We know the classics—The Time Machine, Planet of the Apes, The Terminator franchise, Time Bandits, Back to the Future 1 and 2, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, 12 Monkeys, Time Cop (just kidding?). But is the genre just a relic of the past? Far from it actually. The last decade has generated a gaggle of some of the best time travel movies this side of the future:
Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)—Let’s face it: I’m bound to adore any movie that combines John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Crispin Glover, Back to the Future and Karate Kid references, and the song Bizarre Love Triangles by New Order during the climax. As extra incentives, this film is gut-bustingly funny and actually features a neat little time travel story. Not only did director Steve Pink (who, incidentally, recently purchased the rights to Daniel H. Wilson’s How To Survive A Robot Uprising!) do his sci-fi homework, he pays homage to some of the classics.
Triangle (2009)—This is the best ‘thriller’ time travel movie I’ve ever seen. In fact, this movie could easily be considered a psychological horror film in the vein of The Strangers or Funny Games. But the central plot revolves around an unstoppable time loop that ensnares the film’s female protagonist in a bloody, existential game of guess-who-and-when on an abandoned ship adrift at sea. Creepy as hell, and mind-bending to boot.
Timecrimes (2007)—To be honest, I’m not actually a massive fan of this little Spanish film, but I have to give it props for aggressively approaching the puzzling nuances of time travel paradoxes. There are also some superlative female nudity scenes, if that matters to you.
Source Code (2011) – I’m sure arguments could (and have) been made that this is not really a time travel film since technically most of the action occurs inside of an alternate timeline. But when the main character of a film—in this case Colter Stevens, played by Jake Gyllenhaal—revisits the same scene multiple times in an attempt to understand the present and alter the future, to me that counts as a time travel movie. Fortunately, director Duncan Jones (Moon) does not pistol whip us with explanations (i.e. Inception) and viewers are left to unravel the mystery themselves. Top-notch scifi.
Primer (2004)—One of the most subtle and yet arcane time travel movies imaginable, to the point where you’d realistically need to watch it at least three times to fully understand the plot. Taking place mostly in a garage, the film is about a few engineer-friends who accidentally discover time travel, then struggle to contain their own use of it. Admittedly, parts of it seem boring. Then later, you realize that if you had just been paying attention in the past, you wouldn’t be so confused in the present.
Total Recall—The original’s great and I expect the new one to be a masterpiece…but I haven’t seen it yet.
Midnight in Paris—Truly a wonderful film, but I just can’t bring myself to consider this Woody Allen gem a time travel movie.
Star Trek (2009)
Donnie Darko—This film is one of my favorites of all time, but technically it was made longer than a decade ago.
As an influence on modern science fiction, H. G. Wells (1866-1946) has few rivals. Wells, an Englishman, wrote a different but complementary kind of SF and his influence combines with that of Verne to make modern SF a special literary product. Jules Verne had a deep and abiding interest in technological developments (the “hardware”), and his fiction often focuses on the plausibility of future technological innovations.
Wells, too, presents scientific hardware in his fiction, but it is usually as a prop to introduce his social themes. He is more interested in presenting the social consequences of scientific developments than he is in just presenting the scientific innovations themselves. His SF—what we now call Wellsian SF—speculates on the implications for the modern world of science and scientific advancement.
As a thinker, Wells sensed the inevitability of change and he understood, more than most people at the turn of the century, the implications of that change. In his fiction, he set out to create concrete images of that change. He also alerted readers to the scope and dimension of the world as it was known by scientists.
He is important for many innovations in SF and some of his stories are still classics in the field. The Invisible Man (1897) we can read as something of a horror story, but it is also a presentation of a scientist who misuses the power of science. The War of the Worlds (1898), one of the first modern stories of interplanetary warfare, can be read purely on the level of adventure. It is also a psychological study on how humans—with the tables turned—might respond in a conflict with a superior species.
Other important works include The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), and The First Men in the Moon (1901). The study of any of these works would tell us a lot about the development of SF, and all are highly recommended for independent reading. But the work we’ve chosen to discuss in this article is The Time Machine (1895), the earliest of Wells’s important stories.
THE TIME MACHINE
The Time Machine opens in the home of the Time Traveler (the only name the narrator ever uses for the central character), who is explaining to his guests the plausibility of time travel. Despite the persuasiveness of his argument and the fact that he shows them a working miniature of a time machine, his guests are reluctant to believe him. The Time Traveler is known for his intellectual trickery, and they don’t want to be taken in by a hoax.
Actually, Wells is trying to convince his readers that time travel is plausible so that they might suspend their disbelief and accept a story that takes time travel as a premise. Of course, in showing the reluctance of the guests to believe the Time Traveller’s perfectly plausible explanations (at least they are plausible if we don’t examine them too closely), Wells is employing a literary technique. The obstinacy of the guests tends to unite readers on the side of the Time Traveller, ready to accept his every word as we follow him into his trip into the future.
Wells’s attempt to establish plausibility may seem belabored and longer than necessary.
Later SF writers, to be sure, will plunge directly into their narrative, with less apparent concern about plausibility. But later writers have inherited an audience familiar with the conventions and assumptions of SF. Wells had to develop an audience.
We must remember, though, that Wells gains our suspension of disbelief through literary technique. Time travel itself is one of the least scientific of the SF themes. Verne’s Nautilus was, in some of its technological features, fairly close to engineering reality. But scientists, then or now, have no hope of building an actual time machine. Wells, certainly, was not interested in time travel as a technological possibility. But time travel is a convenient method of setting up story possibilities, and Wells uses time travel as a literary technique by which he can illustrate social change.
When we follow the Time Traveler on his journey into the future we want to be entertained, and so we are. The Time Machine remains popular because it thrills our Imagination—what we always expect from good SF. But Wells has also taken on serious themes.
His first stop is the year 802,701 AD, where he finds himself in the partial ruins of a technologically advanced civilization. Here he meets the Eloi, the beautiful, childlike creatures living contentedly and (apparently) carefree among the ruins. The Time Traveller first speculates that the Eloi, as products of evolution, are descendants of humankind, who, having conquered nature, must no longer struggle in order to survive. But without struggle and strife, the species declines, until we have the Eloi, beautiful and carefree, but without purpose or worth.
But the Time Traveller discovers that the picture may be even more pessimistic. Living underground are the Morlocks, the slothlike creatures who keep the machines running and provide the food and clothing for the Eloi (who are totally incapable of caring for themselves). The Time Traveller discovers, to his horror, that the Morlocks feed, literally, on the Eloi, and tend them as a food supply. An even greater horror lies in his speculation that the Morlocks, like the Eloi, descend from humankind, that they are two separate species growing out of the mainstock of humanity.
The Time Traveller theorizes that the separately developing species occurred as a result of the separation of the classes. He remarks that even in his own time the wealthy enjoy the beautiful parks and homes on the earth’s surface while the working classes, more and more, are driven underground into factories. Wells presents here a grim social irony–the wealthy, having exploited the working poor, are now in turn exploited by them.
This aspect of the story is obviously a social warning. Wells hints that we should prevent that horrible scenario of the future by enacting social reform now.
Interestingly, the Time Traveller identifies with the Eloi, who at least still appear to be human, and he even makes friends with a female Eloi, Weena, who dies (maybe of fright) when the Morlocks attack in the forest. But the Time Traveller has some affinity with the Morlocks, who, after all, are also descendants of humankind. They reflect his interest in science and technology, as they are the creatures who keep the machinery running and in good repair (they even clean and oil his time machine). They also reflect the violence that he is capable of and his own carnivorous nature (when the Time Traveller finally returns home he is especially hungry for meat). An interesting issue, but one we haven’t space for here, is the extent to which the Eloi and Morlocks reflect two sides of human nature.
THE TIME TRAVELLER AND COSMIC PESSIMISM
In the first stop, the Time Traveller sees the last phase of human (or perhaps only human-like) existence. In the second stop (or actually a series of stops), he sees the virtual extinction of life itself. After fighting to recover his time machine from the Morlocks, he moves blindly ahead until he is some 30 million years into the future. At one point, the signs of life are reduced to green lichen, a huge white butterfly, and giant crab-like creatures. Later yet, life is nothing more than green slime and a tentacled creature the size of a football.
In this last epoch, the moon has disappeared, the earth is locked with the same side always facing the sun, the ocean is stagnant and unmoving, and the air is thin. Earth is almost dead.
After brooding on this morbid landscape, he returns to his own time to meet with the friends that he had invited to return to his home a week after the first meeting. Despite his disheveled appearance, most of his guests aren’t inclined to believe the story he tells them. The one guest that he almost convinces (and who is the narrator of the story) visits a few days later. He arrives in time to see the Time Traveller—always the seeker of knowledge—disappearing on the time machine for yet another time trip. Nobody ever sees the Time Traveller again.
In the story of the Time Traveller, Wells takes the people of the turn of the century (and us) on a journey into new concepts. Wells is vivid in presenting the enormous span of time in which human existence is contained. By biblical reckoning, time began in 4004 B.C., and the Second Coming (the end of time) is always near. By scientific reckoning, time is much larger, so large that the numbers boggle the imagination. Wells does not directly challenge biblical time by sending the Time Traveller into the past. But by sending him into the future—first to the year 802,701 A.D. and then 30 million years into the future—Wells knocks down the narrow confines of biblical time.
The huge expanses of time are cause for exhilaration, but they are also cause for pessimism. Wells introduces “cosmic pessimism,” a concept that he took from scientist Thomas Henry Huxley. Huxley noted that if we accept the great expanses of scientific time, we must also accept the eventual extinction of mankind. Humankind, as a struggling species in the natural order, necessarily suffers the fate of all species. Early on, a struggling species will grow stronger, and some even gain dominion over the earth. But in time all species will weaken and eventually die, and humankind must eventually join the fossils in the earth.