Cinema Signal:

The Time Traveler's Wife

. "The Time Machine"

The idea of traveling through time has lured many a filmmaker to its notions of changing destiny by returning to the past or to learn from the future by going forward. This pattern has been repeated so often that it is, by now, a cliche, and one would do well to avoid it when the concept is once again engaged.

Happily, the makers of this year's "The Time Machine", have done so. And, they've done it with a certain amount of boldness, which is often the best way. Here, the time traveler indeed builds his time machine for the purpose of avoiding the death of his bethrothed only to find that she dies at the same time only under different circumstances. He's, in fact, shocked to learn that he can't alter destiny. So are we, because we simply haven't been confronted with such a conundrum in these kinds of movies before. And, it's a welcome variation on the theme.

Professor Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce) is a late 1900s professor of physics working on all sorts of new inventions, like the oscillating toothbrush, a suggested precursor to today's Oral B. He's cool and quirky, full of formulae and intensity. But his scientific intensity becomes second to the one love inspires as he pursues Emma (Sienna Guillory) and proposes marriage with a pretty clever "will you marry me" speech. Moments after she accepts and takes his ring, they are accosted by an armed robber and in a scuffle, Emma is shot dead.

Four years later, Hartdegen is just about ready to embark on his first time travel to the moments preceding her death so that he can alter the events. Only, in this second time around, poor Emma dies at the same approximate moment, the victim of a vehicle accident. Poor professor can't win for losing. But his time travels aren't over. Convinced that there must be an explanation for his inability to alter the past, he sets out to the future where he can surely find the answer.

After a brief stop in the 2032 time zone where he finds an embodied computer encyclopedia looking very human-like if digital, he is called Vox, #NY-144 (Orlando Jones) and, though he claims to know everything about the world and universe, he is stumped by the professor's question about altering the past. Hartegen returns to his machine and travels to 2037, a time when moon settlers cause the satellite to break apart, creating cataclysmic upheaval on Earth. Barely managing to again return to his machine, he escapes out of the maelstrom with severe shaking rendering him unconscious just as he sets the machine further ahead in time. He awakens deep in the future, like around the year 800,000 zone when a destroyed earth has had time to re-evolve.

So far, so good, but here he encounters more futuristic high-concept, even though it represents a retrogression in terms of civilization. life forms and story creativity. What was humanity has developed along two distinct lines, one passive, agricultural and civilized, the other, called Morlocks, living in a middle earth system of caves, capable of inhuman strength and wild, exploitative aggression. These two-legged beasts are controlled by a central mind, here represented by the inimitable Jeremy Irons in pseudo scary, white alien makeup. The professor needs to find a way to rescue humanity from such damnation.

The concept is undermined, however, by Iron's apparent understanding of the modern human mind, motivations and values. He may not subscibe to same but in the year 800,000 or so, should such a hideous creature be cognizant, let alone ironically understanding between the sensibilities of the humans above and the needs of his wretches? The sensibilities of the writers are too much in evidence here for the concept to really work.

But Guy Pearce carries us through a curtain of implausibility and some poor choices to keep the otherworldliness idea alive. His ability to convince us of his own character's essential decency provides the essentials for what is, bottom line, an entertaining exploration of an-over-familiar subject. Watch this Guy. From "L.A. Confidential" to "Memento" he has displayed nothing but the kind of superior acting that promises considerably more notice in his future than he has so far received.

In her film debut, Samantha Mumba as Mara impresses with a well-modulated performance and calm attractiveness.

Simon Wells, none less than the great-grandson of H.G. Wells, directed this action-fantasy with some first rate effects and visual artistry. While the level of quality is somewhat less than consistent, fans of the fabulous will find much to reward them. Those more critical won't go along with where this movie takes them, particularly as the ride of imagination gets bumpier, cloudier and phonier.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Guy Pearce, Professor-inventor Alexander Hartdegen, about to take off in his time machine.
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