In the late 1800s scientist and inventor Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce) builds a time machine in an effort to change the past when his fiancee Emma (Sienna Guillory) is killed. He succeeds in going back in time but is unable to prevent Emma's death. He then travels to a point about 30 years in our future and seeks an answer to his question about why he can't change the past. But when the moon explodes and the Earth goes a little haywire our intrepid time traveler gets knocked unconscious and finds himself 800 000 years into the future. It's an idyllic setting at first glance. He meets the beautiful Mara (Samantha Mumba) and her tribe of peaceful English speaking low-tech cliff-dwellers called the Eloi. Things get dangerous when Hartdegen discovers that humans have evolved into two races with one hunting the other. The Eloi are the sheep and the hideous Morlocks are the hunters. The Uber-Morlock (Jeremy Irons) is fascinated with Hartdegen and his machine and the two square off for the final battle. Will Alexander make it back to his own time? Or will he sacrifice science for love?
The Time Machine belongs solely to Pearce and thankfully he is able to pull it off. If he wasn't completely believable as the time-traveling Hartdegen than the film would certainly be lost because (besides Irons's brief appearance) there are no other major players to contend with. Pearce is an unusual actor and continues to pick projects such as last year's indie gem Memento that stretch his acting abilities. His slightly absent-minded professor persona in the beginning of The Time Machine offsets the determined and courageous man he becomes in the end. Pearce handles these character shifts very subtly and never lapses into predictability even though he has to react constantly to all the changes around him. In the supporting cast Orlando Jones (The Replacements) is hilarious as a 21st century holographic know-it-all and Mark Addy (The Full Monty) does a nice turn as Hartdegen's friend from the 1800s. As far as Irons' scenery-chewing Uber-Morlock it could have been played by any other actor since he didn't add any relevance to the character--or the movie.
There is no need to make comparisons between this updated version and the 1960 film starring Rod Taylor. It's obvious in this day and age of computer-generated imagery the 2002 Time Machine is going to be far superior to its predecessor. It would be an understatement to say the film didn't look absolutely amazing. The way the Earth evolves around Hartdegen's time machine is fascinating and historical at the same time. Also the reason Hartdegen builds the machine to search out answers and heal his pain is a great motivational factor rather than just having the character time-travel for the heck of it. However the same things that made the 1960 version somewhat campy plague this version as well and it's really H.G. Wells' fault. His novel is obviously a sci-fi classic and for its time gave a creepy view of the future: two races of mankind--one grotesque and mole-like the other more gentle and elegant--living in a cannibalistic society. In today's world savvy moviegoing audiences have seen enough of the future to know what's creepy and what's not--and Wells' future just isn't that scary. The world of the Morlocks and Eloi looks like a cross between Lord of the Rings and Planet of the Apes. Still it's enjoyable.