Future Imperfect 

The Time Machine (PG-13)
DreamWorks Pictures

There were a lot of unaccompanied men of a certain age in the Tinseltown theater where I screened The Time Machine. Looking at the demographic, it is probably a fair guess that many of these theater-goers were the boys that lapped up H.G. Wells' 1895 classic novel when they were still in grade school, then watched and rewatched the 1960 film version directed by George Pal. There was no collective yawn at this screening, but they probably left a little disappointed.

The problem certainly wasn't with the plot; more than a hundred years after it was written, the story of a promising young scientist who invents a time machine to go back into the past to avert a terrible tragedy is still compelling. After a few attempts at past-travel, the scientist, Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce), opts instead for future-travel and ends up, after two brief stops in 2030 and 2037, 800,000 years into the future. There he finds that a peaceful people, the Eloi, are being beset by troll-like beings known as Mordocks. They are controlled by an uber-Mordock, played by an almost fey and thoroughly horrifying Jeremy Irons.

Special effects are both the blessing and the curse of this film. There are several fabulous moments, including when Hartdegen goes to the New York public library and asks questions of a holographic librarian (Orlando Jones) who is the compendium of all knowledge possessed by humankind. The filming and special-effects techniques beautifully complement Jones, who has a wonderful comic acting technique. Another special-effects success is the pod village of the Eloi -- strange little dwellings constructed flat against the cliffside of what was once, geologic ages ago, New York City. The bamboo frame constructions are wonderfully imagined and effectively filmed.

But the special effects in The Time Machine are also plain annoying. Is it that Industrial Light and Magic has such a hold on special effects that only its sensibility now makes it into films? Or are special-effects capabilities at a particularly weird juncture, such that objects can be made to look so real that they are almost there, and yet are still unrealistic enough to be just slightly off? In the arena of old-fashioned film-making, director Simon Wells also becomes overindulgent both in the soundtrack -- relying on waves of French horns and battalions of strings to tell you exactly what to think and feel -- and in silly camera games in the final chase scenes.

All that said, The Time Machine still offers some perfectly fine entertainment value: The acting is solid, the story is good, the inventions of the future are interesting. If you're a science fiction fan, you'll want to go see it regardless. But even if not, there's enough in this film to keep you well occupied for a dense 90 minutes. And most days, that's good enough.


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