It’s About Time

Future Thanksgiving

Future Thanksgiving

H.G. Wells’ stories have been adapted countless times from the good, James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933), to the not so good, Bert I. Gordon’s Food of the Gods (1976). My personal favorite movie take on Wells is The Island of Lost Souls (1932). Arguably, however, his most famous novels were War of the Worlds (adapted into okay but flawed films in 1953 and in 2005) and The Time Machine (adapted most famously in 1960 and 2002).

It's right behind me, isn't it.

It’s right behind me, isn’t it.

Originally published in 1895, The Time Machine, like most of H.G. Wells’ books was more a social commentary than straight up science-fiction. If Jules Verne was more about the possibilities and potential of science untethered, then Wells was brimming with parables condemning contemporary mores. In the story we meet the Time Traveler, a turn of the century man (like Wells himself) who gets the opportunity—via the eponymous time machine—to see what the world is destined to become.

One ring to rule them all...

One ring to rule them all…

In the future, the Time Traveler encounters two subdivisions of humanity. Evolution has divided the human race into the blissfully ignorant, childish, and decadent Eloi and the subterranean, industrial predators known as the Morlocks. Knowing a thing or two about Victorian classism helps illuminate what the tale is really about. The Eloi are the ultimate conclusion of the aristocracy—they care little and know less and they live lavish lifestyles with no work so they become ambitionless and infantile. The Morlocks are where the workers are headed—spending their entire lives in dehumanizing factories, never seeing the light of day. The irony is that in the Time Traveler’s era, the rich exploit the working class and in the future the rich have become the docile cattle for the cannibalistic proletariat.

While I like and dislike things about both the 1960 and the 2002 versions of The Time Machine, regrettably this cuttingly dark satirical element is never quite expressed in either.

time machine10

I miss you, Lolita.

The Good

The 1960 version of The Time Machine, directed by George Pal (War of the Worlds), stars Rod Taylor (The Birds) as the inventor. His Victorian gentlemen pals think he’s insane when he proposes the impossible idea of time travel. Sebastion Cabot (The Jungle Book) and Alan Young (Mr. Ed) memorably play two of his skeptical friends. It is through Young’s character (Filby), the sensitive and affable bookend, that gives this film the heart it needed.

The time travel sequences themselves are great and wonderfully executed (copious usage of stop-motion and time-lapse photography). The wild plains, vegetation-overgrown minimalist future-buildings, and the Morlock sphinxes are atmospheric and good as well.

Filby and  VOX

Filby and VOX

The 2002 version also has some good points to it. It was directed by H.G.’s great-grandson, Simon Wells (The Prince of Egypt), and starred Guy Pearce (Memento). They up the stakes a tad by giving the inventor a deep, personal reason for building the time machine: his girlfriend is killed by a mugger. At first he goes back in time to save her, but he cannot seem to change the past. If he averts danger once she will only be killed in a different way. He then travels forward in time to the future to find the answer to why he cannot change the past.

This premise is actually pretty good. Like the 1960 movie, he stops in the near future first and witnesses the effects of war and progress, but he also meets a holographic librarian (Orlando Jones) who helps provide necessary exposition and some subtle comic relief. The librarian character is totally new and I actually think he services and amplifies the story in an innovative way.

Again, the time travel sequences are really well done (this time with computerized special effects). The impressive images and swelling score captures the breadth of change on a cultural and geological scale.

1.21 gigawatts?!

1.21 gigawatts?!

Lastly, the Time Machine itself. Both films feature similar designs for the title apparatus. Both feature a barbershop chair, home-made doorknob cranks, a spinning mechanical calendar, and a huge disc positioned behind the passenger. Rod Taylor’s machine looks a bit like a steampunk swamp-mobile and Guy Pearce’s incorporates two large, spinning thingies that create a time envelope around the entire machine (looks like a shiny, giant hamster ball). Seriously, both time machine designs are awesome.

The Bad

I insist both films have some great setups and great gadgets and both Time Travelers are played by fine actors and both have at least one solid supporting cast member. Their depictions of Victorian England/New York are well done and the time travel sequences are fantastic. But then we get to the future. Both Time Travelers make a few pleasant and intriguing stops along the way before the year 802,701 AD, but once at their final destination the films seem to be on autopilot.

time machine comparison 2

Everything leading up to 802,701 had been changed or expanded upon from the original novel. The changes were appropriate and added dimension and soul. But Wells’ future loses all social significance in both films and the filmmakers (George Pal and Simon Wells) seem unsure of what to do with the Eloi and the Morlocks and the context of two opposing races of humans where one feeds on the other.

While neither film gets the Eloi or the Morlocks quite right, the 1960 version does come closer. Both versions insist on making the Eloi too human, while the book describes them as nonverbal alien babies with no long-term or short-term memory. But all movies seem to require romance and since he cannot fall in love with a Morlock, the Time Traveler naturally develops feelings for an Eloi girl (Weena, played by Yvette Mimieux in 1960 and Mara, played by Samantha Mumba in 2002). In the 1960 version, Rod Taylor gets appropriately frustrated with the Eloi and eventually pities them and their broken culture. In 2002, Guy Pearce is just innocently learning the ways of a somewhat naive but defined culture that vaguely resembles Native American societies. . . or Ewoks.

Mumba vs. Mimieux

I understand why they humanized the Eloi so much. The filmmakers probably don’t think an audience would go for our protagonist being truly alone with no real good guys versus bad guys. That said, the Morlocks also suck. 1960 has blue, dopey sumo guys with furry arms and lovehandles—but their eyes do glow! They also get killed way too easily to be scary, but at least their design in more interesting than in the 2002 version.

time machine morlocks

The newer movie has boring, beige, gorilla-like Morlocks that are big but not scary. . . until we meet the Uber-Morlock, played by Jeremy Irons (The Mission). Irons is the smartest person in this future and he is able to relate all the horrors of the past few millenia and even is able to answer the Time Traveler’s question. Unfortunately he only has about 5 minutes of screentime and his character feels tacked on (because the movie needed a clear villain).

The 1960 version has a Rod Serling-esque nightmare Eloi harvest. A siren calls the complacent Eloi to parade quietly into the Morlock sphinxes. It is an inbred Pavlovian memory of the air-raid sirens that told their ancestors to flee underground. The 2002 update rips off The Planet of Apes (1968) round up scene. Big guys in suits chase and capture dudes who look like extras from Apocalypto.

time machine12

Stand back. There’s a giant Bugs Bunny around here somewhere.

Ultimately

I actually like both films to a degree. I really do enjoy the George Pal version from 1960, despite a weaker third act (that is somewhat resurrected through Morlock massacre and Filby’s adorable conclusion back in the past). The structure is good and it’s a very well done science-fiction film that just loses its way ever so slightly after 802,701 AD. It’s a solid movie that might underplay the social satire and not do justice to the Eloi or the Morlocks, but it makes up for it with great characters, atmosphere, and pleasant bookends.

And that's how I did it.

And that’s how I did it.

The Simon Wells 2002 adaptation has a solid and thoughtful beginning and setup that unfortunately devolves into a weak action movie after 802,701. It royally screws up the Eloi and removes the darkness from the Morlocks (with the exception of the added Jeremy Irons character in the homsetretch). It doesn’t totally work, but it doesn’t totally suck either. It just can’t consistently deliver the goods the way it should.

For all their flaws, both movies have some charm, pleasing eye candy, and add some of their own intriguing elements to Wells’ original novel. The Morlocks as depicted in Wishbone were better, but I’d still recommend checking out these guys again.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August 30th, 2013.

Lone Ranger Sucked: Beating Off a Dead Horse

lone ranger

So The Lone Ranger (2013) sucked and everybody knows it, but where did it go wrong? What was wrong with this throwback to spirited western serials? The good news: it’s kind of sort of better than Wild Wild West (1999).

Problem Number OnePirates of the Caribbean.

This movie is essentially Gore Verbinski, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Disney trying to make a fantasy cowboy movie that looks and sounds and feels like the The Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Why is this bad?

piratesotc

Westerns are not exactly pirate movies. True, outlaws and greed for lost treasure can be crucial elements, but they’re not really the same. While the weird overuse of magic in the Pirates movies is mostly gone, it still relies heavily on physics-defying suspenseless mayhem. The Pirates movies had a lot of problems and most of those problems are not fixed here.

Problem Number two: True Grit, Django Unchained, and Rango.

true grit

1.) Three far superior and very popular western movies have already done it all better. True Grit (2010) was a great straight western. It had a simple story (catch the bad guy who killed the little girl’s dad) and it had great characters that were larger than life, but still very relateable. Add some smart and cynical Coen Brothers sensibilities and you got a great movie.

django-unchained-blue-suit-whip-jamie-foxx

2.) Tarantino already cornered the market on stylized western cartoon violence (but with much more gore). Django Unchained (2012) already answered the call for a bold retooling of classic motifs and managed to be much smarter, more socially significant, and wantonly cathartic. It presented truly sick and evil villains and punished them in satisfying ways. Again, the cast was fantastic.

hidalgo

Django Unchained is about racism and slavery and the vengeful splatter-violence is a righteous re-writing of history and integral to the story. The Lone Ranger is a fun cowboy movie that tacks on the genocide bit to transparently avoid being labeled another white-washed fun cowboy movie that forgets the tragedy of First Nations. Hidalgo did a better job of talking about the injustices done to the Native Americans in just a few short flashbacks. And that movie takes place in Arabia!

rango

3.) True Grit and Django Unchained managed to be sharper and grittier, with minimal to possibly no use of distractingly bloated special effects and CGI. Gore Verbinski’s own Rango (2011) was a totally CG movie, but it looked unlike any other CG family movie. It was smarter, faster, funnier, and the action was actually exciting and thrilling to watch. It even took a lot of chances with how much meta-narrative surrealism a mainstream movie audience could handle.

The classic but grittier western, the hyper stylized western, and the family-friendly western are all fresh in our minds and they’re all great movies. Then comes The Lone Ranger trying to be all three.

Problem number threeJohn Carter and Mad Max.

john carter

1.) Disney already made a big budget flop with John Carter (2012) but didn’t learn anything from it. While I personally feel like John Carter was a far better film, it suffered from stretches of boring bits, an uninteresting and unrelateable protagonist, and unyielding plot convolutions that keep on mounting with little justification and not enough payoff.

2.) Mad Max (1979) is the story of a good and morally conflicted policeman in a dystopic Australia who is beaten down by personal tragedy (the death of his partner, wife, and son) and the relentlessness of the forces of evil (renegade biker gangs) to become the ultimate vigilante. He will be swift, vengeful justice in a world full of corruption and injustice.

mad max

The Lone Ranger is the story of a naive and incompetent district attorney in the wild west who, despite personal tragedy (the grisly murder and heart-consumption of his beloved brother, the kidnapping and possible rape of the woman he loves, and witness to genocide), keeps fighting against justice and actively helps the forces of evil to continue (because of his blind dogmatic faith in due process) until he reluctantly decides to indirectly kill some of the bad guys responsible.

See the difference?

Problem number four: Tone, bad guys, and overstuffed crusts.

1.) This movie truly is tone death. You don’t put fart jokes in Schindler’s List and you don’t put wacky slapstick and cartoon action-adventure next to sick depictions of cannibalism, actual historical genocide, and shameful real-life atrocities. There is a time to shed tears and there is a time to cheer and they do not occur at the same time. The constant tonal shifts make for an uncomfortably awkward cinematic experience where the thrills feel hollow and the horrors feel too flippantly handled.

schindler

3.) The bad guys are boring. There’s a greedy railroad man who kills a tribe of Native Americans to hide silver until he can one day build a railroad back to the silver to become even more rich (bizarre plan). Then there’s a murderous outlaw who eats human flesh for some reason. It’s never really explained and it’s never really convincing or understandable. It just feels gross and inappropriate (especially for a Disney movie). There’s also a cavalry man who might have been a good guy had he not got mixed up with the wrong people. It’s all vaguely reminiscent of the far better Mask of Zorro (1998).

zorro

3.) The story is needlessly complex, all over the map, and the action—while occasionally almost fun—is too ridiculous and crammed full of overblown CGI that nothing ever feels grounded enough to be cared about or real enough to be exciting. It’s a flat, joyless experience that insists by simply playing the Lone Ranger theme song at the end, we might be fooled into thinking we are having fun.

Problem number five: The Lone Ranger and Tonto.

1.) I’ll say it. I like Johnny Depp for the most part. He’s even enjoyable in this movie. Maybe the only one who’s actually having any fun. His character doesn’t always work because the writing can’t seem to decide if they want him to be wise, vengeful, or out of his mind. And that he looks like a cartoon character when he’s an old man is really not a good thing. Is his portrayal offensive to Native Americans? I don’t know. Watch Dead Man (1995) after this to cleanse the palate, I guess.

Dead_Man

2.) Armie Hammer is a boring Lone Ranger. Again, I blame the writing and not his performance. Even Tom Wilkinson and Barry Pepper can’t even make their awful characters work. He’s supposed to be in love with his dead brother’s wife, but it’s awkward, uninteresting, and obvious it’s only in the movie because the movie doesn’t really have any female characters and needs a romance—no matter how hackneyed and insipid.

Verdict: Disney’s The Lone Ranger is an exhausting, tone-deaf, mostly boring mess that tries to be a western Pirates of the Caribbean. The writing is sloppy and most of the characters are thin and uninteresting. There’s about 10% of what could have been a really fun and exciting cowboy action movie tucked in the cracks.

wild wild west spider

And I take it back. Wild Wild West at least knows its an asinine cartoon movie with no brain. It might actually be slightly better. At least it’s shorter, has Salma Hayek, and a giant robot spider.

Ultimately I just want to watch the Korean film, The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008) again. Now that was a fun action cowboy movie.

good bad weird

 

Originally published for The Alternative Chronicle on July 18, 2013.