Wells Run Dry

The Time Machine has no spirit; Esther Kahn is so 1950s.

What I remember most vividly from my first reading of H.G. Wells’The Time Machine about oh, 30 years ago, isn’t the thrills and spills; it’s Wells’ lyrical despair in the penultimate chapter. Wells’ Time Traveler (he is given no name) has fled the bifurcated Earth (circa 802,701 A.D.) of the cannibalistic Morlocks and docile Elois and journeyed still further ahead into the future, hoping to come upon a more evolved form of life and an advanced society. Instead, he finds that de-evolution has continued: First, there are hideous, crablike creatures and then, millions of years on, barely any life at all, the planet having frozen under a dim sun. I remember how this soul-sick wail of a climax blew my defenseless adolescent mind—and how relieved I was that the 1960 movie, directed by George Pal, had a lighter, sexier, more comic-bookish tone. It didn’t hurt that Yvette Mimieux in a loincloth had a way of making stuff like the fate of the Earth seem relatively inconsequential.

As an 11-year-old, I didn’t fully understand that Wells was mischievously extrapolating from the social order that he knew (and his own then-socialist bent) and that in so doing he was throwing down a gauntlet for the science-fiction writers who followed: not to predict the future along class-struggle lines, but to use an imagined future as a way to address the problems of the present less abstractly. To be true to the spirit of Wells, a modern version of The Time Machine doesn’t have to follow his blueprint. A screenwriter could project the future schisms in society based on, say, patterns of global warming, or clashes of civilizations, or corporate mergers; or he or she could mine a provocative book on cloning like Lee Silver’s Remaking Eden, which predicts a society divided into the Naturals (unenhanced humans) and the GenRich (born of parents who can afford to select for certain physical features and abilities). Given the far-reaching visions of Wells’ spiritual descendents, there’s really no limit to what a sympathetic adapter could do with such a flexible template.

The makers of the new, state-of-the-art DreamWorks/Warner Bros. remake have chosen not to do much of anything. The screenwriter, John Logan (Gladiator), explained to Lewis Beale in last Sunday’s New York Times, “In making an entertaining movie, the political ideas fall to the side and probably rightfully so, because in the movies it wouldn’t be a good mix.” So much for 90 percent of the most entertaining science fiction, including Wells’! The director, Simon Wells, added, “A hundred years on from when the book was published, I’m not sure the class struggle is all that relevant.” Simple Simon is very coincidentally the great-grandson of H.G., and thereby a graphic example of de-evolution—a future more dire than any the author could have imagined.

OK, let’s calm down: The movie isn’t that bad. It’s a kiddie matinee with some nifty Victorian bric-a-brac; an impressive, brass-and-refracted-glass barber chair of a time machine; and a cool bunch of dive-bombing Morlocks, who have the visages of apes and the massive, rippling bodies of Sumo wrestlers, who hurtle through the air as if propelled by their weight instead of encumbered by it.

But the film has no spirit of inquiry—no spirit at all, really. The glassy-eyed hero, called Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce), is first presented as an absentminded professor who can’t quite make up his mind whether to propose to his beauteous girlfriend (Sienna Guillory); then, suddenly, when tragedy strikes, he can’t recover from her loss and devotes himself to changing history—to becoming an avenger against fate. That’s the contribution of the Gladiator screenwriter: This time, it’s personal.

Perhaps because director Wells comes from the world of animation (he made Prince ofEgypt), he doesn’t know how to pull us into his miraculous frames and show us different angles and points of view—it’s picture-book fantastic, with no dramatic motor. And the snooty Guy Pearce doesn’t evoke much empathy: His face is all sharp ridges and concave hollows; when he tumbles into a lake of Eloi skulls and bones, he blends right in. In the second half, he’s paired with the singer Samantha Mumba, who seems to have been cast because she looks a little African, a little Asian, and a little Caucasian—a walking evolutionary melting pot! Orlando Jones has a faintly amusing bit as a supercilious hologram, but the only really witty presence belongs to a talcum-powdered Jeremy Irons as some sort of Über-Morlock—the brains of the race in the body of Edgar Winter. He comes on in the last 15 minutes to sneer at the hero, “I am the inescapable result of you”—which might have seemed a stingingly conclusive irony if I’d had a clue what he was talking about.

The sad part of all this is that the makers of The Time Machine could have come up with sound commercial reasons for giving this remake some H.G. Wells-ian intellectual breadth. After three parts of Back to the Future, innumerable (and clever) time-warp Star Trek adventures, and decades of Quantum Leap, time travel as a subject is rather ho-hum. (Even Jean Claude van Damme has done it.) I can’t believe that kids will emerge from The Time Machine saying anything other than, “Those Morlocks kicked ass!” Nineteenth-century readers—and impressionable 20th-century adolescents—had their minds opened by Wells; in the new millennium, his great-grandson has made their world a little smaller.

The title character of Arnaud Desplechin’sEsther Kahn (Bac Films) is a beleaguered, 19th-century Jewish girl (Summer Phoenix) who has taught herself to hold her emotions fiercely in check but who dreams of becoming an actress. Her character is the basis for a winding, torturous exploration of the art of acting—an exploration that will gladden the heart of any Method practitioner with its assertion that you cannot act unless you have lived and you haven’t lived unless you’ve been emotionally ravaged.

The film was reportedly cut down from something even longer, which might explain all the narrative lurches and ellipses. But even when it settles down, it has a queerly private quality, with its dark palette (the lighting is low and indirect), its stabbing atonal score by Howard Shore, its brusque, hardscrabble rhythms. It’s a charcoal draft of a movie—magically allusive on some levels and utterly opaque on others, a strange combination of the overexplicit and the unwritten. As A.O. Scott has pointed out, Desplechin tells when he ought to show, using lines from Arthur Symons’ story (“The whole face seemed to await some molding … an awakening force”; “In that moment she drew into her nostrils the breath of life”) to spell out things we’d like to register for ourselves. And yet each movie makes its own rules, and there are times when that narration is helpful. Showing is better than telling, but telling is better than showing falsely, easily, or melodramatically.

The chief enigma of Esther Kahn is Summer Phoenix, a dark, liquid-eyed, rather lumpish American girl with an English accent out of a high-school production of Oliver! and—as far as I can tell—no histrionic resources whatsoever. What a casting decision! And yet … and yet … I can understand what attracted Desplechin to her: a suggestion of something locked in, hidden away. The world is full of actors who are promiscuous with their emotions; here is one who seems incapable of exploiting herself the way so many others do. I imagine that Desplechin, in the best despotic Method guru tradition, regarded it as a challenge to break her down and open her up; and there are moments—chiefly a scene in which she socks herself repeatedly in the face—that are almost too painful to endure.

The problem is that Esther is supposed to find herself on stage, before an audience—to discover in the moment, in the role of Hedda Gabler, the place where character and emotional memory meet. And there is simply no way we can accept Summer Phoenix as a great stage actress: She has neither a trained body nor a voice that is capable of reaching beyond the footlights. She’s a flat-out laughable Hedda Gabler. As gorgeous and intuitive as parts of EstherKahn are, it finally peddles an increasingly retro (’50s, Lee Strasberg, psychoanalytic) view of actors and their craft, and one that’s unsupported by the action. “A magnetic current occurred between her and the people watching her,” says the narrator as Esther finds her Hedda—except the extras in the theater look somber and unmoved. No one is that good an actor.