Missing depth: 'Time Machine' no match for original

Posted: Thursday, March 07, 2002

There's a scene in ''The Time Machine'' that made me want to go back in time so I could choose not to see the movie at all.

Scientist Alexander Hartdegan (Guy Pearce) has transported himself from 1899 to 2030. He visits the New York Public Library and finds that all the information is stored in the form of a computerized human hologram named Vox (Orlando Jones).

When Alexander asks about time travel, Vox launches into a spiel about how H.G. Wells wrote ''The Time Machine'' in 1898, and George Pal directed a movie based on the book in 1960, and Andrew Lloyd Webber created a musical based on the story, and would he like to hear selections from the score?

That last item is a joke -- there's no such musical -- but the damage is done. You're yanked from the reverie of watching science fiction and dropped back into reality. And that kind of self-referential cutesiness plagues the whole movie.

This latest version of Wells' classic tale -- the first feature from director Simon Wells, the author's great-grandson -- isn't so much a sci-fi movie as a love story with special effects, which aren't especially special.

While Wells' story was a cautionary tale about class struggle, there's barely a shred of social commentary here. Alexander complains that everyone wears the same bowler hat; later, his best friend, Philby (Mark Addy), wonders aloud whether we'll ever go too far ''with all of this,'' while looking at an illustration of a traffic-clogged New York City.

Screenwriter John Logan, who was nominated for an Oscar for the ''Gladiator'' script, sends Alexander back in time not to make any kind of scientific breakthrough, but for love.

Four years earlier, on the night Alexander asked his girlfriend, Emma (Sienna Guillory), to marry him, she was shot to death in front of him during a robbery in Central Park. Since then, he's devoted himself to building a contraption that can take him back in time and prevent her death.

It works -- and the machine itself is as gleaming and complicated as it should be. But once he gets there, he leaves her alone for a minute to buy her flowers and she gets run over by a horse-drawn carriage -- and dies anyway.

After obsessing and toiling for four years, would he really let her out of his sight?

Then Alexander ends up briefly in the year 2030 before hurtling 800,000 years into the future -- and, naturally, the one person who speaks English happens to be Mara (pop singer Samantha Mumba), the most beautiful woman there, who runs around in see-through scraps of clothing.

These people, in the geographical spot that used to be New York, did know enough to hang onto slabs of stone from the past that spell out ''Tiffany & Co.'' and ''Brooklyn Bridge'' and other recognizable Manhattan landmarks -- another example of the movie being too clever for its own good.

Alexander finds that Mara and her people, the Eloi, live above ground in a sort of primitive cliffside utopia, but every night they're preyed upon by the monstrous Morlocks, who dwell underground.

The Morlocks, growling incessantly, with the bodies of professional wrestlers, aren't scary. And as their leader -- a human, the irony! -- Jeremy Irons appears briefly as an evil underground albino with telepathic abilities. But he sounds like he's channeling Hannibal Lecter when he growls to Alexander, ''Come a little closer, I don't bite.'' The moment, like the rest of the movie, is too ridiculous to be effective.

After weakening Wells' story throughout, it's disappointing but only fitting that the movie's big showdown is nothing but a fistfight. And the event that brings the movie to an end is so vague and ill-conceived, it wouldn't work in the past, present or future.

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