Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Cardboard Science: If God's a-comin', He ought to make it by then


George Pal comes back to Hollywood, to the science fiction genre, and to H.G. Wells, all at once, with his second directorial feature.  Happily, Pal's The Time Machine is a true classic of the genre, at turns almost hypnotic in its proto-psychedelic visuals—and, in that grand Wellsian tradition, possessed of an unsubtle but well-taken point about the era its creators happened to live in, too.

Directed by George Pal
Written by David Duncan (based on the novella by H.G. Wells)
With Rod Taylor (H. George Wells, the Time Traveller), Alan Young (David Filby and James Filby), and Yvette Mimeux (Weena)

Spoiler alert: the Morlocks are eating them

George Pal was a fan of H.G. Wells, this much is certain—and that's why it presents itself as something of curiosity, when his pair of Wells adaptations, The War of the Worlds in 1953 and The Time Machine in 1960, are both so deeply determined to ignore, undermine, or otherwise modify the fundamental points Wells had hoped to make with them.  Earlier, we discussed how this turned Wells' sharply-politicized Martian apocalypse into a comparatively arid spectacle.  Meanwhile, The Time Machine doesn't even seem like a book that Pal would actually like: its satire takes square aim at capitalism, an ideology for which Pal appeared to have a truly great affection, at least if Destination Moon and When Worlds Collide can be considered probative of his politics.  As you know, in Wells' Time Machine, it was capitalism that began the evolutionary process that ultimately turned the workers in their subterranean factories into vile Morlocks.  And, of course, it was the capitalists themselves who became the contemptible Eloi, the race of beautiful fools whom the Morlocks have so very carefully cultivated—for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, that is.

Nevertheless, Pal's adaptation of The Time Machine evades the traps that snared him in TWotW.  True, just like before, Pal abandons every word—every syllable!—of Wells' own political program.  But here, he actually finds something to replace it with—an allegory more relevant to his own day and age.  Now, wait: one sometimes doubts that the struggles of the Morlocks and Eloi might ever not be relevant.  Yet, in our generosity, we can cut the Man of 1960 a break, and allow that the impending immolation of humanity upon an atomic altar might well have been slightly more important to him.

Not that Pal ever completely manages to thread his difficult needle: pulling out all the themes of someone else's book, and replacing them what amounts to a brand new Message Module, was bound to occasion some problems; and, lo, it does.  We'll get to some of them in due course; but for now, the plot.

It is January 5 in 1900, and a Surrey inventor has convened a meeting of his learned friends—the same friends he had had over for dinner a week ago, on New Year's Eve, where he demonstrated to them a certain trick involving certain higher geometries, whereby he made a little toy model vanish into the future (or, at least, so he claimed).  Of his associates, only the kindhearted Filby gave his tale any credence—and even then, his concern was rather more for his dear friend's state of mind than for the veracity of any of his wild claims about space and time.

But now this man, called George (and if we look closely, we'll learn his full name, H. George Wells), arrives at the dinner table in ragged tatters.  Abandoning Victorian gentility, he demands something to drink and something to eat.  Only then does he begins his tale.

The model, of course, was but a scale facsimile of a much larger device—a vehicle, in fact—and he had completed the full-sized mechanism not long after his friends had departed, one week ago.  He mounted this Time Machine (as he calls it) and began to experiment.  It worked—and soon he began flying forwards through the Fourth Dimension, witnessing the changes that history would wreak upon mankind: one great war, then another, and then, finally, a third.  And this Third World War—though he would not know to call it that—would be the last thing he would see for some time, as its planet-shaking effects buried his Machine in molten lava, and he had to wait until the natural forces of erosion freed him from this igneous prison.  At last, in the year 802,701, the hillock dissolved around him.  And it was there, in the Far Future, that he met the Eloi, the tribe of golden morons who have regressed in every way one might imagine—perhaps most especially in terms of hairstyling technology.

At least when it comes to men.  As for the women, it's a movie.  (They also still have cosmetics in 802,701.  Puts a brave new spin on "lipstick on a pig," I suppose.)

He met the Morlocks as well, and discovered that they were a second offshoot of humanity, who had been consigned to the darkness of the mechanical underworld long ago, but who rise when necessary, to feed upon their free-range livestock—those selfsame, sumptuous Eloi.  George would probably have let this go, if that's all it was—but the Morlocks took his Time Machine, too.  Now stranded, George made the Eloi cause his own, despite his frustrations with them.  And soon he began to fall in love with one of their number, Weena—the female he saved from a stream while her blank-eyed compatriots looked on, and whose kind demeanor and vague stirrings of human curiosity move him to feel ever-so-slightly less alone in this disturbing future.  And so he fought, and he returned—but much, much the worse for wear.

Despite his well-attested powers of prognostication, H.G. Wells had not quite managed to predict the two world wars by 1895—let alone the third that never happened—and there is, obviously, no mention of these conflagrations in his novella.  So this must be Pal and his screenwriter David Duncan's clever invention—and it's clever indeed.  They take their own knowledge of history, but view it instead from George's ignorant standpoint, and thus while the first two wars actually look like the future through his eyes, the third, dated 1966, borrows the authority of history, and winds up looking a little tiny bit like an unavoidable fact of the past.  Then Pal and Duncan add their own modern-day metaphor: the evolutionary inflection point for the Eloi and Morlocks was not the slow segregation of the Haves and the Havenots, as Wells had it, but the separation of humanity into two other groups—those who stayed in the shelters after the nuclear war, and those who came out.  This much is confirmed when the Morlocks call their Eloi cattle with air raid sirens.  When the Morlocks have enough meat, they turn the siren off, and the Eloi wander back to their garden; as one of the Eloi males blandly informs George, "It's the all-clear."

The point's as straightforward as Wells himself might have made it: living in fear of the end of the world will turn us, slowly but surely, into idiots.  Focused entirely upon gratification in the present, these Eloi aren't able to understand so much as the concepts of "past" and "future"—nor even the value of other human beings' lives.

And you don't get any blunter than that.  (Explains those Boomers, though, don't it?)

Obviously, this never rigorously explains how the Eloi—descended from humans who, presumably, were less afraid of surface radiation—have all turned into mush-minded doofuses.  (Wells' novella is significantly better at describing the process by which the Eloi fell into atavism.)  Nor does the cannibalistic aspect of the Morlocks land with any weight other than "cool! gross!" in the context of what amounts to atomic mutants, and that's unfortunate, considering it was an integral part of Wells' satire.  And, of course, Duncan's script does nothing whatsoever to address the problem at the heart of the novella, which Wells himself only haphazardly addresses in one stray paragraph, wherein the Traveller considers that his emotional reactions are based largely upon the pleasing aesthetic of the Eloi, rather than any kind of serious intellectual or emotional kinship.  Nope: in both versions the Morlocks appear to be very nearly as brutish as the Eloi; and neither version ever stops to reflect that, properly speaking, their protagonist probably should have a lot more in common with the apelike toilers than the flower-gathering simpletons.  (We'd have to wait till Simon Wells' 2002 adaptation for any Morlock who registered as a character.)

Finally, it just doesn't help matters that this uncomplicated allegory is also somewhat dull, pitched at roughly the same level of entertainment value as a middling episode of Star Trek.  (It would be trivial to substitute Bill Shatner for Rod Taylor.  The only thing you'd really miss was the accent.)  Even the slightly-forced romance fits the pattern that Trek would later establish; and, above all, one would prefer if the Eloi didn't speak fucking English, as they certainly do not in the novel.  (Indeed, nothing between George and Weena, in the film, reaches the kind of elegy for human reason that Wells obtains by one simple line: "And very soon she was smiling and clapping her hands, while I solemnly burned a match.")  Frankly, it's an open question whether Yvette Mimieux is even particularly good in the role, though Weena's dysfunction makes it very hard to judge.  But, in full honesty, neither book nor film ever sufficiently explores the weird (and vaguely-incestuous) relationship that develops between the Traveller and "little Weena," so it's a push.

The Time Machine's middle act just goes on a little too long.  And, naturally, it concludes without surprise: it's a combination of Rear Window-style blinding tactics, and a whole bunch of valiant fisticuffs on a smallish, fake-looking soundstage.  (Taylor's brawling might be invigorating, and Pal's direction robust, but it's still nothing close to as gruesome as what Wells gets up to in his novella—you are not likely to feel the "succulent giving of flesh and bone under my blows" here.)

On the other hand, you have some Time Machine-mediated Morlock putrefaction, which is legitimately awesome and just about the last thing you'd expect in a movie made for kids in 1960.

Far, far better are the beginning and the end—and I especially mean Pal's gloriously visual representation of time travel, rendered with what looks like some of the most time-consuming and labor-intensive time-lapse photography I've ever seen.  (The movie won an Oscar for its effects work, and damned rightly so.)  It's spectacle, is what it is, mostly for its own sake, but it's tied to a real sense of adventure and of fun: George's leering at the mannequin in his friend's shop across the street, as her dresses get ever-so-slightly tartier over the decades, is an absolute joy to behold.

But it is not denuded of deeper character work, either: George stops, during World War I, and accosts the new owner of the shop, whom he mistakes as Filby.  But this is James Filby—the babe he once called "Jamie," and does so again at the conclusion of their brief encounter—and George learns that David Filby, only seventeen years from 1900, is already dead somewhere in a Flanders field.  It is, in its own way, heartbreaking—and all the moreso, because The Time Machine is constructed as a consistent loop, rather than in any branching structure, and George is certain that he cannot save the loyal friend who hoped that, one day, the Traveller might return to him.  Truthfully, George probably couldn't save poor Filby even if the future weren't set in geometrically-immutable stone: what could he do to keep him out of the path of a German bullet?  So perhaps this is why, in the end, George flies back to the future, with three unnamed books in tow, dedicating himself to the rebuilding of Eloi society: because, as he has already said, the present is terrible place.  And he's learned now he'd be left alone in it, anyway.

Though one imagines that certain prospects may possibly have hurried him along.

There is a great deal to love here, despite its flabby middle.  It's a highly worthy adaptation, for one thing, even though some of the things it adds are worse, and many of the things it subtracts are sorely-missed.  (The absence of the Traveller's voyage to the Even Farther Future, with its fat red sun and giant crab monsters, seems like a missed opportunity; and the final fate of the descendants of Homo sapiens, related in an expanded edition of The Time Machine at Wells' editor's insistence, and published separately as "The Grey Man," is so essential that I'm honestly annoyed that Wells himself ever thought it wasn't.)

In the biggest things, in fact, Pal's adaptation frankly exceeds its source material: the sadness and fidelity of the friendship between George and Filby is unique to the film; and it may well be the single most meaningful thing it has to offer.  And cinema, of course, remains cinema—and what could ever be more cinematic than the sweep of time itself, as Pal has so wondrously rendered it here?

Score:  8/10

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • The Time Machine is, as far as I can tell, powered by "quartz."  The big issue, however, is a simple matter of thermodynamics: if George can see what's happening outside his Time Machine, that means that light is entering his static bubble.  And if light is entering his static bubble, then he'd not only appear to an outside observer as a perfectly black object, he'd cook inside a white hot hell universe, as a million years' worth of photons tore into his body.
  • The talking rings that George finds, and which provide the backstory to this unpleasant future, must be—seriously—the worst format for recorded media ever imagined.  I mean, they hold up okay to the ravages of time, and that's great!  But to use them, you must spin them on a special platform, and you get about twenty seconds of recorded voice before they fall down and playback fails.  How about some etchings on gold or platinum (or even aluminum) tablets next time, you futuristic nimrods?
  • Wells is good about giving the human race enough time to speciate: 800,000 years makes the Morlock/Eloi schism less implausible than it has a right to be, although the massive changes to the H. sapiens phenotype that accrue to the Morlocks are not, in my opinion, terribly likely.
  • "The Grey Man" material, however, forgotten in the film and excised in current editions of the book, is really quite a lot of fun: the Traveller goes millions of years into the future, and finds that humankind has become little rabbitlike creatures.  He discovers this when he kills one of them to take back as a sample, and then, upon examining its hands and feet, realizes what he's done, and the true legacy of man.  It's fantastic.  (Then a giant fucking centipede attacks him, for no special reason, but because sometimes I think Wells might have been writing for the pictures before they really properly existed.)
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • Nukes are bad, but capitalism is a-ok.
  • Having sex with mentally deficient people is also okay, but this is still kind of a moral-philosophical gray area today, so I guess I'll give it a pass, even though you have to admit that it's kind of weird that the aged bachelor of the novel winds up with a teenaged funbot from the future, though it's only kind of implied that they bang.
  • There are precious few things in all the annals of Golden Age sci-fi—or film sci-fi, period—that are cooler than George's headlong flight into the future.

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