Wednesday, 3 February 2010

The Time Machine (1960)

Country: USA

H. G. Wells' The Time Machine

The works of H. G. Wells have not been particularly well served by cinema. Aside from James Whale's stylish and inventive adaptation of The Invisible Man (1933), and William Cameron Menzies film of Things to Come (1936), the rest have been something of a mixed bag. Whilst both the 1953 and 2005 versions of War of the Worlds were impressive in their own way, neither captured the essence and spirit of the source material. However, in 1960 George Pal, noted at the time more for his duties as producer on such science-fiction heavyweights as Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1951), the aforementioned War of the Worlds (1953) and Conquest of Space (1955), took to the directing chair for arguably the finest screen outing for a H. G. Wells story - The Time Machine.

The film immediately benefits from first rate performances by the principal players - most notably Rod Taylor as the inventor of the time machine George and Alan Young as his best friend Filby. In a film like this believability in the central characters is essential to the narrative and the cast pull off this often difficult trick with aplomb. The film also benefits from outstanding special effects that still look impressive to a modern audience. The progress of the machine in the fourth dimension is rendered in painstaking detail by time lapse photography, and the ornate design of the machine itself shows an attention to detail that is reflected throughout the film.

The film is initially set at the turn of the 20th Century, and George is already harbouring concerns over the misuse of science and technology in the name of modern warfare. His first three trips in the time machine do little to dispel the sensitive inventors fears - a stop in 1917 heralds the discovery of the first World War and little has changed when he moves on to 1940. By 1966 the threat of Atomic destruction is played out in memorable fashion. What is enjoyable about these three hops in time is how through the meeting of Filby's son, it becomes a very subjective and personalised journey for George. It brings home with particular resonance the personal losses of war. The events of 1966 are of course a projection into the future, for the film was made in 1960, but its very clear that the screenplay by David Duncan and the source material show a deep pessimism about the future of mankind - it would seem only war and conflict is what we have to look forward too.

The final trip into the future sees George arrive in 802, 701, and he is initially greeted by an idyllic paradise, a world of lush vegetation, abundant fruit and clear waters. However this world turns out to be the nightmarish, but logical future of a species intent on war and self destruction. The beautiful Eloi who lazily cavort in their garden of earthly delights are merely food for the underground dwelling Morlocks who tend to their machines and shun daylight. What we have is a future with an even great polarisation of the social order than in our own time. The Morlocks who represent war and aggression have become the dominant species. There proclivity for human flesh is perhaps a little unsubtle on the part of the writers, but their monstrous appearance indicates the ultimate message of pacifism that the film embodies. However, that pacifism is tempered by the fact that George is forced to use violent means in order to create revolution. There is no way for Eloi and Morlock to live together , and in this respect the film seems to contradict its message of pacifism by suggesting that violence and conflict is acceptable in certain circumstances.
© Shaun Anderson 2010

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