Critics can say what they like about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker, but H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine truly qualifies as the Great Holy Book of science fiction. Earlier texts may be called science fiction, but they may be called other things as well; The Time Machine cried out for a new descriptive term, and such a term quickly emerged the “scientific romance,” later supplanted by “science fiction.” Esteemed by all factions of the science fiction community, it was voted the fourth greatest science fiction novella of all time by the Science Fiction Writers of America, and it was anointed by a survey of college professors as the second most frequently assigned text in science fiction classes. The novel encapsulates almost everything that characterizes the genre, from its nerdish opening discussion of scientific ideas to its exotic adventures in a simultaneously futuristic and reprimitivized environment, all preceding a chilling final vista of cosmic futility and extinction. Any new effort to adapt this story to the screen commands attention, even if only to measure how much of Wells’s dark prophecy will survive the transition to popular culture this time.
One ominous feature of director Simon Wells’s version of The Time Machine must be immediately noted: the opening credits proudly and conspicuously proclaim that the film is “based on the novel by H. G. Wells,” but tucked into the interminable final credits is the more candid admission that it is really “based on the screenplay by David Duncan” for George Pal’s mediocre 1960 film, which is also cited in the film’s script. The dire Duncan probably influenced the film more than the wondrous Wells, as evidenced by numerous borrowings from his script: the character of the Time Traveler’s friend Philby, the ersatz-Victorian appearance of the time machine, the style of the monstrous Morlock makeup, the scene when ancient books are touched and instantly disintegrate, and so on. Still, screenwriter John Logan clearly read and thought about Wells’s novel as well, enabling him to improve on the most objectionable aspect of Duncan’s script its inanely simplistic take on the Eloi-Morlock conflict nudging the central story a bit closer to what Wells had in mind.
Even so, there are some aspects of Wells’s story that will probably never make it to the silver screen. Wells boldly embraced the future and all its possibilities, blithely sending his adventurer directly from the late nineteenth century into the year 802,701 A.D. Filmmakers seem to fear the future. In this case, we have a singular version of The Time Machine where the device is first constructed to visit the past to bring a dead girlfriend back to life with the subsequent trip to the future undertaken only to discover why the past cannot be changed. Both films insist on beginning the journey to the future with contrived baby steps: in 1960, brief immersions into twentieth-century wars, and in 2002, a visit to a technologically advanced 2030 and a collapsing world order in 2037. Further, Wells could see that evolution might entirely eliminate humanity as we know it, yielding instead two distinctive new races, the diminutive, androgynous Eloi, and the apelike Morlocks. Filmmakers recoil from that notion, preferring to depict the peaceful Eloi as People Just Like Us, and the ravaging Morlocks as malevolent mutants. Finally, the whole business of the ultimate death of all life on Earth is apparently considered box-office poison. Although this version, unlike the 1960 film, at least allows its hero one jaunt into the extremely distant future 635,427,819 A.D., if I read the instrument correctly all he appears to see is a continuation of the Morlock-dominated world he has come to know and despise, but he doesn’t bother to get out and investigate before rushing back to 802,701 to see what he can do to improve matters.
The film does offer, however, an ingenious revision of Wells’s social commentary. As he saw it in 1895, the pampered upper class would be the ones who stayed on the surface to evolve into the Eloi, while the lower-class factory workers would be driven underground to become the Morlocks. The 1960 film further interprets this class division in racial terms, casting mostly blonde, Nordic types like Yvette Mimieux as the attractive Eloi and making the Morlocks appear apelike so that they will recall, despite their pale skins, repugnant stereotypes of rampaging African-American males assaulting white women. In that film they are fortunately resisted by the heroic Caucasian Time Traveler portrayed by Rod Taylor.
We know today, however, that it is the members of the dominant, predominantly Caucasian class who will go underground to survive during perilous times (even as I speak, members of President Bush’s “shadow government” lurk in some bunker, prepared for nuclear disaster), leaving the poor persons of color on the surface to fend for themselves. Thus, perfectly harmonizing with contemporary attitudes, the new film recasts the monstrous Morlocks as the descendants of society’s white males and makes the amiable Eloi a Rainbow Coalition of virtuous nonwhites. And Guy Pearce’s white male protagonist, instead of reconnecting with and defending his European heritage, must transcend his Caucasian roots to embrace a new multicultural society.
This film calls its time traveler Alexander Hartdegen, a name that suggests some intriguing anagrams, though the surname may be intended only as a rendering of “heart again” since he is a man who has lost his heart’s desire and needs to find it again. His Journey from Whiteness begins in 1899, when this 30-year-old Associate Professor at Columbia University proposes to his sweetheart Emma, a beautiful blonde woman, who is immediately murdered by a robber. Even before that brutal act, we can see that this world of white people is a cold, unfriendly place, where Alexander sees Emma skating on ice during a snowy winter’s night under the full moon, and the engagement ring he offers her sports not a sparkling diamond but a pale moonstone. When a later trip into the past to save her proves futile, he travels to the year 2030, visits the New York Public Library, and meets Vox, a computer program portrayed in a hologram as an African-American man; we will later see him as a servant and victim of a future society still controlled by whites. (Indeed, his agonized complaints when encountered in 802,701 about unending loneliness and perpetual memories make him a far more emotionally involving portrayal of a persecuted artificial intelligence than, say, that annoying little brat in Steven Spielberg’s A.I.)
When an injured Alexander reaches the realm of the Eloi, he is nursed back to health by his future beloved, a lovely African-American girl named Mara, and he joins a tribe of people principally resembling Native Americans in their appearance and garb, though there are others who look more like African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanics, or Pacific Islanders. They live and work in the bright sunshine, colorfully decorated with jewelry and tattoos. The only blonde hair to be observed is on the heads of the attacking Morlocks, who now look more equine than simian, and reminded me of Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State, Alexander Haig.
When our hero goes underground to rescue his new girlfriend, he meets the intelligent, articulate leader of the Morlocks, endowed with pale white skin and white hair so as to represent the Ultimate White Male. (In fact, he resembles the nocturnal vampires opposing Charlton Heston in The Omega Man, one of the many old science fiction movies referenced in this film.) The credits identify this character as the “Uber Morlock,” clearly connecting him to Nietzsche, Hitler, and dreams of the Master Race, which are also evoked in his explanation of how the Morlocks bred themselves into specialized castes to better rule the world. Alexander’s task then becomes to destroy all the Morlocks, ridding the world of evil white people, so he can then marry into the Eloi tribe and thus overcome the stigma of his skin color.
This reimagining of the Eloi and Morlocks strikes me as inoffensive, even refreshing, and perhaps makes the story reflect Wells’s genuine affinity with the oppressed peoples of the world better than the original novel (where the Time Traveler does strive to work up some sympathy for the Morlocks, but without great success). More disquieting, and less true to Wells, is this film’s simultaneous recasting of their conflict as primitivism versus technology, with the elimination of technology serving as the film’s uplifting conclusion.
We meet Hartdegen as an Associate Professor of “Applied Mechanics and Engineering,” and he is obviously a dedicated tinkerer at heart. Along with the inevitable array of timepieces, we observe an electric toothbrush and other gadgets in his laboratory, and he later explains his profession to Mara by saying, “I make things.” He is a classic representative of what Tom Shippey calls homo faber, man the builder, the paradigmatic hero of science fiction. Yet his obsession with machines is keeping him away from the true beauties of life, symbolized (as in Wells’s novel) by flowers. He first forgets to buy the flowers he promised for Emma when he is distracted by a misfiring “horseless carriage”; when he gets into his time machine to go back and rescue her, he again forgets to bring flowers; and when he then crosses a city street to get some flowers from a florist, he never completes his purchase because that same horseless carriage, in this time frame, strikes Emma.
And that is the broader problem, from the perspective of the film: machines kill people. Before getting run over by an automobile, Emma is initially murdered by a robber with a shiny new handgun. In 2030, we hear bland comments about twenty-megaton explosions carving out lunar colonies; in 2037, we learn that those excavations have accidentally made the Moon break apart, devastating Earth and destroying civilization. In 802,701, the underground world of the murderous, cannibalistic Morlocks is filled with turning gears, glowing furnaces, and channels of molten metal. (The connection between their repugnant world and Alexander’s fondness for machines is driven home by the Uber Morlock: “I am the inescapable result of you.”) In contrast, the Eloi lead simple, bucolic lives in their elevated bamboo dwellings and long canoes, and Mara suggests to Alexander that tomorrow, they might go out and collect some flowers.
To preserve and strengthen this admirably primitive society, Alexander finally does something that no previous Time Traveler has done: he destroys his time machine, sticking a watch in its spinning gears so as to make it explode in a way that somehow disintegrates all the underground Morlocks while leaving the Eloi on the surface undisturbed. (An unkind critic could therefore say that this version of the time machine is a bomb literally.) When Mara expresses sympathy for his loss, Alexander repeats an earlier line from the film “It was only a machine” an heretical sentiment coming from a former tinkerer. Now, with all of the evil machines out of the way, the Eloi can be reborn; fittingly, Vox is overheard reading to their children the passage from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in which Tom and Huck return from the dead by showing up at their own funeral. The film’s sappy ending, with Alexander standing in the field where his laboratory once stood and announcing that he is “home,” was ironically anticipated in a risible song from the projected Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, The Time Machine, that Vox sings for Alexander in 2030:
There’s a place called tomorrow,
Full of joy, not sorrow.
Can’t you see, it’s a place for you and me.
The destruction of the time machine, and the destruction of technological civilization, is further associated with the destruction of the concept of time itself, viewed as a sort of “machine” that only serves to hinder human happiness. As the Uber Morlock explains, “We all have our time machines, don’t we? Those that carry us back, are memories; those that carry us forward, are dreams.” But unlike the civilized Alexander and Uber Morlock, the Eloi remain contented precisely by avoiding such memories and dreams; Mara tells Alexander that they do not “dwell on the past,” and they also seem to lack any plans for the future. As Vox puts it, the Eloi have “no knowledge of the past, no ambition for the future” which means, according to him, that they are “lucky.” They finally embrace Vox, but only as a storyteller, not as an historian. The film does not actually state that the Eloi “live for today,” but that is what they do; they do not have any time machines to take them into the past or the future. So, in order to join their society, Alexander must obliterate his own time machine.
Now, H. G. Wells may have been, in the words of Jack Williamson, a “critic of progress,” but he was never a blind opponent of progress. It is thus disconcerting to see a film based on one of his novels essentially arguing that humanity first went astray when we started worrying too much about yesterday and tomorrow, and when we started building machines to enshrine the past and shape the future. In a way, the film seems at war with itself. On the one hand, it manifestly wishes to celebrate and connect with science fiction, naming authors like Isaac Asimov and Harlan Ellison, showing posters from the films The Day the Earth Stood Still, The War of the Worlds, and Forbidden Planet, and recalling other films like The Omega Man and Planet of the Apes. On the other hand, its regressive attitudes towards technology and time, even in the context of a cinematic tradition not always supportive of scientific progress, seem utterly antithetical to science fiction.
Still, one should not be overly critical of The Time Machine: it is cleverly written and artfully filmed, with many evocative lines and patterns of imagery for future critics to discuss at length. Yet one small aspect of the film may be telling. When the phrase “time machine” inspires Vox to name the 1960 George Pal film and the fictitious Lloyd Webber musical, he fails to mention either the wretched 1978 television movie or this 2002 Simon Wells film. A story about the virtues of forgetting the past, then, appears to be labeling itself as a forgettable film.