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Time Flies & Spiders

Hello again everyone, and first of all, apologies for this week's column title which is quite possibly the worst yet. On the other hand I honestly couldn't think of anything better to connect the first of this week's reviews, of The Time Machine, with the second - a look at Sam Raimi's Spider-Man.

While we're on the subject of spiders, if you're the sort of person who has the slightest problem with them I wholeheartedly recommend you avoid the forthcoming Eight Legged Freaks. We saw the trailer for this just the other night and from the volume of moans
and whimpers coming from the audience not a single person there found it particularly enjoyable (I nearly hid under my seat). I always thought this would be a good year for giant spider movies but I think this one may be too much for most people's nerves.

A Load of Morlocks

HG Wells has an enviable track record as far as big-screen adaptations of his books are concerned: The Invisible Man, War of the Worlds and The Shape of Things to Come have all been made into classic movies, although the less said about Food of
the Gods
and The Island of Doctor Moreau the better. It's not surprising. Wells virtually invented most of the standard SF plots and there's nothing like the aroma of literary respectability to entice movie moguls.

Which brings us to the new version of The Time Machine, directed by Simon Wells (yup, his great-grandson) and starring Guy Pearce. Pearce plays Alexander Hartdegen, a physics professor in 1890s New York, whose life is turned upside down when his sweetheart (Sienna Guillory) is accidentally killed. Devastated, Hartdegen resolves to go back in time and prevent her death and to do so constructs the titular Machine (not bad considering his only previous invention seems to have been an electric toothbrush). Little does he realize that this is the start of an odyssey that will eventually transport him 800,000 years into the future...

Positive points first: Simon Wells has clearly revelled in his chance to handle the family silver and visually the film is hugely impressive. All the different settings look superb and the actual time travel sequences are breathtakingly well-conceived and executed. The Machine itself looks magnificent, a whirling contraption of brass and crystal, every steampunk's dream. Pearce is faintly endearing as the lead and Mark Addy and Phyllida Law are excellent in too-small parts as his friends back home.

And, if you're unfamiliar with the rather fab 1960 film and especially the original novel, you'll probably enjoy this a lot, provided you don't concentrate too hard on the logic of the plot. But if you do know the story, well... The meat of Wells' book, the world of the Eloi (principally played by Irish popstrel Samantha Mumba and her brother Omero) and the Morlocks (most notably embodied by Jeremy Irons), doesn't appear until halfway through a not very long film. And, along with the rest of the story, it's been contaminated by a sadly-familiar sentimentality.

HG Well's time traveller went into the future motivated only by the spirit of scientific enquiry, and what he found was a grim vision of a world populated by two equally degenerate species evolved from mankind (a then-topical satire on the English class system). But Simon Wells' hero originally travels through time searching for a way to mend his broken heart (all say 'Aahhh'), and the Eloi he meets aren't degenerate, but noble, windmill-building savages who just need a kick up the fundament to sort them out and reawaken the American spirit. The Morlocks, of course, remain impressively vile and are
clearly bad to the bone (and, by the way, the scene where they hunt the Eloi could come straight from either version of Planet of the Apes). The rough outline of Wells' story remains intact but its intent and meaning have been removed entirely in favour of heroic daring-do and an upbeat happy ending.

It's a vaguely unsatisfying ending, too, and not just because it deviates from the source quite radically: the new Time Machine dares to dip its toe into the murky waters of temporal mechanics and the possibility of changing history. This sort of thing is plot
anti-matter, potentially a brilliant source of ideas, but almost impossible to use without utterly destroying the integrity of the story. This film, after looking distinctly wobbly on this count for most of its length, seems to pull it off by proposing a rationale for time travel and changing history that actually makes sense... but then almost straight away it abandons these rules in order to provide the happy ending I mentioned earlier.

(There's also a fantastically smug and irritating scene where Pearce visits a library in 2030 and finds Wells' original novel and the 1960 movie referred to by name as works of fiction. So why isn't this version listed? It's the only bit of the film that doesn't ring
true: it's intrusive and gimmicky and it doesn't work.)

Still, The Time Machine is such a fantastic story it's almost impossible to muck it up completely. This isn't as good story wise as the novel or the George Pal version, but it's a visually striking, old-fashioned adventure. Worth going to see, but try not to think about the plot too much.

You'll Believe A Man Can Wall-crawl

A conversation, c.1980 :

Me: 'Dad, dad! Can we go to the pictures?'

My Father: 'Why, what's on?'

Me: 'The new Spider-Man film1!>'

My Father: 'What does Spider-Man do in it?'

Me: 'He climbs up buildings, throws his web over people, slides down a lift shaft! It looks great!'

My Father: 'Oh, I suppose so...'

A conversation, c.2002 :

My Father: 'Hey, hey! Let's go to the pictures!'

Me: 'Why, what's on?'

My Father: 'The new Spider-Man film!'

Me: 'What does Spider-Man do in it?'

My Father: 'He climbs up buildings, throws his web over people -'

Me: 'Does he slide down a lift-shaft?'

My Father: 'Not in the trailer I saw. Can we go? Can we can we can we?'

Me: (remembering the rubbish Hammond film and feeling rather guilty about forcing him to see it) 'Oh, I suppose so...'

Well, there's the cycle of the generations writ large for you. Actually I needed no persuasion whatsoever to go and see this movie: one of the most exciting and overdue developments in mainstream cinema over the last few years has been that Marvel Comics and their characters have finally begun to punch their weight on the big screen: recently we've had Men in Black, Blade, and X-Men, and within the next year we'll see Ben Affleck in Daredevil and Ang Lee's take on the Hulk. And obviously, a Spider-Man movie, done right, has the potential to be a fantastic movie.

Sam Raimi's film falls roughly into two acts. The first of these is the story of overlooked nerd Peter Parker (a tremendously likeable Tobey Maguire) whose life is transformed after he's bitten by a genetically engineered spider. His delight and excitement as he discovers, one by one, the different powers this gives him is utterly irresistible, and the story is told with the same self-mocking humour that characterised the original comic-books. But along with the powers come responsibilities and drawbacks (not least Peter's new inability to climb out of the bathtub unassisted) and Peter is in for a harsh lesson...

The Spider-Man origin story is the finest in all superherodom, essentially a fable concerning guilt and loss and redemption, and Raimi tells it near perfectly: so much so that you barely notice the radical re-conception of one of Spider-Man's signature powers. The actual effects set-pieces are a long time coming but well worth the wait, and you really don't mind such are the warmth of the performances and wit of the script.

Of course, every hero needs a villain to contend with and Spider-Man spends the second act of the film doing battle with the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe, displaying a hitherto-unseen talent for manic hamming), a millionaire weapons designer driven insane by exposure to experimental performance-enhancing drugs. To be honest this part of the movie is slightly less impressive, being more formulaic superhero stuff. But the characterisation and energy continue unimpaired and the various bouts between hero and villain are visually startling. Most impressive of all is the ending, which isn't your standard
blockbuster fare, but is entirely in keeping with the source material.

Spider-Man is a treat: not only the most faithful and impressive comic-book adaptation yet, but a genuinely terrific film in its own right (much better than The Dragon's Challenge, anyway), with great performances (apart from Maguire and Dafoe,
Kirsten Dunst is great as the love interest, James Franco does a slow burn as Peter's best friend and Cliff Robertson is just right as Spidey's Uncle Ben), fantastic visuals, and a wonderful script from David Koepp. Hugely entertaining and pretty much not to be missed - go see! Go see!

Well, me and my column are off on a brief summer break, so don't get up to naughtiness while we're away. Hopefully we'll be back in early July for a look at Tom Cruise in Spielberg's Minority Report. Don't fail to miss it.


13.06.02 Front Page

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1Actually Spider-Man: The Dragon's Challenge, an American TV movie starring Nicholas Hammond that somehow got a theatrical release in the UK.

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