I have long been a fan of Guy Pearce, whose penchant for taking on small but meaningful roles has created one of the most diverse and surprising resumes for an actor of his caliber. Each week in 2020, I’ll be reviewing one of my Guy’s films, exploring his wild career.
The Time Machine stars Guy Pearce as nebbish engineering professor Alexander Hartdegan. Alexander (not Alex) builds a time machine after his way-too-pretty bride-to-be Emma (Sienna Guillory) dies in a mugging. He’s dismayed to learn that he can’t change her death, no matter how many times he travels to the past to prevent it. So he travels to the future instead, hoping to learn how to change the past. It is what it is.
Pearce has given a number of interviews during which he refers to The Time Machine as a difficult time in his career, a big-budget role he accepted to test the blockbuster waters. He was coming off notable roles in L.A Confidential and Memento (which this column series will eventually cover), and a big-budget studio film was a new direction. It remains Pearce’s only role as an action-hero lead in a major studio production, and his take on the character is mostly just absent-minded middle-distance staring. Whether this was Pearce’s choice or a result of post-production meddling (the film had two directors and continuous studio interference), it’s always been memorable to me.
Changes were made to H.G. Wells’ classic story of scientific adventures, most notably the introduction of telepathic Uber-Morlocks. Jeremy Irons plays their leader, earning his paycheck with a layer of arch energy thicker than his crazy albino makeup job. Most of the first two acts of The Time Machine aren’t particularly dreadful; it really goes to shit when the Morlocks are introduced and it becomes a generic action flick complete with the moment where Alexander and the Uber-Morlock fight on an active time machine, which allows our hero to push his foe outside of the time-bubble to watch him disintegrate. It’s a pretty standard move in time-travel action stories. I’m sure you’ve seen it before.
The Time Machine has a 26% rating on Rotten Tomatoes — dire but warranted. It has spent the last half-decade floating between streaming services; just this month it made the flip from Amazon to Netflix. It is mildly entertaining and not anywhere near smart enough to raise any kind of intrigue about the nature or ethics of time travel as an idea. There is no educational value to be had. Pearce seems to have viewed it as a defining moment in his decision to generally stay away from big-budget action roles; he has never led one since, though his villainous turn in Iron Man 3 is miraculous. In some ways, we should be grateful he had this experience and moved on to much more interesting projects.
His hair is pretty great, though.