Watching the most recent film version of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine tells a much different story about why humans study the world and why we invent.
The original book is about a man of science inventing a time machine, and the adventure he has testing and then using the device. The protagonist discovers how to travel in time, creating a machine with spinning wheels and big levers that allows him to go into the future. At first, he relatively slowly advances through time, finally getting to a future Earth that has suffered some sort of apocalypse, or perhaps steady decline, and is populated by a simple people with no technology, living off the land, and trying to survive under the thumb of the underground dwelling “morlocks,” a vicious species who apparently feed on the above-ground living folk.
In the late 70s, Malcolm McDowell played H.G. Wells, as a writer/inventor, who travels to the future in pursuit of his friend, who turns out to be Jack the Ripper, who has used the invention to get to modern times. This trip gives “Jack” a brand new hunting ground, where he quickly targets Wells’ new 20th century girlfriend. Rather than use the original title, this movie version is called Time After Time.
The most recent telling of the story, starring Guy Pierce (The Hurt Locker, and the excellent Count of Monte Cristo) reverts to H.G. Wells’ title, and the protagonist’s construction of the time machine, but inserts as motivation, the untimely death of his fiancee, the device’s purpose now to change history and restore her to life. He’s depressed over her loss, and seeks to use science to correct the tragedy.
More dramatic for today’s audiences? Absolutely. And herein lies the sad truth that discovery for its own sake is no longer that interesting to us. In H.G. Wells day, inventing a machine that allowed the scientist to travel through time was its own reward, the adventure that results a bit of added drama. We’re sadly, no longer thrilled by exploration and scientific advancement, and need a personal stake in the pursuit to make it worth doing. In today’s world, the individual is all that’s important, and something that doesn’t necessarily derive some personal gain, whether it be a huge payday or keeping our girlfriend alive isn’t worth accomplishing. Why can’t Pierce’s character’s development of this amazing step forward in scientific study of our universe be its own reward? I think the filmmakers correctly understood that today’s film-going public wouldn’t care, unless there was something in it for the character they’re being asked to identify with. It’s unfortunate that we’re so self-centered that we have to have more skin in the game than pure scientific advancement to spend our time and money and potentially risk our life on.
I understand that in order for a story to be embraced, the audience must want to do what the protagonist does, and am disheartened that not enough of us would believe in the purity of the motivations of a character who didn’t stand to gain something other than discovery in their endeavors. I think that’s one of the reasons we haven’t been back to the moon, or pushing to travel to the stars. When proponents of space travel have to talk about all the everyday products that we wouldn’t have, if not for the space program, we’re on the wrong track. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want to live in a world without Tang and the Space Pen, but scientific advancement and the opportunity to travel to the stars should be enough to keep going, shouldn’t it?