Daily Archives: May 28, 2020

The Time Machine (2002)

*. In my notes on George Pal’s The Time Machine (1960) I mentioned how the novel by H. G. Wells introduced two longstanding subgenres into SF’s bloodstream: time travel and socio-economic dystopia. Pal’s film really wasn’t much interested in either, preferring to amuse itself with nifty effects (though an enjoyable enough movie for all that). This version, directed by H. G. Wells’ great-grandson Simon Wells, engages a bit with the first but makes an even bigger hash of the second.
*. When I say “time travel” here what I’m referring to isn’t the science of time travel but the way time-travel stories draw attention to the operations of narrative. They involve, indeed highlight, twists and conundrums and paradoxes that challenge the linear way we usually experience a story. This Time Machine does a lot more of this than Pals’ or Wells’ version, making the need to change the past and/or the future a part of the plot. Not that it makes a lot of sense, or is even comprehensible in this regard, but that’s the kind of movie it is.
*. Unfortunately, the business about the split between the Eloi and Morlocks makes even less sense, and completely jettisons any sort of political reading. From the 1960 film the idea is taken that a disaster (or quirk of fate) has led to the great divergence (a nuclear war in the first film, an explosion on the moon here). There is no sense of a division of labour that has become so rigid that the Upperworld and Underworld begin to follow different evolutionary tracks.
*. In fact, these Morlocks are perfectly comfortable in the upper world, not the usual troglodyte albinos afraid of sunlight and fire. They’re also not more advanced than their Eloi cousins. The Eloi are far more intelligent and resourceful than in previous versions of the story, while the Morlocks here only growl and even run on all fours, sort of like the gorillas in Planet of the Apes (2001). It’s hard to believe they still understand metallurgy or engineering.
*. And I’m not sure they do. Apparently they are all being mind-controlled by Jeremy Irons, who seems to be a third kind of creature known as an Über-Morlock. These Über-Morlocks have both psychokinetic and telepathic abilities, and maybe Jeremy Irons is the only one who knows how to keep the machines running.
*. But why keep the machines running? And why eat the Eloi? Whatever devastation the exploding moon wrought, the Earth seems plenty habitable now. The Eloi are feeding themselves. And raising humans as cattle makes zero sense from whatever way you look at it. But perhaps this is being too reasonable.
*. I mentioned how the revolutionary angle in the George Pal film was less British than American. Here the film is actually set in New York, and once again the Eloi are getting lectures on the need to fight back. Needless to say, this is a message the Time Traveler in Wells’ story doesn’t bother with.
*. Guy Pearce is OK as the Time Traveler (who goes by the name of Alexander Hartdegen this time out). At least he looks somewhat different from the usual action star, and like someone who might actually be a scientist. Orlando Jones provides necessary exposition in an amusing way as a holographic librarian. Aside from that I don’t have much nice to say. One big problem is that all the extra plot in both this film and the 1960 version (and the earlier screenplay is actually given a credit here) doesn’t fit that well with the Eloi-Morlock storyline. Here we have the extra detours Alexander makes on his way into the deep future as well as a new back story involving the death of his fiance, which sort of gets the plot up and running but is then dropped rather quickly.
*. It’s hard not to feel, despite all its nods to Wells and Pal, that this is a movie that really didn’t want much to do with either the 1895 or 1960 Time Machine. Instead it plays out like a bunch of bits and pieces taken from various other SF-fantasy films of the period that don’t really go together. The Morlocks haven’t just regressed in evolutionary terms, they’ve turned into orcs. This isn’t the past or the future, but Hollywood Now.