When H.G. Wells wrote his vision-of-tomorrow warning shot The Time Machine in 1895, his intention was not to save one person’s life but to save everybody’s. Wells’ narrator in the seminal sci-fi novel remained unnamed throughout the tale and was given scant personal background. The English author was much more concerned about mankind as a messy whole and the looming threats of class consciousness, evolution, and the unchecked growth of industry and technology.
For those of us who screw up royally on a regular basis, the juicy appeal of time-tripping is entirely more self-serving: Would you go back three, four, five years and correct the mistakes that still plague you today? (Defaulting on those student loans was a lousy idea, as was that infamous tequila incident.) Or would you skip ahead so many days, months, decades to avoid the burning shame of the really bad decisions you are mere seconds away from making? (The bookie is not a nice man, and I’m fairly certain your new “boyfriend” is married.) Sure, hanging with the Wright brothers would be a blast, as would petting a dodo and drinking with Dino at the Sands and performing the requisite save-the-world chores. But let’s be honest: Tinkering with the space-time continuum for your own petty purposes would certainly make dating far less harrowing, wouldn’t it?
In adapting his great-grandfather’s book for the big screen, director Simon Wells, in very much a crowd-pleasing state of mind, wants his fast-moving new Time Machine to zip every which way, to be both socially conscious and selfish, entertaining and enlightening. He gives his 19th-century traveler not only a name—Alexander Hartdegen, a chalk-dusty New York inventor played by the unfairly hunky Guy Pearce—but also a romantic reason to set the clocks back: His fiancee (Jessica Lange ringer Sienna Guillory) is murdered mere minutes after his marriage proposal. When the movie isn’t focusing on matters of the heartsick, it’s lamenting the world’s quick-growth addiction, in particular the dangers of colonizing the moon, which, according to one of the flick’s most spectacular sequences, will trigger the end of civilized society as we know it. And when Wells isn’t cracking history-tweaking in-jokes (a future-world New Yorker spots Hartdegen’s ride and flirts, “Bet that makes a hell of a cappuccino”), the director is making sure that his ooey-gooey message (pasts can’t be changed, only accepted) is getting drilled home.
But with a running time of a mere 96 minutes, the episodic Time Machine, conceived both plot- and ideawise to be a much longer picture, feels viciously edited; as a consequence, it packs few real punches on any level. The promisingly sweet love story is blink-and-gone. Hartdegen is shown scribbling out various equations for his creation, but all the cool nerd stuff about how he built the machine is never provided. And the inventor might as well be unnamed; we know he’s in mourning only from his 5 o’clock shadow and the bags under his eyes. A major missed opportunity, the movie is ultimately nothing more than a big, booming score and a series of loosely connected set pieces.
Of course, that these set pieces—although kicked into motion by thin storytelling devices—are packed with eye-dazzling details is the main reason I enjoyed the movie much more than I should have. For all its faults, The Time Machine never fails to be lovely to look at, whether the locale is Hartdegen’s 1899 laboratory (chock-full of goofy inventions, not to mention the glistening brass-and-leather time buggy itself) or 2030 New York (the public library is equipped with a sarcastic hologram info clerk played by bug-eyed Orlando Jones) or the rocky 802701 wasteland ruled by the human-chomping Morlocks. (The good-natured munchables, the Elois, live in majestic fire-lit clamshell homes along the sides of cliffs.)
And credit production designer Oliver Scholl and the makeup gurus at Stan Winston Studio for mostly laying off the CGI and actually building things with their own expert hands. The Morlocks’ underground lair—ruled by the all-knowing Uber-Morlock (Jeremy Irons)—is a campy nod to George Pal’s far creepier 1960 cinematic take on the story, and those snarling, hirsute villains themselves, instead of being too-sleek computer beasties, are usually actual people in very convincing ripped-torso gray body suits—a refreshing throwback detail that makes a series of chase scenes through the jungle all the more gripping.
That said, the actors don’t so much react to the scenery as get the hell out of the way so the audience can soak it up. Even Pearce, a captivating presence in everything he throws that mighty chin into, seems dumbfounded by the spectacle around him. The actor’s perplexity, however, works well in the movie’s money-shot centerpiece. The second time Hartdegen takes the machine out for a spin around the calendar, he watches wide-eyed as the world changes 131 years around him: flowers blooming and dying, buildings coming down and going up, planes getting faster and faster, dresses in shop windows getting shorter and shorter. The director takes his time here, slowly panning from Pearce’s eyes all the way up into the light-swallowing reaches of deep space. Cool trick.
Instead of having the expected fun with time-warpy twists, though, John Logan’s lazy script simply sends Hartdegen farther and farther forward, until the final showdown with the Morlocks, when the machine is used merely to blow shit up. It’s a shame, really. For all his brilliant visual effects and popcorn-fun action sequences, Wells tries far too hard to please both the blockbuster masses and Great-Granddad—which makes The Time Machine a cool-looking ride with absolutely nothing under the hood.
In 40 Days and 40 Nights, the studly male hero isn’t so much concerned with beating the clock as beating himself. A disjointed sex romp that was made for booby-minded young men but will mainly be seen by cutie-minded young women, director Michael (Heathers) Lehmann’s seldom funny (and often just plain nasty) farce stars squinty palooka heartthrob Josh Hartnett as Matt, a recently dumped San Francisco Web designer who, after concluding that nookie is ruining his life, decides to give his overtiming johnson a full rest for Lent. This vow of abstinence means “no sex and all things sexlike,” including “no kissing, no sucking, no fondling,” and, according to his priest-in-training brother, no masturbation. The suddenly celibate one throws out all his porno movies, all his dirty magazines, and that big jar of Crisco in the kitchen cabinet.
Oh, well: If Matt is done looking longingly at the ladies, Lehmann certainly isn’t. Bare breasts abound, and there’s rarely a woman onscreen who isn’t (a) naked and thrusting out her wares or (b) dressed like Christina Aguilera (including the fishnetted women Matt works with). Even Shannyn Sossamon, the puckered-up Angelina Jolie doppelganger who plays the supposedly sweet woman Matt eventually falls for, is forced to act and move like a vixen from a Whitesnake video. (And, yes, we see her in the buff, too.) Sure, Lehmann reminds us that men are pigs—Paulo Costanzo (the pot-smoking egghead from Road Trip) as Matt’s roommate gets most of the truly foul lines—but what the director is saying about women makes Porky’s play like feminist agitprop.
As Matt gets closer and closer to his deadline—and is forced to do such things as high-five his new sweetheart, pour cold water on his wayward boner, and say things like “I almost fucked an outlet today”—the boys at his workplace start an online betting pool that quickly goes international and inspires a male-empowerment movement. If those wagering against him aren’t trying to bed Matt or pry down his fly with various smutty tactics, then those pulling for him, including his boss (Griffin Dunne, in a mortifying role that calls for him to be caught jerkin’ his gherkin in a toilet stall), are thanking him for their newfound no-booty power.
Anyway, at the screening I attended, the audience was made up mostly of college-aged women who cooed at Hartnett and groaned at the male-centric gags and endless one-sided nekkidness. Most of the time, in fact, they were making and receiving calls on their cell phones, which, during any other flick, would have really pissed me off. Of course, they promptly hung up during the scene in which a skivvy-clad Hartnett brings Sossamon to the height of passion simply by using a flower. That, I’m fairly sure, they enjoyed. CP