A trip back to the days of George Pal, this was not. But, as a stand-alone film, not compared to any previous rendition, Gore Verbinski and Simon Wells' "The Time Machine" survives the scrutiny of someone expecting not to like what he saw, which I was not. Like all critics, I read what my fellow critics are saying, and after reading two middle-of-the-road previews, and watching one complete and total lambasting on a network morning show, I didn't enter my local theatre with high hopes.
I was pleasantly surprised, however. This film, which is more true in some ways to the original Wellsian tale, follows not H. G. Wells, but Alexander Hartdegen, played by Guy Pearce. After a devastating personal tragedy, he spends the next several years developing (and I hope I'm not giving away too much of the plot here) a "time machine" to go back and try and fix what went wrong. After not meeting with as much success as he had hoped, he decides to travel forward in time, looking for the answer to the question "Why can't I change the past?" The bulk of the movie follows this pursuit, even so far as going over 800,000 years into the future from our present day.
Those familiar with the original tale, either in text or in film, will find many similarities. The Eloi are as idyllic as ever, but intelligent enough to have learned the "stone language" (English) which they have so named because the teaching of it has been handed down, from generation to generation, based on words found inscribed in stone, and gathered in one central area.
The real surprise in this film, in a pleasant way, were the Morlocks. When they first appear in the film, they are almost a cross between large apes and minotaurs, but very effective and very frightening. There is no calm walking into the strange temple in this film, however, as the Eloi are hunted, quite effectively, by the visually challenged morlocks. It is that hunting, when the futuristic English-speaking teacher, Toren, played by Yancy Arias, is taken.
The scenes underground, in the Morlock lair, lead the viewer to the scariest person, the Uber-Morlock, played by Jeremy Irons. Irons has never been so creepy and was almost Boris Karloff-like in his calm, dead-eyed menace. The ending is both different and similar to the end of the Pal film, and juxtaposes two endings upon each other quite nicely.
The music was adequate, but nothing especially notable, unlike the special effects, which were amazing, but when the credits revealed that it was Industrial Light and Magic that produced them (since this is a Dreamworks film, that should have been a no-brainer), it became less an "Oooo!" of utter amazement and more an "Ahhh." of expectation fulfillment. The special effects in the film are very well done, however, and are really the highlight of this piece.
The acting in the film is like the music, it is sufficient but nothing that anyone in the film will be touting as their best work. One interesting choice was Orlando Jones as Vox, a computerized librarian who renders one of the films funniest moments, singing a song from the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical based on H. G. Well's "The Time Machine", which fortunately has not actually been written, at least, so I hope. Jones, who has been typecast in several stereotypically insipid "black funny guy" roles, does rather well in this, and was not annoying or unpleasant to watch, as was suggested by other (p)reviewers.
The one real complaint I have with this film was its lack of character development. With a running time of less than an hour and a half, however, I suspect that much of the development of the personalities was left on the cutting room floor, which is a shame. In the roles of Alexander Hartdegen and Toren, I saw many opportunities for real character-driven development, but much of this development was skipped, and left for the audience to just fill in on their own. More explanation of the evolution of Alexander Hartdegen's character would have taken Guy Pearce's role from a tepid semi-hero to a full-fledged hero.
So overall, I give this film a B. Not a great film, and definitely too short, but good for a matinee showing on a rainy Saturday afternoon. When this comes out on DVD, I'll be very interested to see if they provided an extended, directors cut, since I am anxious to know what was left out.