The Time Machine

In preparation for the film, I read the novel by H.G. Wells. It’s just over 70 pages, so it’s a quick read. In the famous novel, the main character – known only as “The Time Traveller” – takes his time machine 800,000 years in the future, where he encounters two species: the small, peaceful but rather stupid Eloi and the violent, cannibalistic Morlocks, who prey upon the Eloi. The novel deals with both Marxism and Darwinist evolutionary theory and is surprisingly relevant to our modern day and age. The new movie deals with Guy Pearce and the “7-Up Guy,” and lots of special effects.

The movie begins with the Time Traveller (Pearce), now known as Professor Alexander Hartdgen, taking time off from his scientifical work (which involves lots of numbers and letters scribbled on chalkboards) to propose to his so-perfect-she’s-doomed girlfriend. One gunshot later and our hero has his idee fixe: to build a time machine and change the past.

Alex builds the machine, but finds to his shock that he can’t change the past. So, assuming that his descendants will be much smarter, he heads into the future to find out why. After a brief stop in the twenty-first century to talk to a holographic museum guide (played by Orlando Jones of “Make 7-Up yours!” fame) and witness the destruction of the moon, Alex accidentally leaps 800,000 years into the future.

In the novel, after 800K years the human race had split into two classes, the aristocrats and the workers, who eventually evolved into two species. The Eloi are little more than domesticated cattle for the Morlocks’ dining pleasure. In the movie, the Eloi are noble and intelligent Native Americans who run like cowards when the Morlocks come to eat them. Alex decides to take things into his own hands and show these monster-movie rejects who’s boss. Along the way he meets the bizarre, brilliant leader of the Morlocks, played by Jeremy Irons and referred to as the “ ber-Morlock” in the film’s credits.

The addition of the Irons character is probably the biggest departure from the novel; it’s also the most confusing, and serves to eliminate most of the Marxist and evolutionary questions that were in the novel. Irons is game for the hammy role, as he was for the evil sorcerer he played in the awful Dungeons and Dragons, and even in this brief cameo he outshines Pearce, who is all grimaces and pain. For what amounts to little more than a goofy sci-fi film, it’s a shame Pearce takes it so seriously (he’s capable of more; witness his passive-aggressive, effeminate portrayal of the villain in The Count of Monte Cristo). Samantha Mumba, as the Eloi love interest Mara, has one of the most pleasant, comforting screen presences I’ve ever seen, but she doesn’t get to do much else.

While I haven’t seen it, the 1960 George Pal version of The Time Machine incorporated a nuclear war into its plot, using that to account for the degeneracy and mutation of the Morlocks. This one makes a cursory attempt to keep the class issues intact, but it’s mostly concerned with giving us a lot of cool special effects. This, at least, is one place where the film delivers: the effects showing the passage of time are impressive, and the damaged moon, with chunks orbiting its remaining form, is one of the more terribly beautiful images I’ve seen in film.

I suppose it really goes without saying that a big-budget film like this wouldn’t exactly force its viewers to really think. It’s happy to play with the possibilities of time travel and throw up lots of fancy images. And that’s okay; I didn’t begrudge the filmmakers that hour and a half of my life when it was over. The scenes with Orlando Jones are amusing enough to warrant seeing the film.

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