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The Time Machine (2002)

When The Time Machine ended and the credits began to roll, the first thing my mother said was, “Well, that was stupid.” My thoughts were echoing the sentiment. It started out so well, but somewhere near the 20-minute mark it delved into stupidity and never recovered.

For a movie that starts out as well as The Time Machine does, what the fuck happened? How did it get from point A (promising) to point B (terrible) in six seconds flat? I think it was right about the time when Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce), a reasonably logical guy, says to himself, “In order to understand why I cannot change the past, I must go to the future.” Huh?

Maybe my mind isn’t working on the same complex, mathematician plane as Alexander’s, or maybe it’s just stupid. After all, the screenplay was adapted by John Logan, whose pen committed the following atrocities on the film world: Star Trek: Rollerball, Gladiator, and Bats. I’m not saying Logan’s a bad writer (really, most of the awfulness of his scripts are not initially his fault, and I’d take the rewrite money and sacrifice what little artistic integrity I have if I were in the same position), but this unreasonable lapse in logic is actually what spurs the plot in motion. The least they could do is have it make sense.

I read the original story by H.G. Wells when I was a kid, and I saw the 1960 movie. I barely remember either of them, but what I do remember is that in both cases, the time traveler didn’t really have some illogical reason for traveling into the future. He just wanted to explore. He had this whole time machine built; what the hell else was he going to do with it?

Because this is the 21st century, and every protagonist’s action has to have some kind of romance-induced explanation, all that’s changed. Alexander doesn’t build the time machine to see if such a thing was possible; he builds it because his only love was shot by a mugger, and he wants to go back and save her. And he doesn’t travel hundreds of thousands of years into the future just to see what the fate of the earth is; rather, he does it because he needs to answer his burning question: “Why can’t I change the past?”

This is almost interesting. Really, it is. When it first starts out, and Alexander’s fiancee is shot right after he proposes to her (gotta love that), and he’s driven to build the time machine out of a combination of guilt and love— that’s interesting. And when he actually does travel back to that fateful night to save her, only to see her die again in a different way, it sets up a fatalistic conundrum: is it simply impossible to save her because she was meant to die, or was it just coincidental bad luck? That’s interesting, and these are the kinds of baffling paradoxes upon which great sci-fi is built.

But neither of those questions, nor any of the others that are raised and dismissed in the first act of the movie, are answered. Instead, they concentrate on the one that doesn’t make any sense, and Alexander is determined to travel to the future to figure out why he can’t change the past.

So Alexander takes a little trip to 2030, where the first moon colony is about to be established, and he meets the 7-Up guy, who gives him some backstory on the future. Then he zips ahead seven more years, only to find out that the entire world is about to be destroyed in a hail of lunar chunks and high tides because the little moon colony thing accidentally, uh, blew up the moon. Alexander decides maybe this isn’t the best future to answer his question about the past, so he keeps going forward.

What follows are elaborate special-effects sequences involving traveling hundreds of thousands— at one point even hundreds of millions— of years into the future, all of which are impressive. And the sequences with the Morlocks are pretty neat— much cooler than the blue-painted ape-like guys from the older film. But none of it mattered to me because I was still trying to figure out what the fuck the deal was— why was he there? When the fundamental plot point doesn’t make any sense, it’s hard to really give a shit about anything that happens afterward.

All of this stuff with the Eloi, who now apparently live in giant pumpkin seeds attached to cliff walls and borrowed their clothes from the Lost Boys in Hook (if I remember, in the book and the original movie, they were more of an ancient Rome-type society), and the Morlocks— it’s all crap. It’s contrived, it’s pretty boring, and it’s worthless.

It builds to a dramatic conclusion in which Jeremy Irons, dressed up in his Edgar Winter Halloween costume, explains a lot of hackneyed crap about the way their society works (they are both evolved from humans, Jeremy Irons is a third race that can control all of their minds, etc., etc.). Then he gets into a fight with Alexander, who does some hoodoo with the time machine to get rid of the Morlocks once and for all. It also destroys his machine, but no matter— he’s happier there. He’s home. The end.

What the fuck?

Rating: ** (out of four; it barely deserves it, but the special effects, make-up, set design, etc., were all very well done— its shittiness was hidden behind some pretty nice-looking packaging)

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