The Time Machine
Perhaps having a weekly time-travel TV show readily available was the root of finding The Time Machine merely so-so when I first saw it. I can’t say I was that blown away by the source novella either; in all honesty, Stephen Baxter’s officially-authorised centenary sequel The Time Ships was more impressive, probably because we’ve all been spoiled with increasingly intricate, multiversular explorations of the concept since 1895. HG Wells’ first temporal stirrings now seem rather quaint and rudimentary. Revisiting George Pal’s picture is rewarding in one sense, then, as it’s much more serviceable than I recalled, but it undoubtedly falls into a rather basic, overthrow-the-oppressors groove once the Morlocks enter the scene.
Pal wisely retains the period setting, having opted for a contemporary The War of the Worlds seven years earlier (probably the right choice in terms of surfing the sci-fi, alien-invaders boom); he shot the picture in the US rather than the UK, though, which admittedly pays off in terms of 802,701’s on-the-face-of-it utopia resembling, quite inevitably, the California countryside.
Rod Taylor, whose resemblance to Robin Williams from certain angles had hitherto escaped me, makes for a decidedly brawny George (HG Wells/ the Time Traveller), thus framing him more as an action hero type than would likely have been the case had the more expected picks of David Niven or James Mason been pursued. Generally, though, the Hollywood-does-Victoriana is quite persuasive, with some decently cast supporting thesps – notably Sebastian Cabot as the dismissive Philip and Alan Young as several generations of Filbys – and a quite magnificent and iconic machine design.
Indeed, ironic to say, but everything that acts as a prelude to the part that is – loosely – based on the novella is on the superior side. George sitting in his chair, watching the years roll by as the fashions on a – remarkably durable – shop window dummy change is a neat shorthand, and utilising known history in the form of both World Wars makes an effective future shock to period eyes. His stop-off in 1966 is also intriguing, in that Pal’s – or rather, screenwriter David Duncan’s, later of Fantastic Voyage – vision of a nuked London, with an “atomic satellite zeroing in” and James Filby sporting a silver suit (in contrast to everyone else, admittedly) is a fairly seamless Cold War continuance of the themes of apocalyptic angst Wells was nursing (Pal doesn’t treat us to the novella’s ultimate end of the world). Indeed, I recall that The Time Ships included Wells’ version of a nuke; appropriate for science fiction, since we all know nukes are a hoax.
Pal’s definitely gone for the obvious with his blonde, ineffectually Aryan Eloi (one might see them as a precursor to stoned hippies) and fugly Morlocks, but there wasn’t much nuance in the source text. Wells’ subtext – at least, as far as most analysis is concerned – of the switch up between the underclasses (going underground) and the privileged (staying on the surface), such that the oppressed become the oppressor, is rather diluted by the helpful exposition of the talking Rings, recounting a war between East and West having reached its 326th year when it ended, the atmosphere “polluted with germs” – Pasteurian germs? – and unbreathable, with the last oxygen manufacturing factory destroyed; some chose to seek refuge “in the great caverns” while the rest opted to take their chances in the sunlight.
Much of the proceedings is taken up with George falling for bubble-brained Weena (Yvette Mimeux) – the nadir of which finds her asking about turn-of-the-century haircuts – and attempting to instil some motivation in the Eloi. While this eventually has an effect, and the Morlocks are at least set back, they are clearly not down and out, as their time machine trap suggests; there’s less ambiguity over where George has gone at the end than in the novella, and I rather like the idea of his taking some instructive texts back with him (“Which three books would you have taken?” Well obviously, one would want a rather rum sort of library: The Water Babies, Moby Dick, and UK Habitats of the Canadian Goose).
Pauline Kael was on point when she averred “it deteriorates into comic-strip grotesqueries when the fat, ogreish future race of Morlocks torment the effete, platinum-blond, vacant-eyed race of Eloi”, while Time Out’s Paul Fairclough considered that, by “stripping away the attack on the British class system” Pal reduced the novel to “its bare bones”, leaving only “glossy emptiness”. That charge has some validity, but its corollary is also that the future scenario is left open to greater interpretation. Wells was a socialist, member of the Fabian Society and eugenicist, so the degree to which he presented genuine warning over the predilections of mankind and the contrasting extent to which this was predictive programming of the inevitable are up for debate (indeed, he was also, as that cumulative roster of affiliations might suggest, a Black Hat).
There are obvious connections to be made with subsequent SF forays that decade. The blonde pacifist Thals and hideous mutant Daleks – arising from that perfidious spectre, nuclear war – of Terry Nation’s second Doctor Who story a couple of years later. The reversed roles of dumb, ineffectual humans and brutal, evolved simians of Planet of the Apes. Further, the essential idea of those controlling an oblivious humanity from beneath the ground suggests DUMBs, Draco and conniving Elite. The Morlocks are, after all cannibals. Some have suggested Vril, the Power of the Coming Race might have been an influence on Wells, and the parsing of Eloi (Elohim, albeit that isn’t then to foster the further association with Anunnaki), and Morlock – Moloch (child sacrifice, but specifically cannibals here) – has been commented upon.
Added to which, we have the excised segment of the novel – initially included at Wells’ publisher’s behest, it seems – of the Grey Man representing the “ultimate degeneracy” of humanity. It does sound not a little similar to the Greys (albeit not in Wells’ description), comprising the ultimate degeneracy, or evolution, if you will, of the human form. And might the traveller be considered a surrogate of another inventor of the period, one Nikolai Tesla (Wells’ traveller somehow manages to flit around time without accessing portals, however)?
There are, of course, logistical issues to be considered, beyond simply those of viable temporal engineering. Such as the lava forming rock around George; the explanation that it is out of phase, or “attenuated” per the novel, unless he stops is probably about the most acceptable. Similarly, he should probably be visible, if he’s “there” all the time. As for why he doesn’t go spinning off the Earth as it travels through space… Well, you can look to gravity. Or, rather like his miraculous escape, unpoisoned, from nukes, you can question the overriding principle itself.*
The Time Machine may be no abiding classic, then, but it’s held in understandably higher regard than the next big-screen stab at the tale. And like Pal’s Wells adaptation predecessor, it retains a certain iconic lustre. There’s little here that resonates thematically, but George’s time machine is simply spiffy.
*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).