I saw this when it was out, and gee, it's hard to believe it's ten years old now. Although it pretty much seems like it. This was from the time when DreamWorks Pictures was still trying to establish itself, and pumping out bland movies that aimed to be hits and often fell way short of the mark. This one promised a lot of special effects and gee-whiz wonder, but ended up unable to surmount the considerable structural challenges the material presents.
We open in New York City in 1899 (the birth of the modern century!) and meet absent-minded professor Guy Pearce as Alexander Hartdegen. He's on his way out to propose to the love of his life, Emma. He meets her in Central Park, proposes, she accepts, then they're mugged and she's killed! Next thing you know, it's four years later, and Alex's friend Philby comes by to deliver exposition about how Alex has retreated from society and become a recluse, and we soon find that it's because he has been working on his time machine, so he can go back in time and save Emma. He pulls back a curtain and there it is, no time for big intros since we have to keep this thing moving along. The machine itself is nicely modeled after the one from the 1960 Rod Taylor version. Alex re-meets Emma, and takes her straight downtown. But he turns away for a second and bang, she's run over by a car. Then we see him meet Philby in a hospital, and he says he's gone back a thousand times, and watched her die a thousand times. What? Looked like once to me. I suspect that they shot a few more instances of his going back to save her, but found that it was slowing down the movie too much at the start--it's already in danger of dying before it's begin with this soft opening--and cut them out to move on with the narrative. The problem with this version is that if you miss that one line about his going back thousands of times, it seems like he went back once, then gave up on the love of his life. Even if you catch the line, you don't feel it, and thus what is supposed to be the emotional core of the film is a big nothing. This is what I mean about structural challenges--and we're only getting started.
So Alex pops into the future, 2030, where we get a glimpse of a modern New York. He goes to the New York Public Library on 5th Ave, where we introduce Orlando Jones as this hologram-thing that dispenses exposition. You'll notice a little tribute to Star Trek at 32:56 when Orlando signs off with "Live long and prosper," then exits the simulation with the unmistakable sliding-door sound of the original series. Alex then pops over to 2037, where he sees that New York is being evacuated because they blew apart the moon when excavating for condos, and there's a cool shot of the splintered moon falling through the sky. Alex gets back on his machine and konks his head, lying unconscious as the thing shoots into the future. Here's where we get a lot of special effects showing us several epochs in seconds, as the Earth goes desert, green, freezes, thaws, and goes green again. Alex wakes in 802701. Now, nothing up until now has lasted long enough to make much of an impression, but it's been fun, all this tripping around in time and special effects. Structural problems part two begin when you realize, one-third of the way in, that the fun part is over and now we're going to settle into a fairly unexciting section, which will last the rest of the movie, that in retrospect looks like Avatar-lite.
SPOILERS > > >
He wakes in a tastefully-decorated room awash in Earth tones and a little decorative bucket with an array of those thick pinecone-things, and it's like: The future is decorated by Pier One! He meets music star Samantha Mumba as Mara and her adorable child, Kalen. By a miracle, Mara speaks English! Then Alex looks into the distance and sees that they live in these Ewok-like sconces on the cliff walls, and at this point the music goes all Enya-lite.
He asks why there are no old people and learns that they don't speak of the people who have disappeared. They go to this ceremonial place of these giant bamboo windmills--more Enya music--and Alex finds his machine, which is still fine, and is about to hop on it and leave when--Morlock attack! It goes on forever, and includes a short cage match between Alex--who is your average absent-minded physics professor from 1899 who just happens to be an accomplished kickboxer--and then Mara is abducted by the Morlocks! Alex gives a speech inciting the Eloi (those are the Pier One people) to FIGHT! But they don't, so he takes Kalen and sets out to find her himself.
They go way underground and soon encounter Jeremy Irons as the Uber-Morlock, but that's a mouthful, so let's just call him Puff-Puff. He drops a lot of exposition about how, because of the whole moon disaster, the human race split into the Eloi, the Morlocks and the Smurfs, and the Morlocks control the Eloi (through MIND-power) and essentially raise them as food and for breeding stock, which looks like the fate awaiting the comely Mara. This whole thing was a loaded political allegory about socioeconomic levels and exploitation of the masses in the Wells novel, but obviously all of that is just dumped here. Puff-Puff has a special freight elevator that brings Alex's time machine down to the lower levels, and he advises Alex to get in it and don't look back. Alex fires it up, but then pulls Puff-Puff, who didn't see this coming despite his superior psychic abilities, into the machine for ye olde fistfight. Puff-Puff gets tossed outside the time bubble, where he gets old and decomposes in seconds. Wow, we introduce our big villain then get rid of him in the space of one scene! There's one thing this film just doesn't have, and that's TIME.
Then Alex comes back, rescues Mara, and rigs his time machine to BLOW. They run out of the cave, pursued by Morlocks, but gee, if he's so concerned about Mara you'd think he wouldn't leave her running distantly behind him. They make it out just in time, before the machine explodes, sending a wave of time-travel outward that sends everything it touches ages forward in time, meaning all the Morlocks disintegrate. You might consider this somewhat of a TIME BOMB. Now Alex is stuck in the future with his new surrogate family, and there's a little coda where he is set aside his buddies from 1899, separated by eons of time, with Alex saying that he's found his home, and his 1899 pals saying they know he's found peace at last, a statement for which they have absolutely no evidence. The end.
< < < SPOILERS END
Again, insurmountable structural problems. With an imperative for the whole thing to be less than two hours, there's just too much to cram in, too many epochs to explore, and not enough time for any of them to have any impact. The whole first bit, of Alex losing his true love and being unable to get her back (for NO good reason) is supposed to form the emotional core of the whole thing, but it's just over too soon. The tripping through the still-recognizable future is fun, but it's just a quickie tour and when it's over, you're only too aware that the most fun part is also over. Then we arrive in Pier-Oneville, with its social situation stripped of social commentary, and it becomes one of the numerous things Avatar was a rehash of, but without enough time to develop any connection to the characters or situation, and it's all resolved before you know it. The one constant through it all is Alex, but the film is unable to make him compelling enough to hold it all together in a way that feels meaty. Contrast this with the recent incarnation of Doctor Who, which drops a few lines here and there that establish the Doctor's emotional distance which arises from tripping through time, and succeeds in holding all his differing adventures together. That series also recognizes the importance of having another character accompany him, so there can be some emotional continuity. Add this to the list of things that would be best served by being a season-long series on SyFy.
Nevertheless, it's still amusing. You get some time-travel special effects--and a demonstration of how far CGI has come in just ten years, as these still look quite clunky--and time-travel is almost always fun. And you have the fabulous Guy Pearce, far too talented for this crap, and trying his best to make a character out of Alex. And it's all genially old-fashioned and gee-whiz. But, it's just not enough. This is an amusing way to kill a few hours, and that's about it. Just kind of a bad idea from the start.
If you like time travel movies and have time to kill.