Sunday, January 30, 2011


I saw THE TIME MACHINE for the first time in my 7th grade Social Studies class, complete with introduction by Mr. Dexter Jackson – the only 7th grade Social Studies teacher on Earth who could make plaid shirts and polka dot ties look cool. To this day, I’m still not sure why he showed us that film. At the end, we had to write a short essay about which three books we would have taken back to the world of the Eloi… but as far as I could tell, this had nothing to do with his curriculum. Maybe he just needed a break so that he could catch up on grading papers. Whatever the case, no one was complaining. Movies are always more popular than lectures.

I have to admit that I wasn’t sold on THE TIME MACHINE right away. The first twenty minutes or so consisted mostly of drawing room conversation, and I couldn’t help comparing these sequences to the comparatively fast-paced BACK TO THE FUTURE. (Nevermind that BACK TO THE FUTURE takes the science out of science fiction.) George Pal’s pinwheel sled device may not be as cool-looking as a nuclear DeLorean, but – once it gets going – Rod Taylor’s trip was much more daring. He didn’t just go back a few decades and hit on his mother, he went eight hundred centuries into the future and picked up Yvette Mimieux. Now that’s time-traveling! Also, there's something about George Pal's time-lapsed photography that is far more hypnotic than all of Robert Zemeckis's higher-tech fireworks.

When I re-watched THE TIME MACHINE a few nights ago, it reminded me less of BACK TO THE FUTURE than of George Romero’s films DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) and DAY OF THE DEAD (1985). Think about it this way: One of the earliest Hollywood forerunners of Romero’s concept of the modern zombie as a symbol is William Cameron Menzies’ 1936 adaptation of the H.G. Wells story THINGS TO COME. That film – itself a forerunner of all the atomic anxiety movies of the 1950s – speculates that global warfare will infect the human population with a “wandering sickness” and drive humanity back into the dark ages. By 1970, the film theorizes, half of the human population will be eradicated. (Despite this, anti-war protesters will be punished as “traitors to civilization”... Sound familiar?) The film proposes that science will come to the rescue, rebuilding the old order by 2036… but youthful idealists will want to do more than simply re-build things as they were before. The heroes of the film eventually escape into outer space just as the heroes of DAY OF THE DEAD flee their subterranean shelter in favor of a tropical island where they can live in peace, away from the anxious power politics of “civilization.”

THE TIME MACHINE, like DAWN OF THE DEAD, shows us an apparent utopia in which humans are free from all of the possible hardships of life… then reveals that this too is a horrible fate. Humankind has been divided into two tribes: picture-perfect hippies called Eloi, and albino cave trolls called Morlocks. The Eloi live in a lush tropical wonderland (time has mysteriously transformed London into a bountiful garden in Southern California), but the ease of living has made them dull and lazy. The Morlocks live underground, where they have built machines to catch their food… namely, the Eloi. To put this in terms that a Romero fan can understand, the Morlocks have become cannibals and the Eloi have become zombies. For me, one of the most memorable scenes in the film is the one in which Yvette Mimieux lulls Rod Taylor (and us) into a trance-like infatuation with her world. "Don't your people ever speak of the past?" he asks. She answers, "There is no past." Dumbfounded, he follows up, "Well, do they ever wonder about the future?" "There is no future," she answers. In short, the Eloi have lost their humanity, and it’s up to Rod Taylor to teach them how to become human again. At the end of the film, the traveler returns to his own time (1899) and retrieves three books to use as guides for re-creating human civilization.

As I remember it, a lot of people in my Social Studies class picked the Bible as one of the three books. A few people proposed the Farmer’s Almanac. I think I might have suggested The Complete Works of William Shakespeare… which probably would have made H.G. Wells happy. But what I really want to know is: What three books would George Romero pick? (Aside from Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide, of course…)

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