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Great-grandpa would be proud

Age hasn't withered the appeal of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, especially now that his great-grandson's film has combined the timeless tale with some contemporary flair.

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 7, 2002

[Photos: Warner Bros. Pictures]
Guy Pearce stars as time traveler Alexander Hartdegen in The Time Machine.

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Not even H.G. Wells could have imagined what his great-grandson Simon Wells has done to his science fiction story The Time Machine. The author's descendant improved the narrative, goosed up the action and surpassed the cheesy 1960 version by George Pal that remains a childhood favorite.

Best of all -- and somewhat ironic -- is the fact that Simon Wells did it with a shorter running time, barely 90 minutes before the end credits. This movie really moves, seeming much leaner than the plot detours lead a viewer to believe. When the inventor Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce) starts time-tripping, the pacing is so relentless that even an easy-out ending isn't bothersome. Before you can think of complaining, the movie's over.

Yet, those techniques Pal used to create cherished memories are constantly celebrated by Wells: time-lapse photography representing leaps into the future, apocalyptic distractions and a century-hopping chariot that looks as marvelous as the idea. Everything's improved, of course, to state-of-the-art levels, but the embellishments work.

The Time Machine is a worthy remake because this is the one fantasy that hasn't been dashed by Internet-era sophistication.

Rather than the 1960 film's flashback motif, Wells chooses to give Hartdegen (named H.G. Wells in Pal's version) a reason for risking time travel. Opening scenes of this meek professor courting fair Emma (Sienna Guillory) establish the 1899 setting and provide a tragic reason for his obsession. Rod Taylor in the original looked ready to brawl with anybody, a Captain Kirk before his time. Pearce's milquetoast mannerisms will grow tougher as he seeks to turn back the clock for a happier now.

However, nobody can change the course of the past, a lesson that Hartdegen will visit the year 802,701 to learn. By then, the world is a wasteland populated by two races, the pacifist Eloi and the marauders who keep them that way, the Morlocks. The truth behind their survival connection doesn't seem as shocking today as it was 42 years ago, but Wells punches up the idea with grisly images that wouldn't be allowed then. (Although I still prefer the baby-blue complexion of Pal's Morlocks to the cyber-ghouls here.)

The top Morlock (Jeremy Irons, left) tells time traveler Hartdegen why his quest to change the past is doomed in The Time Machine.
Hartdegen gets sweet with an Eloi teacher named Mara (Samantha Mumba), but the shortage of mushy stuff is one of Wells' wiser choices. There's too much ducking of Morlocks to be done until Hartdegen confronts their leader (Jeremy Irons, looking like the third Winter brother). Then the movie devolves into a typical pyrotechnic brawl with melting corpses and big booms.

Forget the sagging turn-of-the-20th-century bookends and concentrate on the eons between, an imaginative light show that can shatter a moon and turns a sheet of glass into a virtual museum guide, nicely underplayed to humorous effect by Orlando Jones (Evolution). Wells confidently sidesteps one of the major flaws of the first film -- how those future folks speak perfect English -- with an explanation inspiring interesting sets and a nod to literacy at the climax.

Pearce's initial meekness is too mannered for comfort, but he hits his stride when compulsion and curiosity set in, like his amateur detective in Memento. But never with Taylor's rough-and-tumble appeal, which suits this material. Mumba is a pleasing screen presence, and Irons slyly avoids camping up his brief role.

The best performers in The Time Machine are the computer artists devising ways to show mountains eroding into canyons, or seasons and fashions changing in the blink of an eye. This is Wells' first live-action film after directing four animated films, including The Prince of Egypt. He carried over that animator's sense that nothing is impossible to depict, and imagination is everything. It must run in the family.

The Time Machine

  • Grade: B-plus
  • Director: Simon Wells
  • Cast: Guy Pearce, Samantha Mumba, Jeremy Irons, Mark Addy, Sienna Guillory
  • Screenplay: John Logan, based on the novel by H.G. Wells
  • Rating: PG-13; violence
  • Running time: 95 min.

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