»  National Review Online

March 15th, 2002

  Trying Time Machine


The Time Machine
Directed by Simon Wells, Gore Verbinski
Starring Guy Pearce, Samantha Mumba
Screenplay by John Logan
Dreamworks Studios

Science fiction comes in two varieties: pure and applied. The purpose of pure science fiction is, in the words of the late Kingsley Amis, "to arouse wonder, terror and excitement."  The purpose of applied science fiction is to allegorize, satirize and preach. Because we live in a self-conscious, over-educated and ideological age, most of what passes for science fiction today is of the applied variety, and even the great classics of pure science fiction are nowadays viewed through the corrective lenses of social commentary.

H.G. Wells's novel The Time Machine is the greatest of all works of pure science fiction. I read it at age eleven, when I knew little and cared less about the organization of society, and had no patience with preachers of any sort. I fell in love with the book at once. I can still remember its precise position on the shelf in my school library, the color of its binding, and of course the opening sentence:  "The Time Traveler (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us …"  I have just read it through again, on the Project Gutenberg database. It is a beautiful, beautiful book. At the time I read it, I was so taken by it that I went on a Wells binge, sucking in even those novels of his that were in fact written to make a social point — even The Passionate Friends, which for a time I believed must surely hold the key to all the great mysteries of adult life, but coded in some way inaccessible to me. (Vladimir Nabokov, who knew a thing or two about literature, thought highly of The Passionate Friends.)

The Time Machine is a rather obvious candidate for misinterpretation. The Time Traveler — in one of those touches that make Wells's early stories glow with creative genius, we never know his name — goes off to the year a.d. 802,701. He finds that the human race has separated into two species: the frivolous, elfin Eloi, who live on the surface of the earth and occupy themselves in childish play, and the Morlocks, a subterranean race of lemur-like creatures, tending the machinery that provides for the needs of the Eloi — not entirely from disinterested motives, as the Eloi constitute their principal food group. Obviously a scathing comment on class relations in late-Victorian England … except that the novel shows no trace of a "position" on this issue, no particular sympathy for either Eloi or Morlock — the Time Traveler comes to regard both with disgust, though the disgusts are of different kinds — and does not take the idea anywhere. It is just something Wells came up with when he tried to imagine what life would be like in the distant future.

I knew from instinct that any movie of a book that had so enchanted me would be a disappointment. So it proved: when, in the late 1970s, I finally caught a TV showing of the 1960 George Pal production, I found it silly and contemptible. At that point, nothing would have pleased me but a perfectly literal word for word reproduction of the Wells story on celluloid. Movie directors, of course, don't do that. (Though if one of them ever felt like doing it, The Time Machine would be an excellent candidate, as it is a short book whose action could easily be encompassed in a 2-hour movie.) Twenty-five years later, I am a wiser and more tolerant person, willing to take a movie on its own terms and less protective of the darling books of my childhood, confident that the power of their own genius will propel them safely forward, at least for a few centuries.

I therefore approached this new production of The Time Machine with a sort of open-minded resignation. The most I hoped for was to be given some glimpses of Wells's original magic, and to be dazzled for a few minutes by some of those wonderful special effects movie-makers are capable of today. Alas, even these very modest expectations were left unfulfilled. The magic is almost entirely absent here, the special effects feeble.

As little as there is of the atmosphere of Wells's creation, there is hardly any more of his story line. Grafted on to the front of the plot is a new motivation for the building of the time machine. The Time Traveler (he is given a name in the movie, but I have forgotten it) proposes to his sweetheart in New York's Central Park one snowy winter's night; but they are accosted by a robber, who shoots her dead. Inspired by grief, the Time Traveler builds his machine, and goes back the necessary few months to change the event. The intelligent viewer will wonder at this point how the Time Traveler avoids meeting himself … but this is not a movie for inquiring minds.

(Readers who want to be taken on a full tour of the paradoxes inherent in the concept of time travel should track down a copy of David Gerrold's 1973 novel The Man Who Folded Himself, in which all the logical trails are followed out doggedly to their furthest extremities. Gerrold's hero has a "time-belt" bequeathed to him in the will of a mysterious elderly uncle. He goes on to do all the things you would think of doing — he murders Jesus Christ in the wilderness, for example; though the world this creates is so unattractive to him, he goes back and talks himself out of the deed. By skipping around in time, he generates numberless copies of himself, who assemble for all-night poker games. In a perfectly logical sequence of events, a female copy of himself shows up. He has an affair with her and produces a baby, who grows up to be … himself, and also his female partner. The mysterious uncle who gave him the time-belt in the first place is also, of course, himself.)

The best reason to watch this latest version of The Time Machine is 19-year-old Zambian-Irish (no kidding) pop tart Samantha Mumba, who is exceptionally easy on the eye. I am speaking of her physical attributes only; she can't act. The long years in drama school — she started at age 3 — have left little trace, proving that talent is born, not made. Her accent lurches unpredictably from Dublin to South London to Los Angeles. I thought I detected a flicker of anxiety when she was about to be eaten by Morlocks, but her expression remains otherwise locked in a sort of vapid half-smile. She is, however, really good to look at. Her breasts are particularly fine. Guy Pearse as the time traveller is all exophthalmic, hollow-cheeked intensity, without much regard as to whether intensity is actually called for in any particular scene. Jeremy Irons does the evil-mastermind thing with scant conviction. (Though I am pleased to learn that even in the 8,028th century, psycho villains will still speak with British accents.)

The special effects are, as I said, second-rate. The screenplay is fourth- or fifth-rate. The dénouement conforms to the rule that an action movie must end with something big being blown up, but otherwise makes no sense even on the film's own terms, and of course corresponds to nothing H.G. Wells ever wrote. Here is the unforgettable ending of the book as Wells actually did write it:

He, I know — for the question had been discussed among us long before the Time Machine was made — thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind, and saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end. If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so. But to me the future is still black and blank — is a vast ignorance, lit at a few casual places by the memory of his story. And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers — shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle — to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.

Other than for the limbic-system pleasures of looking at Ms. Mumba's breasts, this is a movie to avoid. If it has any place in the grand scheme of things, it is to inspire the occasional 11-year-old to reach for the original book, and be transported thereby into that realm of "wonder, terror and excitement" revealed to us only by great literature, and perhaps a very small number of movies, of which The Time Machine is most certainly not one.


Is time travel actually possible? Popular science magazines occasionally run articles that say it is. My own understanding of the matter is as follows.

Travel into the future (at a speed, I mean, different from the regulation one minute per minute) is certainly possible, and only a little way over the technological horizon. It follows from elementary physical laws that if you accelerate yourself away from the earth until you have attained a high velocity, then decelerate down to zero, then return in a symmetrical way, you will find the world hundreds, thousand or millions of years older (depending on the numerical details of your acceleration and final velocity), while you yourself have aged much less. We could, therefore, hurl a spaceship crew into the far future, once we had a method of propulsion capable of accelerating them to the very high speeds required.

Travel into the past is much more problematical. The laws of physics, as presently understood, do not entirely rule it out, but make it very difficult and improbable. You need to locate, and get to, a region of extraordinary singularity in space (or create one for yourself — but that is far over the technological horizon). Then you have to survive a journey through that singularity, which is likely to be imbedded in matter at fantastically high temperatures and pressures. A journey to the center of the sun would be somewhat easier.

Furthermore, so far as travel into the past is concerned, there is the compelling argument that if, at any time in the future, such a thing were to be realized, then all of human history, including the present, ought to be swarming with tourists from that future and its future, along with numberless copies of themselves à la Gerrold. Science fiction fans sometimes respond: How do you know this isn't so? Those future-tourists might be moving among us unrecognized. I suppose they might; and when confronted with, say, Pee Wee Herman, one cannot help but wonder. On balance, though, it seems to me that travel into the past is an impossibility, and always will be.