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Another take on THE TIME MACHINE — the 2002 remake (spoilers)

February 19, 2020 2 comments

I recently decided to put my Netflix subscription on hold to compensate for resubscribing to CBS All Access for Star Trek: Picard, and yesterday I was looking for something in Netflix’s library to watch in these last few days while I had the chance. I came across the 2002 remake of The Time Machine directed by H.G. Wells’s great-grandson Simon Wells, written by John Logan based on the 1960 movie script by David Duncan as well as the original H.G. Wells novel. This is a version of the story I’m fairly sure I’ve never seen before, since I’d read a number of bad reviews of it and never sought it out. But in recent years I’ve heard some more complimentary opinions toward it, and since I figured it couldn’t be worse than the dreadful 1978 TV movie version I reviewed last month, I decided I’d finally give it a try. As it turned out, I thought it was actually pretty good. It had a number of plot holes and credibility issues, but overall it was quite well-made and had some really impressive bits.

In this version, rather than a nameless English gentleman, the Time Traveller played by Guy Pearce is American physics professor Alexander Hartdegen (rhymes with “cardigan”), who teaches at Columbia University in New York City in 1899 (and seems to have already invented time travel since he’s corresponding with a young patent clerk named Einstein three years before Einstein became a patent clerk). He’s a nerdy type absorbed in his work but madly in love with Emma (Sienna Guillory), whom he proposes to just before she’s killed by a mugger — which is essentially Alexander’s fault because he fought with the gunman rather than giving up the engagement ring. Since he’s too old to train for decades to become Batman, he instead devotes the next four years to inventing a time machine which he uses to go back and save Emma. (Note that this proves that becoming Batman is harder than inventing time travel.) But the universe is mean to him and ensures that Emma gets fridged in a different way, this one even more ironic, since she dies in a traffic accident involving a steam-powered motorcar that Alex was admiring in the original timeline. (It happens while he’s getting flowers from Alan Young, who was Filby in the 1960 film and who gets major billing in the opening credits despite having only one line.)

Afterward, in a conversation with this film’s version of Filby (Mark Addy), Alex has somehow concluded based on this one attempt that Emma will die again and again no matter how many times he tries. How does he know it wasn’t a fluke? It takes more than one test to verify a hypothesis. But anyway, after this rather dumb moment, he makes a fairly clever decision: to go into the future and consult what he presumes will be its more advanced knowledge of temporal theory to answer the question of why he can’t save Emma. Although he phrases it as “Why can’t I change the past?”, overlooking the fact that Emma dying in a completely different way still counts as changing the past.

Anyway, it’s not until the second time trip that we actually get to see the time machine in operation, and it’s a pretty nifty CGI updating of the 1960 time travel sequence, though it gets a bit too extravagant as it zooms out to show skyscrapers rising and then clear out into space to show a lunar colony being built — though this actually does serve a story purpose. (Though weirdly there are planes flying by at normal speed over a city growing in superfast time-lapse.) Alex stops in 2030 and visits the New York Public Library, where he meets Vox (Orlando Jones), the library’s AI database who projects himself as a hologram — although it’s a much more plausible hologram than the free-floating kind you usually see in movies/TV, since it’s a projection inside several upright panes of glass, merely creating the illusion of Vox standing behind the glass. It’s a very nice bit of design, and Vox is a fairly entertaining character. Although there’s a logic hole here, since when Alex asks Vox about time travel, Vox specifically mentions H.G. Wells, the novel The Time Machine, and the George Pal movie thereof. How can those exist inside the world of a movie that features Wells’s and Pal’s characters and concepts as real entities?

Since 2030 still considers time travel the stuff of fiction, Alex decides to quest farther forward, only to get caught in a quake that turns out to be due to one of the film’s most implausible concepts, the Moon shattering in 2037 due to nuclear explosions intended to create underground cities. (The Moon has survived many, many far worse explosions from asteroid impacts, which is where all those craters came from.) He gets knocked out and continues to race forward in time through some gorgeous animation of what should be tens of millions of years’ worth of geological change and glaciation, yet when he wakes up and stops the machine, it’s only 802,701 CE, as in the novel.

He gets taken in by the Eloi, who in this version have a multiracial appearance as if blended from today’s ethnic groups, a plausible projection of future human development. I love their dwellings, which are these amazing shell-like wooden huts built on the sheer vertical cliff sides of a deep river valley, a really imaginative and beautiful piece of design — and a clue to the peril that lies ahead, since there’s a reason their homes are so high off the ground. Rather than Weena, Alex is tended to by a young woman named Mara and her younger brother Kalen, played by siblings Samantha and Omero Mumba. This was Samantha Mumba’s feature debut, just as Weena in 1960 was Yvette Mimieux’s feature debut, but Mumba gives a much better debut performance than Mimieux did, while being just as lovely in her own way. Conveniently, Mara and Kalen speak English, which they call “the stone language,” learned from fragments of carved wall inscriptions collected from the ruins of New York City. This is not at all plausible, since there’s no way the stone would survive the elements for more than a few centuries without being well-tended, and it sure as hell wouldn’t survive being ground under a glacier. Also, it’s hard to believe they could get a complete working English vocabulary from the few hundred words on those slabs, let alone know how to pronounce them with an epoch-2000 American accent. (Indeed, even the Eloi language’s vowels and consonants are pronounced exactly as in American English.)

Eventually Alexander discovers the darker side of the Eloi’s life when the Morlocks attack, and there’s a bit of an inconsistency here, since it was implied earlier that the Eloi were afraid of being attacked at night, but unlike earlier versions, this breed of Morlock is able to strike in broad daylight, taking many captives including Mara. They’re pretty well-made animatronic creatures by Stan Winston Studios, though I gather SWS was unhappy with the result because director Wells decided to make them more humanoid than the original Winston design. Still, they worked well for me. In any case, Alexander convinces Kalen to tell him about the Morlocks, which entails taking him to a cavern to see “the ghosts,” which turn out to be a still-functional Vox, who also somehow miraculously managed to avoid getting crushed by the glaciers and still has power despite Con Ed of New York not existing for the previous 800,664 years. As nonsensical as this is, Jones gives a nice performance as an AI haunted by his infallible memory of everything he’s ever experienced, including the end of the world and the long loneliness since.

Vox tells Alexander where to go to access the Morlock tunnels, and he quickly, gruesomely finds that the fate of most of the captive Eloi is the abbatoir and the dinner table. But he gets captured and taken to a chamber where he finds Mara alive and caged by the Uber-Morlock (Jeremy Irons), a more humanoid subspecies who’ve bred the other Morlock strains for servitude (and day vision in the hunters’ case) while breeding themselves for mental powers including telepathy and telekinesis, an idea that’s almost endearing in what a throwback it is to ’60s B-movie evolutionary logic. So Uber speaks fluent English (this time with a British accent, I guess since that comes automatically with being a villain) and knows all of Alexander’s secrets. And here the story kind of goes off the rails. Uber and Alex argue for a while about the awfulness of how the Morlocks live, then Uber just happens to give Alex the answer to his question: He couldn’t use the time machine to save Emma because Emma’s death is what led to the time machine’s invention. And then, inexplicably, he just lets Alex go back to his own time, offering only some vague statement about his existence being the consequence of Alex’s actions, though not explaining why that is. But Alex instead drags Uber into the time machine, flings it forward in time, and fights him until he finally kicks him out of the time field and holds him there until he decays (and his body and expressions are still moving at normal speed from our POV even though his body is decaying as if years were passing — huh?). He stops in the far future and finds a Morlock-ruled hellscape, so he comes back, frees Mara, and sets the time machine to self-destruct, killing all the Morlocks in a wave of entropy that decays them all to dust in seconds. (Apparently this was originally scripted to be an Eloi paradise in the far future, which left it unclear why he felt the need to go back and change things.)

Okay, so the Time Traveller in previous versions always went back, err, forward to live with the Eloi at the end, but this time he doesn’t make a brief stop in the Victorian Era to pick up any books. Instead we get kind of a nicely made finale where Alexander shows Mara and Kalen the spot where his house used to be (never mind the supposed complete reconstruction of the landscape over geologic time — I’m starting to think that whole animated sequence was tacked on as an afterthought, explaining the inconsistency) while in a soft split-screen and slow dissolve to Filby and Alex’s housekeeper back in 1903 wondering where he’s gone.

So, yeah, the story is kind of silly and full of implausibilities, but it’s an enjoyable movie, nicely made and entertaining. The design work is superb and the production values excellent, and while Guy Pearce didn’t leave a particularly strong impression, there are nice performances from Mumba, Jones, Addy, and Guillory (well, actually it’s one of Addy’s less impressive performances, but that’s because he’s usually really good). It won’t make anyone forget the 1960 original (indeed, it depends heavily on invoking nostalgia for that movie), but in many ways it’s a creative and effective complement to it.