Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:35 - Released 3/8/02

There have been numerous movies and TV shows spawned by the writings of legendary British sci-fi/fantasy author H.G. Wells over the years, from The War Of The Worlds to The Invisible Man to The Island Of Dr. Moreau, and one of the most famous and popular is The Time Machine. A fascinating story about a man who travels into the distant future, it has been produced at least twice for TV and once on the big screen. Working from David Duncan's 1960 film screenplay, revamped for the new millenium by Gladiator co-writer John Logan, this would seem to be the authoritative version, as it is directed by Wells's own great-grandson, Simon Wells (with help from Gore Verbinski). As would be expected in this day of computer graphics, this version is certainly cram-packed with cool, futuristic effects, and it also contains a few interesting societal predictions reminiscent of Bicentennial Man or Spielberg's A.I. Otherwise, however, it's not much more than a standard re-hash, family ties or no, the most notable difference being that the action is transplanted from London to New York City, with an eminently standard performance by Guy Pearce as the titular machine's pilot.

It is 19th-century New York, and absent-minded physics professor Alexander Hartdegen (Pearce) is just about to ask his true love, Emma (Sienna Guillory), to marry him. Unfortunately she is killed in a freak accident before the evening is over, and Alex spends the next four years working on a way to turn back time to before that fateful night. Ignoring the pleas of his best friend (Mark Addy) and his maid (Phyllida Law) to move on, he creates a beautiful but unexplained machine in which he can sit and fly through time, watching the dramatic changes in the world around him without even needing to change his underdrawers. After an abortive attempt to save Emma, he abandons caution and sets the machine for the 2030s, during which he meets a computerized librarian with an attitude (Orlando Jones) and witnesses the moon's disintegration and the resulting chaos on Earth. At this point he is knocked unconscious and misses the best part of the film, a short but spectacular voyage through countless millennia and many digital CGI renderings. While the machine's wheels spin out of control, the landscape around it changes radically, with mountains rising and falling, streams carving huge chasms in the earth, desert wastelands and ice ages coming and going, and unprecedented drops in Microsoft and Disney stock.

Finally he wakes, and the machine comes to rest near a colony of primitive cliff-dwellers called Eloi, where he meets a beautiful babe named Mara (played by African/Irish pop singer Samantha Mumba) and her son Kalen (Mumba's younger brother Omero), who are the only two people still fluent in the "stone language" (English). Upon further investigation he discovers that the Eloi are constantly pursued and eaten by a race of grotesque creatures called Morlocks, who bear a striking resemblance to the Orcs from Lord Of The Rings, and whose leader is none other than Jeremy Irons in ice blue makeup and a fetching white wig. Alex must choose whether to get in his machine and leave these people to their problems, or stay and try to save Marra, on the off chance that she might go to bed with him.

This is a movie that lives or dies on its effects. If you take away the impressive computer imagery, you're left with characters who are not terribly well defined, and whose relationship interaction does not exist below the surface. Even Alex is not greatly developed; Pierce plays him like a sort of wondrous schoolboy rather than a 19th-century scientist and physics instructor forced to get his mind around the technology and society of the distant future. Furthermore, the film's shameless deus-ex-machina ending is not only ridiculous, but a radical departure from the source text. But this is an effects movie, and the computer-generated wizardry is certainly present and accounted for, even if the opportunity for social commentary or literary integrity has been left largely untapped. ***½

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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