Future schlock

Film - Philip Kerr says the new time machine fails to make progress

Last Friday, I drew a breath, set my teeth, gripped the remote control with both hands and went off with a thud. The TV room got hazy and went dark. My wife came in and brought me a cup of coffee, apparently without seeing me. Yesterday came like the turning out of a lamp and, in another moment, came the day before. The TV room grew fainter and, as I put up pace, night preceded day like the flapping of a black wing. In what seemed like a few seconds, I had travelled 42 years back in time to the year 1960, and I was watching George Pal's wonderful science-fiction adaptation of H G Wells's novel The Time Machine.

Set in Victorian England, this splendid film starred Rod Taylor, and concerned an inventor who travels into the future. Having made a couple of depressing stops to witness both world wars, not to mention a final nuclear showdown (in 1966), the Time Traveller speeds on 800,000 years to discover a society in which humanity is divided into two groups - the Eloi, hippyish-looking, Purdey-haired humans who live above ground, and the Morlocks, etiolated, Welsh front-row mutants who live beneath the earth. The Eloi are a pretty but passive lot, and seem to want for nothing except some make-up remover. The Time Traveller even falls in love with one of their number, Weena, only to make the horrifying discovery that the Eloi are food for the cannibalistic Morlocks. Meat is murder, right?

Deservedly, Pal's film won an Academy Award for the film's special effects, and was generally praised for keeping faith with the novel's philosophical and scientific refinements. Wells intended his novel to be a Swiftian satire of the English class system in the 1890s, but like all great literature with meanings within meanings, not all of these meanings are agreeable to our modern ears. With the Morlocks constituting this futuristic society's working class, it is tempting to see their ugliness and brutality as entirely consistent with the views expressed by John Carey in his marvellous book The Intellectuals and the Masses, to wit, that Wells seriously believed inferior races should be exterminated.

Flinging myself once more into futurity, I found myself in the year 2002 and preparing to watch yet another film version of The Time Machine, this one produced exclusively by Americans, and dir-ected by Simon Wells, the great-grandson of Herbert George. The film starred Guy Pearce, Mark Addy and the Dublin chanteuse Samantha Mumba.

Samantha Mumba? It was now that I began to worry. What might appear when the hazy curtain was withdrawn? What if in this interval the story had lost its relevance and had developed into something inhuman, unsympathetic and overwhelmingly stupid?

In another moment, we were face to face. For a few minutes I was staggered, some of the special effects being generally excellent. And it was only gradually, as I sat there in the dark, that a question came into my mind: were these creatures fools? You see, I had always anticipated that the people of the year 2002 would be incredibly ahead of the people of 1960, in knowledge, art, everything. Instead, this latest film adaptation, with its interminable action sequences and hypertrophied effects, exhibited none of the subtleties of the original, with a script that showed its writer, John (Gladiator) Logan, to be on the intellectual level of a five-year-old. Everything was subjugated to the general spectacle of galloping Morlocks, futuristic cities, exploding moons and dystopian landscapes, all of which left us with characters so cold and thin and neglected that they looked as if they had been fashioned by Giacometti.

Guy Pearce was called upon to do little more than give that wide-eyed look that comes from staring at an optician's wall chart. It is best to draw a veil over Samantha Mumba's acting; or, better still, a shroud. In short, the film looked and sounded exactly like a piece of DreamWorks animation, such as the soulless Prince of Egypt, which is not perhaps so surprising since this just happens to have been Simon Wells's last feature.

All that was bad enough. But character names had been changed for no good reason: Weena was now Mara; and Filby was now Dr David Philby. Worse, new characters had been introduced, with risible result: the Morlocks were now controlled by what the credits described as an "Uber-Morlock", played by Jeremy Irons looking, preposterously, like the blues guitarist Johnny Winter and speaking dialogue so corny it sounded like it had been borrowed from Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

There was no white sphinx. The beginning had been changed (infuriatingly, some Strasbergian Hollywood nonce had given the Time Traveller "a motive"). The ending had been changed, too. And, of course, this being an American production, the location had been changed: the story was now set not in Victorian London but fin-de-siecle New York. All of which was enough to let loose the overall judgement I had suspended on this feature. A flow of disappointment rushed across my mind. They had made The Time Machine in vain.

The Time Machine (PG) is on general release