Wednesday, April 08, 2015
Locked in Time: Time Machine Classics [Guest Post]
The fourteenth episode of the popular sit-com The Big Bang Theory, "The Nerdmabelia Scattering," featured a prop from George Pal's 1960 film The Time Machine. The four main characters go in together to buy the original time machine prop, leading to neurotic Sheldon Cooper's dreaming and crying out, "Not flesh-eating Morlocks!" The disk-backed machine is described by Penny as "something Elton John drives through the Everglades!" But my favorite joke was when the guys simulated the sped-up time effect from the movie, pretending to be moving at advanced speed like the people in the street. Besides being hilarious, this cultural reference to the 1960 film is very telling. The show did not feature any references to the 1978 TV movie or the 2002 film. Why? Because no one, despite big budgets and CGI, has surpassed George Pal's film.
Of all the films based on HG Wells' four major SF themes, "The Time Machine" has received the least formal adaptations. This is probably due to the expensive nature of creating a future world. The concept of time travel has become widely familiar though, from comedies to super-hero fare. Anyone from the Three Stooges to the Flash can travel in time. The idea became a mainstream trope while actual adaptations of the story have been sparse.
"The Time Machine" (1895) catapulted HG Wells into the top tier of science fiction writers. The story (some call it a short novel) follows an anonymous inventor who goes to the future, seeking a time when Science will have solved all of humankind's problems. What he finds instead is a garden world populated by two separate races: the Eloi, with their pleasant bovine simplicity, and the evil Morlocks, dwelling below with their sinister machines. The tale works on so many levels that I've re-read it more times than any other of Wells' stories. The SF extrapolation is wonderful, following a split in the human species, as well as a look at the eventual death of the solar system. This post-Morlock portion of the tale has been as inspirational as the first part, influencing writers like William Hope Hodgson and John W Campbell. Wells also uses fantasy tropes like the dream journey and return, but the story also works as a horror tale, with the Morlocks slowly exposed and their terrible secret revealed. Perhaps most important to Wells is that the story is also a socialist cautionary tale about the division between proletariat and those who exploit them.
Eleven years later, science fiction filmmaker George Pal would bring the story to blazing color with astounding special effects. The classic film starred Rod Taylor as the Time Traveler and Yvette Mimieux as Weena. The film won an Academy Award for its time-lapse photography. It is this film that gave us the chair with the spinning dish that supplied the prop for that episode of Big Bang. Unlike Pal's adaptation of The War of the Worlds (1953), this film did not update the setting but stays in the Victorian age of Wells. Because of this, the time machine does not have a futuristic look, but a quaint Steampunkish one. The only deviation from Wells' vision is the deletion of the scene where he goes beyond the Morlocks to see the end of the Earth.
Pal's film lingered on in TV reruns and re-releases at theaters for decades. It took until 1978 for someone to approach the material again, this time as a television movie, part of Sunn Pictures' Classics Illustrated series. Sadly, the producers updated the background, making the Time Traveler, played by John Beck, a scientist working for the military. The theme of the piece is also updated to being about the military industrial complex and not humanity's overall evolution. The film has numerous strikes against it. First, the almost Western-style music. This, along with jaunts back to a Salem-style witch-burning and the Old West, brand the picture as very American in what was a quintessential British novel. These past episodes take up almost half the movie, leaving only the last 50 minutes for the Eloi. The bad writing is accompanied with much bad acting. Priscilla Barnes, as Weena, is the only convincing performer.
If the 1978 film was a disappointment, the 2002 film by Wells' grandson, Simon Wells, was an intriguing failure. Guy Pierce plays the Time Traveler, appropriately set before the turn-of-the-century, but in America. He is Dr. Alexander Hartdegen, a professor of Engineering at Columbia. The film supplies a romantic back-story in which Hartdegen's fiancée is killed. Using the time machine he tries to change the past, but finds doing so only causes her death in other ways. Disconsolate, he goes into the future to find Earth being ravaged by the destruction of the Moon. In this future time he encounters Vox, the computer library, played wonderfully by Orlando Jones. Later in the film he would encounter him again, in the dilapidated library of the Eloi. Jones is funny, singing an imaginary Andrew Lloyd Weber musical based on Wells' book, but he even manages to make us a little sad for the AI personality that can forget nothing. He also supplies the background info that is usually done at this point in the story. In many ways the film is an homage to the 1960 and even the 1978 films. Hartdegen's design has the same levers and spinning disk (though two) that we all know. The time lapse sequences use the same growing plants and passing suns that the other films did. And like the other two, the sequence after the Morlocks is ignored.
The legacy of Wells' "The Time Machine" is too wide to clearly outline. His idea of traveling in time has been part of so many science fiction novels, TV shows, comic books and films. Without the Time Traveler's adventures there is no Captain Kirk going back to 1968 in "Tomorrow Is Yesterday" or saving whales in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. No Red Dwarf. No Doctor Who or Back to the Future. No crappy ending of Superman II. Mainstreamed SF like The Lake House by James Patterson or better yet, Somewhere In Time by Richard Matheson. Classics like The Door Into Summer by Robert A Heinlein, "The Sound of Thunder" by Ray Bradbury, "Behold the Man" by Michael Moorcock, and on and on and on... Time travel is one of the major SF themes and like so many others, the man who gave it to us went by the name of Wells.
GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.