Film of the Week: 'The Time Machine'

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent  |  March 7, 2002 at 12:38 PM
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LOS ANGELES, March 7 (UPI) -- With genetic technologies now proliferating, "The Time Machine" -- H.G. Wells' tale of the human race splitting into two species -- is more, well, timely than ever.

Unfortunately, while the new "Time Machine" is a reasonably diverting family film, its slightly dumbed-down dialogue, rushed plot, lackluster special effects, and tired racial stereotypes render it less of a blockbuster than a blockbusterette.

"The Time Machine," which stars Guy Pearce of "Memento" as the Victorian inventor, is reminiscent of last summer's remake of another 1960s semi-classic science-fiction movie, "Planet of the Apes." Both feature intrepid heroes who zoom to a new world, meet beautiful jungle maidens and lead their girlfriends' oppressed tribes in battle against the highly evolved killer apes who prey upon them.

Tim Burton at least had the excuse that the 1968 "Planet of the Apes" offered erratic source material, but the revampers of "The Time Machine" were working with a classic, perhaps the first sophisticated sci-fi novel ever. Jorge Luis Borges suggested that Wells' stories "will be incorporated ... into the general memory of the species and even transcend the fame of their creator or the extinction of the language in which they were written."

Further, director George Pal's 1960 "Time Machine" was one of the most solidly made sci-fi movies of its often-cheesy era. In fact, some of the Eisenhower-era special effects are more colorful than their 2002 equivalents. The original "Time Machine's" stop-motion photography worked superbly to show history fast-forwarding, as the time traveler watched the frantic rise and fall of the hemlines in the shop window mannequins across the street.

In contrast, director Simon Wells (who, oddly enough, is the great-grandson of H.G. Wells) took the usual shortcut of contemporary filmmakers who can't afford quite enough MIPS for their computer imaging. He dimmed the movie's colors to obscure its lack of realism, wrapping much of the movie in a slight mist.

Or, "Myst," since the intriguing visual style of that role-playing game inspired the cliff-hanging swallows' nest-like village that the Eloi people have built to protect themselves from the cannibalistic Morlocks.

This refuge represents a crucial change from H.G. Wells' book and the fairly faithful 1960 movie. The original Eloi vegetated passively in an Edenic garden laboriously maintained by the Morlocks in order to fatten them up.

The novel presented a nightmarish extrapolation of England's class system to the year 802,701 A.D. The pretty but feckless Eloi were the degenerate do-nothing descendents of England's leisure classes. The hideous but industrious Morlocks were the offspring of the brutalized proletarians forced to work in mines and factories.

The most disturbing aspect of H.G. Wells' story was the symbiotic relationship between the Morlocks and the Eloi, who are both the Morlocks' dinners and their dependents. The novel (but not the new movie) implies that to become prey would be dreadful, but to be bribed into being domesticated into a race of helpless livestock would be an even more shameful horror.

The moviemakers, however, turned H.G. Wells' 19th Century allegory about English class conflict into a 21st Century parable of racial rivalry. This makes box office sense because modern Americans are more interested in race than class. The change, however, ensnares the movie in Hollywood's reigning racial prejudices about which races are evil and which are innocent -- the same clichés that undermined last summer's Disney cartoon "Atlantis."

The monstrous Morlocks, who have long blonde hair and a leader (played by Jeremy Irons) named "Uber-Morlock," are apparently the spawn of modern Germans.

In contrast, the Eloi -- who are led by the strong and wise Mara (played by Samantha Mumba, the Irish-Zambian teen pop singer) -- are a racially blended population of beige Tiger Woods look-alikes.

"To extrapolate what we're going to look like thousands of years from now," producer David Valdes explained. "You have to examine what's happening now. The global population is becoming more amalgamated ..."

This racial schema however, inevitably robs the new "Time Machine" of H.G. Wells' unsettling insinuation that the decorative but useless Eloi are complicit in their own exploitation. Because the new movie portrays the Eloi as non-whites -- in contrast to the 1960 film, where they were vapid Swedish-looking flower children -- they can't be depicted as possessing any flaws more serious than low self-esteem. These Eloi aren't reliant on the Morlocks for their survival. Instead, they are just another ecologically sensitive generic tropical tribe straight out of a Sting music video, who are merely victims of their more technologically advanced white oppressors. Ho-hum.

Of course, as in "Atlantis," the noble natives must be saved by a white scientist hero. Indeed, you can't get much whiter than the sunken-cheeked Pearce, who could be the favorite in Monty Python's Twit of the Year contest.

With luck, it won't take the film industry 800,000 years to outgrow its racial prejudices.

Rated PG-13 for scary monsters, but not much else.

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