H.G. Wells invented science fiction by muddying the expansive whimsy of Victorian futurism with fin de siècle dread. His great-grandson’s screen version of The Time Machine is a no less definitive product of its era—if it’s remembered at all, it will be as a time capsule of early-21st-century blockbuster cowardice and redundancy. Far more than George Pal’s 1960 adaptation, a gaudy Cold War heirloom that forecasts nuclear annihilation six years hence but wangles a happy ending anyway, the new movie rejects the elegant narrative simplicity and mordant philosophical satire of Wells’s 1895 techno-fantasia. A scientist’s curiosity is no longer motivation enough. This Time Traveler embarks foremost on a tragedy-reversing mission, a contrivance that dominates latter-day sci-fi from Time Cop to Frequency. After his fiancée is killed in a Central Park mugging (the story has been relocated from London), Alexander Hartdegen holes up and tinkers away furiously at his shiny contraption, which, like Pal’s, turns out to resemble a wheel of fortune fastened to an assortment of bathroom fixtures. (In the movie’s one satisfying joke, Hartdegen is played by Guy Pearce—sprung at last from Memento‘s eternal now and literally making up for lost time.) But when his resurrected love is promptly trampled by a horse and buggy, he learns that some aspects of history resist revision. (The filmmakers pass up the opportunity to underscore this point with a Groundhog Day montage of recurring death.) After this tortuous setup, it’s off to the future instead, beyond raining moon rocks, martial law, and a new ice age to the year 802,701.
A socialist and a Darwinist, Wells bulldozed caste enmities to a grimly logical terminus. His Time Machine posited a human race split in two and stalemated in horrible equilibrium: The Eloi idle their days away in a fog of simpleminded leisure, feasted upon periodically by the beastly Morlocks, who operate heavy machinery in subterranean caves. This version recoils from any suggestion of metaphorical import. As director Simon Wells told the Times, “I’m not sure the class struggle is all that relevant.” And yet, because the blueprint remains a bramblebush of thorny implications, accidental resonances abound. The poor, glazed Eloi—fair and androgynous in Wells, Aryan in Pal—are here decidedly nonblond, a self-congratulatory gesture of inclusiveness that only fortifies the imperialist subtext of the time-travel fantasy. The Morlocks, meanwhile, are led by Jeremy Irons under Hellraiser makeup and Gregg Allman hair. But their presence is kept to a decorous minimum in this Benetton-sponsored, Enya-flavored vision of the future, where the Time Traveler achieves his true messianic potential as a Dream Worker.