Director: George Pal
Cinematographer: Paul Vogel
Writer: David Duncan, based on The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
by Tory Maddox
Reading The Time Machine when you’re fourteen and reading it when you’re twenty nine is a great demonstration of improving literacy. A friend of mine was over while I was finishing up the novel, wondering how I could even find it entertaining, as when he had read it while he was fourteen it was impossible to grasp. I too gave it a go back and then and recall thinking the story read as though written in the 1800s, like Wuthering Heights or Madam Bovary, it provided dense and confusing prose. This second round I was surprised with the beautiful and accessible language, proving why it’s remained timeless - gorgeous characters, fascinating ideas, and great action. Unfortunately, it took me awhile to get to this DVD after having to leave town and so the comparisons are far less ripe.
The first thing to know is that this is not in any way a faithful adaptation of the novel. I even believe that given the fantastical nature of the novel, that H.G. Wells story would have an incredible difficult time ever getting a faithful adaptation, unless from David Fincher (who was once supposed to do a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) or Terry Gilliam, on account of Well’s ability to blend insight with action. It’s a good movie, taking the most general and superficially exciting moments from the text and leaving everything else behind. Nevertheless, the opening scene between the five friends is great, with George (Rod Taylor), showing a functioning miniature model of the time machine, and raising a question I never considered - does time travel adapt to the space in which one is traveling; that is, if I time travel a quarter of a year into the future, would I simply plop into the empty space of Earth’s orbit, or does time operate alongside space, allowing me to stay on the planet? And was this what Wells was exploring during the famous concluding sequence?
George then embarks on his first experiment with the machine, and in the film’s most incredible sequence, in which the director uses stop motion to show plants and animals growing and decaying; along with a highly creative portrayal of time passing as George overlooks a dress store, with the latest fashions coming and going. It’s here that the film takes liberty, placing George midway into the first world war where he meets his best friend’s son, then later travels to an alternative 1960s alternative universe, again meeting his best friend’s son, which then gets attacked by a nuclear weapon, shifting into an incredible use of a miniature city, destroyed by lava - it’s absurd, it’s simple, and looks absolutely ridiculous and amazing.
Unfortunately that where’s the story essentially peaks out, as once he gets to the year 802,701 where, coincidentally, everyone seems to be wearing a rendition of 1960s clothes and has haircuts from the period. As mentioned in Fahrenheit 451, I do not understand how a director that was so creative with the production special effects couldn’t see that his rendition of over 780,000 years into the future looked exactly like the period in which the film was made. This is one of those mistakes that’s up there with computers making sounds while loading files or clicking buttons; it pulls me out every time.
The film then kind of returns to the novel, except not at all expanding on the convolution and specificity of Wells’ story and instead upon the macro idea about monsters living beneath the planet. One of the greatest parts of the novel are the politics you miss when reading it too young. In the novel, George believed that the Eloi had miraculously produced a utopia where everyone is free to do as they please and live in bliss. Discovering the Morlocks, he then believes the Eloi were evil byproducts of a fierce capitalist system, enslaving the lower class people for their benefit. What’s especially dark is his exploration over how it was insurmountable; as though this result is the end product; that no matter what we attempt to do this end result is inevitable.
Earlier in both the film and book George discusses his fear of advancing technologies and where they’ll lead . Given that the film came out only fifteen years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was a perfect chance to represent these fears, which culminates in showing the bomb drop. In the book it remains more abstract, making it all the more timeless as the methods to kill have become more efficient (though this does raise questions about drone usage and what Wells would think). So, it seems as though Wells was pointing to slavery as the worst potential effect of the far distant future, where weapons in the hands of the powerful few could tame and confine those who could not fight.
Once George returns to his spaceship, the movie completely fails to even attempt to create the actual ending, where he travels 30 million years into the future, finding giant red crabs wandering across desolate beach fronts, then further into the Earth ceasing to spin, entering into a severe ice age where every living thing dies. I want to compare this to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I think that 1) Kubrick got the idea from Wells; at least in part, and 2) that 2001 doesn’t even come close to capturing how crazy this scene is, which I also get frustrated with because it makes me think of your generic psychedelic trip scene, from a film or modern book, even though this story came out in 1895.
Regardless of its shortcomings, this is an awesome and amazing film that gets drowned out by what you’d consider the best sci-fi films of the 60s were - 2001, Planet of the Apes, Alphaville, The Last Man on Earth, Night of the Living Dead, etc. This film still has a family feel to it, but it at least takes mild cue from the novel and explores some pretty heavy stuff with some pretty fun effects.
BELOW: The brilliant first travel sequence
Thoughts on films, old and new
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