The Time Machine starts out well enough. We've got a nice period piece.
Wood and brass and pocket watches and someone who uses an early, unreliable
version of the automobile (People yell at the driver to "Get a horse!").
The filmmakers have relocated the events of the book from England to New York
City, but between the bowler hats and the fact that everyone seems to have vaguely
English accents, I didn't realize that until halfway through the movie. We meet
professor Alexander Hartdegan (Guy Pierce of Memento and L.A. Confidential),
a scrawny guy who reeks of chalk dust, loves gadgets, and gets so lost in his
scientific calculations that he's late to meet his sweet and understanding girlfriend.
We've seen this dynamic before (most obviously in The Absent-Minded Professor
and its remake, Flubber), but Pierce and Sienna Guillory (as his
main squeeze, Emma) pull it off with a winsome earnestness.
Then (SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH DEALING WITH THE FIRST HALF HOUR OF THE MOVIE),
Alexander proposes to her, and, right at the happiest moment of his life, Emma
is shot and killed. Alexander, fraught with grief, spends the next four years
of his life locked in his workshop building a time machine so he can go back
and undo her death. He goes back in time, and whisks her away to safety, only
to watch in horror as she is run down by a carriage. Time, it seems, doesn't
like the fact that he's messing around with things. Up to this point, the movie
is promising, particularly the Twilight Zone cerebral terror of the situation.
But here's where the movie takes a detour into
the Brain-dead Zone. Sitting
at the police station, Alexander says to his friend something like, "I
could come back a thousand different times, and watch her die a thousand different
ways." Huh? That's an interesting theory. I could see why he might think
that. But he is a scientist. Since when do you draw a conclusion based on one
trial? With that attitude, I can't believe that Alexander could win 3rd place
at a grade-school science fair, let alone build a freakin' time machine. The
Time Machine could have given us a disturbing interlude of Alexander unraveling,
as he tried, frantic and descending into madness, to change the unchangeable.
At the very least, for the sake of logic, he should have tried to save Emma
a second time. But the filmmakers don't have time for that.
So Alexander travels into the future, hoping to find answers there. He ends
up in the year 2037, goes to the New York Public Library, and runs into Orlando
Jones, a database with a personality. Alexander asks about the practical applications
of time travel, and when Jones proves uncooperative, does he ask somebody else?
No. Does he think for a moment, and then rephrase his question so that he can
gain access to a century of theory on time-space? No. He decides to travel farther
into the future.
I can see why Alexander might decide that civilization had not advanced enough
to give him the answers he's looking for. But the impression I get the entire
film is that Alexander doesn't ever take a moment to think about anything. Ironic,
since he has all the time in the world. But it's what the movie requires of
him, since makers of The Time Machine evidently never took a moment to
think either. Alexander's impetuous behavior throughout the movie might be overlooked,
if it weren't for the fact that there are so many other convenient (unlikely)
events that keep the movie headed down a contrived and simplistic path. Alexander's
behavior. The fact that he just happens to witness the moon accident. That Alexander
happens to be discovered by the one human in the whole Eloi colony who is fluent
in English. That he never seems to have trouble finding a good place to park
his contraption. That he just happens to run into a guy who has the answer to
his question. That he manages to get away from the explosion of blue light so
quickly. A few of these could be overlooked, but the constant logical, structural
and dramatic flaws all add up to one thing: a movie that's tripping all over
itself to get to the "exciting" climax
. A climax which has no
impact precisely because everything leading up to it is so cursory.
(AGAIN, SPOILERS) In any case, Jeremy Irons, looking as if he were illustrated
by Brom, finally answers Alexander's question. The reason why Alexander can't
change what happened is that Emma's death is the event that caused him to build
the time machine. So, if Emma lives, the time machine will never be built. So
he can't use the time machine to save Emma. THAT'S IT?! He went 800,000 years
in the future for that?!? He could have just asked Robert Zemeckis, the guy
who directed Back to the Future. Or my 12th grade science teacher. The
answer that Irons should have given Alexander was, "You are such an idiot.
That time she got run over by a carriage when you tried to rescue her from death
that was just an incredibly unfortunate coincidence. If you'd just tried it
one more time, instead of going off half-cocked, you could have saved Dreamworks
several million dollars in special effects and makeup!"
The explanation Alexander gets for why he can't change the past is the old "You
can't go back in time to kill your own grandpa, because then you'd cease to
exist and would therefore be unable to kill your own grandpa." Ah, yes,
that time-honored scientific/philosophical riddle that countless filmmakers
have seized upon as a way to create problems for their protagonists, and which,
I might add, is a bunch of hooey. You can kill your own grandpa.
"How?" you might ask. Well, prepare to be dazzled by the "Jason
Myers Theory of Time Travel." I'm sure that some scientist somewhere has
a similar theory, but all of the literature I read about time-travel when I
was in college seemed to fall back on the unimaginative "time travel isn't
blah, blah, blah
blah, blah, blah
can't kill your own grandpa."
So, here's why you can go back in time and kill your own grandpa. You're on
Timeline A.1. You build a time machine, go backwards on Timeline A.1 to 1932
and kill your grandfather. You've altered history, creating a divergent Timeline
A.2 offshoot. Supposing you accept the multiple universe/multiple timelines
idea, there are now two timelines. One in which you were born, and one in which
you weren't. But suppose we don't believe in multiple universes. Suppose that,
by killing your grandpa, you've erased Timeline A.1 from the face of the reality
(or, more precisely, you've erased the segment of time that comes after 1932).
That's fine. So you were never born. That doesn't mean you can't continue to
exist in divergent timeline A.2.
Time is not an entity that will reach backward along itself to erase you from
existence. You can carry around a picture of yourself all you want, like Marty
McFly from Back to the Future, but your lower extremities will not fade
from the Polaroid, nor will you cease to exist. Why? Well, why should you? You've
physically removed yourself from the timeline and traveled back along it. Is
there some mystical part of you that's still connected to the recently-erased
Timeline A.1? Of course not. Time doesn't consider you an anomaly that needs
to be corrected. There's no ripple effect that shoots backward from timeline
A.1, because there is no longer a timeline A.1. So you can go along on your
merry way, alive and well in Timeline A.2, you miserable, heartless grandpa-murdering
Time travel theory aside, The Time Machine is, at best, a serviceably
entertaining film. I'm going to refrain from blaming the director, Simon Wells
(great-grandson of H.G. Wells, author of The Time Machine) for all of this
movie's flaws. I'm not sure how much control over the final product Wells really
had. But whether you blame the screenwriter or the director or the studio, the
final product is too short and too shallow.
Which is too bad, because the film has a good cast and good effects. Other filmmakers
could take a few notes on how to integrate live-action creatures with CGI that's
used sparingly instead of as a crutch.
Guy Pierce is good, as is the supporting cast. Orlando Jones is one of the
film's bright spots, and his later appearance in the film, when he's become
melancholy and bitter, shows that Jones can act, and also gives The Time
Machine a few moments of genuine sci-fi wonder. He actually manages to convey,
briefly, the epic scope of humanity's fall from grace. But, with a few exceptions,
The Time Machine's most unforgivable sin is that it fails to convey that
sense of sci-fi wonder. Because, as old as George Pal's 1960 Time Machine
is, it still feels epic, still gives you chills, still makes you feel the staggering
weight of time and destiny and decay and possibility. After all, the subject
of time travel is, to quote Marty McFly and Doc Brown, "heavy." 2002's
The Time Machine, though, is Miller Lite science fiction: it's less filling,
and doesn't taste that great either.