The second big-screen adaptation of H.G. Wells' science-fiction classic, "The Time Machine," makes winking references to its literary and cinematic forbears -- not to mention the oeuvres of Jules Verne, Albert Einstein, Andrew Lloyd Webber and even Martha Stewart. But all the name-dropping in the world can't jam up the plot holes or distract from the frenzied emptiness of this unnecessary "update," in which a university professor (Guy Pearce) of the early 1900s travels back in time to prevent the murder of his fiancee, only to be accidentally thrust far into Earth's future.
Watching Pearce's Alexander Hartdegen sit stoically in his homemade, century-surfing contraption while a fast-motion parade of human progress plays out around him is the film's high point, but the kick has worn off by the time he reaches his destiny: A rendezvous with the Eloi, a tribe of futuristic cliff dwellers who inhabit one of Hollywood's better-looking matte paintings. In the caves below reside their natural enemies, the Morlocks, albino monsters whose uncommonly eloquent leader (Jeremy Irons) is a dead ringer for Edgar Winter.
To stop the Morlocks from preying on their weaker cousins -- and to score points with an Eloi maiden named Mara (Irish singer Samantha Mumba) -- George sets about the bad-sci-fi business of correcting thousands of years of evolution with his fists. Then again, almost every development in this film represents a snap decision or a simple cop-out. Vaguely human creatures speak English when the plot demands, and a holographic librarian (Orlando Jones) winks in and out of the story to connect the narrative dots that screenwriter John Logan can't link by legitimate means.
To be fair, some of these failings are inherited, not unique to the remake. But why hitch your wagon to an established property when the few improvements you're willing to make are all cosmetic? Though this "Time Machine" obviously cost more than Pal's fondly remembered version, it takes us on a willy-nilly trip that appears to skip several key episodes -- lost, one guesses, in the rewrite stage, the editing room or both. Less dizzying than just dizzy, the jaunt is practically over before it begins.
Pearce, who was similarly driven to drastic measures by a soulmate's death in "Memento," has clearly craved out a nice little idiom for himself. Now all he has to do is set the controls of his time buggy for 1993 to take Harrison Ford's place in "The Fugitive," and his ownership of that idiom will be undisputed.