The Time Machine

Tonight’s awesome viewing, George Pal’s The Time Machine (1960), staring Rod Taylor. One of the great classics of sci fi film, it reflects exactly what I love about science fiction films of this era: it displays cold war paranoia and despair with beautiful poignancy. In this case, it does it through the lens of Wells’s classic story, which on some level was conceived as a sort of socialist thought experiment, which makes it more earnestly bizarre and wonderful and tragic.

In particular, Pal’s adaptation features a strange apocalyptic perspective that completely freaked me out the first time I saw it, when I was about eight. The explicit story point here is that the evolution of the Morlocks and the Eloi was brought about by a nuclear war… when Wells’s perspective, really, was just that this is how society would evolve.

The novel reflects Wells’s middle-class anxiety and his socialist leanings in a weird kind of opposition, coupled with a sense of social dread; Pal’s film is about late-’50s cold war future shock and fear for the human race, which Wells would have appreciated nonetheless. I don’t think they could have pulled it off if it was an American film; this one was made in England (by Pal, who was born in Austria-Hungary).

The original novel did not name the main character, calling him merely “The Time Traveller.” The 1960 film names the character “George,” clearly meant to imply that he is Herbert George Wells, a fact made explicit by a plaque on the machine at one point. This is a conceit recycled for the 1979 novel and film Time After Time, but it actually makes absolutely no sense based on the way the book is narrated. The novel is actually a first-person account from a guy who is listening to The Time Traveller’s story, not by The Time Traveller himself. That the story of the time journey is told in first-person quotes means it wouldn’t make any sense for the author to be the Traveller, but rather the Philby character in the movie. That, and, oh, the fact that Wells didn’t travel through time, but that’s incidental at best.

In case you missed it, a 2002 remake was directed by Simon Wells, HG Wells’s great-grandson, who was born the year after the George Pal version was released. All due respect to Mr. Wells’s potent seed, but the 2002 version sucked so hard there’s little to be said about it, other than that the scene where whats-is-name ages real fast while hanging off the time machine was kinda cool, visually. For some reason they rename the main character “Alex” and… that’s just the first of many errors. Garbage, utter garbage.

While I have always been fascinated by the Wells novel, I have never been a big fan of it. I find it sort of slow and ponderous despite its brevity. But the concepts explored in the novel always engaged me, so much so that I’ve now read it 3 times even though I don’t much like it. But I do like the narrative conceits of the novel. The first-person-cum-first-person format has always thrilled me for some reason, because it’s the way a lot of stories get experienced in the real world, but always seems so stodgy and stunted on the page, which makes me like it all the more. I think I got hooked on this technique by reading some Sherlock Holmes stories early in life, and it’s stuck with me ever since.

When I was a kid, the very idea of there being an AD 802,701 to go to completely fucking tweaked my brain. Then, as now, when I think of the future and the imminent apocalypse, it always seems like it’s right around the corner — our already short lives as humans being too much to hope for, with H-bombs hanging over our cities. Then, in the Reagan years, as now, in the Bush years… it’s a day here, a day there, and every minute without the end of the world I’m pretty goddamn thankful for.

Image From Wikipedia.

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