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IN SHORT: Dry Sci-Fi -- and, yes, we know the preferred appellation is "SF". You try finding something clever to rhyme with SF. [Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action violence. 105 minutes]
The writings of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were devoured by every teenboy we knew, ourselves included, back in the days. We don't think the teen predilection for SF changes all that much from generation to generation but we're talking movies now, and who knows what kidlets want? Well, we know they like wallpaper <g> and there's a full selection from The Time Machine here.
As always, we don't think you should have to read the book to understand the film adaptation which also means that if you're looking for a list of the substantial number of variations from those printed pages, look elsewhere. Our initial guess was that director Simon Wells, great-grandson of H.G., would be too strict an interpreter of his great-grandsire's work. Nope. Wells tells a story, which is the most important part of the gig. The bigger problem with this particular adaptation is that there's another screenplay adaptation laying between John Logan's finished work and the Wells novel. That means some stuff gets lost in the mix. We'll patch those holes as we go along.
New York, 1899. Columbia University Professor Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce, click for StarTalk) and his soon to be fiancé Emma (Sienna Guillory) take a stroll in the brand spankin' new Central Park. Our half geek half absent minded Professor of Applied Mechanics and Engineering is prepared to make the ultimate commitment that a man can make to a woman when sudden tragedy strikes! So distraught is the good Prof. that he spends the next four years locked away in his house, filling blackboard after blackboard with equations that only he can understand -- all of them proving the feasibility of time travel. Alex' best friend Philby (Mark Addy) and housekeeper Mrs. Watchit (Phyllida Law) are both concerned about his mental well being, but he promises to make all clear in a week's time. Time, of course, is relative when you can go back and change it and make everything right as rain.
This guy Hartdegen is the real deal. He gets letters from a fellow geek in Austria -- the most obvious of a handful of clever in-jokes sprinkled through the script. But even when his Machine works, Alex cannot make the past "right". If the database of knowledge, circa 1903, cannot answer the question "Why can't you change the past?" perhaps the answer lies a hundred years down the line. Theoretically, Alex' technology would be commonplace by then; subject to research which might offer up the answer. Next stop, 2030, where mankind is about to colonize the moon and all answers can be found at the Public Library where Vox (Orlando Jones), a photonic hologram infused with the knowledge of every database and library on the planet, waits. We'll skip this section because it ends with the best visual effects in the movie and we'll not wreck the surprise.
Vox will still be waiting 800,000 years down the line, which is where the bulk of the story lies. There, befriended by the lovely Mara (Samantha Mumba) and brother Kalen (Omero Mumba), Alex discovers that humanity has split into two branches. Mara and Kalen are pacifist Eloi, a tribe which seems to have no member older than the age of twenty. The bad "guys", so to speak, are the subterranean, cannibalistic Morlocks. The King of that World, the Uber-Morlock (Jeremy Irons) has mental powers fit for an X-Man and no desire to let this man out of time wreck his rule.
This is where the script problems arise. Only when Uber explains Evolution to the Doctor is it clear which tribe is "Eloi" and which is "Morlock". You could have figured it out with a good guess a good deal earlier but the tribes are never introduced by their tribal names and their relationship to each other isn't clear until a violent culling occurs. Only then do you know what happened to the old folks, but not why. We're nitpicking a bit here and we admit it.
So the good news: the Machine is cool and the Morlocks are creepy, even if the concept is old hat to all but the youngest of the demo. Still, a classic story can't be screwed up much unless something vital is missing. What's missing is what we call the "wow" factor -- whatever it takes to get your jaw to drop and your lips to form words like "ooo" and "ah". The Time Machine falls way short on that point. Guy Pearce's character does satisfactorily evolve from a geek to a hero but we walked out of our screening with only the vaguest idea of what was really going on. We understand that certain things blow up and kill other things. The way it is set up (and this is all Third Act so we've got to dance around the specifics) didn't make any sense to us. Nor did it provide that deep satisfaction that should have come with the film's climax.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Nine Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Time Machine, he would have paid . . .
The story is told. The effects are fine. As an average fantasy flick, The Time Machine is just that. Average. So if falls dead center at dateflick level. It won't get the blood rushing but it won't disappoint.
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