The Time Machine
Directed by Simon Wells
Written by John Logan
Starring Guy Pearce, Samantha Mumba


The Time Machine

Here is what's wrong with Guy Pearce: 1. He always pauses before he speaks, as though he's waiting for another actor's cue, so he is forever throwing off the timing of his scenes. 2. His face is immobile, so any expression comes only from his eyes. He can give us an open-eye startle with the best of them, but usually that's not what's called for. 3. His voice is a robot's monotone, and a harsh, garbled one at that, as though his makers forgot to give him any human emotions. His line readings sound like he comes from the planet Zircon.

If this version of the H.G. Wells classic was to have any credibility at all, it needed a protagonist/hero who could engender our sympathy, if not love. Instead, what we get here is a natural villain miscast as a hero. It may be that Pearce belongs in a John Dahl film; he's too scary for a fantasy like "The Time Machine."

In any case, so little happens in this film that even its 96 minutes feel too long. Pearce is Columbia University Professor Alexander Hartdegen at the turn of the 20th century, focused so totally on building his time machine that he forgets his fiancée's flowers, is distracted by a horseless carriage, and so meets fate when she is unexpectedly killed. Driven by the need to stop time and bring her back, he revs up his machine, finds he cannot stop what will be (although we are not told why), and ultimately lands 800,000 years into the future. Along the way, in a brief interlude in New York in 2030 and 2037, the film gives us the closest thing to a moment of wit: a visit to the 42nd Street library, with a holographic figure (Orlando Jones) as the library host, who sings a smarmy Andrew Lloyd Webber song in a wonderfully campy version.

And then cataclysms rend the earth, and when Hartdegen reaches his final destination he finds that homo sapiens has split into two species - the Eloi and the Morlocks. The gentle Eloi live on the surface of the earth, while the ugly Morlocks, led by Jeremy Irons, who looks like a low-rent Gandalf, live beneath, emerging only to capture and eat the Eloi. Even here the filmmakers, director Simon Wells (yes, the great-grandson of H.G.) and writer John Logan, could have created a sequence with resonance - particularly since the gorgeous Samantha Mumba is the Eloi's lone English speaker and her child has courage - but as with the rest of the film they have run from every opportunity to go beyond the banal.

One thing to be thankful for is that the time machine itself is handsome, appropriate and believable, and that no time is wasted in explanations of how it works. It simply works. Let us be grateful for small favors.