It turns out that Erik Jaccard gets very frustrated when things have the potential to be very smart, but end up being the opposite, like Simon Wells’ film adaptation of his great-grandfather’s novel The Time Machine. For a complete rundown of how the film misses out on engagements with issues of class, the workings of capitalism, and, oh, anything good about the novel itself, read on.
The Time Machine
Dir. Simon Wells
If I were going to try to explain The Time Machine to someone who had never seen it or heard of it, my explanation would go as follows:
In 1895 an extremely intelligent, ambitious, and prolific young scientist named H.G. Wells published a clever novel based on a simple question: given what we know about the descent of man and the evolution of species through natural selection (an idea still thought radical by many at the time), what is the likely outcome of human evolution? Of course, he had naught to go on but what he knew, and what he knew were the ideas of his own time, those natural to the world of late Victorian England. Predictably, his story of a driven, enthusiastic English scientist travelling ahead to the year 802,701 and finding the species split between two peoples — decadent, childlike surface dwellers and the ‘ape-like’ subterranean brutes who feed on them — drew on the issues of his time: the increasingly rapid advance of scientific and technological progress, institutionalized and regressive class relations, and anxieties then current about the potential degeneration of the human species. The result was a story that used a very popular form of narrative — the romance — and turned its standard hero-and-quest structure on its head by injecting it with scientific logic and method. It asked its reader to consider how the world might change in the future if it were based on scientific foundations (as opposed to mythical or fantasy-based ones), and what the contrast provided by this glimpse of the future could say about the present. One hundred and seven years later, an American studio executive decided to let the prolific young scientist’s great-grandson, a man known primarily for having supervised the animation on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, direct an Hollywood film adaptation of the novel, with very mixed results.
Now, I am not hating on The Time Machine per se; there are redeemable qualities to the film, which I will discuss eventually. But as an act of translation from text to screen, from late nineteenth century proto-science fiction novel to twenty-first century Hollywood action blockbuster, it loses much of what makes the novel such an interesting read for either a layperson or academic. This is not to say that the criterion for success of any such adaptation is a perceived fidelity to the details and design of source material — hardly. Numerous films have stayed within the larger textual apparatus of an earlier work and made the transition seem smooth and interesting while still diverging noticeably from original foundations. Indeed, working within the parameters of an original, or extrapolating original frameworks or concepts and applying them to new situations, is what makes ‘re-‘ projects (reworks, revisions, remakes, recalibrations, etc) so imaginatively productive and fun. The problem with The Time Machine is that it doesn’t seem conscious of which original elements it is most interested in adapting, how it wants to use them, and why. Conversely, the elements it seems most concerned with emphasizing are the least interesting ones, the generic imperatives of the action-romance plot that demand we have a likeable, knowable character, a passion-driven, righteous quest for love, freedom, and redemption, and, true to its twenty-first century origins (not to mention the director’s talents), a host of special effects and animation. Therefore, the concept that could have made the film interesting — the extension of Wellsian evolutionary narrative into a contemporary American political context — plays inconsistent and underdeveloped back fiddle to the film’s hackneyed love story (absent in the novel) and the romantic quest to turn back the clock it catalyzes. This inconsistency is, frankly, utterly confusing for the viewer of The Time Machine, mostly because the film seems primed to reap the intellectual benefits of its ur-text at key moment before serving away to once again center on its central love story.
One of the easiest ways to trace this confusion is by looking at the various translational shifts between the novel and the film. One of the most noticeable is the shift in setting from fin de siècle London to fin de siècle New York. This is understandable in the sense that the film is a Hollywood ‘rework’, and thus aimed at a different (largely American) audience that might appreciate a US setting more than a UK one (as though 1899 New York were somehow less distant than 1899 London). The contrast between the ‘rework’ and the ‘remake’ is extremely relevant here. About halfway through the film, when ‘the time traveler’ (see my plot summary below) visits 2030 New York, a virtual holographic library guide pulls up a summary of Wells’s novel, letting us know that whatever it is we’re watching, it is not that same novel; which is interesting, considering the film goes about reproducing the novel’s basic shape while denying in many ways its foundational influence. It’s as though we’re meant to understand that there was once a novel called The Time Machine, but that it is a work of fiction lying somehow outside the arena of the plausible in our film’s version of reality. We know that it’s not, but the fact that it’s referenced this way within the film itself is at least somewhat ironic (oh, the irony of the metatext!) and does more to distance this lackluster version from its original source than it does to close that distance. It’s as though they wanted to make sure we knew we were watching a ‘new’ Time Machine, which we undoubtedly do. The problem is that the ‘new’ Time Machine is far worse than the original one, and trying to create a new space for it here only serves to make its ‘newness’ seem more remote from Wells’s original intentions, more crass, more pointed, but also more avoidable.
The displacement of the setting also, at first, seems intended at producing the pointed social contrast I note above. In shifting the scene to New York and thus naturalizing the American frame of social and cultural reference, the time travel element — seeing what the US might look like in 800,000 years if it evolved from present circumstances — seems ready to open up a compelling space for political critique (something Wells’s fiction did consistently, and for which he was constantly criticized by the British literary establishment). But most of these opportunities are squandered or shunted into the background, reified as historical props for the same recycled love story we’ve seen two trillion times before, and which adds nothing more than an extra degree of marketability to the cardboard plot. The film never gets around to explaining why its 800,000-year-old American future looks strangely like the 800,100-year-old English future, coming closest by introducing the concept of an ‘über Morlock’ (see below) to Wells’s established future human hierarchy.
We start in 1899, when our protagonist, a scientist-inventor fellow named Dr. Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce) is busy pursuing his cutting edge research at Columbia University. When we first meet Alexander he is the typical absent-minded scientist, so absorbed in his work that the practical details of the world seem either beyond his grasp or entirely irrelevant. However, Alexander is not so nerdy and self-involved that he avoids the ladies. As we learn, he has a fair-haired young sweetheart named Emma, who is tragically killed one night in the park, only moments after he has proposed. Years pass and when we next see Alexander he is once again busy in his classroom, but this time to an extent that lets us know he has become a little less Thomas Edison and a little more Victor Frankenstein. Indeed, in the ensuing four years Alexander has obsessively devoted himself to building a time machine with the intention of preventing Emma’s murder in the past and generally wreaking havoc on the space-time continuum. But when it turns out that things aren’t quite that simple — saving Emma in the past only leads to her death yet again — Alexander jets off once more, this time into the future, to find out whether it is even possible to save her. One of the film’s more interesting and pointed additions to the original plot involve two new stops in time before he reaches the distant future. He stops first in the year 2030, where a holographic guide in the New York Public library (Orlando Jones) explains to him that time travel is indeed impossible. While there, Alexander notices an advertisement for what seem to be timeshares on a new lunar colony — a portentous sign that American/multinational imperial hubris continues the British imperial project of Wells’s day. Dissatisfied, Alexander travels seven years further, only to find that in their haste to colonize the moon, developers have drilled too deep, causing the moon to begin breaking up. Knocked unconscious while attempting to escape, Alexander accidentally travels all the way to the year 802,701, where he learns that the human race has descended into two different species. On the surface live the peaceful, child-like, and awfully native American-looking Eloi, ancestors of those who stayed above ground after the destruction of the moon. Alexander befriends one such Eloi, a young, nubile woman named Mara (British pop star Samantha Mumba), who apparently learned the ins and outs of English by reading it from an old stone fragment and can thus communicate with him (it’s ok to suspend your disbelief on the language element — I did). Below ground, however, live ape-like creatures called Morlocks, who feed off the peaceful Eloi and are controlled by (in the film, anyway) hyper-cerebralized ‘über-Morlocks’ who have spent 800,000 years developing their intellectual capacities and now life their lives out below ground, fueled by enlarged cerebral cortexes that look like oversized, parasitic tapeworms attached to their spine.
It’s about here that the film takes an absurd turn for the cravenly sentimental worst. Pardon me if my frustration gets the better of me. Alexander discovers a still-functioning, but very lonely, version of the Orlando Jones hologram from 2030, which tells him how to reach the catacombs where the Morlocks hang out and much on Eloi sandwiches. While he’s there, our hero discovers one of the ‘über-Morlocks,’ (a frighteningly costumed Jeremy Irons) who explains to him how and why things have turned down this degenerate road. Then there’s a fight aboard the time machine, Jeremy Irons gets shoved out of it and withers away as it speeds into the future, and Alexander zips back to rescue Mara, save the Eloi, and start his new life as an Eloi elder. The. Fucking. Happy. End. Alexander is absolved for Emma’s death, which he couldn’t logically avenge due to a temporal paradox (because he created the time machine in order to save her, saving her would mean that he’d never have created the time machine — BOOM, somewhere in the night Marty McFly’s head explodes from the gravity of it all). He also saves the day for the oppressed Eloi, introducing concepts of universal freedom, ‘rights,’ and justice into a society that has been evolving for eight HUNDRED thousand years in the future and would, if we really cared to think about it, have no idea, whatsoever, what the fuck he was talking about. For example, upon learning how the Morlocks prey upon the defenseless Eloi, he exasperatingly asks the latter why they don’t ‘fight back,’ channeling the righteous indignation of the Tea Party participant (actual, not revived) or propertied landowner defending his own inherent worth. I’m not arguing the idea of inherent human worth, only that part of the point of The Time Machinefrom the beginning is to imagine a future in which these abstract concepts have, by entirely logical means, become irrelevant. This idea doesn’t seem to have meshed with the filmmakers’ vision, which essentially has Alexander travel 800,000 years into the future so that he can ideologically re-colonize a piece of land that hasn’t been known as ‘The United States of America’ for 799,999 years and which, shockingly, has forgotten how to love the universal rights of man. Because this is an action film and we don’t have to worry about thinking, it might not matter that Alexander is essentially a futuristic Columbus, traveling through time rather than space, and who pulls the carpet from beneath the feet of a people too astonished and uncomprehending to be thankful. Perhaps he was also carrying typhoid; that at least would seem to complete the historical sub-text.
The Eloi and Morlocks of the novel were originally written to figure human evolution along the class lines of Well’s day, with the decadent, leisured classes having degenerated into the wispy, ethereal Eloi and the subterranean working classes having turned into the cannibalistic Morlocks. Even though the novel turns the traditional power dynamic in this relationship on its head (it’s the Morlocks [labor] who prey on the Eloi [capital] and not the other way around), the poignancy of this setup is the critique it implies, the way different classes of human can be read as different species within the dominant social logic (presumably, of capitalism, but also imperialism). Personally, I can’t think of a better way of administering a political critique of contemporary American social relations. Yet this film is perfectly fine leaving the politics to the nineteenth century, emptying anything that might mean anything in our world of its force and leaving us with a husk of what they once were (and still are, if the film cared to notice).
I think I said that I would speak of redeeming qualities: The stop-motion cinematography in the time-travel sequences is pretty neat.
I had free-floating thoughts, but they all turned to anger and frustration while I was writing this. Anger and frustration, like water, boils at 212 degrees and my thoughts all drifted off to join a cloud of discontent I have since used my über-Morlock brain to send Simon Wells’s way. Go figure.