H.G. wells invented modern science fiction a century ago, and the movies have been playing catch-up ever since. At times, they’re a little more behind than others. In the new screen adaptation of Wells’ The Time Machine, Guy Pearce, as the absentminded Victorian inventor Alexander Hartdegen, climbs into his elegant, handmade contraption for tripping across the centuries and lands in New York City in the year 2030. At the public library, he discovers a row of sheet-glass information portals that contain the image of Orlando Jones, who is cast as some sort of babbling cross between an Internet search engine and Eddie Murphy’s pop-eyed impersonation of a gay man. (Jones’ info-guide can recite the vast panoply of human knowledge. Especially the show tunes.) This may be a vision of progress, but I’m not quite sure if it’s the transporting essence of movie fantasy.
Fantasy films used to take us places we’d never been. In recent years, though, our movies have been saturated by the fantastic. They’ve become mired in make-believe, deluged with the form and language and eye candy of diversion (sci-fi, horror, animation, videogames, airborne martial-arts gymnastics). The result is that fantasy is no longer an escape, exactly; it’s the air we breathe. A couple of new releases embody the current prevailing strategies for taking an audience out of this world – at least, in the event that you don’t have a built-in pedigree like The Lord of Harry Potter to draw from. The Time Machine is deliberately quaint and old-fashioned, a once-over-slightly exercise in nostalgic wonder directed by the British-born great-grandson of H.G. Wells, who treats the spirit of his ancestor’s novel with literal-minded fealty. Resident Evil takes the opposite tack. It’s a splattery futuristic zombie thriller, designed as a jolt-a-minute freakout for young audiences who were numbed into submission long ago.
Has Guy Pearce ever considered gaining some weight? In The Time Machine, he looks handsome yet gaunt to the point of distraction, his cheekbones all but poking through his pale, taut skin. Sporting turn-of-the-century sideburns and professorial hair, Pearce, as the obsessed scientist who gazes into the dark heart of human possibility by inventing a time machine (he’s Einstein meets Frankenstein), is supposed to be playing a romantic idealist. After his fiancee (Sienna Guillory) is killed, he takes a voyage back in time to restore her to life, only to learn that he can’t alter destiny. And so he’s off to the future, where he discovers the Eloi, a native tribe who live on the perilous side of a mountain cliff, trying to survive their battle with the Morlocks, the underground cannibals who have split off from the human race.
Wells, in his prophetic brilliance, spun a what-if allegory of life after world war, and the 1960 George Pal film version of The Time Machine, with its time-lapse effects and gee-whiz Twilight Zone naivete, retained some of the author’s cautionary urgency (even if the Morlocks did resemble Oompa-Loompas in blond wigs and kilts). In the new Time Machine, director Simon Wells makes the postapocalyptic jungle setting look like some Hawaiian summer-stock version of The Road Warrior. The urgency is gone, replaced by much high-toned silliness, especially when Jeremy Irons shows up with white skin, black lips, and Edgar Winter’s hair as the Uber-Morlock. Pearce, who dimmed his star after L.A. Confidential with the dreadful Ravenous, has now followed Memento with The Count of Monte Cristo and this second retro potboiler. Memo to Guy: For your sake and ours, stop treating yourself like a grade-B actor.
Speaking of B movies, there must now be an entire generation that has never experienced George A. Romero’s Living Dead films, with their flesh-munching ghouls and frenzied atmosphere of rabid, hyped-up paranoia. Resident Evil is a blatant recycling of those queasy pulp classics, notably Dawn of the Dead (1979), with its claustrophobic setting, its comic-book sociology, and its SWAT-team-on-the-defense ballistics. The film starts out looking like a timely exercise in biohazard panic, as a group of masked commandos breaks into the Hive, a vast underground genetic research facility run by a meta-conglomerate called the Umbrella Corporation. There’s one nifty sequence, inspired by the 1998 Canadian film Cube, in which two men get trapped in a corridor patrolled by a deadly geometric slice-and-dice laser.
But that’s all window dressing, as Resident Evil turns into a monster combat thriller as impersonal in its relentlessness as the videogame series that inspired it. The director, Paul W.S. Anderson, made a nifty little outer-space chiller called Event Horizon a few years ago, but this time, working with a cast that features the girls-with-guns team of Milla Jovovich (not bad) and Michelle Rodriguez (all one-note pout), he shoots the works, complete with demon Dobermans, zombies that pop up like fun-house skeletons, a token Matrix fly-kick or two, and a bullwhip-tongued skinless giant that leaps and slithers like Alien. Resident Evil may catch on for a weekend or two, but to anyone who craves true fantasy, it’s enough to make you want to get in a time machine and travel to an era when restraint didn’t mean dull and a youth-market hit didn’t feel like it hinged on having a Morlock behind the camera. The Time Machine: C Resident Evil: C+