What’s not to like about time travel? Before the concept hit filmmaking, it was already a popular fictional trope in 19th-century writers as dissimilar as Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol), Mark Twain (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court) and Edward Bellamy (Looking Backward). It was H.G. Wells, however, who invented the concept of a machine (rather than a dream) that might carry man through time, in the process converting time travel from fantasy to science-fiction.
Originally published in 1895, The Time Machine itself, surprisingly, did not make it to the movies until 1960, though by then the viewing public had already become enamored of the plot gimmick. In the last 30 years or so, of course, movies about time travel have engendered franchises of their own (like Back to the Future and Terminator, to name two of the most prominent).
Back to the beginning, however; it was in 1960 that we got the first (and best) of three film versions of Wells’s revolutionary novel. Starring the relatively then-unknown Rod Taylor as the Time Traveler, director George Pal’s The Time Machine won the Oscar for Best Special Effects, which were quite impressive for the time.
However, the real genius of the film is its screenplay by the under-appreciated David Duncan, whose career was mostly limited to sci-fi B films like The Monster that Challenged the World and Monster on Campus and later, all kinds of TV series. Despite their goofy titles, Duncan’s scripts always managed to imbue the preposterous plots with intelligence and coherence.
His version of The Time Machine could serve as a textbook example for a screenplay that adapts (and enhances) its original source material, updating that story without sacrificing its basic theme and integrity. While the novel jumps without any real stops from the closing years of the 19th century to the year 802,701 and ultimately beyond to the end of the world, the 1960 film includes stops during the 20th century’s two world wars and a final third war (in keeping with the grim mood of the atomic age).
The world of the Morlocks and the Eloi is thus precipitated, not by a class division as in Wells’ novel, but as a result of a nuclear catastrophe. The film also makes the Traveler’s relationship with Weena (then-18-year-old Yvette Mimieux, positively ethereal) more of a love story and provides a far more hopeful ending than the novel’s. Duncan’s teasing suggestion about the mysterious three books that George takes with him into the future to assist in the rebuilding of Man is a brilliant touch.
I suspect Wells would’ve approved. His later sci-fi work grew much more optimistic as well, the ultimate proof lying in his script for Things to Come, the brilliant 1936 British film by William Cameron Menzies.
In 2002, expectations were considerably higher for a new big-screen version of The Time Machine, directed by Simon Wells (great-grandson of the novelist) with a cast headlined by Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential) and Jeremy Irons (as the Head Morlock). Nonetheless, despite impressive set designs and state-of-the-art special effects, the rendering fizzled badly.
The fly in the ointment was an ill-advised script, written by John Logan (Gladiator,The Aviator, and the two most recent Bond films, Skyfall and Spectre). Striving to do something different, Logan lost sight of the intelligence and spirit of the original. The first part of the film is a rehash of the 1980 hit, Somewhere in Time, in which Christopher Reeve tried to return to the past to save a lost love.
That effort failing, the broken-hearted Traveller heads to the distant future and a very different set of Eloi and Morlocks. Unlike the novel and the first film, the former species (including a sexy love interest and her little brother) are intelligent and at least somewhat advanced. The Morlocks, on the other hand, controlled by Jeremy Irons (looking like Edgar Winter), are unaffected by sunlight, hunting their prey much like the apes in the new Planet of the Apes remakes.
The ’02 version exhibits more ecological concerns than its predecessor (the moon blows up, thanks to aggressive mining interests), as well as a holographic librarian, Vox (Orlando Jones), who somehow survives into the distant future without power. Like so much, it simply didn’t make sense.
In conclusion, the 1960 film is a classic; its successor, a bad idea.