The Time Machine
There was no reason not to do a new version of HG Wells’ classic – underwhelming as it was, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds remake a few years later would bring in big bucks – but it absolutely needed to be better than this. To some degree, John Logan was correct to identify that the bare-bones plot needed embellishing if it was to stand out from the innumerable variations since, but he unfortunately went about it in a largely uninspired manner. And then, on top of that, we have Wells’ actual grandson (Simon) helming, making his leap from animation. It’s a cute gimmick, but he makes very few choices that complement, let alone live up to, his Black Hat forbear’s work.
Mara: I told them you hit your head, and you are a wandering idiot.
The developing pace of Hollywood banality and conditioning is evident here for all to see. The traveller, Alex Hartdegen (Guy Pearce, like the previous movie’s star an Aussie) can’t just be an adventurer out to prove his invention. No. He has to be haunted. He has to be on a mission. That makes him SO much more interesting! So Alex creates the time machine in order to undo the death of fiancé Emma (Sienna Guillory) and then discovers he can’t, of which more momentarily.
Also ejected is the social commentary of the future society. The 1960 version simply set it to one side, but one would be free to identify Wells’ basic construction in there. Here, though, the blonde Aryan idiots have been refurbished as only-from-a-costume-department-outfitted persons of colour, almost as passive but not nearly as idiotic (Alex falls deeply for Samantha’s Mumbas). This ensures any illusion of class commentary – the Elite stayed on the surface while the workers survived below, the roles eventually reversing – promptly evaporates. Unless, of course, Logan had access to the same predictive tools as deagel.com and was envisioning a significant shift in population quotients and first and third worlds somewhere around 2025.
Indeed, it’s striking just how much The Time Machine is straining for levels of token representation more associated with recent wokester overdrive. The difference, perhaps, is that slack-mouthed Alex (Guy’s repose is goldfish-esque) is still the hero and doesn’t need rescuing by Mumba’s Mara at any point. Orlando Jones appears as a 21st-century holographic AI that somehow survived 800,000 years of Earth changes, although that’s nothing next to the Morlock face/lair mouth remaining intact for a further 634,600,000 years (WTF?) This all surely strategic, designed to distance the production as far as possible from any hint of association with an overt eugenicist (in the interests of balance, Wells’ publicised views on both eugenics and race appeared to modify somewhat over the space of 40 years. Albeit, while he – publicly – broke with the Fabian Society, he remained a globalist. And a Black Hat).
The effect of this on the Morlocks is curiously inverting. While they were formerly (per interpretations of the novella) the underclass rising up, now they are the white-skinned race preying on the dark-skinned race, an even less nuanced trope. Indeed, erudite Über-Morlock Jeremy Irons, a Borg Queen addition to their ranks who succeeds in making the picture’s back half less unfiltered but brings a clutter of clichés all his own, carries with him a consummate Englishness that lends his character embodiment-of-Empire traits (Irons also looks like the Witcher by way of a goth-metal band). Set that against the plastic-less-than-fantastic, faux-Tribal lyricism of the song Eloi – many have suggested it’s a shoe-in for Avatar – and you have a welter of sledgehammer imagery and impressions (I know lots of people seem to love the track, but it reeks of cynicism).
(Simon) Wells has also seen fit to rethink the Morlocks, such that they can attack by daylight, which rather defeats the point. This, evidently, was not the initial plan, as the Stan Winston Studio designed them with moody lighting in mind. On top of which, against their protestations, the initial look was altered into the cartoonish affronts we see in the final film. Thus, they have all the intimidating aura of Station from Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.
Events in 802,701 take an otherwise very loosely similar trajectory to the 1960 film. As in, Guy protests the Eloi’s indolence, rescues Mara and ends up living with them (although, his time machine is destroyed in the future, so there’s no on-return tale to tell. This doesn’t prevent another appearance from annoying Mark Addy, however). All is hunky dory, and Vox 114 finds his true vocation as teacher to Eloi urchins everywhere. Hurrah! As for nasty Mr Irons, he’s accelerated through time and goes to pieces. Plus, Alex’s machine handily explodes, wiping out ALL the Morlocks in the underground. What this means for all the other colonies of Morlocks across the world is less certain, as they’re doubtless still feeding on Eloi. That’s one for enterprising Alex to sort, I guess.
En route to the far future, Alex stops off in the 21st century, much as Rod did in the 20th. We get to see confirmation of a CGI globe Earth and Moon base having been built by May 24 2030, which is quite an achievement. We learn Lunar Leisure Living are planning a 20-megaton nuclear detonation in order to build the Neil Armstrong Open (you know, in memory of the guy who has admitted several times that he didn’t go to the Moon). So Wells Jr Jr is really putting the fiction in science fiction; nukes (real, no really*) end up blowing apart the Moon (not plasma) and devastating the Earth (a broken Moon and debris still hang in the sky in the future future). The 2030 date is notable, being as it is one of the Klaus Agenda, and Vox’s verdict on future Eloi sounds just the kind of thing Schwab was angling for: “Look at them. they have no knowledge of the past. No ambition for the future”.
It seems the Moon destruction was altered, post 9/11, as there was a sequence of Moon fragments hitting a skyscraper, causing it to collapse (so it was changed in the name of sensitivity to a recent lie, that of a terrorist attack, rather than a long standing one, that the Moon being a solid object).
Less alterable, it seems, is the fate of Emma. When Alex returns to the past to prevent her murder, she is rather unfortunately run down anyway by a carriage, leading to Alex opining “I could come back a thousand times… and see her die a thousand ways” (they obviously decided not to labour the point, as killing her a second time verges on unintentional comedy, let alone rubbing it in, Groundhog Day-style). Alex can’t figure why this is: It could be he’s been taking too much notice of Einstein (“A letter from that annoying little man”) – like HG, a Black Hat – and it has scrambled his thinking. Irons eventually informs him “You are the inescapable result of your tragedy. Just as I am the inescapable result of you”; Alex can’t save her because of the causal logic that, if he had, he wouldn’t be able to go back in time to prevent her death, because he wouldn’t have been spurred to invent a time machine (this it seems, IS a fundamental in workable time travel: that no result that would prevent/affect the initial act of altering events is “permissible”).
Obviously, this doesn’t scan, even within the movie’s framing. Alex has already altered his own interaction with the past, since he never now meets Emma at the park, and they aren’t robbed at gunpoint. Even given Alex 2 (we shall call him) is bitten by the same bug to save her as Alex 1, Alex 2 doesn’t then assimilate only the memories of Alex 1 (or become Alex 1) when the new timeline takes hold (which in itself would be interesting, since he’d be unable to break the loop, as there’d never be self-realisation that he was doomed to fail). This means, logically, there have to be two Alexs, two different timelines, and the paradox reasoning doesn’t compute. The only other available option is that it’s the RTD Doctor Who one – see The Waters of Mars – whereby Emma’s death is a fixed point in time. She will always die, no matter what Alex does to try to prevent it. Obviously, though, that isn’t what Über-Irons tells him.
The Time Machine isn’t a terribly attractive movie. Some animators have made a good fist of the transition to live-action (Brad Bird, even if Paul Hirsch’s autobiography makes it sound surprising Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is as good as it is, based on Bird’s approach). Wells, not so much. Donald McAlpine’s cinematography is unforgiving. Sets – notably the Morlock underworld – look like sets. The CGI-assisted visuals are untidy and pervasive. There’s much assisted POV that’s ungainly. The time machine itself is way too busy.
Generally, the picture has the odour of too much expense ($80m) thrown at it but with negligible coherent vision. This may explain why Wells was forced to bow out of the end of the shoot, suffering from exhaustion, with Gore Verbinski taking over for the last 18 days. This was Pearce’s first sniff of a genuine (would-be) blockbuster, and he’d steer clear for a decade afterwards; The Time Machine floundered on release, joining the increasing ranks of DreamWorks underperformers or flops (it was a co-production with Warner Bros, who at least had the upside of a reasonable international gross; DreamWorks received the tepid domestic earnings). One thing remakes do tend to achieve, though: give one renewed respect for the original. George Pal’s picture is nothing very special, but sometimes less is more.
*Addendum 24/06/23: I’ve been chasing the wrong conspiracy with that one, it seems. It’s almost inevitable that, when you think you’ve grasped the nettle of some subjects, you instead get stung to blue blazes. There’s long-standing theorising concerning the legitimacy of the nuke threat, and of nuclear technology generally, it took me a while to warm to it (probably in the last three or four years). Warm to it I did, though, and it seemed Q & A answers were confirming the counterfeit nature of the subject (this, however, as tends to be the case, was based on misconception of the parameters of the response).