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The Time Machine
Reviewed by Jason Myers, ©

Format: Movie
By:   Simon Wells (director)
Genre:   Science Fiction
Released:   Release Date: March 8, 2002
Review Date:  
Audience Rating:   Rated PG-13
RevSF Rating:   5/10 (What Is This?)

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 possible… blah, blah, blah… paradoxes… 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 psycho.

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.


-RevSF Film/DVD editor Jason Myers is your density.

 
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