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Film Review: Time Machine

Wasting "Time" H. G. Wells' classic "The Time Machine" suffers lackluster retooling at the hands of an apparent heir.



So it was with much chagrin I read Simon Wells' introduction to the current paperback edition of his great-grandfather's classic novel "The Time Machine." With excitement fairly leaping off the printed page, Wells the younger enthused over his being afforded the rare opportunity to "tell an epic, sweeping, mythic allegory to a new audience."

Unfortunately, dipping one's toe in the same gene pool as dear ol' great-granpapa's does not a mythic storyteller/filmmaker make. In fact, director Simon may share the Wells surname as well as unheard-of access to the original source material, but those connections turn out to be worth little when it comes to ensuring a spellbinding remake. Truth be told, poor H.G. would most likely be in a perpetual 360-degree spin were he able to see his descendant's handiwork.

Fitfully engaging at best, this latest "Time Machine" is nothing short of a mess, and a decidedly unsatisfying mess at that.

Presumably, it was the possibilities afforded by contemporary special effects that triggered this remake of George Pal's 1960 cinematic version of Wells' novel. Unfortunately, the special effects in this new "Time Machine" aren't cutting-edge enough to entertain by themselves.

So enter screenwriter John Logan and a host of ill-conceived notions intended to enliven this dusty old epic. But the opposite occurs; all these newfangled backstories and romantic interests and yes, even the changing of Wells' frustrating conclusion, serve only to sap the drama and excitement out of the underlying adventure.

At times, this "Time Machine" is so tedious it's almost worth viewing strictly as a benchmark for illustrating how awful acting, inexact direction and an unimaginative script can torpedo for generations a once-beloved classic.

The most telling "retooling" is the insertion of a long setup to our hero's quest, designed to give him a mass-appeal justification for risking life and limb in a non-FDA/EPA/OSHA-approved, continuum-hurtling vehicular apparatus. Curiosity and scientific exploration no longer fit that bill, apparently, so Wells and Logan have crafted a romance as the impetus for our hero, also here given the name of one Alex Hartdegen.

As assayed by the usually watchable Guy Pearce, the budding Columbia scientist seems more like an absent-minded professor than the brave-new-world man of science that Wells penned. Working in the broad strokes of shorthand stereotypes, the filmmakers let us we know Alex is ahead of his time because he doesn't ascribe to the Victorian niceties of bowler hats, or flowers for his lady, or even bothering to comb — let alone wash — his hair.

The only thing that can pull him from his work is his beloved Emma (Sienna Guillory). But on the evening he proposes marriage, she is killed by a mugger in Central Park. With renewed zeal, Alex sets out to finish his time machine so he can go back and save Emma's life.

Without giving away too much of this newly configured tale, suffice it to say the past keeps tripping Alex up so he sets his time machine forward — 800,000 years forward — to see if the future can explain what eluded him in the past. At this point, H.G.'s original tale kicks back in with our hero running into the world of the future with two distinct species, the peaceful, aboveground-dwelling Eloi and the carnivorous, underground troglodytelike creatures, the Morlocks.

Miraculously, the one Eloi who still speaks English is a fetching young lady named Mara (Irish singer Samantha Mumba) who just happens to have a spectacular figure well suited to the skimpy attire preferred in the future. Although Pearce's Alex shows nary a twitch or tic of emotion, we all know he's attracted to Mara. So when the Morlocks take her captive as a potential breeding vessel, we also know Alex will try to rescue her.

Deep in the Morlock's Dante-inspired subterranean world, Alex not only discovers Jeremy Irons (who appears to be some sort of demented escapee from the "Planet of the Apes" casting call) but a dark secret as well.

Since Wells the younger was relieved of his directing duties ("extreme exhaustion" was the official explanation) about two-thirds of the way through production, it's unfair to lay all of the movie's ills at his door. Gore Verbinski, the uncredited director who brought this leaky craft home, needs to shoulder some of the blame. Perhaps we'll never know who decided to wax over Wells' keen interest in class-related social issues, opting to turn the Eloi/Morlock matter into your typical good-vs.-evil throwdown.

Sadly, unlike the shiny, gyrating, gizmo-driven machine at its narrative and dramatic center, this movie never soars. S

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