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The Timex Machine
by Lucius Shepard
April 2, 2002

It was with some trepidation that I, Herbert George Wells, set forth once again into the future, this time in order to view a motion picture based upon my novel The Time Machine and directed by my great-grandson Simon. I had, during a previous visit, viewed Mr. George Pal's spirited but trashy attempt at filming my little book, and there was a correspondence between the two productions that gave me pause—the casting of an Australian actor in the lead. I had found Mr. Pal's choice for the role, Rod Taylor, to have the emotive capacity of mutton, and I feared that this new Australian incarnation, Guy Pearce, would also prove unequal to my conception of the character. Why this insistence on a colonial? I wondered. Why not an Englishman to play an Englishman (or an American, for it turns out that the Time Traveller has been recast as a resident of New York City)? It seems one should expect this much regard for one's work from a relation, no matter how distant and devoid of traditional values he may be.

I prefer to use the time machine for serious business, but I must confess that on my several journeys to the late 20th and early 21st centuries, I have developed a fondness for the motion picture, especially for those films treating of time travel. This is not to say that I have thought many worthwhile. Of them all, only Time After Time, whose conceit was to detail one of my earliest temporal expeditions, featuring the excellent Malcolm McDowell, possessed the least verisimilitude and charm; though even this film roused in me no little revulsion with its insistence that my dear friend, the late Dr. ____, a gentle, inquiring soul, was none other than Jack the Ripper. Time and Again was, I suppose, a harmless enough love story, poignant in an overly sugared fashion, but its lack of scientific rigour was dismaying. As for the rest, my God!, the idea of a simple tale told well appears to have eluded those who dictate the policies that command the industry responsible for these gaudy idiocies. Still, I cannot deny a certain admiration for the technical aspects of such films. Judging by the size of the explosions they generate, a studio such as DreamWorks might well be capable, should they effect a journey back to the 19th century, of conquering a considerable portion of the globe.

In relating my experience of my great-grandson's film, I must first state that I understand this century's expectations of its entertainments are not those of my own. Every age demands certain elements designed to appease the public mind, just as in the Elizabethan era the Bard himself was induced to leaven his masterpieces with low comedy so as to delight the groundlings; and thus I assumed what I was about to see would not be a faithful rendering of my book, but rather a different work entirely, one infused with the spirit of the thing. I did not expect, however, the amalgam of illogic and hyper-kinetic foolishness with which my eye was met. Even for those who have read my book, it will be necessary to recount the plot of the motion picture, for it differs widely from that of my quiet story.

Andrew Hardegen (Pearce) is a college professor whose attention is given over to two interests: the nature of time and the romantic pursuit of a young woman, Emma (Sienna Guillory). When Emma is killed by a thief in Central Park, Hardegen becomes obsessed with building a time machine so he can travel into the past and prevent her death. After four years of maniacal work, he succeeds in his objective, returns to the moment when he met Emma in the park, and steers her away from the place, only to have her killed by a runaway hansom cab. At this juncture Hardegen decides that the past is unalterable. Having been in love on several occasions, most notably with the director's great-grandmother, I insist that obsession should be made of sterner stuff. Had I been in Hardegen's shoes, I would have tried in the service of love to alter the past at least a few more times; in fact, I likely would have exhausted myself in the process (it occurs to me that such an exhaustive process, Hardegen attempting again to again to save Emma, ludicrous though it might appear, would have made a more compelling film than the one I saw). But Hardegen, obeying a hastily conceived logic, determines that it would be best to travel into the future in hopes of finding a solution to the problem. During a stopover in the 21st Century, he discovers that the moon has been destroyed by subsurface excavation and debris is pelting down upon New York City. In his haste to escape emergency workers who want to take him to a place of safety, he is rendered unconscious as he throws himself into the time machine and inadvertently sends it forward into the distant future.

My great-grandson's redefinition of the lotus-eating Eloi and the feral subterranean-dwelling Morlocks, those two strains into which I imagined the human race might diverge by the year 802,007, does not reflect my intention that they emblematize the class struggle between the poor and the wealthy. Stripped of symbolic weight, lacking the gravity of social speculation, this division now strikes me as somewhat arbitrary. Beyond that, the Eloi are scarcely the childlike, docile creatures I imagined. On the contrary, they are exceptionally athletic and well-muscled, in aspect rather like a thriving tribe of South Sea Islanders. Further they are skilled with primitive weapons and have constructed an aesthetically spectacular village that clings to the cliffsides of a gorge, protected from the elements by shell-like canopies. That my great-grandson's conception of the Eloi differs from my own does not of itself perturb me, but the Morlocks . . . there is another story. Though for the most part appropriately bestial, they are led by an über-Morlock portrayed by Jeremy Irons, who, done up as an albino with an augmented spinal cord protruding from his skin, has now added an inglorious footnote to a generally illustrious career. It is this addition to my story that utterly derailed the reasonable progress of the film. When Hardegen invades the Morlocks' underground complex to rescue Mara (Samantha Mumba), the lovely Eloi woman who befriended him and who has since been captured, Irons informs him that the Morlocks live beneath the ground because they cannot endure the light of the sun (this flying in the face of the fact that Morlock hunting parties routinely go out during the day to kill and enslave the Eloi). He goes on to say that he can control the thoughts of both Eloi and Morlocks alike, and that while the majority of the Eloi are eaten by their captors, women such as the beauteous Mara are utilized for breeding purposes. Upon hearing this, I wondered why—if the über-Morlock possessed such powers—he simply did not summon the Eloi to their fate rather than sending his minions to hunt them down. Did they need the exercise? Just for fun? I also wondered where were the Morlock women? Could my great-grandson be so degraded in his intellect as to conceive of a sub-species without females? Was this ridiculous conclusion the narrative justification for the kidnapping of comely Eloi women? It must be so, for otherwise a Morlock would probably not consider such women attractive . . . unless some Morlock advertising agency had so distorted these poor monsters' sense of self-esteem that their notion of beauty disincluded their own kind.

Even greater gaps of logic were at hand. After engaging in an absurd fight with the über-Morlock, during which Irons hangs half-in, half-out of the bubble of force enclosing the time machine as it accelerates into the future, a circumstance that would likely have substantially impeded its operation, Hardegen travels to an age in which the Morlocks have gained absolute dominance. As if they had not already done so. There he decides that while he cannot change the past, he can change the future. This judgment, made while in the future concerning the past, meets no rational standard with which I am familiar. I would hazard to guess that from whichever direction one approaches it, time is either unalterable or it is not. Nevertheless, Hardegen returns to rescue Mara from the caverns, leaving behind the time machine—which he has set to explode—and they escape into the surrounding hills. This hitherto unhinted-at explosive capacity is a wondrous thing, for not only does the machine produce a considerable pyrotechnic display, but—as if it had a mind of its own—the explosion manages with surgical precision to annihilate the Morlock caverns without spreading destruction to any other precinct.

Every work of the imagination, my own not excepted, is afflicted with logical imperfections. It is the job of the craftsman to direct the reader's or the viewer's attention away from these flaws by dint of his skill at narration. One of the tools that can effect such a sleight-of-hand is pacing, and if The Time Machine had been well paced, its logical gaffes might not have seemed so glaring. But under my great-grandson's aimless direction, the story does not build so much as it drearily accumulates. Nor does the acting distract from the film's relentless stupidity. Though Mr. Pearce has previously turned in admirable performances in L.A. Confidential and Memento, I must now infer that these performances were extracted from him by talented directors, an asset with which he was not blessed while making The Time Machine. Rather than acting, he appears to be doing a series of impressions, all of them inept. His evocation of a man in love is particularly grotesque—bug-eyed, gaping, as if the emotion were no more than a kind of inflamed earnestness. Special effects, too, tend to gloss over logical errors, but Machine's special effects were of uneven quality. Rumour has it that following a number of unenthusiastically received test screenings, 20 million dollars worth of extra effects were added at the last moment—as a result they are not up to the standard set by various other recent films.

As I stood in the lobby afterward, observing the streams of children exiting the theatre, idly wondering which of them might—should my scenario of the future come to pass—become the ancestors of Eloi and which might produce Morlocks, I grew irate at this perversion of my work. Not only had one of my descendants savaged my book, but he had created a work of such joyless and debased intelligence, it might well add some crucial bit of momentum to the flow of history and assist in the creation of a world like that I had envisioned, one in which the human mind has been rendered useless for anything except the most rudimentary of gratifications. Thus it was I determined that on my return to the past I will not seek to consummate my relationship with Simon Wells' great-grandmother. Though my feelings for the woman remain strong, the attraction has been dimmed by my recent experience, and the loss of her affections is not too great a sacrifice if I can expunge this excrescence from the record of history. Should the fabric of time prove resistant to alteration, I will refuse to submit so easily to that rule as did Andrew Hardegen. And if I should fail, well, perhaps the record of my failure will work some small benefit. But then it may be too late for action. Intellects cool and vast may already be watching us from afar, preparing to strike so as to prevent my great-grandson from ransacking the remainder of my legacy. Even Martians, I believe, would prefer an ultimate anonymity to enduring the puerile re-imagining that he might visit upon them.