In the 108 years since HG Wells' sci-fi stunner was first published, the subject of time travel hasn't exactly been ignored. While heady enough to have readers reaching for the smelling salts back in 1894, the topic has since been so thoroughly explored in other books, comics, TV shows and movies that the idea of `normal' people travelling through time barely seems enough any more. Killer robots (The Terminator), high school doofuses (Bill&Ted) and even self-possessed scumbags on journeys of comedic self-discovery (Groundhog Day) have all been bounced on the trampoline of the space-time continuum for our amusement. So genetically enhanced and extra spicy have recent trans-dimensional tales become that a movie using Wells' original concept as its central premise had better do it well...
And for the most part, The Time Machine is thoroughly entertaining Saturday night fare, with director Simon Wells simultaneously updating his great-grandfather's story and hanging onto the original material's most engaging aspects.
It's crammed with visual flair, has plenty of clever touches and is lent an intriguingly involving air (given its all-round preposterousness) by a universally strong cast playing it straight. Guy Pearce is solid as Professor Alexander Hartdegen, a likeable semi-crackpot driven to perfect time travel by a personal tragedy, and Irish pop sensation Samantha Mumba gives a surprisingly appealing turn as Hartdegen's guide through post-apocalyptic Earth. Jeremy Irons, meanwhile, overcomes Battlefield Earth-style make-up and what appears to be a Halloween costume to carry off his role as the leader of a race of cave-dwelling mutants. Even Orlando Jones is perfectly tolerable as a kind of holographic walking librarian filling in the historical blanks for the benefit of Hartdegen (and the audience).
Since the story dictates that the majority of the technical fireworks revolve around, um, Guy Pearce sitting in his big time-travelling chair, real credit must also go to effects outfit Digital Domain. James Cameron's tech-heads have come up trumps here, designing some fascinating and genuinely trippy sequences as Hartdegen whips forward through 80,000 years of Earth's history.
What's disappointing is that a movie with such perception-tweaking potential descends into such narrative ordinariness halfway through, with Hartdegen turning action hero to kick the bad guys' asses and liberate Mumba's beleaguered tribe. Perhaps in an alternate reality where different script decisions had been made, the story's more interesting underlying themes of acceptance of reality and the nature of destiny could have been better explored. As Irons says to Pearce as they briefly tackle the imponderables before having a big Hollywood fist fight: "You are haunted by the two most terrible words: What If?"