Edited by Robert Beach
Welcome back to Movie Monthly where we spend a whole month looking at movies of one particular theme. To celebrate the return of Doctor Who later this week, we’re dedicating September exclusively to time travel flicks. Even though this genre seems broad, there are actually very few worthwhile entries in it. We’ll be looking at the weirder portions of that spectrum starting with the time travel story that started it all…sort of. In 1895, H.G. Wells penned what is arguably the first major pop cultural time travel story with The Time Machine.
It’s an interesting speculative future story that’s honestly more of a fantasy adventure tale than a sci-fi story, especially when compared to the heavy social commentary inherent to the works of Wells’ contemporary Jules Verne. Wells’ novel was a pop smash at the time that influenced a lot of future tales through its unique blend of sci-fi affectations with Victorian fantasy adventure. That was the same basic blend that would eventually inform Doctor Who. Given that pedigree, The Time Machine has been adapted multiple times including an excellent B-movie version from 1960 and today’s subject: a 2002 feature film starring Guy Pierce.
Simon Wells’ style feels a lot more like an animated film in live action than anything else. While not necessarily a huge problem, it is a flaw that piles up in the film over time. In case you don’t know the story, The Time Machine is about Dr. Alexander Hartdegen, played by Guy Pearce of Prometheus and Iron Man 3, a Victorian scientist who develops a time machine. That set-up is still there in the 2002 version only with a few tweaks like changing the time to 1899 and the setting to New York. It’s actually a pretty welcome shift given the inordinate amount of Victorian England fanfiction we’ve been inundated with in recent years.
1900s America is an often-overlooked period of history that’s fertile for a lot of cool stories. For the first 3rd of the film, that’s set in turn-of-the-century New York; it’s actually pretty good. The story is a weird mesh of personal tragedy and prequel to the modern day. Dr. Hartdegen is portrayed as an ahead-of-his-time genius driven off the deep end when his fiancée is killed. Her death pushing him to invent time travel; however, when he finds all his attempts to save her thwarted by the cruel hand of fate, he become convinced he needs to go into the future to learn the secret of altering the past. Eventually, he lands in a far-distant future where mankind was wiped out by a great disaster and a pair of new races, the passive Eloi and the violent Morlocks, now rule the world.
Direction and Influences
Let’s start with what works here because I actually think The Time Machine ’02 is a pretty solid fantasy adventure flick. The film looks great both in terms of set design, production value, and cinematography. Wells has a unique eye for composition, and when he does apply the tricks of animated filmmaking to the set, it creates some incredibly striking and memorable sequences. The visual design of Pearce moving forward into the future is really great and actually pretty reminiscent of the some of the better recent Disney animated shorts like Paper Man or Feast.
I’m actually pretty surprised that The Time Machine wasn’t a Disney production all things considered. The visual design of the New York sequences is highly reminiscent of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Pearce’s character is basically a more muscular version of that film’s main character. Additionally, Gore Verbinski, director of Pirates of the Caribbean and Lone Ranger, came on to do a lot of the shooting for the last 3rd of the film when Wells became too exhausted to complete the shoot. Verbinski’s stuff is a major tone shift, jumping from the very family-friendly tone of the rest of the film to a much darker sequence as we learned more about the Morlocks.
Honestly, the whole film feels a lot like a series of disparate short films placed end-to-end. There’s a sequence in the moderately distant future about lunar colonies that’s like an exploration of original futurism. The opening scene with the Eloi feels like Avatar meets Yor, Hunter From The Future, and the central Eloi/Morlock fight scene is ripped straight from Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes. That’s not all bad as a lot of the individual aesthetics can be pretty great. Wells worked as a design consultant on Back to the Future part 2, and he brings those chops to the future sequence, crafting a tomorrow that’s like a blend of Total Recall ’90, Bladerunner, and The Jetsons. The Eloi village, a futuristic tribal city that grows out of a rock wall, is highly original. It leans heavily on Polynesian imagery for influence, which is often neglected in post-apocalyptic designs.
Jumbled Mess of Tones
All of this praise actually ties perfectly into why The Time Machine doesn’t really work; there’s no cohesive narrative focus. The “Story” of The Time Machine is a malingering mess with no in-universe driving force behind its action. This where the stack of short films aesthetic really hurts the movie as each vignette has its own focus and deeper emphasis. The 1900s New York stuff is a sci-fi love story; the future stuff is speculative future parody, and then finally we land in post-apocalyptic jungle action flick., but there’s no connective tissue between the portions. We spend a third of the film dealing with Pearce’s sorrow over his dead fiancée, yet by the time act 2 roles around, he’s completely forgotten her. The same way all pretense of satire or lightness of tone goes out the window once the Morlocks show up.
It’s all just a jumbled mess making it very obvious that Wells and company really only wanted the film to be a sort of walking tour through all their cool concepts. There’s not even very much action or adventure in this action adventure film just cool visuals. That’s part of why the film is so mercurial in the memory, you remember the details and concepts but everything plot related goes right out the window. Though to his credit Guy Pearce gives a strong enough performance that you never feel alienated from his character.
The Time Machine 2002 feels most like the right film with the wrong approach. The idea of using a time travel story as an excuse to show off weird and out-there visual styles is actually a pretty solid pitch for a film. We’ve seen plenty of recent successful films that do pretty much exactly what The Time Machine 2002 was aiming for but flawless. Life of Pi was a major hit, and it adopted The Time Machine’s ethos of being an FX-driven ride movie without making the emphasis on explosions, gunplay, and other action movie clichés. Meanwhile, Avengers is one of the biggest hits of all time, and it’s all about fusing together weird and disparate genres into a tangible whole.
Wrong Time, (Sort of) Wrong Director
None of this is to say The Time Machine was bad or even ahead of its time. It’s a more worthwhile approach to adaptation than a lot of the boilerplate science fantasy action adventures movies we’ve had lately that seems to be cut from the same cloth. Stuff like Lone Ranger, John Carter, Tomorrow Land, Prince of Persia, and Oz the Great and Powerful could honestly have stood to draw from The Time Machine’s playbook. I think that if it hadn’t come out in the blockbuster redefining 3-year period that included Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man, X-Men, and Harry Potter it’d be a lot better remembered today.
It’s obvious the weak link in the movie is Simon Wells himself. Wells is a great visual artist, but as Zack Snyder has shown us, that’s not the same thing as being a great storyteller. If you gave this same basic concept remake of the original with an emphasis on visual spectacle without violent action to someone like Sam Raimi or Ang Lee, you’d get a much more compelling and coherent film out of it. As for The Time Machine, I’d recommend checking it out; it’s light and breezy pacing and cool visuals make it a quick sit that never wears out its welcome even if the memories end up fading just as quickly.