The new film version of The Time Machine is misconceived from jump. A philosophical dilemma dressed up like an action picture or maybe a romance, it’s part Planet of the Apes, part Star Trek, and part One More Inexplicable Choice by Jeremy Irons (whose appearance as the hoary Uber-Morlock — horrifically white, bony, and mean — reeks of his role in Dungeons & Dragons). Based on H. G. Wells’ prescient science fiction tale (written way back in 1894), the movie raises all kinds of great questions concerning the dangers and thrills of time travel (Can one individual’s misstep alter the planet’s future? Is fate fixed? What happens when you go back, knowing the future? Will Orlando Jones still be hawking stuff in 2030?), but backs off from every one.
As the philosophical dilemma angle gets short shrift, so the action angle is also in trouble. One problem is that the time machine doesn’t actually move: built by Victorian scientist Alexander (Guy Pearce), it is an elaborate chair (that looks a little too dentist-y for comfort) adorned with levers, wheels, and glass pipes. The concept — not a bad one — is that time travel is not spatial but, well, temporal, which means that once the machine starts whirring and whooshing, it remains stationary inside a strange little bubble, while the world bucks and changes around it. This means, of course, there’s lots of blue screen work and digital effects, all darn dull to watch.
Once Alexander gets out of the contraption, there would seem to be room for movement, exploration, and adventure. Or even, you know, science fiction as deliberate social or political allegory. But where the novel concerned itself with urgent class questions as these persisted into a post-apocalyptic (and of course, metaphorical) future world, the 2002 film is kind of la-de-dah about the whole science fiction allegory thing. Directed by Wells’ great-grandson Simon (whose previous credit is co-directing DreamWorks’ animated film Prince of Egypt) and written Josh (Gladiator) Logan, this Time Machine guts the original’s urgent class analysis, in favor of an “emotional” trajectory, combining a little sensitive guy romance thing, a cautionary tale thing, and finally, an action-hero-saving-the-day thing.
Alexander begins the film as a socially awkward scientist, bumbling and sweet, with a penchant for pocket watches and professorish vested suits. Pearce brings a beguiling mix of intelligence and angst to the role (he’s not so stiff as Rod Taylor was in George Pal’s 1960 film), as well as an emotional curiosity. His girlfriend Emma (Sienna Guillory) inspires him to be passionate, and if he’s a little green, he’s also mostly endearing. When his marriage proposal ends in disaster (that is, her murder by a mugger who is also very unprepared and awkward), he dedicates himself to building a time machine so that he can go back in time to put that situation right, or better, avoid it altogether.
When this proves impossible (for reasons that aren’t well explained, especially as they are supposed to convince this “scientist”)), Alexander starts whining to his best friend, the suitably worried Dr. Philby (Mark Addy, who must surely be tired of playing sidekicks to waffling heroes by now): “Why can’t one change the past!?” Philby looks about as flummoxed as you might, probably considering all the reasons why “one can’t” do such a thing (like, maybe, economies of matter, energy, and Joan Collins, as in: “He knows, doctor, he knows“). But Alexander decides to go look for an answer, but going into the future (why, we’ll never know). He sends his machine forward to 2030, where he meets a holographic New York Public Librarian named Vox (Orlando Jones), who stores all of human knowledge for all time and is willing to regurgitate at any moment. Though Alexander learns that he has made a little historical footnote of a name for himself in the future, he also doesn’t have an answer to his question. And so he pushes on.
At this point, the film just lets go of all sense of direction or focus. Alexander whooshes forward to a Blade Runnerish, about-to-destroy-itself NYC (2037) and then, when the explosions all around him rock his machine and knock him out so he hits a lever with his head, he hurtles forward 800,000 years. Unconscious when he lands, Alexander is fortunately rescued by Mara (Samantha Mumba), a conveniently English-speaking member of a really friendly community. Post-apocalyptic but also prelapserian, these folks are called the Elois. They live in translucent pods on the sides of cliffs (looking “toward the light”) and dress in soft, earth-toned outfits. They’re gentle, spiritual (though they have what appear to be collective nightmares), and naïve-seeming tribal types, played by actors cast, as the press notes have it, “to reflect the evolutionary path on which it appears humanity is heading.” Put bluntly, the Elois are beige-brown-black. In addition to Mara, the only other Eloi with more than two lines of dialogue is her brother Kalen (Omero Mumba, who is, as it happens, Samantha’s very own little brother, and an aspiring hiphop artist currently working on his first cd).
As the nightmares forewarn, the Elois’ edenic existence is, however, plagued by monsters called the Morlocks. Where in the novel, the oppressed Morlocks were fighting back against the elite Elois, here the Morlocks are languageless and apparently quite dumb and crude, not to mention sincerely ugly: skull-eyed and smashed-nosed. Though they live underground, they pop up occasionally (literally, as the sand swirls and sucks around whatever temporary holes they make) to steal Elois for slave labor and food. But when the Elois mournfully bow down and accept this as the way of the world, Alexander fumes and yells. “Sometimes,” he exhorts, “We need to fight!”
Um, what’s this we stuff, white man?
Apparently, this is where the film’s time-traveling class analysis has landed, in the brutal conflict between the pasty-white slavers and their exploited and abused “resources,” the “exotic” (so-called by producer David Valdes) Elois. When Alexander heads down the hole to rescue a “stolen” Mara, he encounters the Uber-Morlock (the only one with speech, again conveniently, English), who offers some pseudo-rational drivel concerning slavery and cannibalism, but nothing that helps to pull any of the film’s ongoing illogic together, as narrative or ideology.
During their discussion of time travel, dreams, and morality, the Uber-Morlock shows Alexander his ugly back (nasty-looking spine exposed), as if this explains his imperialist-capitalist egomania, but really, he has nothing new to say, even though he’s supposedly living some 800 centuries from now. While the Uber-Morlock goes on about his sorry state and Alexander contemplates the depressing end of his own ingenuity, Mara’s locked in a cage, waiting to be saved. You would think that maybe, just maybe, the future would bring a new story.