Movie Review: The Time Machine (2002)

In the future, a mixed-race of cafe au lait people called Eloi will live in harmony with nature above ground and the women will wear skirts made of wide-woven beads, revealing their breasts through the mesh. And a fluorescent white man will rule some pale grey weapon-wielding Morlocks who eat the Eloi in an artificial world underground and reproduce by using genetic technology to plant their seed in the Eloi women. Or so the current version of The Time Machine would have us believe in this thematically updated version of the H. G. Wells’ classic. But I am getting ahead of myself, so let me travel back to the beginning.

Before seeing this movie, I would strongly advocate reading the novel. Well’s Time Machine was written in 1895 and featured an un-named Time Traveler with an academic fascination with proving that there is a fourth dimension and we can travel in it just as we do in the other three. Already knowing the past, he is fascinated by the future and what will become of the Victorian era’s bi-polar class society, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Well’s foresees that leading to a future where humans would evolve into two entirely different species. The bourgeoisie become frail, simple-minded, generally happy-go-lucky (to the point of sometimes indifference) and child-like Eloi living above-ground in the glistening, garden-like remnants of a world that is free from most of the strife that has plagued humanity since we got kicked out of Eden. The proletariat becomes very pale, big-eyed, hairy Morlocks, equally as simple-minded, but with the twist that, in addition to providing clothing and otherwise maintaining the Eloi’s world, they also prey upon the Eloi the way a livestock farmer tends to a sheep and then slaughters it.

I would also recommend seeing the first production of this story into a movie. Directed by special effects wizard George Pal, the 1960 movie starred Rod Taylor as the Time Traveler. Thematically evolved to the Cold War era, Pal’s version adds some intervening stops along the journey to the future, so that we can see how nuclear warfare leads to the world of the Eloi and the Morlocks, with the Eloi conditioned to wander into underground bunkers anytime they hear a siren — and be eaten by the Morlocks. (One can almost hear Grandma Morlock ringing the dinner bell and yelling, “Come and be gotten!”) In addition, there is some hint that the evolutionary changes are radiation-related.

Before saying whether or not I recommend the Simon Wells (yes, he is related; he is H. G. Wells’ great grandson) version, allow me to cover the usual facets of a review, with particular emphasis on the further thematic evolution of the story to update it to 2002’s political concerns about the future.

Simon Wells has added yet more stops for the time machine. The first is a trip backwards. Simon’s Time Traveler is Alexander, an absent-minded professor who fumbles awkwardly to propose to his girlfriend. His fiancée is a generic blond-haired, blue-eyed girl-next-door who wants little more out of a relationship than some flowers and a romantic stroll. Alas, without giving too much away, she dies. We get to know little else about her, which makes her death a little difficult to feel much for, especially so early on in the film.

Simon uses this event to provide Alexander with something more meaningful than an academic interest in time travel. Alexander sets out to change his past and save his fiancée. He soon discovers, however, that, again without giving too much away, he cannot change the past. Notably, we do not get to see much of what reverse time travel looks like. And, even more notably, he only ventures back to try to save her once (Keen observation from my fiancee: “Why doesn’t he just travel back, get her and bring her forward, well past any threat to her life?”). Therefore, he sets off for the future to find out why he can’t change the past.

The special effects are what one would expect of any decently budgeted movie in the year 2002. The voyage of the time machine is fast, yet smooth, with none of the blinking, jerky stop-motion effects of the Pal version. In fact, the special effects are the biggest reason to see this movie. Alexander, however, seldom looks joyful, even before his fiancée dies, and that undercuts some of the thrill of seeing him travel through time. In the novel and in the George Pal original starring Rod Taylor, the Time Traveler was portrayed as eager to explore and his fascination with time travel buoyed the audience’s fascination, adding emotion above where special effects leave-off.

His next stop is the year 2030 (sorry, no chance for ironic reaction shots to anything we’ve seen during the last century), where the future is an intersection, jumbo-trons advertise moon colonies, and all New Yorkers have to ride bikes. There he meets a holographic librarian (Orlando Jones) who has the most personality of any character in the movie. When the year 2030 turns out not to have any insight into the question of why one can’t change the past, Alexander decides to go further forward until humans, or holograms, do know the answer. A human-induced disaster, however, intervenes and propels him 800,000 years into the future, a journey that is displayed convincingly with start-of-the-art computer graphics of mountains eroding.

This brings us up to my opening paragraph and the very different theme that Simon Wells has constructed. Simon’s future is all about natural living versus technological living. His Eloi do not live work-free in a world of the Morlocks’ making. Instead, they have hand-crafted wooden nests against cliff, cultivate crops nearby (note that’s crops, not livestock), and wear the aforementioned clothes woven from beads and shells, which are not the machine-crafted clothes of the book or Pal movie. They are a tribe of back-to-nature hippies living communally off the land. Unlike H. G.’s weakling Eloi, Simon’s Eloi are athletic, though still weak compared to the genetically buffed-up Morlocks. (Still, I have to add, Simon’s Eloi are athletic and I would love to look like them, unlike H. G.’s vision of the future where one would envy neither the Eloi nor the Morlocks.) Most prominent among the Eloi is Mara, played by the cute and sexy Samantha Mumba. Those familiar with the novel and Pal movie will know the character as Weena. Mara’s character plays mostly on sex appeal (aforementioned see-thru beaded top), some innocent charm, and the fact that she is the one Eloi who speaks relatively clear English. Yes, the Eloi speak in movies, where H. G. more properly recognized that any language spoken 800,000 years from now would bear no resemblance to any current tongue.

For their part, the Morlocks world is completely un-natural, with touches of mid-20th century German architectural aesthetics — exposed iron structural members, angular construction, and slaughtering tools suspended from the ceiling. View it in comparison to the radar installation in Saving Private Ryan. The makeup and digitally edited special effects for the Morlocks resembles that of the apes in the recent remake of Planet of the Apes. The Morlocks are divided into castes, or so their leader, played by Jeremy Irons, tells us. The Morlock leader has the second most amount of personality of any character in the movie. And, yes, at least this one Morlock speaks, which can be said of neither the H. G. nor the George Pal Morlocks. The Morlock leader tells Alexander that they use genetic technology to breed and that he uses telepathy to control both the Morlocks and the Eloi.

I will not spoil the ending, though, because, well, despite stereotyped characters, an updated theme for the new millennium, and some clunky plot-work, I do recommend this movie. Moreover, I recommend it based on more than just the special effects. H. G.’s original story does still hold together just well enough to make his parts of the plot interesting. In addition, some decent action-adventure sequences help the film build to a decent climax. On a scale of 10 stars, I would give this Time Machine 8 stars.

Footnote: I strongly encourage you to visit the Official Time Machine Web site. Explore around; it’s a very robust site. I especially like what they’ve done with Vox’s character on the site.

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Published by Christian Lee

Christian's Rants and Chants has entertained and informed readers since January 2002. Rants and Chants includes non-fiction writing -- anecdotes, essays, movie reviews, and more. He is dilligently working on a novel and other projects, which he hopes to publish soon. He is available for freelance writing for newspapers and magazines -- the materials in Rants and Chants will give you a sense of his interests, knowledge, and style.