return to his own era for a primitive lotus-eating existence among the kumbaya Eloi.

Generic check-brains-at-door stuff that feels longer than its 96 minutes. Emotional consistency and other motivating factors are out the window after the first 20 minutes. Yeah, we know it's all meant to be merely a Pirates of the Caribbean ride, but even that should give us more than this thin, spindly script that's only a Charlie Brown Christmas tree used to hang the special effects on. It starts out promising, but after that it's downhill to the sort of banal triteness we've seen a hundred times before. The nadir is Jeremy Irons' Über-Morlock, a boogeyman unique to this incarnation of the story. He gets only one scene, but would still be embarrassing even if it made a lick of sense.

2002's The Time Machine is a fine example of a "Look out!" story. Many big summer flicks are. Take Michael Crichton movies, for example. The basic premise, if not the plot, of any Michael Crichton thriller is "look out!" Jurassic Park = "Look out! Dinosaurs!" Andromeda Strain = "Look out! Germs!" Congo = "Look out! Monkeys!" Rising Sun = "Look out! Japan!" Disclosure = "Look out! Women!" An over-simplification, but perhaps a useful one.

Screaming "look out!" is a pretty primal thing, and there's no question that Crichton's popular books and movies yank our chains. The template won't go out of style anytime soon because we eat it up. The Time Machine's script replaces Wells' contemplative fable and Pal's stirring four-color adventure with "Look out! Technology!" — a subtext we'll look at momentarily.

Even so, it still ain't Crichton.

Guy Pearce. Where have I seen him before? (And is Samantha Mumba a babe?)

This likeable and talented actor impressed plenty in Memento (another movie that plays funny with time, now that we think of it) and in L.A. Confidential, but not in The Time Machine or in 2002's The Count of Monte Cristo. Maybe historical settings aren't his forte. Here his accent wavers lazily, plus he seems to be just going through the motions with the formula blockbuster goings-on, especially in the running-jumping-punching scenes. And hey, someone give that gaunt-looking man a meat sandwich. Really.


What the hell has happened to Jeremy Irons?

Jeez, you got me, man. The Time Machine is assembled from the same shelf of white-label parts that gave us Battlefield Earth, and Irons' impression of Edgar Winter playing a James Bond supervillain brought to mind John Travolta's embarrassing impression of Bob Marley playing an Evil Overlord.

What's good here?

A number of the visual effects sequences. To begin with, New York City at the turn of the 20th century is beautifully realized, even when it threatens to look too much like a Thomas Kinkade painting come to life. Created via both CGI and practical shooting, these scenes are, in fact, the best location work in the movie and have a genuinely fine air about them.

Later, Alexander's trip through the Fourth Dimension from 1903 to 2030 is an all-CGI updating of the similar scene in the Pal version. The detail is eye-catching, and this time the point of view pulls way out above the Manhattan cityscape and then further into space. (Not all the time-lapse elements — such as airplanes flying at "normal" speed against hyper-accelerated backgrounds — move in sync with the whizzing timeline, but where would movies be without allowing for artistic license?) Then, when Alex is hurtling ahead through geological epochs, the fast-forward changes of Earth's surface are quite effective. At the story's end, a depiction of two time streams occupying the same space is touchingly handled.

Much of the musical score. Again, the New York scenes, through the first 20 minutes and again at the very end, are the best on this point. Klaus Badelt's orchestral score is sweeping and grand and evocative of the period without being schmaltzy. Unfortunately, the "Eloi" scoring in the middle of the film is awful and obvious and hackneyed "native tribe" syntha-drum noodling that's plainly derivative of Broadway's The Lion King. Perhaps this is the "Additional Music" credited to James Michael Dooley and Geoff Zanelli.

The Time Machine itself. A great whirling, steampunky contraption of brass and glass. And it has the crystal-topped control lever that's so prominent in the 1960 version. Nice touch, that.

Phyllida Law. She's Emma Thompson's mum and a first-class actress in her own right. She plays Alex's housekeeper. Underused, but marvelous when she's on.

(Reaching for straws now....)

Samantha Mumba. A Dublin-born Irish-African pop singing star making her big-screen debut. She isn't given much to do other than Maiden in Peril shtick, but at the time I figured she had the makings of a, say, Billie Piper-like breakthrough popster-turned-actress. However, since 2002 (going by evidence on her Wikipedia page) apparently not so much.

Notice what Vox is showing the time traveler here. Um...
Vox. Orlando Jones' throwaway character exists only as a convenient conveyor of necessary plot information, and he teeters on being too jokey and precious. Nonetheless, this artificial intelligence in human form is more engaging when he speaks of his long years of isolated loneliness than that terrible tot in the heartless A.I. When discussing time travel as science fiction with Alex, Vox mentions book authors such as Isaac Asimov and Harlan Ellison, a rare screen nod to the real laborers in the science fiction fields.

On the other hand, you can go crosseyed pondering the metaphysical discontinuity in Vox also mentioning Wells' novel The Time Machine and Pal's 1960 adaptation — both of which serve up Eloi and Morlocks before Alex encounters the, um, Eloi and Morlocks. Perhaps if he'd read the novel or seen Rod Taylor playing, basically, himself, Alex could have saved himself a lot of trouble down the road.

Flowers. In the novel, Wells used a flower from the future to symbolize the simple beauties of nature. Here, Alex is a gardener. He's buying flowers for Emma when she dies. The Eloi collect flowers and live in giant woven baskets. A small point, but a welcome one.

What are some of the dumb-fun Mystery Science Theater 3000 things in the movie?

Hartdegen goes back in time to save his fiancée from random death. He fails. Now, with a fully functional time machine he could therefore simply try again. He doesn't, and this excuse for going forward in time is flimsy at best, especially for a thinking man such as Alex or for any scriptwriter worth a DreamWorks pay stub. The moral we receive is If at first you don't succeed, give it up. Or perhaps Alex wasn't as in love with Emma as he thought, in which case a trip to Vienna to visit Dr. Freud might be more useful than getting all pouty and running away to the future.

The explanation of why some Eloi can perfectly read and speak our contemporary English is lame, lame, lame.

Vox appears way too sentient and human-like for a hologram created 20 years from now. The conceptual bastard child of Star Trek: Voyager's Doctor, he has all the sensory and cognitive faculties of a human being with no visible means of making that so. That bit of sci-fi ("skiffy") idiot plotting may be acceptable up to a point because of the willing suspension of disbelief that's part of our contractual arrangement with the filmmakers, but holy cow, the fact that he's still powered and operational almost a million years after the collapse of civilization is proof that we really are expected to just swallow any line of crap they want to spoon out to us. (See Battlefield Earth's fighter jets for a nearly identical insult to your I.Q.)

The Über-Morlock tells us that Morlocks can't go out in the sunlight ... soon after we've seen Morlocks attacking the Eloi during a sunny afternoon.

Neither the film nor the audience is given credit for having brains when we get to the (now sadly commonplace) rush-it-so-there's-no-time-to-think climax. Hartdegen jiggers the time machine to self-destruct. When the time-wave (or whatever) explosion zaps the Morlocks' subterranean civilization, somehow Hartdegen and Mara dash with apparently superhuman speed up a mountainside away from the mammoth blast zone. And don't waste neurons trying to figure out what exactly the machine does when it explodes (or whatever) to destroy the Morlocks — and only the Morlocks — in such a Doctor Who-knockoff way. All that mattered is that it looked cool, and it does.

All of humanity across planet Earth is saved now and forever because the hero destroys a single lair of Morlocks roughly half the size of Central Park. It's enough to make one's suspension of disbelief come crashing down (assuming its thread is still intact by this point). Alas, the Pal version did it too, only it didn't have Jeremy Irons telling our hero that he (Irons) is "one of many," indicating that plenty more Morlock colonies and Über-Morlocks are still out there. (Were sequels hoped for?)

The Morlocks apparently graduated from the Tiggers Are Wonderful Things School of Running Leaping Pouncing Springing. As rendered in gravity-free CGI, their bodies don't move in ways real beings with mass, weight, and other inconveniences move. Not to mention that, three forests over, Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes hosts square-dance socials for their kinetic kin we see here.

Wells' novel reflected concerns flourishing among the socially conscious fin-de-siécle Victorian intelligentsia. George Pal's Cold War-era film adaptation likewise, consciously or not, preserves like flies in amber the Atomic Age anxieties and prognostications native to that generation. Is there anything in this version that might, decades hence, be interpreted as reflections of post-20th Century American thought and culture?

Perhaps. Let's consider the following: The thoroughly un-Wellsian anti-technology subtext.

H.G. Wells was a lifelong advocate of the High Victorian belief that science and technology — employed in the service of humanistic social values — was Mankind's only sure road out of brutal barbarism. He even wrote a screenplay, 1936's Things To Come, for the purpose of communicating his Science as Savior message.

However, in this version of the tale, every motivating force is technological — and it's shown to be bad. Emma is killed by a revolver, then by that avatar of the machine age, an automobile. Human civilization is wiped out by nuclear devices exploded on the moon to carve out vacation homes. Early on, Alex's best friend asks him if "we'll ever go too far" with all our science and machinery. Later in the movie, Alex answers that indeed we have.

Finally, in the world of the A.D. 802,701, the beautiful, bucolic Eloi — living like Pueblo Indians in an idyllic natural bamboo Shangri-La — are seen as the Good civilization (even as they ignore the fact that anyone over the age of 21 or thereabouts is culled from the herd by the Morlocks). The hideous Morlocks — whose hellish underground home is filled with chugging machinery, blazing furnaces, and vast cams and gears that turn for no discernible purpose — are unquestionably Bad.

To make sure we Get The Point, the Über-Morlock tells Alex straight out that the Morlock race is the direct consequence of Alex and the technology he represents. "I am the inescapable result of you," he hisses.

At the end, Alex's moment of clarity comes after he has destroyed his time travel device, the last piece of scientific progress in the world, and simply smiles and shrugs and proclaims "It's only a machine" before heading off to his new life among the sunny, simple flower people.

Listen! Hear that whirring sound? It's Herbert George spinning six feet under.

In his novel, the Eloi are as undesirable an end of the evolutionary train as the Morlocks. A weak, doll-like race, his Eloi are the do-nothing, know-nothing, accomplish-zip soft and placid descendants of the leisure classes. The Morlocks are brutish cannibals descended from the working classes and they literally feed off the "Upper-world people," but at least they get out of the house and do something with their lives.

Pal's movie watered down Wells' message, though he still has Rod Taylor return to the Eloi's world to reboot civilization with books and learning and teaching the Eloi to pull themselves back up the world-building ladder. Now great-grandson Simon twists great-granddad's allegory 180 degrees by having Alexander tell us that these primitive basket-living people are his new home, perfect just as they are, which not only knocks H.G.'s story on its ass, it also makes his Time Traveler into a fickle, callow drop-out.

Just as Pal's movie is a clear product of 1960 nervousness regarding impending nuclear holocaust, so too is Simon Wells' vision woven from yarn we spin for ourselves with in the 2000's. What might future social anthropologists read into this movie's regressive anti-technology stance that's presented as fluffy entertainment to reach millions? Does it thrust a sigmoidoscope up our culture's currently resurgent regressive conservatism, and with it some subconscious fear of technology and a wish to retreat into an idealized Never Land of loincloths and rope ladders that in our hearts we believe would be a simpler and safer world?

The fact that it took some of the most sophisticated technology on Earth to deliver that message is, of course, a bonus irony.

ViiVi - viivi

This is the point where typically you add a summarizing quip or some impassioned valedictory. Can I talk you into not doing that again?


Once upon a time, science fiction and fantasy movies had the power to take us to places — emotionally as well as viscerally — that we wanted to go but couldn't, not in a million bazillion years. Time-travel stories, like their spaceflight cousins, were especially endowed with an ability to transport. And they were relatively rare, the good ones even more so, which made the magic stronger. I'm not going to go on about any "it was better in the old days" stuff. It's just that nowadays sci-fi and fantasy flicks like Simon Wells' The Time Machine are everygoddamnwhere. They're mass-produced product, ten for a dollar, as consumable and disposable as a KFC Double-Down. And if it's true what they say about "You are what you eat" ... well.

They're plentiful, alright, but the number of them possessing that gosh-wow sensawunda, the kind you remember years after the experience, seem to be, like The Incredible Shrinking Man, becoming vanishingly small. The greats — 1956's Forbidden Planet comes to mind, and Pal's 1960 The Time Machine isn't too far away — are most often found on the Classic or Vintage shelves at the video store. They have it in spades. George Lucas quite obviously lost it about 30 years ago. James Cameron's Avatar, for all its hand-me-down parts and irritatingly reductive script, feels like a step back into the light. And let's include some delightful animateds from the likes of Pixar. So I certainly haven't lost hope yet. But still.


Our brave new CGI world is still shiny right out of the box, and a summer movie in particular has money shot at it through a fire-hose. Therefore, impressive special effects that can depict damn near anything are so easy and commonplace that movie-makers are tripping over themselves to give us bigger, better eyeball kicks. But writing and directing (not to mention selling) a movie with eye-wowing CGI and a story of genuine substance and staying-power, that's still difficult and uncommon.

The Time Machine isn't a spectacularly bad movie, certainly not Battlefield Earth bad. Its worst sin is ordinariness combined with a paucity of suspense and ambition. In terms of its script and directing, the final score is Dishwater: 10, Wells: 0.

The Time Machine does possess some impressive visual effects that are indeed striking. A beautiful body with no brains or soul may be fine for a first date, even a good one-night stand. But (especially when you consider that you had to pay for it) you'll probably look elsewhere for a meaningful relationship.

Music: Oscar Peterson, Trio in Transition
Near at hand: A newly tidied office.