The new film of H.G. Wells’ 1895 novella (the writer’s first major work) by Simon Wells, the author’s great-grandson, is itself rather like taking a cinematic voyage some forty or fifty years in the past. There’s a delightful naiveté to “The Time Machine.” Watching it is like being transported back to 1960, to the days of juvenile pleasures like George Pal’s original fondly-remembered adaptation of the story and Ray Harryhausen’s “Dynamation” flicks. This is a charmingly old-fashioned adventure yarn, redolent of spirit of beloved books by Edgar Rice Burroughs or R. Rider Haggard, but spruced up with state-of-the-art special effects. Does it break new ground? Hardly. But it plows the old fields quite pleasantly.
The picture doesn’t treat the book slavishly, but it’s about as faithful as a movie could be to a text which is, quite frankly, pretty thin and simplistic. It jettisons Wells’ political observations about communism and class divisions–a good idea, since they seem awfully musty today. It also adds a romantic motivation to the time traveler’s journey (he initially wants to go to the past to save his recently-deceased fiancé, and when that fails goes forward to see if some solution to the temporal paradox he faces can be discovered) as well as giving the poor fellow a name and occupation while changing his nationality (he’s now Alexander Hartdegen, a professor at Columbia University in New York, rather than Wells’ anonymous Brit). Otherwise it retains the dichotomy the traveler finds in the distant future between the beautiful upper-world Eloi (though they’re altered from child-like babblers to a grown-up tribe of rustics, rather like a bunch of native Americans, in order to provide the hero with a new girlfriend named Mara rather than the sweet kid named Weena, his companion in the book) and the bestial under-world Morlocks (along with the function the former serve for the latter). But the script makes some additions in order to explicate the plot: a holographic librarian named Vox is introduced both as narrator-ex-machina and as comic relief (he seems a younger, better-dressed version of the character Peter Ustinov played in “Logan’s Run”), and at the close there’s an “Uber-Morlock” who can actually talk–unlike his primitive brethren–and conveys to Hartdegen, and us, the notion that the split came about through genetic engineering and definition of social roles (shade of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” abound here). The denouement is also new, but it’s not really unfaithful to Wells’ vision, and it provides the filmmakers with a quite lovely opportunity to conflate different times at the close and effect a bittersweet conclusion that–if you’re in the right mood–might recall that of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.”
The result of all this is an affectionately realized updating of the old tale, treated straightforwardly, without any hint of the cynicism or ironic detachment one might have expected. There are drawbacks, to be sure: singer Samantha Mumba is rather a dud as Mara, never showing much energy or charisma; and Sienna Guillory doesn’t make much of Hartdegen’s fiancé Emma–even though she gets to play not one but two death scenes within the space of mere minutes. The Morlocks are excessively “Planet of the Apes”-like, and the depiction of their underground lair is a bit too gruesome. (Indeed, parts of the picture will be too intense for very young viewers–the PG-13 rating is a sound one, though kids as young as nine or ten could probably be taken without much danger.) For the remainder, though, things work out well. The picture is quite beautifully made, with a splendid production design and some exquisite cinematography, and there are some very nice effects (the holographic librarian and a few temporal transitional sequences are quite imaginative). Guy Pearce, moreover, goes nicely from nerd to action hero as Hartdegen (in that respect he’s even better than Rod Taylor, the fellow Australian who starred in Pal’s film); and Mark Addy and Phyllida Law are perfectly unruffled as his friend and a Mrs. Hudson-like housekeeper. Jones is prissily amusing as the timeless Vox, and even Jeremy Irons is respectable as the Uber-Morlock. (His makeup is horrendous, to be sure, but he avoids chewing the scenery too heavily–something he certainly didn’t manage, for example, as the evil sorcerer in “Dungeons and Dragons”).
The basic problem with “The Time Machine,” from a purely practical point of view, is that it might prove too tame and staid for hyperactive kids brought up on today’s video games and chaotic TV cartoons; by comparison it moves at a leisurely pace, actually possesses narrative coherence and avoids too much whiplash editing–qualities that today’s younger audiences might not appreciate. Anyone looking for a rousing, old-fashioned adventure movie, however, should find it a very welcome return to a kind of picture almost extinct nowadays–a good, clean family yarn, refreshingly unpretentious and distinctly likable by comparison to roller-coaster rubbish like “Tomb Raider,” “The Mummy” and their garish ilk.