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'Time Machine, The'

Remake of Wells' classic breaks down toward end of journey

Friday, March 08, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

If science-fiction movies have taught us anything, it's this: You cannot change the past.

'The Time Machine'

RATING: PG-13 for intense sequences of action violence, fatal shooting.

STARRING: Guy Pearce, Samantha Mumba

DIRECTOR: Simon Wells

WEB SITE: timemachine.



That's really too bad. If you could journey to the recent past, you could try to warn the director and screenwriter of "The Time Machine" that their movie starts off fast-paced and smart and bright and then degenerates into another special-effects extravaganza where carefully designed, sculpted and molded creatures leap about like the attacking army in "Planet of the Apes" and the picture grows so dark that you can hardly tell what's going on.

"The Time Machine," based on the 1895 classic by H.G. Wells, stars Guy Pearce ("Memento," "L.A. Confidential") as scientist and inventor Alexander Hartdegen. The story has been transplanted from London to 1899 New York, where Hartdegen is a Columbia University professor of applied mechanics and engineering. He's a bit of an absent-minded genius and a renegade who scorns the dean's work on the benefits of tobacco, corresponds with Albert Einstein and has a workshop full of interesting inventions.

He sets aside his work long enough to meet his girlfriend (Sienna Guillory) in Central Park and propose to her. But minutes after she accepts, an armed robber emerges from the shadows. When she refuses to give up her engagement ring, she is shot and killed.

The loss drives Hartdegen back into the lab where he spends four years secretly perfecting a time machine, a 6,000-pound marvel with spinning discs at each end and the ability to create an illuminated crystal ball that propels him through time. He succeeds in returning to the day his fiancee died, but his adventure again ends in heartbreak.

He decides to journey to the future in search of answers about time travel -- and changing the past -- and lands in 2030. Billboards in Manhattan advertise "lunar leisure living," and the Fifth Avenue public library is staffed by Vox (Orlando Jones), a computerized hologram connected to every database on the planet. He really is a know-it-all.

But answers to Hartdegen's questions still elude him, so he jumps forward a few more years and then is accidentally propelled to the year 802,701. Life as we know it has been transformed, and the scientist finds himself among a cliff-dwelling people known as the Eloi -- with monstrous, cannibalistic creatures called Morlocks lurking in the shadows far below.

Caught between these two worlds, and with the fate of a friendly teacher (Samantha Mumba) hanging in the balance, Hartdegen must confront his own conceptions about the past, present and future.

"The Time Machine" starts off on a wonderful note, as it re-creates old New York. Horse-drawn carriages line the snowy streets, and ladies wear fur-trimmed suits and hats to skate in the park. Hartdegen has a level-headed best friend (Mark Addy), a no-nonsense housekeeper (Phyllida Law) and a study we've barely explored.

When he orbits into the 21st century, it's fun and then sobering to see a New York that is both recognizable and yet changed. It's when he rockets 800,000 years forward -- and enters the land that comprises the bulk of the novel -- that the movie wobbles like an out-of-control time machine.

The book's message about the soft upper-world Haves, "pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty," and the Have-nots, the "workers getting continually adapted to the conditions of their labor," seems to get lost. Maybe it's because the story has been compressed or maybe the message is just buried under the makeup and costumes of the cave dwellers and the sight of their ruler, the Uber-Morlock. As played by Jeremy Irons, he looks like he escaped from the set of "Queen of the Damned."

"The Time Machine" is directed by Simon Wells, who happens to be the great-grandson of the author. Until now, he directed or co-directed animated movies, such as "The Prince of Egypt" and "Balto." The screenplay is by John Logan, who co-wrote "Gladiator."

Alan Young, who appeared in the 1960 version of "The Time Machine" starring Rod Taylor, has a cameo as an 1899 flower-shop worker. And Mumba, stepping into the babe role once played by Yvette Mimieux, doesn't make much of an impression as an actress. She's a pretty presence who fails to generate any heat with her Australian co-star with the chiseled cheekbones.

Pearce, so remarkable in "Memento," transfers that same quest for answers and despair over the death of a loved one to the time traveler. In "Memento," he's condemned to forgetting the immediate past. In "Time Machine," his curse is that he cannot forget.

In the end, I found myself asking the same question as Hartdegen, "What if?" As in, what if the second half had been as good as the first?

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