Friday, March 26, 2010

The Time Machine

Time travel is one of my favorite sci-fi themes. It provides opportunities for some real clever story lines, but it is also one of the most difficult things to handle convincingly. I was a Physics major in college so the more a film or story can suspend my scientific disbelief, the more enjoyable it is for me. According to current physics, traveling forward in time is quite possible due to the laws of special and general relativity. Traveling backward in time is, so far, complete fiction. But it's the backward travel that makes the best stories because it involves the whole idea of re-visiting and even changing history. As long as the writer keeps the time lines consistent and provides a scenario that, once you think it through, makes some sense, I consider it worth suspending questions regarding violation of the conservation laws of the universe and the proliferation of time lines. I'll have to do a broader treatment of time travel elsewhere. For now, I'd like to put in a word for the first great time travel story - The Time Machine.

I think we could say that the science fiction genre was born during the industrial revolution with the works of authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. The Time Machine, written by Wells in 1895, was one of those first great works. The original work is not very lengthy and you can read it online here. It's original intent was to be a satire that made a statement about class disparity in society. Wells witnessed the exploitation of the workforce in the factories of the turn of the century tycoons of industry. But I think Wells also intended to experiment with ideas about time travel in general, which he did quite ingeniously in a time before the advent of Einstein's relativity. Except for the eventual return of the hero, all the travel in the book is toward the future, removing any of the problems mentioned above regarding changing history and such.

In the story, the "time traveller" (he is never named) ultimately ends up many millenia in the future (try 800,000 years) where the human race has evolved, or rather de-volved, into two primitive species, one that lives underground, the Morlocks, and one on the surface, the Eloi. The Morlocks provide food and other needs to the Eloi, who don't even know who their providers are - they just accept it and enjoy a veritable paradise. On the one hand, the situation parallels the wealthy class being provided for by the worker classes down in the factories. On the other hand, it also looks a lot like herding sheep. The traveller, after investigating further, learns of the appalling state of the future of the human race, gets into some adventures with an Eloi named Weena while trying to retrieve his machine, and finally returns home.

It's first adaptation to the screen was directed by George Pal in 1960 and titled simply The Time Machine. Although it deviated quite far from the original work, and contained some cheesy Hollywood fare, on the whole it was a very good film, especially in the early set up. We're treated to initial explanations about time travel to a movie audience that was not accustomed to such ideas yet. The use of stop motion camera effects to speed up time throughout the film is still really great to watch even today. In order to give it some flare, the reflections of the traveller in the book are scrapped in favor of the beefed up action sequences in which the traveller must rescue his companion. Oh, and they gave him a name - H. George Wells!
In the book, both future races are small creatures. The idea is that the Morlocks don't have to physically overpower the Eloi because the Eloi have become so passive. In the film, the Eloi look the same as you and I and the Morlocks are human sized blue monsters (with a really bad makeup job). Wells' main point is lost, but it's worth watching for most of the film.

A modern remake came out in 2002, once again entitled The Time Machine, directed by H.G. Wells' own great grandson, Simon Wells. Although the basic elements are there, it's safe to say this is an entirely new movie. Rather than mere curiosity, the time traveller's motivation for his work is to change history by preventing his fiance's death. He actually succeeds in doing this by going back in time, but finds she ends up dying another way. He then wonders about the possibility of changing history at all and begins travelling into the future to find the answer. The Morlocks have been beefed up into pretty terrifying monster versions of future humanoids and the Eloi are no longer stupid. In the end, the traveller ends up staying in the future with Mara (the new Weena) after the machine is destroyed. It's disappointing, not just because of the re-write, but because the re-write is so bad.
What's even more of a shame is that it contained some top notch production. A lot of money must have gone into it - the sets, period costumes, special effects (Stan Winston!), cast, and the musical score were all impressive. The time machine device itself was constructed out of brass and glass and sported real working parts.

One final point of interest is the different ways each rendition of the story explains how the traveller ends up 800,000 years in the future. In the book, there is no explanation except scientific curiosity - that's the only time period the traveller targets. In the 1960 version, the traveller encounters a nuclear war that destroys most of the earth, including covering him over with a lava formation. He has to go far enough into the future to allow the lava to erode away and see if anyone survived. In the 2002 version, on one stop along the way, the moon is blowing up because of nuclear detonations on its surface to make way for new real estate construction. The traveller gets knocked unconscious with the machine running while trying to escape and wakes up far into the future. As you can see, science fiction often engages in social commentary, so the message can be tailored to the issues of the day, whether it be class disparity, nuclear war, or suburban sprawl.

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