The Time Machine

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The Time Machine

By this point, cinema has presented so many visions of the future that at least one of them has to be right. If The Time Machine's brief glimpse of the year 2030 proves accurate, savvy stock-market players would do well to put their money in companies manufacturing bicycles and jumpsuits, since cars and two-piece outfits would seem to be on the way out. Those looking for long-term investments—say, those due to pay off 800,000 years and one astronomical catastrophe from now—should consider loincloth and rope-ladder futures the blue chips of tomorrow. The latest adaptation of H.G. Wells' unrelentingly grim The Time Machine maintains the author's vision of a distant future in which humanity has been divided into two cultures: pleasure-seeking surface-dwellers and the underground fiends who feed on them. But it excuses it away as the result of a cataclysmic moon explosion that pretty much throws out Wells' commentary on the ever-deepening gulf between the leisure class and the working class. Co-director Simon Wells (the author's great-grandson, and an animation veteran making his live-action debut) has said, "I'm not sure the class struggle is all that relevant." Even those who buy that statement should recognize how it exemplifies science-fiction films' tendency to de-emphasize ideas even while participating in the most idea-driven of genres. (Admittedly, George Pal's 1960 adaptation did the same, but it threw in some nuclear paranoia. The new version simply has a character muttering, "I wonder if we'll ever go too far?" before more or less letting the question drop.) For all that, the younger Wells' Machine still works as an engaging, if not quite gripping, fantasy. The film transplants the book's late-Victorian time traveler (Guy Pearce) from London to New York, placing him on a quest to undo the murder of his fiancée. Recognizing that the past can't be changed, Pearce instead lurches into the future, eventually falling into the care of the gentle Eloi, a not-quite-thriving culture that suggests a lost tribe of Iroquois that adopted the windmill technology of their Dutch acquaintances. Soon, he decides to join the one-sided struggle between the Eloi and the golem-like Morlocks who harvest them. Machine makes its look-to-the-future-not-the-past message as clear as a Grammy acceptance speech, but as an exploration of regret and the elusive quality of time, it falls well short of Memento, another film starring a sad-eyed Pearce. Its Morlocks, however, are truly scary, and the astounding, even lyrical, time-travel sequences stand as accomplishments in their own right. Neither quite compensates for the vacuum of ideas at the film's core, but they at least make it possible to momentarily forget that vacuum.

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