It used to be said about H.G. Wells that he wrote a new book in the time it took everybody to read his last one. But it's his first four books, the scientific romances, that he's best remembered for today: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897) and War of the Worlds (1898). In them, Wells broke ranks with the Victorian era's faith in the perfectability of mankind via Darwinian evolution. The future wasn't so bright we had to wear shades, it seems. On the contrary, the skies would darken with interplanetary, interspecies and intra-species warfare. In The Time Machine, Britain's class system evolves, over millennia, into an ever more divided struggle of blond-and-blue-eyed Elois versus hairy apes called Morlocks. Take that, Karl Marx.
And take that away, Hollywood. The Time Machine, which stars Guy Pearce as the man who goes forward to the past and back to the future, has gutted Wells' novel and filled the gaps with a love story that may not stand the test of time. Not that the movie isn't enjoyable. It often is, thanks to some excellent production work and the everlasting appeal of time travel. When Pearce's Alexander Hartdegen climbs into his Jules Vernian contraption ' it ain't a DeLorean, but it'll have to do ' we're witnessing escapism of the highest order. For Hartdegen seeks to escape the space-time continuum in his quest to bring back his fiancÃe, murdered in a Central Park mugging. Alas, turning back the clock results in an endless repetition of his fiancÃe's demise, Ã la Groundhog Day. So it's off to the 21st century, then the 800th millennium.
A 21st-century woman in full-body Lycra gets off a good crack about Hartdegen's time machine: "Bet that makes a hell of a cappuccino." (Everybody else is wearing Mao jackets. Hmm.) And there's a nice scene where the time traveler consults with a holographic librarian in tomorrow's New York Public Library; Orlando Jones has just the right combination of politeness and rudeness. But it's among the Eloi and the Morlocks where this particular Time Machine spends most of its, uh, time. And here where the movie departs most dramatically from Wells. In both George Pal's 1960 movie version and Wells' book, the Eloi are basically a dumb-blond joke, sitting and waiting to be eaten by the Morlocks, who raise them as cattle. Here, they're a multi-culti stew who, with a little prodding by a certain eminent Victorian, refuse to be served for supper.
Thanks to creature-feature maestro Stan Winston, the Morlocks are as scary as hell; they look like gorillas that have been left out in the rain for 800,000 years. (Only their faces seem fake, mask-like.) And their fearless leader, played by Jeremy Irons in a long albino-blond wig, would be even scarier than that if he weren't such a dead ringer for Edgar Winter. Irons and Pearce go a few rounds, but neither of their hearts seems to be in it. Pearce may be too serious an actor to play in the Hollywood version of Wells' novel. You get the impression from his performance that he thinks the whole movie boils down to, say, a debate between estheticism and utilitarianism, which is one of the many themes Wells was exploring. Instead, it boils down to a reasonably entertaining way to spend the next hour and a half of our lives.