I must confess that I march to a different drummer when it comes to this film. I enjoyed it for the most part, and find it very clever in many aspects. The major drawback comes from the plot - it is far too simplistic for the elaborate care that went into both the visual aspect of the film as well as the nice touches at almost every turn.
The plot is rather simple - Alexander Hartdegen, a mechanical physics professor in turn-of-the-century New York (turn of the nineteenth-into-the-twentieth century, that is), has his head in his equations, apart from one thing, his love for Emma. When she is killed in a botched mugging (yes, New York at that time even had muggings in Central Park), Hartdegen drops everything to invent the time machine he'd theorised, in order to prevent Emma's death. He soon makes the discovery that it isn't possible to undo the past (at least not that aspect of the past), but becomes obsessed with finding the reason why. He speculates this is more likely to be answered in the future than in the past or present, and thus goes forward in time. He makes a few stops along the way before arriving at a far-distant future (nearly a million years in the future), in which the human race has evolved into two distinct species - one on the surface, and one below the earth.
So far, so good - departure from H.G. Wells' original classic (a great piece of literature) and from the earlier film, but not beyond the pale. The effects here are truly stunning in many respects - the time machine itself is a marvel (the DVD has a feature on the making of the machine), and the time transformation scenes are very inspiring, up to and including the zoom-away shot from the machine into the air all the way to the city on the moon. The Eloi city along the river is also a remarkable scene. The movie rightly won awards, including the Academy Award, for these effects. Unfortunately, effects do not a movie make. This is where the plot failure comes into play.
Hartdegen seems to give up far too early in trying to change the past, and his relationships (such as we get to see them) in the future are very stilted. Jeremy Irons (himself an Academy Award winner) has precious little screen time, to deliver what is perhaps the most anticlimactic resolutions I've seen in a long time. The overarching question should be 'why?', but seems to transformed into 'what if?' in an unclear way (the deleted introductory scene, available on the DVD, helps to more firmly establish the question, but, alas, it was deleted). Hartdegen remains in the future (like Wells' and the earlier film's scientists, albeit in a different way), perhaps to help transform the future, but we'll never know (a sequel is not likely).
Despite the thin plot, what I found most enjoyable (apart from the special effects) were the clever touches here and there, far too numerous to mention. When Hartdegen arrives in 2030 (prompted by an advertisement proclaiming 'the future is now'), he encounters a user-friendly library computer (personified by Orlando Bloom) with a real sense of humour and humanity. When Hartdegen asks about time travel, the library computer even incorporates Star Trek gestures and sound effects into its discussion (as well as the yet-unwritten musical version of 'The Time Machine', by Andrew Lloyd Weber). One woman in the distant future speaks English (now called the stone language, for the stone engravings that remain from store fronts and the like), but speaks without accent (strange enough, but even stranger that New Yorker Hartdegen sounds more British, as does the Morlock leader Jeremy Irons).
Indeed, there are so many little pieces here is seems that the writers spent more time trying to incorporate bits of cleverness throughout the script than making sure the script as a whole had thorough soundness.
Another piece I really liked was the music. The sombre brass tones, the triumphant orchestral arrangements, the folk/modern synthesis for the Eloi, and the dramatic scoring really enhanced this film beyond measure. The DVD has bits of the score that replay on a loop sequence during menu screens, and I've sometimes left these on to hear the pieces over and over again.
The DVD has one of the better menu sequence set-ups I've seen, simulating the machine effects in visuals and sound, as well as incorporating score elements and special effects. DVD extras include the delete scene, commentaries by many of the crew, several pieces on the special effects (including one on the time machine itself),
This is a fairly good film, despite its flaws. Overall I would award it three-and-a-half stars, but will round up to four in honour of the effects, the music, and clever pieces.