In 2002, the classic story The Time Machine was remade in a temporally disastrous version (previously analyzed and published as The Time Machine). However, it had been made previously, in 1960 by George Pal, in a version a bit more faithful to the book. It still differs significantly from the book on major points even apart from having been shortened for the purpose of a film version, but at issue is the degree to which this earlier film version stands as a time travel story. Thus we offer our analysis.The final verdict is that the story survives fairly well, if we accept its assumptions about evolution and war. This one is temporally plausible.
It is perhaps surprising that the original time travel story, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, has made it to the big screen under that name only twice. The second such treatment, The Time Machine, received our attention some years back, and was very disappointing on several levels. This discussion will address the original movie, produced by George Pal in 1960 and starring Rod Taylor, apparently properly entitled H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. It will at times reference for comparison both the book and the later movie.
The anomalies in the film are relatively simple. The main character, named in this film H. George Wells but mostly referenced as George, travels forward, making several stops for observation on his journey to a distant future (802701), then after a few eventful days in that future realm returns to the present (1900), tells his friends everything that happened, and leaves again for the future, for Weena, the girl he left behind. There is some discussion suggesting that the world might be ruled by fixed time theory, in that Dr. Philip Hillyer suggests the future is unalterable, and it will have to be considered whether the doctor's assessment proves correct. Otherwise, history only changes when someone travels from the future to the past, and that happens only once in the movie (it happens twice in the other movie, but not as the same trips), so although it might or might not be simple, there is only one anomaly created.
There are, however, several other problems which arise from the film's presentation, related not so much to the affects of time travel but to peripheral points. Some of these arise because the film diverges from the book; some are problems with the original conception. These touch on how he travels, what he finds, and even why he does it. Thus we will take a couple weeks to look at this classic science fiction film.
The time traveler in the original story (the book) is the classic nineteenth century inventor. This is the age of Edison, Bell, Watt, men who invented because they could, because they were advancing the frontiers of knowledge. Wells' inventor wants to see the future because he wants to see the technological marvels that will bring humanity into the future Utopia. That, as we saw, was not the purpose of his trip in the 2001 film; it is also not the motivation here.
Talking with his best friend David Filby, George confesses that he is unhappy with the present, the last days of 1899, because it is evident that there are always wars, and that mankind uses science to build better weapons to kill more people. He is moving forward to find a Utopia, but not one based on scientific and technological advancement (which he has already seen is harnessed for more efficient killing) but somehow on the improvement of humanity, who will lay down weapons and embrace peace.
With the advantage of hindsight, the movie then takes us where the book, published in 1895, was unable to go: into the events of the twentieth century, beginning with World War One. George stops here because his lab has been boarded up and he can't see out, but on his brief foray he happens upon young James Filby, the exact image (played by the same actor) of his father David, and learns that David was killed in the war. His next stop is in World War Two, when the bombings in England catch his attention and his lab is destroyed; but the time machine continues beyond that, and passes the 1960 date when the film was made into the filmmaker's projected future, what appears to be World War Three which in 1966 apparently included the dropping of a nuclear bomb by the Eastern Bloc on whatever English city is represented.
George barely escapes in his time machine, and here we have a problem with the method of time travel; but because the bomb caused a geological disaster and the release of magma in lava floes through the city, George and his time machine are encased inside the rock, and he thinks his only escape is to travel forward until erosion releases him from his prison. There are several problems with this, including that he could quite easily have escaped by reversing to the past and returning to his own lab; we will deal with the others in future articles. For the moment, though, this becomes the explanation for him traveling so far into the future--not, as in the book, that he wanted to see the future of humanity, nor, as in the later film, because he was rendered unconscious by an accident, but simply because it took that long to escape his entombment.
On the other hand, his first foray into this future world causes him to suppose that he may have found what he sought, a world in which humanity has finally found peace. They also have found complete apathy, to all appearances, and of course the appearance of Utopia proves to be an illusion (as it was in the book). He had a reason for going and a reason for exploring, and although they were different from the original, they were closer to the book version than the later film.
There are several problems with the function of Wells' time machine; we have discussed these in connection with the other film, but they are an artifact of the book and present in this version as well.
Some will object that if the time machine does not move through space, then whenever it arrives in the future it will be adrift in space, the earth having moved away beneath it. That misses the point of frame of reference: the machine stays where it is relative to the ground, and while the ground moves the machine is as it were affixed to it, no matter how quickly it moves through time. Although that certainly is why the T.A.R.D.I.S. is so difficult to program (math genius Adric was the only non-Gallifreyan to succeed), it does not apply to Wells' machine.
What does matter, though, is that the machine moves through time, and the traveler can observe events in the world outside his bubble. That means that the machine is physically present in every second of time, and that people ought to be able to see it and indeed react to it. When he sent the model machine forward they ought to have seen no change, because even though the machine would reach the next second before them, when they reached that second it would be there even though it had already traveled far beyond it. Think of it like an object passing through the field of a camera with an open shutter: the image on the film shows everywhere the object was while it was open, even though it was not in all those places simultaneously. The machine must be materially and therefore visibly present in every second through which it passes.
It will be argued that it passes through those seconds too quickly to be seen, but if it indeed passes through them it does not matter how quickly it does so. The only possible explanation is that it flickers, that is, it begins by experiencing nine tenths of each second and vanishing for just a tenth, accelerating to experience half of each second, then only a tenth, and eventually to experiencing such a small fraction of each second that the eye cannot catch it. Yet if it is still experiencing part of each second, it at least seems as if there ought to be at least the ghost of an image visible--and even if not, a solid object materializing and dematerializing for a millionth of a second, each second, is going to displace whatever is there, damaging or injuring objects, and even in moving the air is going to establish a vibration (an audible string of thunderclaps one second apart, if we stick with a fraction of each second). It is impossible for the machine to be present for any part of time and not be present for at least part of that time.
The other factor is that the time traveler is inside the machine. That is, he gets into the machine around midnight on January 1st, 1900, and travels forward toward some date in 802701, but in doing so he passes through January 2nd, 1900. On his return trip, when he reaches January 2nd, 1900, he is in the time machine already, so he must be in it twice, going opposite directions.
That is not as difficult an issue in this film as it was in previous ones (including Time After Time, in which Wells is portrayed as pursuing Jack the Ripper in his time machine) because the machine is moved a short distance and so logically could be duplicating itself when it returns to the past. However, it should have that effect when George escapes the morlocks by fleeing to the future and then puts it into reverse (for the duplicated time until he reaches the point at which the machine was moved), and also when having moved the machine back to its original position he leaves for the future again.
We can certainly forgive Wells for overlooking aspects of his method of time travel which the rest of us have had a century to recognize, particularly since his story was not really about time travel but about suggesting a possible future of the world; and we can forgive the filmmakers who are stuck between fixing problems and being true to the original. We just need to recognize that these are problems with time travel as represented, and ought to be considered carefully by those writing stories in the future.
We noted a problem with the temporal movement of the time machine, in the fact that it seems to be physically present in every second as it races forward through history. Even assuming it is present for too brief a fraction of time to be seen, it must still be felt, striking objects or at least displacing air as it moves.
The same problem occurs on the return trip, with a new aspect: multiple anomalies.
Assume our traveler jumps, experiencing small fragments of time further apart, and our present speed leaps back at a rate by which we are physically present one nanosecond per year. (As we will discuss below, we must be physically present to see events and to block the lava.) Thus on the return trip he leaves from 802701 and arrives, for the briefest instant, at 802700--changing history if only by creating a thunderclap. That history must resolve to 802701; meanwhile, he travels to 802699, changing history yet again, with each backstep creating yet another anomaly that must resolve.
Yet the experience does not seem as if it is skipping through time. It seems as if it is experiencing all of time more quickly--day and night become a twilit blur. In reverse, that is an even more challenging problem. With each immeasurably small advance toward the past all future must be rewritten to the increasingly remote departure. Note, too, that the machine was moved, and thus is not displacing itself (a different problem already noted) but claiming a new space further into history.
The problem arises because the machine is physically present in space in every moment of time through which it passes, and thus when it is traveling backward it is altering its own history by being present where it was once absent. There are other problems with the mode of travel which make it more difficult to determine whether these anomalies are benign, but we must recognize that they are present and must be resolved.
As long as we're catching problems, we ought to recognize that there is a problem with the mannequin across the street. It's terrible to say, because the film won an award for the use of time-lapse photography to create the special effects of time accelerating; unfortunately, what we see is not at all what the time traveler would have seen.
For those who do not recall the scene (or have not seen the film), in view of the lab through the windows is the front of Filby's store, in which there is a female mannequin. Filby, and eventually his son, keeps it dressed in the current fashions for sale in the store, and George wonders at the odd fashions which appear. However, we see a mannequin in a dress, then partially stripped, then stripped to undergarments and sometimes less, then redressed in new undergarments, then reclothed in the new dress, then after a very brief pause a repeat of the same process. The mannequin never moves.
There are three obvious problems with this.
The first is that we never see the people who are dressing the mannequin. If we can see the mannequin in partial dress, we ought to be able to see at least the blur of people removing and adding clothing.
The second is the appearance of the mannequin in undergarments for long enough for us to see her thus suggests that she was so clad, in the front window, for at least a few hours, and that's not something that any store would do--the change would be made all at once, and while we might glimpse the undressed mannequin for an instant we would not see it paused thus. It would make more sense for us to see the mannequin in one dress and suddenly in another, because if the weeks for which it wears the new fashion pass in a few seconds, the change itself must pass more quickly than we can see.
The third problem is that the mannequin itself never moves. It must have taken herculean effort to do what must have been delicate stop-motion photography to dress and undress the prop with such care that it itself was always in exactly the same pose and position when the camera captured it--and that is an effort that Filby (or his dressers) would have had no need to make, as no one other than the time traveler they cannot know is watching will notice if the mannequin moves six inches to the left or lowers its arm ten degrees or turns slightly clockwise. It might have been more dizzying for the viewer if it were more realistic, but it is very unrealistic as it appears.
I almost feel as if it is necessary for me to put a disclaimer here; at least one of my readers would say so. I have not actually traveled through time, so I do not have the experience on which to base this conclusion. However, any careful thinker should reach much the same conclusion, that the mannequin would be moved slightly each time it was changed, that the periods during which it was unclad would be so brief as compared with those in which it was clad as to pass almost imperceptibly, and that if the act of changing was observed at all, the people doing the changing would also have been seen. Perhaps they would not have been seen, were the machine moving so fast through time that the change happened faster than could be observed; but then it would leap from dress to dress, and place to place in the window, without the intervening lingerie scenes.
Reaching 1966, the traveler gets buried in a lava floe, and so travels eight hundred thousand years into the future to escape his prison. We already asked why he does not think to escape by reversing to reach his lab, but noted that there were other problems as well.
The first is why the lava floe stops. The suggestion is that he escapes by leaping forward, away from the moment that the lava would have struck his position; if that is so, however, then the lava would have found the space empty and filled it, and he would be traveling not merely encased in rock, but as part of the rock, that is, sharing the same space as the rock. The alternative, though, is that when it is operating it creates some kind of field around it, an invisible wall, and the floe is stopped when it hits that, forming itself to the bubble which the machine creates around itself. This, though, puts us back with the problem of whether the machine is physically present: perhaps it is there for too short an instant in each second to observe, but if it can prevent the lava from flowing into its space then other objects attempting to pass through that space must impact it as well.
Granted that the time traveler waited for the rock around him to erode sufficiently that he could exit, why did he wait so long--so long in fact that the ground had eroded to a flat plain and grass had grown, and indeed a short distance from him someone had built a large, solid, and dramatic building referenced as the sphinx but having the head of a morlock on top? Once an opening had developed in his cavern, he could have stopped and explored, at least enough to know whether it appeared to be safe to continue; for some reason he waited until they had eroded to the point that there was no trace, not so much as a ridge around the base of the machine. Yet long before it had eroded as far as that, he would have been able--for not less than decades and perhaps centuries--to see over the top of the eroded wall. At this point it is an awkward question whether he then would have observed the construction of the sphinx, or whether somehow the sphinx is built of such materials that it did not weather under the conditions which removed perhaps ten feet of rock from over and around the time machine a few feet away. Even if that was true of this futuristic building, would not the erosive forces that consumed the rock entombing the machine also have eaten away the ground in front of the door, leaving the entrance elevated?
Some of that was done because of technological limitations in the special effects department--the erosion process is not at all natural, but more impressionistic, and had the narrator not explained it as erosion we might have thought someone excavated him by quarrying the rock. Meanwhile, it was important for the ending that the machine be moved a very short distance, so that at the end George would arrive quite near his lab and be able to move the machine back to the starting position easily himself, and within Filby's view.
Overall, the notion of being encased in rock for eight hundred millennia is too problematic; it was a bad plot enabler that created more problems than it solved.
Both this movie and the later remake make the same mistake, which Wells was smart enough to avoid.
Eight hundred thousand years have elapsed since the time of the time traveler. In that time, some humans have evolved into something else, something we might think sub-human, the morlocks. That is true in the book, and in both movies we have the impression that the morlocks are no longer what we would consider human. If we accept that humanity continues to evolve, this is perfectly logical.
The problem is, what is true of the morlocks also is, indeed must be, true of the eloi. In the book, it is: the eloi are a child-like people not because the adults have all been culled but because they have evolved into shorter frailer life forms. The traveler's response to Weena is akin to a fatherly response, an older stronger man protecting a child. In the films, it was turned into a love interest, making Weena an innocent girl too pretty for the primitive world in which she lives but old enough to be marriageable in our world; and to avoid questions about inter-species dating, her race remained human to all appearances and presumably to all reasonable tests.
We could argue whether evolution occurs at all, or whether having occurred it continues in intelligent species (it has been claimed that once humanity reached a point at which it could keep its own genetically inferior members alive, it derailed the process of survival of the fittest). The argument is moot, because at least in this film evolution occurs. We could claim that eight hundred millennia is not, after all, so long a time, and that humanity will be unaltered in that time. Whatever the time scale of evolution in humanity's past, it is evident that the time alloted moving forward was sufficient for humans to evolve (or devolve) into morlocks, and thus the answer is no, it is not too short a time for evolution to occur, at least within this story.
What then remains is the possibility that humans both remained human and, in a separated group, evolved into something else. That is not entirely unreasonable; there are species alive today that have been essentially unchanged through eons, and it is presumed in the core of the concept that groups isolated from each other genetically will develop distinctly, changing to greater or lesser degrees according to the necessities of adaptation in the environment. If the morlocks are husbanding the eloi, that is, acting as their herders and keepers, providing their food and shelter, then they are probably also overseeing breeding to maintain prime stock. The degree to which the eloi would be different from humans would then be dependent in part on what changes their environment demanded prior to becoming domesticated, and in part on what traits the morlocks sought to inculcate through breeding. A near identity of the eloi genome with the human is not impossible, even if unlikely.
There is a distinct evolutionary problem, though, in the development of language. Modern speakers would have trouble communicating even with Shakespearean ones, and that is only about half a millennium. Over the eons suggested here, linguistic structures and word roots would be apparent only to experts in the field. Wells addressed this with an interesting section in which his traveler gets the eloi to teach him enough that he can communicate in their language. That's twice difficult for movies, first because on screen such a process is dull, and second because the viewer has to watch the movie in a language he knows, not one he is forced to learn in the first half hour. Thus we excuse the issue here, a problem which this film glosses over and the other explains as the preservation of the pronunciation of ancient inscriptions. It is unrealistic; it has to be accepted to communicate the story.
To this point we have been looking at problems that although connected to the time travel, are only peripherally so. None of this tells us anything either about the temporal anomalies in the film, nor what temporal theory explains it.
For most of the film, George is traveling into the future. This creates no anomalies, in itself, as will be apparent if we consider that we could accomplish the same effect if George were to go into suspended animation for each of those stretches of time: George is too young, but he has had no impact on time for anyone else. It is only at the end of the film (which in an appropriate way connects to the beginning of the film, as the movie starts with his return on Friday, January 5th, 1900, and then backs up to the night of his departure, New Year's Eve 1899, very like the opening of the book) that he makes a reverse trip, from some point beyond his visit to the eloi and morlocks to his own home time. That trip is non-stop, and if we ignore the problems created by a time machine "passing through" a point in space that means it alters nothing until it arrives at its January 5th destination. But did it change time?
In the early part of the film, Dr. Philip Hillyer decrees that the future is immutable, that what will happen has already happened and cannot be altered. This is an expression of fixed time theory, and if it is correct then we would have to conclude that George left for the future and returned five days later, having spent the intervening time in the distant future but not having been missing for more than a week. His absence from those events in the future that he visited in the early part of his trip would be explained by the fact that within a few hours of his return he again departed, to spend his future helping Weena and the eloi build a new life without the morlocks. The question is whether we have any evidence that this is not what happened--and the answer is that indeed we do.
When George stopped in 1917, he conversed with James Filby, his friend David's son, and learned much of what had happened in the intervening years. One of the comments James makes is that the owner of the house across the street vanished mysteriously and has not yet returned, although his father David always expected he would. What makes the comment valuable is that it specifies that this occurred on New Year's Eve at the dawn of the millennium. However, we know that George was there five days later, and that he was there with David Filby and four other witnesses (the aforementioned Doctor Hillyer, Anthony "Bridey" Bridewell, Walter Kemp, and the housekeeper Mrs. Watchett). David thus knew that George had returned and left again, and even had he not told James the details he would have said that George had been gone for about a week and then vanished on January 5th, not on New Year's Eve. That means that at the time, in his first trip, that George meets James, he has not yet returned to January 5th, and we are looking at an original history that will be altered by George's return to January 5th.
We know something of the original timeline; we need to reconstruct the altered one.
We know that in the original history, George leaves his home by time machine on New Year's Eve, 1899, and is not seen again until 1917. (He made an initial jump of about two hours to test his expectations, but no one saw this.) He has a conversation with James Filby, but is not identified. Filby does recognize him in 1940 during the bombings of World War II, as the man he met in 1917, but does not believe it; he does not recognize him in 1966. George's next stop is 802701, where he has the bulk of his adventures and from which he flees some distance into the future, far enough to know that the morlocks are gone, before returning to his own time.
His return to 1900 has all of its impact through his six witnesses, of whom David Filby may be the most important. Filby has charge of George's property after his disappearance, and maintained it in the expectation that George would return. The question is, once George leaves for Weena, will Filby more or less expect him to return?
That is a difficult question even for us. When he left 802701, he intended to bring Weena back to 1900 with him, but was separated from her and unable to do so. He could be intending to sweep Weena into the time machine and bring her back. On the other hand, we know he took three books to the future--a future in which those he expects to meet cannot read, and thus he must be intending to read them himself or spend a great deal of time teaching them to do so. That suggests he is staying.
Of course, he has a time machine; he could spend years in the future, working with Weena and the eloi to build their new society, then retire with his wife to his home in 1900. He may be thinking that as he departs, only to have the plan derailed as the years stretch and (perhaps unexpectedly) he has a family, a family who understands their own time but not his. So he never returns again.
David Filby, though, tells his son James more than just what James knew in the first history, that George vanished on New Year's Eve for five days, returned with incredible stories of the future including predictions of three major wars, then vanished again but may yet someday return. James thus may recognize George as the time traveler of whom his father told him, particularly when he sees him again the second time, and particularly if David included the reports that George met James three times in the future. The times of those meetings are unlikely to change, in part because James does not know the dates; and George knows nothing life-changing he can tell him. So the key issue is whether James will establish the park, or something else will be built there--and given that David was preserving it for the possibility of George's return, and James now knows that George is not limited to a particular time within which to return, the park seems as likely as any other option.
Wells wrote the book probably in the hope that people would recognize in his eloi and morlocks an extension of the society that existed in 1895, and would take steps to avoid that future. The upheavals of the twentieth century disrupted that world, and that future will not come that way, even if it would have done so in Wells' world. On the other hand, George might hope that his report of the future would prevent those wars he so hates. That would create an infinity loop--changing the past based on information from the future such that the future information is undone. However, the probability that the message delivered to six individuals, most of them skeptical, with so little information about the causes of those wars would have any impact on them is negligible; it is doubtful even that knowledge that he dies in 1916 in the war will keep David from meeting his fate--he knows too little about it to avoid it. Yet it still might be significant.
The British lost a million men in World War One; that David Filby was among them hardly seems significant. However, losses throughout Europe were so devastating (the French lost more than the British, the Germans more than the French, the Russians more than the Germans) that polygamy was practiced briefly thereafter to rebuild the populations. What is the death of David Filby in that?
Possibly much. It perhaps does not much matter to the gene pool that he dies--it is unlikely he would have had more children, and James carries the genome forward--but knowing when, even to the year, might well make a difference in a world in which what matters is who lives.
For example, what if, believing he dies in 1916, he relies on his invulnerability prior to that, and in taking risks he saves others who would have died? If he is killed prematurely, we have an infinity loop, the future having been altered based on knowledge of the future that has been erased. If he lives, though, he changes the gene pool through different soldiers surviving.
Or what if, knowing that he dies in 1916 but not when, where, or how, he decides to make his death count. His heroism again might save lives--and might in this case mean he is not there to die at the right time, someone else dying in his place.
Is it really significant, who survives the war, eight hundred millennia later? Absolutely, and not at all. In the sweeping terms of evolutionary ages, the forces that form our future race will be the same, and we will (under Wells' theory) give rise to the eloi and morlocks. That would not be altered. However, it is simultaneously impossible that Weena and the other specific eloi would have existed. The girl he left behind will never be born.
What does George do when he reaches her time and she is not there? Who is there, or what is happening? Absent the drowning incident, the second version of George has an entirely different experience. Does he go back for a different girl, or does his girl come with him? Does he do nothing for the eloi, take his machine and his disappointment home?
It is impossible that knowledge of his death has no impact on David, that he shows the same courage and cowardice, the prophetic information simply an extraneous data point. The future might be unchanged; but the risk is not insignificant.
Wells wrote The Time Machine as commentary on his own late nineteenth century culture; the twentieth century derailed those predictions. The 1960 movie changed much of that--inconsistently, as the ghosts of the original purpose emerge. There is, however, a significant change which serves the filmmakers' purpose.
Wells' socialist view perceived that nineteenth century nobility contributed nothing to the working class and was totally dependent on it. His evolutionary predictions assumed that the eloi (from the Hebrew for "lords") would remain dependent, but the imbalance would be eliminated when the morlocks became their herders, breeding and raising them as livestock. Thus for Wells, the division already existed.
That division was largely eradicated by the time Pal made this film. Thus he placed the division in the future, and used the rings to explain it. That is telling, as he could have ignored it, but he made a point of giving us this explanation. It tells us much of the filmmakers' attitude.
What it says is that the division is arbitrary, that at some point following the impossible war (how could a nuclear world war last three hundred twenty-six years?--even that many minutes is an incredibly long battle) some retreated to the protections of the caves while others continued on the surface. Yet there is now a different kind of war, based on that initially arbitrary split. Pal's point is not lost: the conflict between the communist east and the democratic west is arbitrary and meaningless, there being no real difference between them.
It seems a somewhat myopic view. It is also problematic as to whether the proposed origin of the divide could produce the social situation envisioned--the morlocks might prey on the eloi, but why would the eloi, struggling to survive on the surface, become weak and docile, and why and how would the morlock hunters domesticate them?
However, if it is a possible future, there is very little probability that what George tells a few friends in 1900 will have any impact on the post-apocalyptic survival choices of a decimated race. At least on that point, the future is safe.
Thus although riddled with little complications and potential problems, the story survives its time travel elements fairly well. Given its other assumptions concerning evolution and war, it could have happened that way.