Let’s start with the Morlocks. In the new film version of The Time Machine, the subterranean carnivores are not merely apelike, as in the H.G. Wells novel. They’re Planet of the Apes-like, with mighty deltoids and flowing locks; and that’s only the beginning of their nightmarish iconography. These Morlocks cancerous lizards. With their tucked-up, skeletal noses and dead-white complexions, they also bear a striking resemblance to Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera. I have seldom seen such redundant hideousness designed into movie monsters. If kitchen sinks made you squeamish, the Morlocks would have them installed.
The above-ground, vegetarian Eloi also carry a surplus of associations onto the screen, as many as DreamWorks pictures can drape over their tattooed frames. When time traveler Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce) wakes up among the Eloi more than 800,000 years in the future, he finds them to be a bronze-skinned, cowrie-decorated tribe, not unlike the islanders in the Murnau-Flaherty Tabu. Their choral music seems to have been passed down through the millennia from Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Their dwellings, made of wooden ribs and built high above a river gorge, look like a South Seas cultural project by Renzo Piano. Apparently, these noble savages read Architectural Record; and to prove it, they have exquisite taste in home furnishings. H.G. Wells described the Eloi as squatting in temples that were falling into ruin, as if they were the degenerate inheritors of a Greco-Roman golden age; but our current Eloi live amid the homespun textiles and décor of a pricey Caribbean resort. I almost expected them to lay out for Hartdegen little bottles of shampoo and conditioner from The Body Shop, bearing labels that say “Trade, Not Aid.”
By now, it should be plain that a certain clarity of conception–a dialectical rigor, you might say–has been deemed useless by the makers of this new Time Machine. Writer John Logan and director Simon Wells have not even maintained the separation of nocturnal and diurnal habits; though the Morlocks are said to be creatures of the night, they in fact carry out a raid in full daylight. This disrespect for the source novel doesn’t make The Time Machine a bad movie–I’ll get to those failings in a minute–but it does point up how attitudes have changed between 1895 and today.
As is well-known to anyone with a decent respect for Fabianism, H.G. Wells used The Time Machine to project into the future his ideas about nineteenth-century class struggle. His Eloi were the feeble descendants of aristocrats, lovely to look at but frivolous and idle. The Morlocks were the offspring of workers, condemned to dwell and labor brutishly underground. The twist in Wells’s story was that the workers, by virtue of their know-how, had come to dominate the aristocrats. The twist in Wells’s psychology was that this socialist, born into the very-lower middle class and self-educated out of penury, gave his sympathy to the Eloi and wrote of the Morlocks as subhuman.
Of course, this was just the beginning of The Time Machine‘s meanings. As the story spread from H.G. Wells to the movies, the 1927 Metropolis gave us not only the struggle between aristocrats-in-the-clouds and proles-in-the-mines but also two other head-on collisions: between modern science and Gothic magic, between the sluttish New Woman and the peasant-village Madonna. The movie resolved these many contradictions through a final handshake between Capital and Labor–a gesture so unsatisfactory that it hinted at stronger convictions left unexpressed. They would emerge soon enough. When screenwriter Thea von Harbou got around to defining her politics, she proved that H.G. Wells’s fable could also appeal to a National Socialist.
Speeding back toward the present, we discover more and more uses for Wells’s invention. Passing quickly over its appearance in the 1960 movie by George Pal–in retrospect, a notably faithful adaptation of The Time Machine–we find the device turning into a tool of manhood. In the 1967 Star Trek episode “City on the Edge of Forever,” written by Harlan Ellison, time travel provided an occasion for the heroic renunciation of love, as tragically enacted by the last fictional character capable of this choice: Capt. James T. Kirk. In Nicholas Meyers’s 1979 Time After Time the machine became the vehicle for a slasher picture–a rather charming, romantic one–in which a timid H.G. Wells bested the manly Jack the Ripper.
Then came the juvenile time travelers. Terry Gilliam gave us a schoolboy’s vision of universal corruption in Time Bandits (1981). Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale encouraged their adult audience to revert to school-days nostalgia (and Oedipal longings) in the 1985 Back to the Future. And after that, as if to confirm Nietzsche’s worst fears about the shape of time, we began to get the recapitulations. Just recently, we saw another Metropolis (this one splendidly animated, by Taro Rin) and another kind of unhinged-in-time slasher movie, Christopher Nolan’s Memento, which by a strange coincidence starred Guy Pearce, the pilot of the latest Time Machine.
As I think of Pearce, the wooziness of the current film is plain to see in his performance. When he first appears, he behaves like the funny professor in a Disney preteen movie, wiping the blackboard with his jacket sleeve, blinking over the top of his little eyeglasses and letting his marvelously sculpted jaw hang slack. But then, very quickly, the filmmakers turn him into a tragic, obsessed figure, who clenches that jaw and can’t be bothered to shave. The reason: His fiancée dies right before his eyes (and ours), not once but twice.
Again, I note the redundancy, which is particularly important here because it is the filmmakers’ own invention, and their reason for sending Hartdegen into the future. H.G. Wells saw no such need to explain his protagonist’s interest in time travel; curiosity was motive enough. But he assumed his readers would want to know how time travel might be possible, and so he devoted his whole first chapter to speculation about the fourth dimension. In 2002, Simon Wells and John Logan see no need to explain time travel (and certainly wouldn’t frontload their movie with math). But they assume their audience will want to know why anyone would go to the trouble of inventing a machine, and so they kill off a character. To make sure that we get it, they even kill her again.
They treat us as if we were H.G. Wells’s Eloi: mild, incurious and stupid.
And here’s where the new Time Machine has its own dialectical twist. In the Logan-Wells version, the Morlocks are both bestial and dangerously cerebral. (I know that doesn’t make sense, but trust me. There’s a very smart über-Morlock who looks just like the old rock star Edgar Winter.) That’s the Aryan side of things. The viewers, meanwhile, are expected to sympathize with the Eloi, who are nice and multicultural but passive. “This is the world,” they explain helplessly, and a bit self-righteously, when Hartdegen learns they’re lunch for the Morlocks. “How can you do nothing?” he demands, even more self-righteously. They need someone with a bit of über-Morlock in him to revive the notion of free will. Hartdegen, the Last White Man, will teach the tourist-resort staff to resist. He will blow things up.
And now, having defined Fabianism for the year 2002, I will mention the good bits in The Time Machine. The device itself looks wonderful when it’s whirring at full speed, encased in a globe of light. Sometimes, sunk within a quickly changing landscape, it even resembles a glowing eyeball. Production designer Oliver Scholl has been equally clever with the Eloi’s housing–especially at night, when the cliffside shells turn into lanterns. There are also a few bright spots in the storytelling. For a minor example, I can cite a shop window that’s across the street from Hartdegen’s time machine. As fashions change over the years, the mannequins do a funny stop-motion dance. For a major example, I offer Orlando Jones’s performance as a holographic, computerized librarian.
You may have seen Jones’s long-faced drollery in such less-than-terrific movies as Evolution and The Replacements. Here, he’s made to represent nothing less than the sum of all knowledge–and instead of bowing under the weight, he rises with it, giving a performance that seems to come entirely from the balls of his feet. Despite having to play a machine, he’s the only human character in the movie. So long as Jones was on the screen, I felt there was a good reason for H.G. Wells to have brought out his invention in 1895–and for the Lumière brothers to have bothered, in that same year, to project their own ghosts of time past onto a cafe wall.
Screening Schedule: A time machine of another sort is now at work around the country, in a retrospective of the films of Joris Ivens. From a starting point in the European and political avant-garde of the 1920s, Ivens’s cinema moved on to document (evoke, eulogize, sing) many of the most profound social and political moments of the twentieth century–and then concluded in 1988 with the astonishing A Tale of the Wind, which turned his own life story into a poem, a landscape, a philosophy. All this is now available to you in the present, March 20-28, at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, and in the near future at cinematheques and museums in Washington, Boston, Ithaca, Cleveland, Chicago, Berkeley, Toronto and Vancouver. Watch for it: The Films of Joris Ivens: Cinema Without Borders.