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The Time Machine (2002)

Reviewed by David Longhorn

On its release this film was neither critically acclaimed nor popular with cinemagoers, but is it really that bad? Well, no. This film is streets ahead of most Wells’ adaptations - it looks good, sticks to the spirit of the book, and is very engaging for most of its length.

Unfortunately, the film was in production when the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened, and Hollywood changed overnight. Not one, but two commentaries on the DVD version refer to the need to cut more graphic images of large-scale destruction. It’s possible now to see past the unfortunate coincidence and find it a very entertaining film.

The setting is moved to New York and the Time Traveller is a young physicist, Alexander Hartdegen. His girlfriend is shot by a mugger in Central Park and he builds the Time Machine to go back and save her. But he finds he can’t - she must die. Why can’t he change the past? He journeys into the future on a quest to discover the answer, stopping off along the way to see the civilization collapse.

The Time Machine itself features a whirling double-disc of glass prisms that produce a globe of light. It recalls the earlier movie’s much-loved prop but outdoes it in sheer gosh-wow spectacle. By the same token, the effects people show geological time passing, while George Pal conveniently put Rod Taylor underground for his long voyage into the future.

When Alex arrives in 802,701 and encounters the Eloi the story is drastically modified. But, as the director observes in his commentary, these Eloi - noble savages of a fairly familiar sort - are at least worth saving. A cliff-dwelling tribe who retain culture and even some engineering skills, they are bright enough to consider throwing Alex into the river until the tribe’s teacher, Mara, tells them he’s just a wandering idiot. Not strictly untrue.

The Morlocks are less successful. Great skill went into creating them, but we have seen rather a lot of humanoid monsters in recent decades. The fact that they emerge by daylight is a blunder, although it does allow for a good Eloi-hunting scene. But surely if Morlocks can endure the sun they can exterminate the Eloi and claim the surface for themselves? This is a rather large plot hole.

When the Morlocks take the lovely Mara, Alex resolves to save her, finally encountering the Uber-Morlock. This controlling intelligence recalls that of the Grand Lunar in a different Wells’ novel, The First Men in the Moon, and the caste-based Morlock society is clearly based on the ant-like Selenites in that book. Alex gets his answer and defeats the arch-baddie, with the Time Machine itself used to good effect in the big showdown.

If you haven’t seen this movie, give it a try. If you have and weren’t very impressed, it’s worth another look. It’s a good adventure yarn of the old school, for all its CGI refinements, and runs the George Pal version pretty close. Simon Wells, the author’s great-grandson, deserves credit for staying true to the vision of his ancestor - not unlike his Eloi, come to think of it.

Related Links:
David's review of the original The Time Machine (1960)

 

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Director
Simon Wells

Screenplay
John Logan

Released
March 8, 2002

Cast
Guy Pearce
Mark Addy
Samantha Mumba
Jeremy Irons
Orlando Jones
Sienna Guillory

Full Credits at IMDb

Available on DVD