"What If..." is a mantra in the new remake of the H.G. Wells classic novel, "The Time Machine" (IMDb listing). What if you could travel back in time and change the future? If I had the machine to do this, I would've gone back to screenwriters' homes about two years ago and told them to write more adventure instead of listless action, and I also would've told Dreamworks that just because director Simon Wells is the great-grandson of H.G. Wells, that doesn't mean he knows how to properly direct this story.
The year is 1899, and Alexander Hartdegan (Guy Pearce, "Memento") is an easily distracted teacher of physics who is madly in love with a young woman named Emma (Sienna Guillory). One night, Alexander decides to propose to Emma and fulfill his dreams of love, but the event is cut short by a thief who kills Emma right in front of Alexander. Filled with a hunger to change the past, Alexander spends the next four years assembling a machine that will take him back in time and revive Emma. It is during this process that Alexander accidentally switches his machine to travel to the year 800,000, where he meets a group of peaceful natives named the Eloi (including pop star Samantha Mumba). Living on the cliffs and trees of the future Earth, the Eloi are hunted daily by the ruthless, underground dwelling Moorlocks, and their leader, the Uber-Moorlock (Jeremy Irons). It is up to Alexander, defeated in trying to tamper with the past, to assemble the tribe and see if he can alter the future.
"The Time Machine" is a film of limitless possibilities, yet predictable problems. Any time a studio tries to remake a classic with only the promise of better special effects to hide behind, you know you're in trouble. "Time Machine" is a detailed production, lavish in every conceivable production element except for character development. It's not really an action movie, not quite science fiction, nor is it a romance or an adventure film. Every element in "Machine" cancels out the other, leaving a film with many pleasures, but not one single overriding one that you can take with you when you leave the theater.
The component that bothered me the most about "The Time Machine" is that it just isn't high enough adventure to sustain interest. Wells (and probably the money men) seems to only care about the special effects and the action, but he neglects to stage nail-biting set pieces or proper drama to support the bloodshed. Maybe over the course of a 2 1/2 hour movie this could work, but "Time Machine" runs just over 90 minutes, not leaving enough room for a true narrative to develop or the right amount of awe to take place. Early on in the film, there is a promise made to the audience that this version will be able to venture deep within the magic of the story. That it will revel in time travel and show the wonderment of Alexander's journeys. But that promise is not kept. The picture quickly resorts to boisterous computer effects and a climatic fisticuffs battle on the Time Machine that is too silly for words. The film straddles the line of R-rated intensity, but its PG-13 constraints eliminate the special enchantment that goes along with such a distinctive story.
So what do Wells and Co. bring to the table for this version? A wealth of computer effects. While other productions either side-stepped or tried their very best to sell the Time Machine's journeys, Wells has endless keyboard tools at his disposal. The film works at its highest octane when allowing itself to sit back and watch how the landscapes and societies change with each trip Alexander makes. It uses the CG to great effect, as mountain tops melt away with age, and cities are erected in a matter of seconds. The effects in these scenes are truly special. It is only when the Moorlocks enter the picture that the CG gets the best of Wells, rendering them as overactive dogs instead of the hideous, beastly creations they are meant to be.
Another element worth noting in "Machine" is Klaus Badelt's towering score. While it hits all the predictable emotional beats in the picture, it also manages to soar unexpectedly at times. In an era when film scoring is becoming less and less interesting, Badelt's work here (especially his goosebump-inducing Eloi theme) reminds me of the power a composer holds when he bothers to actually use a theme here and there.
Guy Pearce takes on his first leading action movie role here in "Time Machine," and the Aussie actor gives it the old college try. Pearce seems more comfortable in stark dramas, and you can see it in his eyes when he has to run around with his shirt opened to his navel and his long hair flopping Fabio-style in the wind. Still, I can't think of a better actor to sell the amazement of time travel than Pearce. Less convincing is Jeremy Irons who, in his one and only scene of the picture, pretty much erases any dignity he had left after the horrific 2000 stinker "Dungeons And Dragons." When is this once mighty actor going to actually act again?
The new "Time Machine" had the capacity to surpass its elder incarnations. It had the tools to definitively set the standard for this story, leaving other generations at a loss on how to top it. But they lost their nerve, and this "Time Machine" is nothing I want to encounter again in the future.
Filmfodder Grade: C