The Time Machine

My son recently read a kids’ edition of H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine,” and our house has been busy with this story in various forms. I read the novel some 15 years ago and it remains a favorite.

I’ve also seen both of the major adaptations, from 1960 and 2002, and my son and I have been checking out scenes from both movies, particularly the latter.

Looking around YouTube, the 2002 movie seems to be better regarded than it used to be, and I’m glad.

H.G. Wells’ great-grandson, Simon Wells, updated the original story a great deal to the point that I think some people could not recognize the familiar tale.  But this story needs, and will always need, a great deal of updating, because of all the technology that Wells did not yet know. 

For example, artificial intelligence.  It’s easy to criticize, as I have, the presence of English in the year 802701, but it’s plausible that a nuclear-powered artificial intelligence, with its knowledge of English, could survive 800,000 years.

The fact that Mara knows English and that this “stone language,” as the Eloi call it, has survived this long seems again like mere movie-making convenience.  And in fact it is next-to-impossible that a language could survive so long when, as Mara says, the Eloi have no current use for it and they teach it to the children – who quickly forget it – merely because they feel is must have some significance.  The fact that they speak an unchanged form of English, perfectly intelligible to the Time Traveler, is flat-out impossible.

These are valid criticisms but it’s occurred to me now that the Uber-Morlock, played by Jeremy Irons, also knows English, and that he controls the thoughts of the Eloi (it’s implied that he creates, or manipulates, even their nightmares).  He says he belongs to a caste whose members aim in developing their cerebral powers:  he can control the thoughts of both the Morlocks and the Eloi and he has telepathic control over physical objects too, as we see when he “grabs” Alexander telepathically and drags him across the floor.

This resembles the Force in “Star Wars,” and it’s a worldview much changed from the materialistic/atheist vision of HG Wells, but it makes the preservation of English into the year 802701 suddenly plausible.  Why and how he knows English is a mystery, but within the logic of this movie, he is merely fluent with the major language in use in the world at the time when, as he recalls it, “the moon fell from the sky” and civilization collapsed – the time when the Morlock race, or rather Morlock history, had its genesis.

Mara says of the “stone language” that the Eloi keep it because “it meant something once” and it “must be here for a reason.” But these thoughts are not necessarily original to the Eloi.  Their thoughts, again, are controlled by the Uber-Morlock.  And he clearly could have reason to feel that English, as spoken in the fateful year 2037, means something and should be preserved, as it was – unchanged, like something in a time capsule.

The 1960 film had a similar device:  Weena shows the Time Traveller certain spinning rings that can speak.  The Time Traveller, named George in this version, hears about the origins and history of the Morlocks and Eloi in his own English, from a voice within these rings.  This device would have been too “magical” for the original Wells; it provides some exposition for the audience; but it does not explain how the Eloi, in this version, all speak fluent 20th-century English.

At most, the spinning rings of the 1960 version hint that a powerful intelligence lingered long after the original catastrophe that turned the Morlocks into savages and the Eloi into mindless cattle – and that this intelligence survived long enough to preserve the information inside of the spinning rings.

I haven’t read any scholarly criticism of “The Time Machine” novel, but I think readers and moviegoers alike must have felt that the world in 802701 still must harbor a greater intelligence than that encountered by the Time Traveller in his brief visit to that distant year.  There are signs of such an intelligence.  Wells himself notes that the Eloi are bred, clothed, fed.  There is an imposing structure, the White Sphinx, which leads to the subterranean habitations of the Morlocks.  There are also many ventilating wells at the surface.  The underground race may be brutish, but their intelligence must amount to a great deal, because they are the masters over the Eloi and they have maintained both their surface structures and underground habitat for clearly a long time.

This, I think, is what Wells’ great-grandson was trying to do, with the Uber-Morlock(s).  He was trying to illustrate something that the original novel itself implied and needed but did not attempt to imagine or to show: the superior intelligence that lay behind all this.

Wells seems to have had a fascination with underground races or civilizations.  In “The First Men In the Moon” (1901) he gives us a race of Moon-beings, or Selenites, who live under the surface of the Moon. 

Wells depicts the Selenites as organized into castes, and as highly intelligent, despite the fact that their native language appears, to human visitors, to be no more than sounds and gestures. 

Simon Wells clearly drew on this novel in his depiction of the Morlocks.  The Uber-Morlock speaks explicitly of castes, but he seems to rule his world as a queen bee in a hive; the Selenites are sometimes described as organized into a hive, and they have a central leader, known as the Grand Lunar.

Simon Wells’ movie draws in another way from “The First Men In the Moon”.  The movie shows us that in the year 2030 human beings have been detonating nuclear weapons to create underground living chambers for human colonists on the Moon.  So in this movie, you’ve got human beings trying to live on the Moon as the Selenites did – but with disastrous results, stemming from the reckless use of destructive nuclear power.  The experiment destroys the Moon, and ultimately forces human to live underground on Earth.

The falling of a fractured Moon is the most haunting thing in the movie. It was that single image, in the trailer, that drew me into the theater.  Today I don’t see this lunar catastrophe discussed very much on YouTube videos about “The Time Machine,” and perhaps it is still viewed as I once regarded it, merely as a somewhat random device used to bring about a catastrophe that could explain the Morlocks and Eloi.

But the depiction of the Moon in this movie is very Wellsian; it springs right from themes that fascinated the man.

Late in the original “Time Machine” novel, there are lines that may have inspired Simon Wells’ idea of the Fall of the Moon.  The Time Traveler jumps forward from the year 802701, and many millions of year in the future he observes:  “All trace of the moon had vanished.”

So Simon Wells’ depiction of a destroyed Moon has Wellsian roots, but like a lot of science fiction, it doesn’t come off as realistic.  No one today has been back to the Moon since Apollo.  The idea that we could be building subterranean living quarters for a large community of lunar colonists only nine years from now – well, enough said.

Whether we could someday have such a power is another question.

Could such explosions actually cause the lunar orbit to shift, and for the Moon to crack?  I don’t know how nuclear explosions, even on the futuristic scale envisioned in the movie, could cause the Moon to start falling toward the Earth.  But it is known that a falling moon, once it gets close enough to a planet, will be broken apart by tidal forces; the distance at which this happens is known as the Roche Limit; and I guess the moviemakers had something like this in mind.  It’s a compelling image onscreen, even if it seems impossible that the Moon could descend to the Roche Limit in only seven years, as depicted in the movie. 

The 1960 movie, directed by George Pal, had something even more unlikely:  it depicted a nuclear war on Earth as triggering volcanic eruptions.  And it had these eruptions take place in England, where there are no volcanoes.

But in both movies there is the idea that human power(s) could destroy not only ourselves and our habitations but also in some way the natural world.

The catastrophe in the 1960 movie, as noted, was a nuclear holocaust.  That was very much a Cold War concern, but it has real lingering echoes in the 2002 movie, where nuclear explosions destroy the Moon and thereby indirectly destroy the Earth.

So the 2002 movie brings in several things that Wells’ novel could not have known about:  artificial intelligence; nuclear power, used to create explosions and to provide energy for artificial intelligences; space travel, and attempted colonization of other worlds.

All of these things might seem like anachronistic intrusions, but I think it’s wrong to judge them that way when the original story was about predicting the future.  If a novel speaks of 1895 and only 1895, then to bring in something from today is anachronistic.  But the original novel speaks of 1895 and the 800,000 years that follow; at the very end it even goes 36 million years into the future.

Such a story positively invites things from the future to be brought in.  Wells himself would have wanted to know of all new technologies, to say the least.

Both the 1960 and 2002 films end on a more positive note for the future, than did Wells himself.  The 2002 movie has the most optimism, most obviously in the fact that by the end, the bands of Eloi encountered by Alexander are freed from Morlock rule, at least for a time. 

But this small victory is achieved by yet another underground detonation of destructive force, and I think the film’s optimism really lies in other things.

For example, we see nuclear energy as a holocaust but also as a means to preserve artificial intelligence into the indefinite future.

This movie is after all from a post-Google world, so it has hopes that human knowledge, literature and civilization can be transmitted to the future even beyond the burning of all paper.  So at the end of the movie we see the Vox hologram reading to a group of Eloi children from “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”

In this movie, the Eloi are not mindless cattle; they have a primitive but real culture; and one caste of the Morlocks, as noted, has retained formidable intelligence – though not compassion. 

Yet compassion is found among the Eloi in this version – and in the Time Traveler himself.  The 1960 Time Traveler also had compassion for the Eloi and helped them, but he’s a little different from Alexander, who had embarked on Time Travel not merely out of scientific curiosity but out of an all-too-human ability to love, to feel loss, to regret.

Finally, this post-Google movie has a place for religion that was lacking in both HG and George Pal.  In one scene, Mara shows Alexander the remnants of old New York structures with lettering still on them:  we read the words “Brooklyn Bridge,” “Tiffany & Co.,” and “Seventh Avenue Baptist Church.” We see other texts-on-stone, including this from Shakespeare:  “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun / Nor the furious winter’s rages”.

Another stone reads:

Old yet ever new
Eternal Voice
and Inward Word

At the Fifth Avenue Public Library in Manhattan, above a stone fountain known as Beauty, there is an inscription with those lines, taken from John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1860 poem “The Shadow and the Light.”

NYC: New York Public Library Main Branch - Beauty

Alexander reads out loud another text, from the Old Testament / Hebrew Bible:

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. (Ecclesiastes 1:4).

That comes from Ecclesiastes, which is perhaps the bleakest of all the books in the Bible.  But in this story, about the near-and-ongoing-and-potential destruction of the earth, the fourth verse of Ecclesiastes reads like an unexpected, and sorely needed, note of courage for our future.

In the clip below, the 802701 lunar remnants are totally wrong – the Moon should have turned to orbiting rings – but leave that aside:

Give credit also to Klaus Badelt’s score, one of the best I can recall in recent years.

And for the road, one terrific review:

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