One of the neat things about doing this for an occupation is the opportunity to go back in time, if you’ll allow the metaphorical indulgence, to reevaluate old pieces of media. That includes both classics to see how good they were and stinkers to see how bad they actually smelled.
“The Time Machine” turns 20 this year (give or take a couple months, thanks to this blog’s lax posting schedule… I mean, thanks to the quirks of temporal travel), and it is still remembered as a splashy sci fi bomb, which didn’t break even in its native land and fell far short of expectations abroad. Compare that to 2003’s steampunker “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” which also underwhelmed but later found a playfully appreciative audience on DVD. Why didn’t “The Time Machine” get the same treatment?
Probably because it’s a different kind of picture, one that is both better and worse. This “Time Machine” is the story of Dr. Alexander Hartdegan (Guy Pearce), who proposes to his galpal (Sienna Guillory) only to watch her get killed the very same night (this should be troubling because it indicates a lot of what will make this time machine tick: convenience). Since Alexander is a Victorian-era gentleman scientist, he figures time travel is the best coping mechanism. His eventual invention and subsequent attempt to prevent her death in the past fails, so he travels into the future to search for answers. What he finds is the human civilization he knew destroyed, replaced by a symbiotic war between two humanoid races: the playful, naive Eloi and the sinister, secretive Morlocks.
The original “Time Machine” novel was a critique of class structure, and the 1960 film was a timely antiwar tale. This “Time Machine” distinguishes itself by being based on a question instead: What if? The discussion is carried on over the centuries by Alexander himself, engaging with equally offbeat thinkers like an eccentric public library AI (Orlando Jones) and the melancholy chief Morlock (Jeremy Irons). This is probably the film’s strongest element, partly because Pearce, Jones and Irons are the film’s most charismatic performers, and partly because it actually covers some interesting territory, getting into things like metaphysics, cause and effect, how tragedy creates identity and destiny, and the morality of evolution.
Beyond that, there’s not much else to hang onto. Any part of the script that is not light philosophical debate is painfully contrived. As previously mentioned, Alexander proposes to his 19th century waifu and watches her die in the same night, thus setting off the whole thing. When he travels to the future, every single time he stops he’s next to something significant – the info dump that is the New York Public Library, the moon exploding, whatever – and he’s always in and out so quick. Alexander’s future waifu (Samantha Mumba, occasionally lapsing into an Irish accent) tells him he has to get her brother back to the past. The second he asks why, Morlocks attack, almost like the script is answering his question. In the ensuing scuffle, a 19th century engineer proves to be an effective fighter in a future war. Later, a burst of… time energy stuff from the time machine only kills Morlocks and leaves Alexander and his pals unharmed.
At least the explosion looks OK, as OK as 2002 could look. The special effects were called a mixed bag even at the time. It’s true that not everything lands, but this blog feels that’s because the movie tried everything it could think of to make things pop. Both Stan Winston Studio and Industrial Light & Magic worked on the practical and CGI effects respectively, so it’s not there was a lack of talent. There are time lapses (natch), explosions, Morlocks bursting from the ground and bounding over things, skeletal ironwork monuments that belch smoke and fire. It is a bit much, and the film never quite finds an individual visual identity – you can tell we’re going farther into the future because everything is more orange each time – but again, it’s OK. Do you like steampunk and Predator? You’ll probably appreciate what’s onscreen.
It feels like contemporary critics picked on the explode-y parts because they were so prominent. Almost every part of the film seems to be in service of selling it as an action-adventure extravaganza, and a shallow one at that. The rushed performances, the convenient plot, the time traveler as a shoot-first-ask-questions-later hero, everything orange. Not only does it leave the film out of breath, it leaves the audience out of a serious reason to be here. Roll up and see the time machine! Even the action-packed poster asks: “Where would you go?”
You know where I’d go? To a movie that kept some of the steampunk Predator style but pushed the philosophical debate more. Don’t get rid of the spooky Morlocks and pretty time lapses, just give me more carefully spaced conversations about guilt and causality. Amp up the Morlocks as utilitarians. Play up the Eloi as Daoists. They accept fate. Is that so bad? Maybe it is, but since the movie never got into it, I’ll never know. It would have been more interesting than “Avatar,” that’s for sure.
The problem there is that no one probably would have funded a movie like that. The film itself is a paradox. It’s a big budget sci fi flick that occasionally makes some intriguing observations. Those observations can get lost in the budget, but the only reason it had the budget it did is because it sold itself as a slick, and ultimately soulless, sci fi adventure flick. Remove the slick soullessness, and you risk losing the budget that got you Stan Winston and Guy Pearce. But lose them to focus on a quieter movie, and the film becomes less financed, so likely less talented and less interesting to look at.
There is a somewhat infamous moment in the film when Alexander is briefly detained by 22nd century rent-a-cops trying to get him into a shelter. New York City is in stereotypical apocalyptic ruins, and klaxons abound. When Alexander demands to know what’s going on, one of the cops asks if he’s been living on a rock. “Yes,” he cries. “I’ve been living under a rock.” The cop looks to his partner, then calmly explains that the moon has exploded.
That scene took some Internet flak for its “bad science” (check out the artistic license entries on the film’s TVTropes page – moons don’t explode that way!). While that seems like an odd hill to die on – we’re dealing with the paradoxes of time travel and the limitations of Victorian technology, and you’re really complaining about six seconds of burst moon? – it misses the point. The vehicle by which we get this information is another convenience, but it’s also arguably the most human moment in the film. Who else but a human being would be foolish and curious enough to ask a question in the middle of catastrophe? Who else but another human being would be foolish and kind enough to indulge them with an answer? The charm of this film is that it also stops to ask these questions; the pity is that it doesn’t do it often enough.