The Public Movie Defender : “The Time Machine” (2002)


The idea behind The Public Movie Defender is to take up the cause of a particular movie that I believe is better than the majority of reviews it has received. These are movies which I feel are worth either a second look or at least a more open examination considering the predominantly negative opinions of them. The films chosen are ones that I like so therefore I’m taking their case and defending them before the court of negative opinion. Let the trial begin…


TIMEThe 1895 novel “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells has long established itself as a science fiction classic. While I’ve never read the entire novel, I still remember seeing a film adaptation as a young boy. It was a film from 1960 which was directed and produced by George Pal (Pal had already made a film version of the other Wells science fiction classic “The War of the Worlds” in 1953). There was a made for TV movie in the late 1970s but Pal’s version from 1960 was my first real exposure to this timeless story (pun intended).

Time jump ahead 42 years to 2002 where Simon Wells, the great-grandson of H.G. Wells, made his live-action directorial debut with a fresh look at “The Time Machine”. It’s more of a remake of Pal’s film but it has several unique angles of its own. It’s certainly a movie I feel compelled to defend. It was universally dismissed and its current Rotten Tomatoes score sits at an abysmal 29%. I think this is a much better film than that and many of the criticisms fired its way are a bit unfair. For me Simon Wells puts out a vision with a little more heart and weight than the previous film and John Logan’s sharp screenplay is a crucial part of that.

But for me the biggest selling point for the film was the performance of Guy Pearce. There’s no need to dance around it – I’m a huge Guy Pearce fan. He’s an immensely talented and underrated actor who has shown diverse range throughout his acting career. This was one of the movies that really sold him to me. Some have found his performance “lifeless” while others have claimed he was miscast. I couldn’t disagree more. I think it’s Pearce’s performance and his ability to convey the driving force behind his character’s actions that gives this movie an injection of emotion. I also think he fits perfectly into the socially awkward role that’s called for early on.

Pearce plays Dr. Alexander Hartdegen, a Columbia University professor and part-time inventor. Alexander feels detached from his home in 1899 New York City where everyone are “dinosaurs” and “all alike, all in identical bowler hats”. He’s a nerdy fellow who loves tinkering and he has a hidden interest in the theory of time travel. Sometimes his interests take his focus off of his sweetheart Emma (Sienna Guillory) whom he truly loves. In fact, a horrible tragedy involving Emma is the catalyst for him building his time machine. In other words the romance is a key component to the story. It’s not delved into at great lengths but I do feel that Pearce sells it and the post-tragedy emotions especially well.


“The Time Machine” can really be broken down into two parts, the pre-machine 1899 New York and the unintended future year of 802,701. Yet in between those two main focuses are several scenes featuring different time periods. Alexander’s ‘fish out of water’ status and overloaded curiosity at his futuristic stops was a treat for me, again much due to the performance of Guy Pearce. These brief scenes give some explanation to the bleak future that Alexander ends up in. They also offer a small bit of commentary which I quite liked.

The second half of the film takes place in the aforementioned future of 802,701. Technology and advancement is gone and humanity has basically started over. It’s here that Alexander meets Mara (Samantha Mumba), a young woman who is part of a cliff dwelling tribe called the Eloi. Naturally the clash of a well-dressed future man and an indigenous native tribe is a huge obstacle but fortunately Lara speaks a little English (the stone language). Don’t worry, this isn’t a random thing. The movie does explain it. But Alexander soon learns that even that time period has its own problems, namely a subterranean species known as the Morlocks.

I’ve defended the acting and the story. Now let me talk a little bit about the special effects. I found the movie’s visuals range from the bland to the spectacular. The time traveling scenes are beautifully done and show off the technical rise of society all the way through another Ice Age and the blossoming of a new world after it. I also loved the design of Alexander’s time machine. There is such detail and craft in the way it’s made and you can almost believe in it completely. Now I wasn’t as impressed with the Morlocks once they appear. They’re just a tad too fake. But that doesn’t apply to Jeremy Irons who shows up as the Uber-Morlock – their leader. He is disgustingly eerie. His makeup alone was a big reason the film received an Oscar nomination in that category.

There are several other great touches and key components that make this such a great film. I adore Klaus Badelt’s brilliant and stirring score. Orlando Jones is a blast playing a holographic A.I. librarian. And the touching final scene still pricks my heart every time I watch it. “The Time Machine” is an underappreciated movie anchored by a fine lead performance by Guy Pearce. Simon Wells would suffer from exhaustion and Gore Verbinski would finish up the film. I give them both credit for giving us a delightful science fiction picture that’s far better than what many critics have said. It struck a chord with me the first moment I saw it and in my eyes it’s still an overlooked gem.