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Wells' social commentary replaced by pointless plot

Review: 'Time Machine' a rickety contraption

By Paul Tatara
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- "The Time Machine," the newest screen adaptation of H.G. Wells' classic sci-fi novel, is surprisingly inert for a movie in which the main character travels back and forth between epochs.

Although director Simon Wells incorporates some eerie, low-key digital effects, he doesn't offer much in the way of sweep, and the production design -- if not terrible -- is uninspired. The whole thing just sort of lays there until very near the end, when you really don't care anymore.

Guy Pearce, who plays brilliant 19th-century scientist Alexander Hartdegen, mostly staggers around with a confused look on his face when he travels to a mysterious new location, as if he's a tourist who's lost his way in a futuristic World's Fair pavilion. Considering Pearce's performances in "L.A. Confidential" (1997) and "Memento" (2000), it's far from his best work.

And the final act is so baffling, it seems like important plot points are being transmitted in code.

Goofy ideas

At least the opening scenes -- which recreate New York City at the turn of the last century -- look pretty good.

Guy Pearce stars in 'The Time Machine'

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Hartdegen is first observed in his cluttered science lab, where sly references to Albert Einstein and electric toothbrushes establish a satirical tone that will drift in and out of the rest of the picture. After Hartdegen's best friend Philby (Mark Addy) and stern housekeeper Mrs. Watchit (Phyllida Law) are introduced, Pearce sets off for a meeting with fate in Central Park.

Screenwriter John Logan plays loose with the source material, and one of his ideas is too goofy for the film's good. In this version, Hartdegen's pursuit of the past is set into gear by the murder of his fiancee, Emma, played briefly by Sienna Guillory ... then played briefly once again by Sienna Guillory. A supposedly tragic incident that takes place when our hero hops into his time machine and re-meets his previously deceased loved one is unintentionally amusing. Pardon the pun, but Emma can be a deadly klutz from time to time.

Soon, Alexander wings into the distant future to find even more complex woes. He first stops in a version of New York City that looks like a cut-rate variation on "Blade Runner" (1982). At the library on Fifth Avenue, Alexander meets Vox (Orlando Jones), a holographic figure who carries all the knowledge that's available to mankind at that point in time.

Jones has some fun with the character, and there's a surprisingly witty jab at Andrew Lloyd Webber. But, again, Pearce just looks befuddled, then moves on to the next adventure -- if, in fact, talking to a smart aleck at the library qualifies as an adventure.

Chewing the scenery

Things finally get rolling when Alexander lands several hundred millennia down the road. At this point, mankind has reverted back to a more primitive state. The inhabitants of this jungle-like Manhattan, including a love interest named Mara (Samantha Mumba), live in trees and frequently are forced to flee ghastly mutants who rise from the ground and carry on like radioactive WWF wrestlers.

But this part is pretty disturbing. There's a violent, fast-paced chase scene that seems to have wandered over from a real action movie, and the creatures are genuinely scary.

Then, unfortunately, Pearce journeys underground to battle Jeremy Irons, who chews the scenery and looks like Johnny Winter without his cowboy hat. Between this and the evil warlord in "Dungeons and Dragons," Irons should seriously think about returning that Oscar. "Reversal of Fortune" indeed.

Director Wells -- whose last film was the agreeable animated epic "The Prince of Egypt" -- has never shot a live-action feature before, and it shows. He records scenes with very little flair or concern for momentum. You can't help wondering how visually oriented fantasists like Tim Burton or Steven Spielberg would have handled the material.

The various elements never mesh into a coherent whole; it's like watching a series of mediocre "Star Trek" episodes. Much like the main character, you find yourself repeatedly checking your watch and wondering where you are.

Nothing in "The Time Machine" (which is rated PG-13) is unfit for kids , at least until the monsters show up. They're enough to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck ... although, at this point, so is Jeremy Irons.


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