“If that machine can do what you say it can do, destroy it, George! Destroy it before it destroys you!”
In 1985 H G Wells penned The Time Machine, in which an unnamed man recounts his extraordinary journey through the fourth dimension. It’s been widely acknowledged as popularising the idea of a vehicle that enables time travel, and has inspired countless works since its first publication. Whether it’s the Delorean in Back to the Future, the jacuzzi in Hot Tub Time Machine, or the contraption in Looper, it can all be traced back to Wells’ initial concept.
It’s perhaps surprising then that there have only been two direct adaptations of The Time Machine. George Pal’s original 1960 version remains largely faithful to its source material, while the already forgotten 2002 film, starring Guy Pearce, took a number of creative liberties. Pal’s film, however, more than holds its own among the other science-fiction films of the time, and deservedly so. Taking advantage of the ongoing social concerns that had made sci-fi so popular in the 1950s – a general distrust of scientific advancement, a fear of nuclear annihilation and the underlying worry that humanity would bring about its own inevitable demise through its curiosity and arrogance – The Time Machine has been slightly updated and provided a slightly more optimistic conclusion (for its protagonist at least, though not necessarily for humanity as a whole), but it indicates just how relevant Wells’ novel was, some seventy years after it was written.
Rod Taylor is George, a Victorian inventor who is proud to inform his friends – also scientists, or men of learning, at least – that he has discovered how to travel through the fourth dimension. Their reactions are varied, ranging from incredulous, to confused, to concerned. Even his evidence – a tiny, scaled model of the larger vehicle he has hidden in his workshop – is met with distrust; its disappearance, as one of his colleagues states, could easily be a magician’s trick. Yet George is consumed with the need to test his theory. Going into the past is not of interest to him: he wants to see the future.
There is an underlying idea that, by travelling into the future, George will see the advancement of humanity, but his enthusiasm is dashed when he stops first in 1917, then in 1940. Pausing again in 1966, he witnesses the destruction of London following a nuclear air strike that causes a volcanic eruption – the miniature sets and stop motion sequences may be dated now, but they present a terrifying and horrible event in a disturbingly tangible way. Having now witnessed what is likely a global catastrophe, George continues on his journey, travelling millennia until he arrives in the year 802701 when, hopefully, humanity will have moved beyond war to a more civilised state. In this time, he encounters the peaceful, innocent Eloi and the crude, monstrous Morlocks, and realises once again that the future of man is not necessarily the enlightened, utopian vision he had.
There are plenty of points of contention in The Time Machine, and dissecting its narrative raises a number of problems, but these pale in comparison to its overall sense of intelligence and cynicism. Both Wells’ original novel and Pal’s film present their vision of the future less as a success story, and more as a warning: follow the path we are on, and face inevitable destruction – not just of the planet, but of the ideals we hold dear. While the extreme future is visually an Eden-like environment, its inhabitants represent the most undesirable aspects of humanity. The Morlocks, cannibalistic cave dwellers, are no better than animals; lacking language as well as even the most basic of elements (fire), with disfigured, inhuman features, they retain nothing except the brutality and selfishness of a once intelligent race. In contrast, the Eloi seem to enjoy a utopian lifestyle, but they are blank – devoid of culture, not only uneducated but unaware of the very concept, they represent the apathy and ennui of the bored and uncivilised. George’s anger and frustration at discovering the two extreme and contrasting paths of human evolution feels real not just because his expectations have been dashed to smithereens, but because the idea taps into an all-too-real disillusionment with people; as history has indicated, we are more than capable of bringing about our own destruction.
As with the best science-fiction films, The Time Machine taps into topical social anxiety that remains as relevant today as ever before. Of course, its once Oscar-winning special effects are no longer cutting edge, and it feels particularly kitsch when George arrives at his final futuristic destination – the painted backdrops and psychedelic flora place it squarely alongside the likes of Star Trek: The Original Series. Yet, like Star Trek, its visual constraints, as a result of both budgetary and technological limitations, do not detract from the insight and intelligence within its narrative. The Time Machine is a thought-provoking film rooted in humanity, representing both its greatest success – the thirst for knowledge, the dogged determination to survive, the sense of compassion and community that defines and distinguishes the race – and the potentially apocalyptic damage curiosity can cause.