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Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Time Machines (reviewed by Dad)

Ben and I are breaking slightly from tradition to look at two films, both of them based on H. G. Wells’ 1895 genre-spawning sci-fi novel: The Time Machine.

In addition to inspiring everything from the Tardis to Time Juice, Wells’ original story was also brought to the screen in a 1960 film directed by stop-motion animation wizard George Pal, and again in a 2002 remake with Simon Wells (no relation) at the helm.

I’ve got an enormous soft-spot for the 1960 Pal version, given the number of times I watched it growing up in an era before cable when the movie seemed to play in monthly rotation with War of the Worlds, Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Journey to the Center of the Earth during Creature Feature Saturday afternoons on UHF Channel 56 (confused younger readers can ask your parents to translate that last sentence for you).

This early version of the story starred Rod Tyler as the time-travelling hero who built his Victorian-era contraption (which served as inspiration to the steampunk aesthetic) at the turn of the 19th century.  After introducing a tiny working model of his device to friends at a New Year’s Eve dinner party, he proceeds to the basement to use a full-scale version to launch himself into tomorrow.

While our hero hoped to find an era when man had gotten past his animal desires and entered a stage of enlightenment, each stop on his journey reveals more carnage – including a nuclear attack that entombs him for hundreds of thousands of years.  Fortunately, this is just a few hours based on his clock, after which he emerges into the paradise he was always hoping to find – or does he?

I’ll admit that the clever stop motion effects in the film (mostly used to depict the rapid passage of time) weren’t enough to make up for the stiff acting, unconvincing romance and over-padded costumes worn by the Moorlock villains, all of which left this pre-digital era film looking its age.

Long-running fondness for this 1960 film might have inspired more recent studio honchos to place another animator (the aforementioned Simon Wells, mostly known for his artistic work on films like Kung Fu Panda and Madagascar) at the helm of a 2002 crack at the same story.

Ben and I watched this newer version a few months ago during an evening when Netflix seemed to be running dry, and while effect technology (and Moorlock costumery) had certainly advanced over the previous 42 years, the 2002 film made all the mistakes of the first (bland acting, unconvincing romance, etc.) before adding new catastrophic decisions all its own.

For starters, apparently scientific curiosity and utopian vision weren’t good enough motivations for the main character to build his machine, and so a subplot was added in which the hero created and used his time-travel device to accomplish the impossible task of saving the woman he loved from an untimely death.   

The pitstop futures the hero stopped to visit on his way to the 1,000,000 AD utopia/dystopia of Eloi and Moorlocks were clearly forgettable, since I’ve already forgotten every detail about them (except for a ludicrous talking computer that seems to have survived for 992,000 years without maintenance).  That said, I did like Jeremy Irons (in full check-cashing mode) playing the head baddie.  

Other than Irons, however, everyone else involved with this production should have checked themselves into witness protection right after the film was in the can to avoid harm from fans of the book, fans of the original movie, and fans of common-sense and entertaining storytelling.

Ben replies: Like I said when you suggested we do this one, I don’t think it’s fair to bash a film made almost 60 years ago, when film (and special effects) have matured so much since then. While many films even older than the original Time Machine remain enjoyable, this reminds us that not every old movie does. Especially me, who lived in a time of Avengers, explosions and giant robots would prefer the remake, which while mind-numbingly dull plotwise, is at least full of exciting special effects. I won’t tell you which is better, because to me they exist as two completely different things. It is not really appropriate to call out the flaws of a film made so long ago, only to point out how a great old movie remains timeless.