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Friday, October 2, 2009

The Time Machine

The first block-buster sci-fi of the 60s was the George Pal production of H.G. Wells' classic, The Time Machine (TM). It followed the novel in that a victorian era inventor travels into earth's future to find civilization as he knew, to be replaced by an enigmatic and grim world. The movie won awards for its time-lapse photo effects. Though not a huge budget movie, the overall effect is an impressive A-level film. Rod Taylor gets his first starring role. Yvette Mimieux stars as Weena.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Several dinner guests arrive at the home of H. George Wells on New Years Eve, 1899. The host staggers in late, his clothes a shambles. He recounts his adventures. He had called them together a week earlier to announce his invention of a time machine. They all scoffed. Undaunted, George travels forward in time. He advances to 1917. He meets James, the son of his friend David Filby, but learns that David died in the war. George reenters his machine and advances to 1941. London is being bombed. He advances just as a bomb levels his house. He advances to 1966. Sirens wail. Civil Defense men rush people to bomb shelters. George meets a very old James Filby briefly before the attack begins. George reenters his machine just as the mushroom clouds "sprout." Volcanos erupt. Lava fills London's streets and bury him in his time machine. He waits until the future years have eroded the lava rock. He then sees an idyllic landscape with hints of structures. He stops in the year 802,701. His machine sits at the base of a scowling stone sphinx. George explores the Eden-like forest. He finds content, though oblivious, people, the Eloi. He rescues one of them from drowning. She, Weena, eventually shows gratitude and shows George around their shallow life amid the ruins. George is upset with the Eloi for letting progress atrophy. A siren wails and all the Eloi march, zombie-like to the sphinx. Many go in, including Weena, before the doors close. George clambers down an access shaft to rescue her. He fights the Morlocks and frees the Eloi. They get out, but George is trapped with his machine. He fights off more Morlocks, but escapes in time. He returns to 1900 and the dinner party. His friends don't believe his tale, except David Filby, who wonders. George and his machine disappear again. This time, he took three books with him. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Wells' tale is fascinating on its own. Pal's adaptation is well crafted in its own right. Once he begins time traveling, the pace is brisk.

Cold War Angle
A nuclear-armegeddon is inserted into the story, where Wells had none. The attack in 1966 is what people had been preparing for (Civil Defense officers, bomb shelters, warning sirens) since the Soviets got nukes. The nuclear destruction that audiences always feared became the catalyst which split humanity into Eloi and Morlocks.

Booking a View -- A movie based on a classic novel invariably draws fire for not exactly matching the book. David Duncan's screenplay tried, at times, to be close to Wells' text, though with obvious Hollywood deviations. While not a perfect copy, TM is a pretty good effort, given the pre-CGI limitations. The Eloi as young vacuous blonds was a prudent choice. Skinny child actors would have better matched Wells' description, but would have given the George & Weena interaction some creepy pedophile undertones.

Predicting the Past -- Wells' novel did not attempt to predict World War I or II. Duncan's script added those vignettes to set up the overall anti-war cautionary moral. The time-lapse through women's fashions, in the shop window across the street, was a neat device for implying the passage of time.

Hot War vs. Class War -- Wells' novel focused more on social inequality, oppression of the working class by the elites, for the eventual split of mankind into Eloi and Morlocks. Duncan's script blamed the nuclear armageddon for having sent some survivors underground while the survivors on the surface 'evolved' separately. Wells' Morlocks were the extension of the underground society the artilleryman imagined in Wells' novel "War of the Words" (Man on Putney Hill chapter).

Metropolis Extreme -- The Eloi and Morlocks make a tidy parallel to the penthouse elite and under-city workers in Fritz Lang's Metropolis ('27). In Lang's vision of the nearer future, mankind was in the process of separating into two distinct groups. Wells' tale fast-forwards that split. By the time of the Morlocks, the workers were no longer the oppressed, but the oppressors.

Hippy Preview -- Pal's Eloi presage (and exaggerate) a trait of later 60s youth culture -- the flower children. There is no one over 30 to mistrust. They exude a meek and flaccid detachment from "the materialist world", nothing to do all day but cavort in an endless summer, eat fruit and never work. No laws, no government -- a libertarian hippy Eden. George gets to be the voice the frustrated 50s generation (the parents of their underachieving hippy children). "What have you done? Thousands of years of building and rebuilding, creating and recreating so you can let it crumble to dust. A million years of sensitive men dying for their dreams... for what? So you can swim and dance and play."

Hot Seat -- Fans of TM are fond of the Time Machine prop itself. It led a tough life after the movie. It languished in disrepair and suffered as a sideshow novelty. It was eventually rescued by Bob Burns and restored.

Remakes Galore -- Pal's TM set the standard. A 1978 made-for-TV-movie version amounts to an adaptation of Pal's story more than a remake of Wells' novel. The '78 Eloi are more normal human -- still all pretty, but not as simple-minded. A 2002 version sought to wow audiences with GCI effects. The '02 remake was still further from Wells' novel. The '02 Eloi were more politically correct "nobel savages" which were even more normal human than the '78 Eloi. In both the '78 and '02 versions, the fear and antagonism between Eloi and Morlock remains, but the horrible symbiosis was gone. Pal's '60 Eloi still had that from Wells' story.

Everybody Speaks English -- A pet peeve of some folks is that no matter which planet you go to, or which alien civilization, or which time you go to, everyone still speaks 20th century english. This is a necessary concession to an english-speaking audience, of course. That said, it need not be a flaw in Duncan's story. Weena and the others learned their language from the recordings on "the rings." Recorded speech tends to freeze the language in its last form. The Eloi were not innovators anyway.

Bottom line? Time Machine is one of those milestone films which everyone ought to see, not just sci-fi fans. It has something for everyone: action, romance, lavish sets and quality acting. It retains enough of Wells' deep thoughtful commentary to be valuable to anyone.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

This film is one of the all time Sci Fi greats.
Yes, it had a low budget for its special effects, but the technicians did wonders with their limited budget.
As Rod Taylor said in an interview, they used "Movie Magic" to make the film. He seemed very proud of having been in the film.