The Time Machine

Mar 13, 2002 at 12:00 am

H.G. Wells’ darkly allegorical novella, The Time Machine: An Invention, first published in 1895, didn’t reach the screen until 1960, when producer-director George Pal turned it into a rather sunny romantic adventure with nasty monsters, much derring-do and cool special effects. For diehard Wells fans, it was a typical Hollywoodization of a serious work (despite Pal’s independent status), with its social critique gutted and the juvenile aspect of the story’s conceit enhanced.

No one watching the film could possibly divine that the bifurcated species the time traveler encounters in the distant future was Wells’ extrapolation on the effects of the industrial revolution — the laboring class having evolved into brute beasts (Morlocks) who, in a grisly bit of table-turning, literally feed on the effete descendants of the ruling class (Eloi). Wells the social reformer was sending a message to his fellow elites: Reform the situation now or it will bite your ass in the future.

But while Pal and his scriptwriter David Duncan’s transformation of Wells’ pessimistic vision into a ripping yarn may have struck some as typical pop-culture vulgarization, if you saw it at a certain age you couldn’t help but be impressed by a Wellsian element which did survive, the sense of wonder provoked by taking a simple premise and running with it. It’s the kind of film that suggests all sorts of possibilities when you’re young and your inner life still buzzes with unsettled currents — and then later, when you revisit it in all your adult dullness, it still sparks a fond response. In the ensuing 42 years, the film has become as nearly hallowed a text as Wells’ original, the kind of source material that people get upset about if they think it’s being dicked with.

Which may explain, in part, why the latest Time Machine, adapted by Paul Logan from the Pal-Duncan version and with Wells’ vision receding even further into the background, has garnered such abysmal reviews. The picture is directed by Simon Wells, H.G.’s great-grandson, a fact worthy of about two seconds of reflection (“how about that”), and changes have been made that are not necessarily improvements.

The setting has been moved from London to New York, though still circa 1900. The time traveler, now called Alexander Hartgeden (Guy Pearce), has been given an added incentive for his researches; his fiancee, Emma (Sienna Guillory), has been killed during a mugging in the park and he wants to go back in time to save her. After his attempt to do so fails — he manages to prevent the mugging, only to see her run over by a carriage, yet another indication of God’s scampish humor — he decides to travel far into the future where perhaps he’ll find the secret of manipulating the past.

All this is picturesque and well-paced (the movie runs a tight 96 minutes,) but it’s also set up, as is Hartgeden’s first stop a mere 1,000 years in the future, while we wait for him to advance another 800,000 so we can see how the Morlock-Eloi thing is handled. Unlike the vaguely Nordic space cases of the Pal version (who wandered through the lush countryside in identical white cocktail dresses), the Eloi this time around are vaguely Tahitian cave dwellers, their abodes lodged on the faces of imposing cliffs. The Yvette Mimieux love-interest role is here taken by Samantha Mumba, an indication of the pop-culture shift in the exotic ideal from willowy blonde Euro-babe to cutely “ethnic.”

As for the Morlocks, they’re a distinct improvement over Pal’s flabby, lumbering crew, here being streamlined and more obviously animalistic. And while in the earlier version it wasn’t clear how these growling slobs could create and maintain their mechanistic underground world, here it’s revealed that the strings are being pulled by a race of über-Morlocks, personified by Jeremy Irons in full albino drag, exuding all the weary hubris of one of the high priests from The Mole People.

Apparently The Time Machine suffered some production setbacks (Gore Vebinski took over from Wells after principal shooting was completed) and it does seem a little choppy in places. But it worked for me, at least on a very basic entertainment level. It may lack the simple charm of the Pal version, but it doesn’t err on the side of wretched excess like the dreadful Mummy remakes. It’s a middling variation on a theme whose essential awesomeness can’t help but still generate a few electric kicks.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].