I’ve complained a lot about the seemingly ever-declining state of Hollywood storytelling in the course of writing KIMT’s Weekend Remake Throwdowns. It’s hard not to when confronted with how truly awful and/or inept these remakes almost invariably turn out to be. For most of them, their terribleness is simply astounding. With years and sometimes decades of technological and intellectual advancement upon which to draw, remake after remake after remake turns out to be stupid, callow, and pointless. How can they so consistently fail when they’re given such excellent source material with which to work? Films only get remade when the original was good enough to be remembered. It’s like being handed “2+2” and making the answer “7”.
This edition of the Throwdown, however, has given me reason to rethink things. Both because it concerns an original that is a classic while not being all that great and a remake that is pretty good, yet is still a near total failure. Maybe, just maybe, filmmakers haven’t spent the last 20 something years walking backwards through the evolutionary ladder. Maybe, just maybe, they’re trapped in some Sisyphusisan endeavor where they can never truly succeed.
“The Time Machine” is one of the great works of legendary author H.G. Wells. It might also be his most influential writing, if you consider it the granddaddy of all modern time travel stories. Time travel has practically wormed its way into every corner of science fiction and fantasy. Heck, the Star Trek franchise was virtually obsessed with the concept for at least a decade. But even as sci-fi geek culture has spread like kudzu into and over the mainstream, I would guess “The Time Machine” is seen as third fiddle to “War of the Worlds” and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and the reason is there’s really not a lot to the story when you get down to it.
“The Time Machine” (1960) is reasonably faithful to the original book, featured special effects that were amazing for their day, and was quite successful. It tells the tale of a restless dreamer named George (Rod Taylor) living in England as the 19th century becomes the 20th. George is disgusted with his own time and the ongoing Boer War that seemed to make a mockery of all the enlightened values of the Victorian Age. Seeing nothing worth living for in his present, George builds a time machine to take him into what he hopes will be a brighter future. But when George travels from 1899 to 1917, he finds England still at war, this time with Germany. In 1940, he finds England again at war with Germany. In 1966, he finds his country still in peril, this time from some nameless nuclear adversary. He barely makes it to his temporal vessel to escape the volcanic aftermath of an atomic blast and must wait out the centuries under a mountain of lava until the rock is chipped away by time and the elements.
When that happens, it is 800,000 years in the future. George finds a race of blonde, almost vegetative people named the Eloi. They have no ambition. They have no curiosity. They can’t even be bothered to help when they see a fellow Eloi drowing at their feet. George does dive in and saves the beautiful Weena (Yvette Mimieux) but though he’s momentarily tempted by her charms, George is even more disgusted and angry with the pointless existence of the Eloi than he was with the world of 1899. But when George discovers the Eloi are not just sheep-like but actual livestock, kept and used for food by ugly, underground-dwelling Morlocks who provide for the Eloi the way a rancher provides for his cattle, George risks his life to save Weena and her people.
“The Time Machine” (2002) tells almost the same exact story but with some greatly different characters. It replaces George with Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pierce), a New Yorker of all things and an absent minded professor of engineering. When the love of his life dies, Hartdegen spends four years building a time machine to go back and save her. But when she dies again, in a different way, he become obsessed with the idea he cannot save her. Why he thinks that immediately after one failed attempt or why he doesn’t try to put his love in the time machine and bring her back with him are questions this movie never asks because, you know, they make too much sense. Instead Hartdegen uses his machine to travel into the future in search of an explanation. In 2030, he finds a moonbase under construction but no answers. In 2037, he finds the moon split asunder by nuclear construction and the world facing annihilation as a result. Knocked out by buffeting caused from the end of the world, Hardegen is unconscious as he travels 800,000 years more into the future. There he finds a society of Eloi, but one capable of building complex and extensive communities on the sides of steep cliffs. He finds a young woman named Mara (Samantha Mumba), but one with which he has no romantic attachment. He finds Morlocks, but ones whose prosthetic heads makes you long for 2021 CGI. And he finds what the credits call an Uber-Morlock (Jeremy Irons), a telepath who explains to Hartdegen that he can’t save his lost love because if he did, he would never have created the time machine and if he never created the time machine, he never went back to save her and if he never went back to save her, she died.
The film presents this as some sort of supreme paradox, without ever getting into why the paradox exists. Why doesn’t it work like Back To the Future or Time Cop where the time traveler can change the past but then returns to a changed present? Why doesn’t it work like a multiverse where you can change the past but that just creates an alternate timeline, one where Hartdegen and his love live happily ever after and one where she dies? And by the way, why is having two Hartdegen’s existing at the same time NOT a paradox? And how does an Uber-Morlock living in a cave and living on a diet of human flesh understand any of this stuff? Seriously, this stuff makes Quantum Leap look like the scholarly collaboration of Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking.
Anyway, the Uber-Morlock tells Hartdegen to get back in his machine and return to the past. Instead, Hartdegen decides to stick around and kill all the Morlocks, stay in the future and form what sure looks like a platonic family unit with Mara and her surprisingly non-aggravating young son.
Now, why does comparing these two motion picture make me reconsider my disdain and contempt for modern remakes and those responsible for them? It’s because “The Time Machine” (2002) actually makes a valiant effort to be better than its predecessor but is sunk by being forced to carry a much heavier burden.
“The Time Machine” (1960) is full of characters that are barely two dimensional. Its plot is practically pastoral. At a little over 100 minutes long, it doesn’t have its first real action scene until 80 minutes in. It has no discernable theme or point or message. The whole film is sort of just…there. It’s pleasant and undemanding and, outside of its special effects, unambitious.
“The Time Machine” (2002) tries to give its hero some depth through tragedy and have its story play out as a lesson in growth. In order to save the day, and himself, Hartdegen has to stop living in the past and focus on the now. Its plot also includes a great deal more activity, movement, and attempts at humor than the original. Judging it strictly on technical storytelling elements, I’d say it was the best of the two.
But in reality, it isn’t. In fact, “The Time Machine” (2002) is a markedly inferior viewing experience. But that’s neither the fault of the movie nor its creators. It’s our fault, the audience. The flaws of “The Time Machine” (2002) stem almost entirely from the necessity it has to explain or justify things the original never troubled itself with.
For example, when George or Hartdegen travel 800,000 years into the future they can communicate with the Eloi because they still speak English. But people 800 years ago didn’t speak the same English we do today. Heck, Shakespeare was only 500 years ago and you need a translation on the opposite page to understand his plays. How could anyone 800,000 years in the future speak any kind of language we would recognize today? The 1960 original didn’t bother to explain it. The Eloi spoke English because everybody spoke English. There was no reason for it and the film didn’t think it needed to give the audience a reason for it. On the other hand, the 2002 remake says the Eloi speak English because they all learn the language as children by studying words on stone fragments that have all been gathered together in a valley. Really? After a world-shattering catastrophe, somebody spent the time and energy to gather up a bunch of rubble and save it because there were words on it? They then put all those bits in one place and they lasted for 800,000 years? And generation after generation of primitive tribes continued to teach themselves this dead language, which they never use for anything in their lives? And in doing so, they perfectly preserve the pronunciation and usage of each and every word and part of grammar so they can be understood by someone from 800,000 years in the past?
I’ve been presented with some unbelievable nonsense before but that takes the cake. That’s not just impossible. It is eye-rolling, sigh-inducing, head-shakingly, impossibly impossible. It’s the sort of explanation that makes you feel dumber having heard it. But what are the alternatives? There is no good explanation for why the Eloi would still speak English but the story needs them to speak English and the remakers reasonably assumed if they didn’t explain it in some way, the 2002 audience would hold it against them. Dollars to doughnuts, English-speaking Eloi with no explanation would have been one of the first things people criticized.
And that’s how most of the things that go wrong in “The Time Machine” (2002) go wrong. It’s taking melodramatic adventure fiction written in the late 1800s that was made into a movie in the mid 1900s and trying to make it palatable to viewers in the early 21st century, and I’d argue the differences between 1960 and 2002 are at least twice as great as between 1895 and 1960. Our expectations, our standards, and the amount of knowledge we bring with us to a movie are so much higher now than they used to be. Maybe taking a story from a previous era and retelling it in a way to meet our modern demands is too much to ask.
Of course, no one is forcing these people to do remakes. They could tell their own original stories.
And there is “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Ten Commandments” and “The Thing” and “The Fly” and the first remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and the second remake of “Godzilla.” So, maybe remakes don’t suck for any reason other than the people who make them suck.
The Time Machine (1960)
Written by David Duncan.
Directed by George Pal.
Starring Rod Taylor, Yvette Mimieux, Alan Young, Sebastian Cabot, Tom Helmore, Whit Bissel and Doris Lloyd.
The Time Machine (2002)
Written by John Logan.
Directed by Simon Wells.
Starring Guy Pierce, Mark Addy, Phyllida Law, Sienna Guillory, Jeremy Irons, Orlando Jones, Samantha Mumba and Omero Mumba.