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The Time Machine (2002)



Reviews and Comments

H. G. Wells' The Time Machine is a good story, but (save for Wells' lavish description of what it's like to travel through time) it's not a cinematic one, as evidenced by this second of two failed attempts to bring the tale to the screen. The 1960 version was tolerable on a superficial level, but this one doesn't work on any level at all.

The novel is, as many of Wells' writings are, less stories in the traditional sense as fascinatingly exhaustive explorations of an idea or two. The Time Machine explores two questions: what would it be like to travel through time, and where might humanity end up hundreds of thousands of years from now?

The movie makes manifest those parts of Wells' musings that are visual in nature, but it clearly does not understand them or much care about them either. Whereas the motivation for the Time Traveller in the book was a thirst for the wonder of scientific exploration of humanity and the universe, here the more self-serving desire to resurrect his ill-fated beloved.

The movie tells us that humanity has evolved into two separate races, the Eloi who are beautiful and live above ground, and the Morlocks who are fearful and live below ground and feed on the Eloi. But it turns the reason why into a cheesy apocalyptic cliche. In the novel, Wells presents this as the result of class barriers and social hierarchies; in the movie, it's because we blew up the moon by mistake. The few shots of the moon we see are laughable. It amazes me that bad science fiction continues to assume that (1) a nuclear bomb could blow apart a planet or a moon or even "an asteroid the size of Texas" (see Armageddon), and (2) disruptions to the Earth's orbit wouldn't completely wipe out humanity.

I'm all for suspending disbelief in movies that offer rewards for doing so, but this one asks us to do a lot of suspending and never pays it off. Among the other plot points I could not accept:

- An artificially intelligent library assistant computer program seen in 2030 is as humanlike as it is, responding to queries with enthusiasm or eyerolls, and (later) exhibiting emotional needs of companionship and a thirst for knowledge.

- That this same artificially intelligent being is still in operation, hardware, power, and all, 800,000 years later.

- That 800,000 years in the future, English will be spoken. Moreover, it will be spoken with a modern American accent, using 20th/21st century vocabulary, speech patterns, and idioms.

- That the Eloi, stupid as deer in the book, could be as intelligent as they are in the movie and still be defenseless prey for the Morlocks.

- That the Morlocks, cunning but singleminded as wolves in the book, could be as intelligent as they are in the movie and still exhibit the gathering of food as their primary ambition.

- That a Morlock at the end magically knows everything there is to know about his time travelling visitor, cares one whit to educate him about human history

I can say one good thing about the movie, however, and that is that it looks amazing. From the inside of the Time Traveller's laboratory with its elegant 19th century decor to sweeping cliffscapes and inspiring if impractical dwellings nestled upon them, The Time Machine is a visual feast. The colors are rich with gleaming brass, skin tones, and polished wood, offset by muted greens and blues, and the cinematography is outstanding, many frames being composed with a keen eye for aesthetics. It may be a bad movie, but at least it's a beautiful one.

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