It is not the purpose of these pages to do film reviews per se, nor to critique how different a movie is from the book on which it is allegedly based. Suffice it to say that I read The Time Machine only once, and three and a half decades ago, but saw glaring changes. However, it could reasonably be said that in the book time travel is a plot device to bring the character to another world in which a moral fantasy can be expounded, and the film makes time travel much more the heart of the story.
Thirty year old Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce), Associate Professor of Applied Mechanics and Engineering at Columbia University in New York, is our hero. He is the distracted professor who has time to invent an electric toothbrush, but not to get his jacket cleaned. This night in 1899 he is on his way to propose to Emma (Sienna Guillory). There is a steam-powered automobile that catches his attention, and the comment that the owner often forgets to set the brake. But he catches up with Emma, and she agrees to marry him--and then is killed by a mugger.
The loss of Emma's life becomes the driving force in Alexander's life over the next four years, as he combines his own ideas with those of a German patent clerk with whom he has been corresponding (named Einstein), to develop a time machine. His good friend David Philby (Mark Addy) is worried about the time he has spent in his library, but Alexander assures him that he will have dinner next week. It is 1903. Several very significant things are said in this discussion. Philby says, Nothing will ever change what happened; Alexander answers, You're wrong, because I will change it, and then adds, after Philby leaves, In a week we'll never even have had this conversation. Alexander clearly expects that he will be able to alter the past and rewrite the entire history of the past four years.
Almost immediately he takes his time machine back four years, to that fateful night in 1899 when Emma was shot by a mugger. He reaches the park before his other self, and whisks Emma into town, away from the park and the danger of the mugger. Then, as he steps into a shop to buy flowers for her, that crazy steamer jumps out of control and strikes Emma, leaving her dead.
Philby meets them at the hospital, but doesn't understand what his friend is saying; he doesn't realize that this Alexander has come back from four years in the future, and is not the man with whom he was just chatting in the library an hour before. Alexander says, I could go back a thousand times, see her die a thousand ways. He now raises for himself the question that drives the rest of the movie: why can't I change the past?
It would be bad enough were I to say that the movie is so disappointing that it never answers this question; but it's worse than that. The movie eventually gives an answer which it clearly isn't true even within the events of the movie. It overlooks the fact that Alexander already has changed the past, quite seriously. Follow the storyline, and see where it goes.
We have observed that Alexander, whom we will for the moment call Alex, stopped to buy flowers and was distracted by the steamer; when it suddenly jumped forward, he slammed on the brake. He then went on to propose to Emma, took her for a walk in the park, and saw her shot. He blames himself for this. Had he not taken her into the park, they would not have encountered the mugger. Ridden with guilt and loss, he dedicates the next four years of his life to building the time machine, and then travels back to that same night. He, whom we now must distinguish with the label Xander, beats Alex to the park and takes Emma into town. They are right by that same flower shop where that same steamer breaks down, when it is there. But where is Alex? He should be on that street at this moment; and even if he doesn't see Emma with Xander, or even Emma standing by herself, he should have seen the steamer and grabbed the brake, as we know he already did. What has Xander done that would change this for Alex? Nothing whatsoever.
But if we allow that Alex is not here--perhaps this is a different street with a different steamer that is always breaking down and another driver who constantly forgets to set the brake (although this does not appear to be the case either looking at the set or considering the elements of the story functionally)--we still have Alex on his way to the park, where he will not find Emma. While Xander is in the hospital, Alex must be looking for Emma--and how could Philby have already heard, but Alex not know? Yet it is clear that Alex was not present to see Emma killed, and although he feels the same sense of loss, he is not faced with the guilt of responsibility. He was not near her, and does not know why she was in town instead of in the park. This is psychologically a very different Alex who now moves into the future. In four years, the probability is very much against the idea that he would have built a time machine to save Emma. It really could not in any way be seen as his fault.
Let us suppose, however, that he, romantic that he is, is so crushed by the loss that he still builds the time machine intending to save Emma. However, he knows nothing of a mugger in the park. He is trying to figure out why Emma was in the city. Thus he will rush to reach the park before she leaves it (but the other Xander is not there, so it is only the new Alex he must beat); he will accept her suggestion that they stroll through the park.
Now it gets complicated. They have entered the park at a different time for a different reason; there is no ring on her finger for her to protect. They could miss the mugger altogether; or, having met him, they could give him what he wants; or since this time Xander is carrying the watch Emma gave him, it could be that he is shot for the watch, and he dies (leaving Emma and Alex rather confused about the identity of Xander); or Emma could again be killed by the mugger. In any one of these cases, we have created an infinity loop. One way or another, we will revert to a previous history and cycle between those histories perpetually. Alexander has changed the past drastically, so drastically in fact that he has destroyed the future.
It is thus clear that when he climbs back into that time machine to go find the answer to why he can't change the past, he will travel exactly four years into the future and reach the end of time, where he, like everything and everyone else, will cease to exist.
However, there is still most of the movie ahead of us, so we'll pretend this part doesn't matter and see what they do from there.
All of that was created by the film producers, who did not believe our modern audiences would accept the nineteenth century notion that Alexander was driven to create and use the time machine purely out of scientific interest. Perhaps they should have watched Kate and Leopold to see how the nineteenth century mind works, and not tried to make Alexander a twentieth century man. It is now that Alexander goes to the future, the story Mr. Wells actually wrote, but not for the reasons Mr. Wells suggested. He is not seeking greater scientific knowledge; he wants the answer to his question: why can't he change the past?
There are a couple more shortstops along the way, in 2030 and 2037. Because we are going forward in time, no anomalies are created. But there are some points worth noting in this part of the journey.
The first is that he drops the locket with Emma's picture outside the time bubble created by the machine, and watches it age and crumble in what to him are seconds. This becomes important during the climax.
The stop in 2030 is a bit of a joke. Someone selling retirement homes underground on the moon is running an electronic billboard that says The Future Is Now, which apparently is there long enough that Alexander, moving decades each minute, can not only read it but puzzle over it before stopping. Having now arrived in the future, he goes to the library to try to find out about time travel. Here he encounters Vox (Orlando Jones), the Fifth Avenue Library Information Unit, a computer with a very user-friendly interface, but rather unimaginative. He fails to recognize that the man asking him about time travel matches the picture of Alexander Hartdeggen in his own memory banks; he mentions that "found writings" of Hartdeggen include Treatise on the Creation of a Time Machine, but when Alexander asks about the time machine, he jumps to the H. G. Wells book of that name. The stop serves three functions in the story. It tells Alexander that he must travel further into the future to get his answer; it gives the Fifth Avenue Library Information System the experience of meeting Alexander as a reference point for the future; and it tells the viewer that there are plans to use large-scale explosives in a construction venture on the moon.
If we ask why Alexander stopped in 2037, we find that there is a cause and a reason. The cause is a bit unclear, but apparently the detonations on the moon have destroyed it, and the crashing debris somehow upsets his movement through time. This seems a lame excuse, but they don't belabor it. The reason for the stop is so that we, the viewer, would understand that the destruction of the moon has caused the divergent future we are about to discover, and so that Alexander can bump his head and be largely unconscious as his time machine travels beyond civilization to a primitive future where it seems unlikely anyone would know the answer to his question, since he obviously would have noticed long before he got to 802,701 A.D.
This represents two significant departures from Wells. First, the book Alexander had a compelling reason to go forward into the future: he was an explorer pursuing discoveries over the new frontier. This Alexander is driven by a personal quest, to find the answer to why he can't save his lost love. Thus it is necessary to knock him out to get him where he's supposed to be.
But the other departure goes to the very heart of the meaning of the book, and is worth taking a moment to consider. If you've ever watched The Wizard of Oz and also watched The Wiz, you might have noticed that they tell the very same story and reach two entirely different morals. Dorothy in Oz realizes that she shouldn't ever have left home looking for what she'd lost, because if it wasn't there it probably didn't exist; the Dorothy in Wiz realized that nothing was ever going to happen for her until she got up and left home. And in a very similar way, this small change to the story has erased the message Wells intended. It remains to be seen whether it has replaced it with another message.
Wells was looking at a world in which the rich were more and more removed from the poor. Looking at British society, he saw striking and growing class divisions. In the 1890's, when this book was published, evolution was the rage of the age. Wells extrapolated the human race into two future species, the Eloi descended from the soft and wealthy, the Morlocks children of the downtrodden. The poor were strong, he postulated, and would eventually prey on the rich; the rich were weak, and would not be able to resist them. Notably, neither race was at all human, although both were recognizably descended from humanity. For Wells, the future evolution was the logical extension of the present division of society.
The movie does not find this compelling; this is probably correct, as class divisions are considerably less marked in our age than they were. (I am not saying that we do not have social classes, but rather that the lines are considerably less clear-cut; there is much more a continuum from the very rich to the very poor.) Thus it completely tosses out Wells' notion that humanity is already on the road to this division, and creates a catastrophe which it postulates as the cause of the changes. It also maintains the Eloi as essentially human, so it can hint at a romantic happy ending for our hero. In the book, the girl Eloi he befriends (whose name is Weena) is killed by the Morlocks; he fights back with camphor, the nineteenth century equivalent of napalm, getting information from an ancient museum.
As an aside, the word Eloi appears to be derived from the Hebrew for lord; I do not know the derivation of Morlock, but Wells was not hiding his parable.
He reaches the future, wounded, and is tended by Mara (Samantha Mumba), one of the few adults facile enough in English to converse (although the one child in the film, Kalen (Omero Mumba), also speaks English well enough). Here he discovers the split between the Eloi who live a primitive life (hardly the life of comfort in the book) and the hunting Morlocks. The Morlocks have specialized, and include among them a very few who are intelligent, but not merely intelligent, mentally superior with psionic powers. There is one such here, and he controls all the Morlocks so that they will not completely destroy the Eloi and then starve. (The credits dub him the Uber-morlock, but the term is not used in the film.)
Mara is taken, and Alexander determines to rescue her. This takes him back to his old friend, the Fifth Avenue Library Information Unit. Vox recognizes Alexander, and gives him some information. It is this computer that explains the racial split. But the computer makes a mistake here. It first states that there are now two separate races, and then declares them to be independent species. There is a significant difference between a race and a species. In Wells' book, we would certainly accept that these are distinct species. In the presentation in the film we might even suspect that the Morlocks are not a species, but several related species (although perhaps, if there are not too many variants, these might be more like bees, in which there are three functional types and specialized work within those types). But a species must be able to propagate itself, and it appears that the Morlocks do not have that capacity--they rely on captured females of the Eloi to bear their young. This could only be so if the Morlocks are a human race whose females are all sterile, such that they must breed with Eloi females to survive.
There are two serious consequences of this.
The first is that there are not enough females. The fact that only Mara is saved the fate of being eaten suggests this is more complicated than first appears, because it suggests that only the pretty females are to be used for breeding stock, and the rest eaten. A very few Eloi females must bear all of the Morlocks; and Eloi females must also bear the Eloi on which the Morlocks feed.
The second, more serious, is that every generation of Morlocks is reduced in its Morlock DNA. It is difficult to imagine a mechanism which does not produce male Morlocks with 50% Eloi DNA; but if this is so, then the next generation has 75% Eloi DNA, and the following generation 87.5%, then 93.75%, gradually approaching the point at which the Morlocks and Eloi are genetically indistinguishable. It is not a division which can be maintained on those terms.
But the movie needed a reason why Mara was in the cage in the head Morlock's room when all the others were eaten, so that Alexander could rescue her and live happily ever after. Thus Mara wasn't eaten so that they could use her as breeding stock.
The uber-morlock gives him the answer to his question, and tells him to go home; but he doesn't go home--he deals with the uber-morlock. Before we can deal with this next time jump, we have to look at the uber-morlock's answer.
The uber-morlock is well played by Jeremy Irons. Cold and direct, he is not cruel for cruelty's sake. Survival is what interests him, survival of both species. The Morlocks need the Eloi, and so balance must be maintained. He maintains that balance, controlling both. He tells us that without him, the Morlocks would kill all the Eloi within a few months.
He also tells us that he is one of many, that there are other colonies underground elsewhere. The movie seems to forget this point later.
He already knows Alexander's question. He gives his answer: had Emma lived, Alexander would not have built the time machine; had he not built the machine, she would not have lived. In other words, the uber-morlock claims that you cannot change the past because to do so is to create a paradox.
Having given the answer, he gives Alexander his time machine and tells him to leave.
The answer fails. We have seen how it fails on many pages of this site. This answer boils down to God would not allow it to happen, whether you say it in a wholly religious sense or depersonalize God to some intelligent force of nature. Whether God will allow man to destroy time I could not say; but to insist that He won't allow it is dangerous even if you believe in a concerned deity overseeing the universe. To expect such care from the inanimate Nature is asking for intelligence in a rock.
But the answer has already failed in this film, as we have seen. Alexander was mistaken: he did change the past, and in a significant way. He traveled from 1903 to 1899 to prevent Emma from being killed by a mugger with a gun, and he succeeded in doing so. The fact that she was then killed by a runaway automobile does not alter the fact that he changed history in meaningful ways.
Further, the uber-morlock either does not believe what he just said, or he does not understand it. He has told Alexander that the past cannot be changed, and then has tried to change the past--for we already know that the Fifth Avenue Library Information Unit has his year of death recorded as 1903, the year of his departure, and for him to return alive to 1903 and live even until 1904 is to change the past from the perspective of 802,701, which is the only perspective which the uber-morlock can call the present.
But the movie is not yet done changing the past.
Gallantry, perhaps, wins the day. Alexander does not go home and leave Mara to face her fate. Instead, he manages to trick the uber-morlock and drag him out of time toward the future. They fight, and with some difficulty he maneuvers his opponent into the position of having his hands inside the time bubble and the rest of his body beyond it. Within seconds, as time rushes past him, he dies and decays to dust.
Stopping the time machine, Alexander finds himself in a barren future. Clearly with the loss of their leader, the Morlocks destroyed the Eloi, and then died. What is not so clear is what happened to the jungle. Of course, if I'm reading the momentary glance at the time settings correctly, the year is 865,427,810--almost nine hundred million years into the future from the world of the Eloi. I must have it wrong; that view of the earth would be meaningless in this context. Even the snake head statues would have perished in that time. But we take it that he went to the future and saw that the world was destroyed.
He returns to what is now the past, a moment beyond his departure from 802,701, and sets up the machine to overload while he rescues the girl and escapes. The explosion of the overloaded time machine destroys all the Morlocks, leaving only the Eloi and Alexander alive.
When asked what he is doing, Alexander declares that he is changing the future. In fact, he is changing the past; he has been to the future, and now traveled back to the past. He has also chosen this course of actions as a means of altering the history between 802,701 and whatever date in the future he observed--once again demonstrating that, at least in this movie, you can change the past.
C. S. Lewis somewhere wrote (perhaps citing someone else) that it was not remarkable that God would allow men to change the world through prayer; what was remarkable was that He allowed them to change it at all. Once it was established that man could change the world, doing so by prayer was no more amazing than any other means. Although as the Fifth Avenue Library Information Unit says, one cannot change the past because one cannot travel to the past, if one could, we should not be surprised that it is possible to change it--even if it proves dangerous and costly.
The moral of the story comes out in the words of Alexander: it was only a machine. The lesson of this telling of The Time Machine is that in the end people and relationships are more important than science and technology. I doubt H. G. Wells would have written such a story; but then, perhaps the movie got it right.
There are some points that have been neglected in this discussion which should be covered; they aren't related to the anomalies, but are important matters within the context of the film.
Wells' time machine does not travel in space at all; it sits where it is, and moves through time only. This logically suggests that it is visibly present at every moment of time through which it passes; it also suggests that the passengers within are similarly visible (just as the outside world is visible to them). To argue that it passes through that second too quickly to be seen doesn't make sense; while for the passenger, that second might be reduced to a nanosecond, to the observer it would still be a second, and the machine passing through it would be visible for the entire second. This would be terribly awkward; people could attack the machine faster than the users could react to them. But Time After Time had it right: the time traveler arrives to wherever the time machine happens to be at the targeted time. If someone moves it from London to New York during a three month journey by ship in 1940, then when you pass through 1940 you will see three months of the inside of the boat followed by the New York setting.
Perhaps more significantly, it is never clear why travelers inside the time machine do not encounter themselves. That is, if Alexander was in the time machine moving through every second between 1903 and 1899, why then when he travels back from 1899 to 1903 does he not find himself in the same space he was before? It is an awkward problem, complicated by the fact that in this machine one actually moves through time at the accelerated rate, as opposed to so many other time machines by which the traveler steps from the future to the past instantly. A time machine that moves backwards second by second, at whatever rate, would seem to create an infinite number of anomalies, as each incremental step back creates a new history for the world from that instant to the point of departure, only to be replaced again by the next incremental step back.
As was already hinted, there is a problem about the destruction of the morlocks. As someone pointed out to me, if there are morlock colonies around the world, it is foolish to expect either that destroying this one will free the Eloi for long; nor does it make much sense to believe that the exploding time machine will kill all the morlocks living underground throughout the world without hurting any of the Eloi anywhere. It's a very dramatic ending for the story; it's not a terribly credible one.
I'm afraid it is the sort of movie that is very enjoyable on the first viewing, but which has cracks which show more and more clearly with each run. It is certainly worth renting and watching, but I don't expect to add it to my library.