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Friday, March 8, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

'Time Machine' out of sync with H.G. Wells' classic novel

Seattle Times movie critic

"The Time Machine"


**
With Guy Pearce, Samantha Mumba, Orlando Jones, Mark Addy, Jeremy Irons. Directed by Simon Wells, from a screenplay by John Logan, based on the novel by H.G. Wells. 96 minutes. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action violence. Several theaters.
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In his introduction to the current paperback version of his great-grandfather H.G. Wells' classic novel "The Time Machine," Simon Wells writes with palpable excitement about the opportunity to make a new film version — "to tell an epic, sweeping mythic allegory to a new audience." Sadly, enthusiasm is not quite enough, nor are family connections and terrific source material, and hence the new "Time Machine" is an occasionally engaging mess.

Fans of the book may be disconcerted by the film's opening sequences, in which scientist Alexander Hartdegen (fumblingly played in the early scenes by Guy Pearce as if he were channeling Hugh Grant) proposes to his sweet fiancée just in time to watch her being murdered in Central Park. Distraught from grief and determined to make things right again, Alexander devotes himself to inventing a time machine so that he may go back to the past and save her. When this, too, proves futile, he travels forward in time, looking for answers.

Wells makes numerous odd choices in the film, not the least of which was setting the action in New York rather than London, and yet employing a British-Australian-Irish cast, resulting in some jarring accent work. The one exception is Orlando Jones, who nearly saves the film as Vox, a garrulous hologram burdened with all knowledge. A scene in which he references a fictitious Andrew Lloyd Webber musical about "The Time Machine" (sample lyric: "There's a place called Tomorrow ... ") comes out of nowhere, but is easily the most entertaining moment of the film.

Halfway through the movie, the book's main event kicks in. It's the year 802,701, and society has evolved into a two-tier system: the Eloi, who live above ground and are all skimpily clad and very attractive, and the dreaded below-ground Morlocks, led by a gothed-up Jeremy Irons, who look a bit like demented extras from "Planet of the Apes."

Since director Wells doesn't seem very interested in exploring the class issues raised in his great-grandfather's book, it all turns into your basic good-vs.-evil battle, and a fairly dull one at that. Luckily, Vox reappears to distract us, for which we can only be grateful.

Pearce, currently seen in "The Count of Monte Cristo," has an appealing intelligence and is no hardship to watch, particularly in later scenes when his hair gets mysteriously cleaner and more lush. (Apparently in the future we can look forward to really excellent hair-care products.) But, as in "Monte Cristo," he sometimes seems to be acting all over the place, lacking the control and subtlety he showed in "L.A. Confidential" and "Memento."

"The Time Machine" raises some intriguing questions about time travel, and if it sends a new audience to the book (or to the 1960 George Pal film version), that's all to the good. But unlike the shiny machine at its center, its timing is off, and it never quite soars.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

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