Imagine a time-traveling H.G. Wells transported to a modern multiplex, plopped in a seat and forced to watch the new $80 million movie version of his own 1895 science-fiction classic "The Time Machine."
Would author Wells gape in wonderment? Applaud the lavishness? Or decry the waste? Would the British novelist-historian - a big movie fan who once called the cinema "the greatest of all art forms" - just relax and ogle the effects? Or would he wonder whether his "Time Machine" had been hijacked by mercenaries?
And how would he feel about the efforts of his great-grandson, Simon Wells, who directed most of "The Time Machine"?
My guess is that he'd be overwhelmed but not pleasantly so. This new DreamWorks production is one of those staggeringly well-produced, joylessly extravagant pictures that keep whooshing you from one visual marvel to the next, hastily, emptily. It's a shallow picture, dazzlingly elaborated, all decked out in Industrial Light and Magic finery but stripped of social thought, the meat-and-potatoes of H.G. Wells' vision.
Nor does it recapture the charm of George Pal's 1960 movie adaptation of "The Time Machine" - with granite-chinned Rod Taylor as H.G. Wells himself, and Yvette Mimieux as Weena the Eloi bombshell-of-the-future - or its corny but magical moments: the ceaseless ticking of dozens of clocks on millennial New Year's Eve 1899, or Wells' undying friendship with buddy James Filby (played by Alan Young, who pops up in this movie as a florist).
What the new "Time Machine" does instead is deluge you with technology. Where the book and Pal's picture were set in late-19th century England and then the far future, this movie switches settings to turn-of-the-century New York City - the first of many dubious changes. The protagonist is no longer an obsessed scientist, afire with curiosity, but a lovelorn absent-minded professor, Guy Pearce's chalk-smudged, wild-eyed Alexander Hartdegen. He time-travels because his fianc?(Sienna Guillory) was killed by a Central Park mugger; he wants to go back and save her. But fate proves stubborn, and she dies a second time. He immediately gives up and heads for the future. There, in 2030, he meets a talkative New York Public Library hologram, Vox (Orlando Jones), and, about 2037, witnesses a catastrophe brought on by overcolonization of the moon.
Already, the movie has become ridiculous. But now S. Wells ("The Prince of Egypt") and company are ready to take us 800,000 years into the future to meet their version of Wells' futuristic races: the decadent leisure class, the Eloi, and the subterranean cannibal proletariat, the Morlocks.
H.G. Wells was a socialist, and his "Time Machine" was, among other things, a cautionary tale about the perils of industrialization. But the DreamWorks "Time Machine" has no truck with class warfare. The new Eloi become more acceptable victims: a pseudo-Native American tribe living in pseudo-Pueblo cliff dwellings. Some of them, amazingly, speak perfect English, a dead language handed down (after 8,000 centuries) on lovingly preserved rock fragments marked "Brooklyn Bridge."
Meanwhile, H.G. Wells' childlike Weena has become the more politically correct Mara (strikingly played by Irish singer Samantha Mumba), a brilliant linguist and self-sufficient head of household whose submission to the tyrant Morlocks now seems truly mysterious. And the Morlocks are now digitized monsters, ghastly pale killer apes leaping right up out of the earth and hopping around like hyperactive Hong Kong movie ghosts before retreating to their dank subterranean caverns. Instead of just eating the Eloi, this time they cage and mate with them, too. Their leader, the Uber-Morlock (Jeremy Irons), also has a fine grasp of the King's English - and, in fact, Iron's stylized, brainy villainy was the only performance that gave me honest pleasure.
By contrast, Pearce's Alexander behaves senselessly throughout. No sooner does he fail to save Emma than he gives up. No sooner does he discover that the Morlocks fear fire than he hurls his only torch at them and runs away.
Occasionally, he shows instantaneous genius, deducing that his time machine can be used like the bomb. But he seems incapable of imagining - or the film of resolving - the simplest time-travel paradox, such as the dangers of meeting yourself when you travel into your own past. This "Time Machine" is a sort of a visual Museum of Time Travel Movie Cliches, filched from the first "Time Machine" and from "Time Bandits," "Somewhere in Time" and "Time After Time." It's a movie that robs the story of its politics and point and never really matches the charm of the '60s film. Instead, it comes at us like "The Mummy," blazing away with sumptuous set pieces that stun the eye and numb the mind.
The movie was shot in two styles by two directors. S. Wells succumbed to nervous exhaustion with 18 shooting days left and was replaced by the uncredited Gore Verbinski ("The Mexican"). But that isn't really the problem. This "Time Machine" seems to have been composed by a writer (John Logan of "Gladiator") who has lost all sense of what time might bring and what it wouldn't. I started out pretty much in the film's corner, enjoying the DreamWorks panache and clever visual coups, like the long track-out pulling back from Manhattan and Earth during one rapid time-lapse change. But the jettisoning of H.G. Wells' social vision - and even of George Pal's - is disastrous.
H.G.'s message was: Don't be victimized by the industrial revolution. Pal's message was: Don't let the nuclear arms race destroy Earth. The message of this movie seems to be: Don't mess with the moon, and don't sleep with Morlocks. But perhaps this movie's real moral is this: Don't mess with the favorite movies of your youth, even if you have $80 million and 800,000 years to play with. That's not progress, and I'm sure H.G. Wells would agree.
"The Time Machine"
Directed by Simon Wells; written by John Logan, based on the novel by H.G. Wells and the screenplay by David Duncan; photographed by Donald McAlpine; edited by Wayne Wahrman; production designed by Oliver Scholl; music by Klaus Badelt; produced by Walter F. Parkes, David Valdes. A DreamWorks Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures release; opens Friday, March 8. Running time: 1:36. MPAA rating: PG-13 (action violence).
Alexander Hartdegen - Guy Pearce
Mara - Samantha Mumba
Uber-Morlock - Jeremy Irons
Vox - Orlando Jones
David Philby - Mark Addy
Emma - Sienna Guillory
Mrs. Watchit - Phyllida Law Florist - Alan Young
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune movie critic.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times