Van Helsing

Yeah, that’s right. I like Van Helsing (2004), one of the most hated movies of the last 20 years. I have seen so many reviews, blogs and videos trashing this movie, that I felt I had to speak up to defend it. So before you blow me off as an idiot, hear me out.

There’s no denying that Van Helsing is stupid, but it’s no stupider than a lot of movies out there. In fact, Van Helsing is probably the magnum opus of its director, considering that its director is Steven Sommers, one of the most bubble-headed directors of all time. To put Van Helsing in the proper context, it’s necessary to take a brief look at Sommers’ filmography.

Sommers’ first box office hit was The Mummy (1999), which I’ve already reviewed, a brain-dead piece of clap-trap that existed soley for the sake of mindless violence and spectacle. Some people read from a book, which brings the Mummy back from the dead, he kills half the world, and then the same people are supposed to be heroes just for cleaning up their own mess. For reasons I’ve never understood, The Mummy continues to be a favorite movie of many people. Next, Sommers vomited out The Mummy Returns (2001), a fairly standard sequel with a lot more horrific deaths, and even more ridiculous plot points. The herione of the first movie (Rachel Weiss) is suddenly declared to be a reincarnation of Egyptian princess Nephretiri. Don’t ask me how that works, as reincarnation was never discussed in the first movie, or in Egyptian mythology for that matter. Then, Sommers took a minor character from Returns, the Scorpion King (Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. “The Rock”), and stretched his back story into a full length movie. The Scorpion King was yet another mental death-trap for teens, given a mild-souding PG-13 rating and yet loaded with violence and near-nudity. The story was little more than an excuse for the Rock to show off.

And after all this, we got Van Helsing. Apparently bored with making three movies out of one Universal Studios moster, Sommers decided to make one movie and include three Universal mosters — Dracula (Richard Roxburg), The Wolfman (Will Kemp), and Frankenstien’s Moster (Schuler Hensley). While I can understand why some people hate Van Helsing, I cannot understand why some people lapped up The Mummy and then hated Van Helsing.

Why is Van Helsing awesome? Here's why.

First, vampires and werewolves are way cooler than mummies. Second, our hero, Van Helsing, is played by Hugh freaking Jackman, probably the greatest specimen of manliness since Harisson Ford (okay, so I’m not imune to man-crushes. Sue me). The Mummy has Brendan Frasier. This is the guy who played Dudley Do Right and George of the Jungle, and then got beat up by cartoons in Looney Tunes, Back in Action. And third, Van Helsing has a collection of gadgets that would make James Bond jealous. He fights monsters with buzz saws, crossbows that launch silver arrows, a shotgun, a pop-out silver stake, pop out crosses, grapling hooks, and thats just to name a few!

The action sequences in this movie define the word epic, involving huge sets, hundreds of extras (monster fodder) and dazling special effects. Every detail of them was meticulously planned out (too bad you can’t say the same for the plot). Moments that I initially dismissed as rediculous (e.g. the roof of a carriage catching fire durring a werewolf attack) actually do happen for an (admittedly implausible) reason (e.g. the werewolf crashing against a lantern on the side of the carraige and sliding across the roof). This movie has more effective jump-scares than many other movies combined, and even pulls off a number of really difficult delayed-jump-scares (the kind where you sort-of see it coming, but that only increases its effect on you). On top of all this, it still manages to slip in quite a few funny moments.

Jackman is, of course, dashing as a younger version of Bram Stoker’s hero, but Aussie star Richard Roxberg is equally great as the Lord of Evil himself, Count Dracula. There’s a little bit of Bella Lugosi in his performance, a little of Gary Oldman, and a little of the historical Dracula, but it’s mostly his own creation. It ranges from quiet, brooding moments to wild rage, and manages to make it all quite sinister and intimidating. In any case, it’s much more interesting than watching Arnold Vosloo make faces like he needs to blow his nose. This is a major strength of the movie that compensates for lack of a coherent plot: you have these epic characters that are so vividly realized, and they’re played off eachother so powerfully that you almost don’t need a story. Leading Lady Kate Beckinsale (as Transylvanian she-warior Anna Valerious) looks great in her slinky outfits and also pulls of the action side of the roll. It’s hard to believe she once had this roll. A word also needs to be said about David Wenham, who, prior to this roll, had been voted “Australia’s Sexiest Man Alive.” However, for this movie, he put tack behind his ears to make himself look like Dumbo, donned a friar’s outfit, and speant the movie jabbering and bumbling around, just so we could have a laugh. Thanks, David.

Finally, there are the special effects. I know, I know. Just like all of you, I’ve talked a lot about how I’m tired of special effects, and they don’t impress me anymore. But any honest viewer has to admit that, even by 2011 standards, Van Helsing’s special effects truly are incredible. Most of it is C.G.I. However, if you watch the making-of features, there are some surprises. For example, when Dracula’s brides transform and take flight, the bodies are C.G.I., but their faces are still their own, covered in makeup. Rather than rely on C.G.I., Sommers used it to enhance the sets and props, which look good of their own accord.

When it comes to special effects, even today, movies tend to cheat. Forexample, if someone is going to transform (e.g. into a werewolf) we usually see the beginning of the transformation, then they fall below the camera, or stumble behind something, then we see the finall result, and the producer saves $50,000. Not in Van Helsing. It helps that “subtlety” is not in Sommers’ vocabulary. We see everything every time, and everything looks absulutely real. The werewolves, in particular, look amazing; you can actually see individual hairs blowing in the wind. In one scene, it’s raining, and the hair gets matted down, but still looks natural. There are all kinds of little touches throughout the movie. For example, in one scene, a vampiress (Elena Anaya) takes a stake in the heart. She then explodes into slime. Animating liquid is hard enough, but they didn’t stop there. They actually kept the shape of her screaming face in the slime as it flies at the camera. I didn’t even notice this until the third or fourth time I watched it. From the first scene to the last, you see proof that the post-production team worked tremendously hard on this one.

Is Van Helsing destined for a spot in the anals of great movies? Psh. Heck, no. But is it the steaming turd so many make it out to be? Not at all. What is it? A roaring good time that cast and crew put a lot of sweat into, and a sign that Sommers can make a decent movie, if he really tries. And there’s hope for more, because he still hasn’t done the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

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Rating: 4.2/5 (13 votes cast)

Trick ‘r Treat

He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good … You probably recognize those words from the beloved children’s song about Santa Clause. You’ve probably sung it, laughing and giggling at a joyful time of year. You have to admit, though, those words are pretty creepy. An old man with supernatural powers watching children sleep?

Every Christmas, we can expect admonitions to respect “traditions,” even if we steer clear of the religious side of the holiday. You have to have a tree and give gifts, like it or not. Why? Because it’s Christmas, that’s why. The same is true of other holidays. On July 4th and Memorial Day, for example, we are expected to demonstrate respect for our national traditions.

I loved Halloween as a child because there were no burdensome traditions. Be whoever you want. Roam the neighborhood at will. As long as you didn’t eat candy without a wrapper, you were free to run amok. Maybe it was your friend from YMCA soccer walking next to you under that costume … or maybe it wasn’t a costume at all. You could have whatever adventure your imagination could write, and no one threatened you with coal.

Until October of 2008, when Legendary Pictures released Trick ‘r Treat. Trick ‘r Treat is set in Warren Valley, Ohio, during the city-wide Halloween festival. The school principal, Steven Wilkinson (Dylan Baker), sits beside a student on his front steps, ominously stabbing and slicing a pumpkin. “My dad taught me a lot about the traditions of Halloween,” he says. “Traditions that were put in place to protect us. Tonight is about respecting the traditions, not breaking them.”

Oh, great.

The first scene in the movie involves a woman who blows out her jack-o-lantern prematurely and is then murdered by “Sam,” a child-sized creature hidden in a burlap costume. Trick ‘r Treat seems to be a horrific version of A Christmas Carol, with Sam acting as the Three Spirits, enforcing Halloween traditions. Later in the movie, he gives similar bloody treatment to a crotchety old man (Brian Cox) who refuses to give out treats. I have to admit, I would not want to be on Sam’s “naughty list.”

The rest of the movie is a patchwork of short stories, overlapping and intersecting. The stories are done fairly well, though there’s nothing original aside from Sam. If you’ve ever sat around a campfire with friends, you’ve heard the staple elements of all of them:

  • A psychopath kills neighborhood children and turns their heads into

    Anna Paquin as horror movie character #VIR017. By touching this movie, she has absorbed its uncanny campiness.


  • A group of friends pulls a scary prank on an unpopular girl, and it backfires horrifically.
  • A girl, begging for help, is murdered in front of party-goers who think it’s an act.

This is a good movie to watch at a party, or with a bunch of friends, to make fun of. It isn’t remotely scary, unless you’re the type who worries about being eviscerated with a lollipop. (Yes, you read that right.) On the other hand, the scenery is really cool, and the writing and acting are good enough to hold your attention. It’s fun to try to predict where the stories will interact. For example, early in the movie, one character looks at his neighbor’s house and sees his neighbor at the window, shouting “help me! Help me!” He waves him off and goes back to the story he is in. Later, the movie backs up and we see the story inside the neighbor’s house and learn what he was so afraid of.

But what is with Sam? Do we really need one more omnipresent holiday symbol secretly watching and passing judgment on us? Especially considering that, while Santa tends to be portrayed as merciful and just, Sam seems rather capricious. Do we really need a morality play about the power of mutilated pumpkins to ward off evil?

As the festivities wind down, the last few minutes of Trick ‘r Treat tie a lot together, and we realize most of what we saw happened on the same street. I would hate to be the coroner for Warren Valley. The authorities will be picking up the pieces for days. What’s more, the funeral homes and grief counselors will be booked solid til Christmas. Then Jacob Marley can start terrorizing us.

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Rating: 2.0/5 (1 vote cast)

The Wolfman

“She exerts enormous power, doesn’t she, Lawrence?” Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) gazes into a telescope at “That orb’d maiden with white fire laden, whom mortals call the moon.” At his side is his estranged son (Benicio del Toro). Lawrence, of course, has no idea just how strong a pull the moon will soon have over him.

The full moon still holds sway over the imaginations, and debatably, physiological responses, of mortals. Again and again, it draws us back to werewolf mythology. Then again, if you think werewolves are only mythology, you’re probably not one of the souls who has run into the Bray Road Beast, or one of the 102 French peasants who met their end in the jaws of the Beast of Gevaudan. The Wolfman is worth watching. I will say, it isn’t very scary. But then again, scary is hard to do.

While I wouldn’t want to tangle with a werewolf in real life, they are not among Hollywood’s scariest of monsters. Their existence is limited to two or three days a month. They have none of the intellect of Dracula, the omnipresence of Pazuzu, or the reproductive speed of Aliens. This, of course left the writers with the problem of how to build suspense and terror in between full moons and, of course, fill the movie up with enough jump-scares and bloodshed to keep a 21st century audience interested. They actually did a pretty good job. While some werewolf movies act like they have the authority to summon a full moon at their whim, The Wolfman actually allows such phenomena to happen at their natural time, bothering to fill the weeks in between with plausible plot developments.

Full moon #1: Ben Talbot, walking through Stock Scary Scene #F785, strolls alone into the woods, shouting “I know you’re out there! Show yourself!” He is then fatally mauled by the Wolfman. Never walk alone into the dark shouting “show yourself,” kids, it won’t end well.

His brother, Lawrence is summoned from London for Ben’s funeral. He returns to Talbot Hall in Blackmoore, where we meet his father, Sir John, and Ben’s fiancé, Gwen Conliff (Emily Blunt). We then get a lot of back-story about their family history and hear the locals talk of two other gruesome deaths the night of Ben’s. “Whatever did it was big, had claws, and didn’t mind a load of buckshot.”

Full moon #2: Talbot goes to a nearby Gypsy camp to inquire about a medallion he found among Ben’s belongings. A group of villagers shows up armed, suspecting the Gypsies’ performing bear caused the deaths. However, during the ensuing confrontation, a strange creature, visible only as a blur and a shadow, attacks the camp, killing Brittons and Gypsyies alike. Talbot sees the creature chasing a panicked boy, intervenes, and is, you guessed it, bitten but not killed.

As Talbot lies in bed, recovering, we get more dialogue, flashbacks, a doctor who shakes his head when Talbot is up and walking around after a week, and a visit from a rational-minded inspector (Hugo Weaving), trying to get to the bottom of the murders. By now, of course, the villagers know what’s up, and everyone is making silver bullets, though we later find out that most of them can’t hit the broad side of a barn.

Make up has come a long way since 1941.

Full moon #3, of course, is Talbot’s first transformation, after which, he is arrested, believed to be a homicidal lunatic, and suffers four weeks of, well, somewhat realistic torment at the hands of a 19th century asylum. And of course, there are more flashbacks, more hallucinations, and more back-story.

Full moon #4: We see Talbot running amok in Downtown London, which is pretty cool. Then Talbot returns to Blackmoore for Full moon #5.

The Bray Road Beast

The Wolfman is a fairly faithful adaptation of the 1941 film of the same name starring Lon Chaney, Jr. (If anybody cares.) It does, however, contain some plot enhancements worthy of modern special effects, including a great monster-vs.-monster sequence toward the end. There is also a climactic scene between Lawrence as the Wolfman and Gwen that plays out beautifully.

That said, there are also some eye-roll-worthy techniques that they use, such as cramming the movie full of dream sequences and hallucinations, mainly to give themselves enough  jump-scares and severed heads to fill up the trailer. Even without the hallucinations, this is one of the goriest movies I have ever seen. If the body count of The Wolfman doesn’t break 100, it’s got to be close, especially if you count each of the pieces most of the bodies wind up in. Think When Animals Attack on steroids. Then again, I doubt lupine predation was ever a tidy affair.

Overall, this is a highly engaging picture with an interesting story and some good action. If you’ve got a strong stomach, rent it, make some popcorn, and enjoy. Then go outside, and see if you can fight the urge to howl at the moon!

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Rating: 4.3/5 (3 votes cast)


Imagine a world where vampires live in fear. And not of Dr. Van Helsing or Blade, but of poverty, crime and environmental destruction. Sound hard to believe? That’s the world of Daybreakers (2009), directed by the Spierig brothers.

In 2019, vampires outnumber humans more than ten to one. The vampires have become somewhat comfortable with their dominant status, and now drive expensive cars away from suburban homes to boring white collar jobs in the city. Certain noteworthy changes in culture have resulted from this. For instance, all buildings and vehicles are now equipped with lead sheets that cover the windows during daylight hours, and loudspeakers broadcast warnings when there is one hour until daybreak. Vampires in suits line up at coffee stands for coffee with a shot of blood in it.

Subway commuters. And you thought vampires were cool.

But of course, there’s a problem; one that you’ve probably already guessed. With so few humans left, vampires are in danger of starvation. Most of the humans still in existence are kept sedated, hooked up to giant machines ala The Matrix, being farmed for their blood. The government rations blood more and more strictly, with those in control keeping a little extra for themselves, naturally. An increasingly fearful – and hungry –middle class hurries past dark alleys and hides in their homes, and the lower classes, “subsiders,” deprived of blood, mutate into something out of … well, a vampire movie (below).

Amidst all this, we meet Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke), chief hematologist for a corporation that controls most of America’s remaining blood supply. With riots breaking out over the blood shortage, the company is putting increasing pressure on Ed to create some kind of “blood-substitute.” Meanwhile, Ed wrestles with his conscience over being a vampire and refuses to touch human blood, to the detriment of his health. This creates a good deal of tension between Ed and his brother, Frankie (Michael Dorman), who hunts humans for the U.S. Army.

A small number of humans are still free, hiding in rural areas. After a chance meeting with some of them, Ed receives an invitation to the countryside to learn about a cure for vampirism that they have discovered, and a chance to restore balance to the food chain.

The cast drives this one home with a number of powerhouse actors. Sam Neil, whom we seem to see about as often as a real vampire, plays Charles Bromley, the CEO of Ed’s company. One of history’s most under-rated actors, Neil blends the smooth charm of a Manhattan sophisticate with the sinister nature of a bloodsucker in a fascinating way. The inimitable Willem Dafoe also appears as the grizzled former vampire who stumbled upon the miracle cure. A collection of Aussie stars (Daybreakers was filmed in Australia) rounds out the cast nicely.

Hawke and Dafoe do not suck in "Daybreakers."

Daybreakers could justifiably be called a horror movie, but not in the way one normally thinks of horror. It does get gory – even ridiculously so – at times, but it’s not about the gore. It’s about the horrors of a society that has gotten too comfortable, and is eating itself. As corrupt potentates drink blood wine and eat blood caviar, we wonder how much longer civilization can bear the strain. The pristine homes and manicured lawns of suburbia are nothing more than petty amusements the vampires use to distract themselves from their impending doom. Near the end, we bear witness to the kind of moral travesties that desperation is often used to justify. And it’s all horribly familiar; the story of our lives, retold through the bloodshot eyes of the undead.

I wouldn’t want to put anyone off this movie, because it is one of the best I have

Neil drinks blood, but still does not suck in "Daybreakers."

seen in a long time. For all of the negativity, it actually has a pretty uplifting ending (especially for a vampire movie), despite a few painfully sad moments along the way. There are also a number of genuinely fun scenes, including a hair-raising home invasion by a bat-like subsider. Even better, this scene is followed by an unintentionally hilarious crime-investigation scene, with every law enforcement cliché from the past 60 years standing around the decapitated body of this bizare creature from hell.

I figured I could get some work done during this movie, but my papers were left forgotten on the coffee table as I was glued to the screen. Daybreakers was only the second movie done by the Spierig brothers, but it’s as gripping and thought-provoking as anything out there. If you’ve got a strong stomach, it’s a must see.

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Alien 3

Alien3The third entry in the Alien franchise has been the series’ whipping boy ever since its release in the early 1990s.  Whereas the fourth film, Alien Resurrection, is such an oddity it’s more of a redheaded stepchild than a true Alien movie, the third film walks a fine line between terror and action–the hallmarks of its two predecessors–and though it ultimately succeeds at neither one, it is a compelling film and certainly worth watching.  Much has already been written about how the movie more or less betrayed fans by eliminating Hicks, Newt, and for all intents and purposes, Bishop, the main characters from Aliens, and re-imagining the action heroine Ripley as a brooding emo girl.  Add to that the film’s notoriously problematic production (including a walkout by first-time director David Fincher near the end of the shoot) and one could easily dismiss this as a throwaway sequel far better suited for the $5 Wal-Mart DVD Bargin Bin than on the shelf of any true science fiction fan.  However, despite these shortcomings I have found Alien3 to be far better than most people give it credit for.  Is it a worthy sequel to Aliens?  Not exactly.  But it is a good film, and worth a second look for those who have not seen it in a while or dismissed it altogether.

Where Alien set a new benchmark for realism in science fiction films, as well as a reinvention of monster movies that continues to influence filmmakers today, and Aliens set the gold standard for action films that has yet to be topped (save perhaps by the the director himself with Terminator 2), Alien3 excels at nothing in particular and introduces nothing really new into the franchise.  But in place of groundbreaking filmmaking, David Fincher brought incredibly deep thematic elements into the mix for the first time ever.  Essentially starting with a clean slate on a dirty planet, Fincher uses the Alien mythology as a backdrop from which to examine heavy themes of life and death, spirituality and salvation, and a look into human nature that bears a striking similarity to Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.”

Alien3 Ripley

Sigourney Weaver reprises her genre-busting role as Ellen Ripley sans perm.

As the movie begins, Ripley’s escape pod from Aliens has crash-landed on Fiorina “Fury” 161, a prison planet run by the infamous Weyland-Yutani corporation from the first two movies.  The planet is all but forsaken, and only a handful of men are still around to “keep the pilot light on.”   These men, we are told, are all convicted murders, rapists, and generally nasty human beings who are kept in check by the ill-tempered warden Andrews (Brian Glover) and a spiritual guru-of-sorts named Dillon (Charles S. Dutton).  In essence we see humanity at its worst:  criminals devoid of any contact with the outside world, struggling to maintain a sense of order and decency lest they slip into anarchy.  They have all taken vows to maintain a sort of peace and order in the prison, and despite the lack of a true disciplinary force, they all realize the consequences should they get out of line.  Venerable actor Charles Dance is along for the ride as Clemens, a medical officer who has made some very costly mistakes years ago that continue to haunt him.  It’s a motley crew to be sure, and a rich tapestry from which to present a tale about morality and humanity.

During the opening moments we see an image of a cross silhouetted against the setting sun as debris and junk rolls across the landscape surrounding the prison–a harbinger of the thematic elements that will be explored in the film.  Dillon’s pastoral leadership of the prisoners, from his refusal to let them break the Third Commandment to his moving spiritual eulogy during the cremation of Ripley’s fallen comrades, is a stark contrast to the gun-toting reluctant leader Ripley was in the second film.  (In fact, the entire cremation/birth scene has some serious parallels to Coppola’s masterful baptism scene in The Godfather.) Dillon in essence shepherds the prisoners–a task warden Andrews, not one to upset the order or cause ripples in the water, is all to happy to have him do.  But how does one deal with a metaphysical God and satan when a very real monster is literally killing off inmates one by one?  The idea of rebirth, both spiritual and physical, is also very prominent in Alien3.  It is only through the death of a host that the alien can live, but the prisoners on Fury 161, all serving life sentences, are essentially dead anyway and it is only through death at the hands of the alien that they are set free from this mortal coil.  Ripley, with an alien queen implanted inside her, must decide whether the good of the one outweighs the good of the many, and is in fact the only human on the planet that the alien will not kill.  Elements of David Fincher’s classic directorial style are present in abundance:  a notoriously dark color palette, a cast of tragically flawed characters, and an ending that could hardly be classified as happy (not quite as bleak as the ending of Se7en, but close).  A typical action/horror film this is most certainly not.  And while Fincher lays it on pretty thick, at least there is a message and a subtext here, unlike many action blockbusters.

Alien3 Dillon

Dillon, the spiritual leader of the gang of prisoners.

But for all these high marks, there are serious flaws in Alien3 that are hard to overlook.  There are only a couple characters who are even close to relatable, and I must admit that in all my times of re-watching the movie I never felt a true emotional connection with anyone in it.  In any survival movie there must be someone whom we want to survive, but virtually everyone in Alien3 (including Ripley, unfortunately) is so unsympathetic that watching the film is akin to reading a report filled with bullet points about the tragedies that ensue when letting killer aliens run amok on a bleak prison planet.  It’s a tough bit of oil to swallow, to be sure, especially after the brilliant Ripley/Newt relationship from Aliens.  The prisoners are almost indistinguishable from one another, and possess nothing in the way of distinct personalities–a transgression that is compounded by the fact that they all look virtually identical thanks to their tattered brown clothes and shaved heads.  And as if to salt the wound, Fincher’s alien looks like a sock puppet compared to James Cameron’s ultra-realistic living, breathing xenomorphs in Aliens (with one notable exception).

For those who dismissed the film years ago, I urge you to give it another shot–you might find yourself pleasantly surprised.  For those who never saw it, by all means give it a rental.  While not exactly a worthy successor in the franchise, there is far more to this film than people often give it credit for.


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Time Machine

60s poster 2In 1894, H.G. Wells published his novel The Time Machine, which, while short and simplistic, was in interesting thought experiment regarding mankind’s hopes for the future. Wells, a student of Marx, expressed a belief through metaphor that there could never be true equality, and there would always be those above, and those who served them. None the less, he told an ironic tale of how those on top would eventually get theirs.

Wells’ novel was made into a movie by George Pal. The film was released in02 poster 1960. A second version, starring Guy Pierce and Directed by Simon Wells, H.G.’s grandson, was released in 2002. I have yet to meet someone, besides me, who has read/seen all three versions, which is really too bad. People often ask me which version is the best. The truth is, it’s really hard to pick one, because they are all so different, and each one is strangely apropriate to their time. You might say, reading the book and then watching the movies is a trip through time in itself. I’ll explain.

book coverIn the book, the “Time Traveller,” who is never named, believes that if he travels far enough into the future, he will find mankind in a perfect state. No further explanation of this belief is ever given. Wishing to see mankind’s triumph, his first time-trip is a non-stop journey to the year A.D. 802,701. (Does this seem strange to anyone else? I mean, there’s a reason the Wright Bothers didn’t take their first flight over the Grand Canyon, and early sailors didn’t try to cross the Atlantic.) Once he stops, the Time Traveller first meets the Eloi, a society of childlike people. They live in small communities in futuristic yet deteriorating buildings, doing no work and eating a frugivorous diet. His efforts to communicate are hampered by their lack of curiosity or discipline, and he concludes that they are the result of humanity conquering nature with technology, and adapting to an environment in which strength and intellect are no longer advantageous.

Returning to the site where he arrived, the Time Traveller finds his time

Artist's conception

Artist's conception

machine has been dragged into a nearby Sphynx with heavy doors, locked from the inside. Later, he is approached menacingly by the Morlocks, pale, apelike people who live underground, where he discovers the machinery and industry that make the above-ground paradise possible. He alters his theory, speculating that the human race has evolved into two species: the leisured classes have become the ineffectual Eloi, and the downtrodden working classes have become the brutish, light-fearing Morlocks. Deducing that the Morlocks have taken his time machine, he explores the Morlock tunnels, learning that they feed on the Eloi. His revised analysis is that their relationship is not one of lords and servants but of livestock and ranchers, and with no real challenges facing either species, they have both lost the intelligence and character of Man.

Rod Taylor as H. George Wells

Rod Taylor as H. George Wells

In the 1960 film, the motives of the Traveller (now bearing the name George, and a license plate on his Machine that reads “H. George Wells”) are a bit more clear, if not much more sensible. In 1899, George (Rod Taylor), a brilliant physisist, has been offered a contract by the government of England to design weapons. Being a pacifist, he finds this horrifying and longs to discover man in a perfect, peaceful state. Believing that somewhere in the future he will find such a civilization, he sets off through time. He watches the world change rapidly around him until he sees his windows boarded up in the year 1914. Curious, he stops the Machine and gets out. He strolles across the street and meets the son of his friend from the beginning, David Philby

The Morlocks of 1960

The Morlocks of 1960

(both played by Alan Young). He learns that Philby has been killed in the First World War. Obviously, he decides to keep going. Back in the Time Machine, he makes a brief stop in 1940, where he sees London being bombed by the Nazis. He then continues to 1966 (six years in the future at that time) where he sees everyone walking around in radiation suits. He once again meets Philby’s son, who remarks that he saw George on the same spot in the same clothes 52 years before. Sirens begin blaring and every one runs, shouting “get to the shelter!” Philby points to the sky and says to George, “There, an atomic satelite zeroing in!” He tries to drag George to the shelter, but George refuses to leave his Machine, so Philby abandons him and runs for safety. Seconds later, a blast rips through London, resulting in some impressive (for 1960) miniature work. George, narrating, lamants “The labor of centuries gone in an instant!” A lava flow heads for the Time Machine, and George has to rush to activate it before the flood hits. He suddenly finds himself traveling through time inside a wall of rock. He is forced to keep traveling through time at breakneck speed, lest he be crushed. Unable to move his machine in space, he has no choice but to wait for time to wear down the mountain he is inside of.

George meets Weena.

George meets Weena.

When it finally does, he sees futuristic buildings springing up around him, and notes there doesn’t seem to be weather. He asks “had man finally learned to control the elements … and himself?” He stops at the year A.D. 802,701 once again, and meets the Eloi, who in this version are still human, although their frail bodies and pale skin are reminiscent of the creatures from the book. The Eloi still speak broken English (no explanation for this), and have little interest in technology or the past. George is so disapointed by the “perfect” world he has discovered that he berates he Eloi “What have you done?? Thousands of

The Sphynx.

The Sphynx.

generations of men struggeling and sacraficing, and for what? So you can swim and dance and play! I’m going back to my own time. I won’t tell them about the useless struggle, but at least I can die among men!” Upon attempting this however, he finds that his Machine has again been dragged into the Sphynx and he is trapped.

Lambs to the slaughter.

Lambs to the slaughter.

In this version, the Morlocks provide the Eloi with food and clothing, as in the book. However, instead of snatching them one at a time, they use (of all things) air-raid sirens to lure them underground in droves (left). In one scene, the siren cuts off, and the door to the Morlocks’ slaughter house slams shut, denying entrance to the Eloi still outside. George shakes one who seems to be in a trance (below), and the Eloi tells him “it is all clear,” meaning the air raid has ended, essentially.  Apparently, the Morlocks are able to do this because humans are so conditioned from fleeing underground at the sound of sirens ever since 1960. shake

Eventually, a girl named Weena (Yvette Mimieux) leads George to a room full of “talking rings” which seem to be surviving records of Earth’s past. The rings hold the voices of people describing nuclear and other wise horrible wars; the last recording annouces that Earth’s atmosphere has been all but destroyed and most of the human race is fleeing underground to escape the Sun’s harmful rays. A few have decided to “take our chances in the sunlight, however small they might be.” George deduces that those who fled underground were the ancestors of the Morlocks and those who remained were the ancestors of the Eloi.

And so, in both the book and the 1960 film, the division of humanity is caused by a social evil that preocupies the author, resulting in one side becoming a race of monsters that preys upon the other. In 1894, when Marxism was popular among the wealthy elite of Europe (did you note the irony there?), the division was caused by the oppression of the lower classes. This resulted in a kind of ironic justice, when the upper classes became food for the lower classes. In 1960, when everyone feared the Bomb, the division was caused by the continuing folly of war, which finally drove one side underground. The element of ironic justice is

George fights the Morlocks in their labyrinth.

George fights the Morlocks in their labyrinth.

conspicuously lacking here, which may be why the script calls for George and the Eloi to triumph over the Morlocks. While the Traveler simply returned to his own time in despair of Man’s future, George follows his beloved Weena into the Morlocks’ slaughterhouse. Once there, he is able to inspire the Eloi to join him in fighting against the Morlocks. Once they escape, at George’s direction, they throw large amounts of dry wood down the wells that connect the surface to the underground to stoke an underground inferno. The Morlocks’ lair caves in. Shortly after, George returns to his own time and tells the tale of his adventure to several collegues who leave, scoffing at him. Except Philby. A few minutes later, Philby and George’s housekeeper (Doris Lloyd) discover that George has once again disapeared in his Time Machine, and that he has taken three books from his library with him. Having searched for his purpose for years, George has apparently found it in rebuilding civilization in A.D. 802,701. And, of course, being with Weena.

Joey Film GeekIn the 2002 version, which also starts in 1899, the time traveller is Alexander Hartdegen, a physics professor who wants his students to abandon the expectations of society and conquer nature with technology. His fiance, Emma (Sienna Gullory), feels like he’s more attracted to model T cars than to her. Philby (Mark Addy) asks Alexander if he thinks Man could ever go too far whith technology. Alex scoffs “No such thing.” That night Emma is killed by a mugger in the park. He decides to use his skill with technology to change the past and bring her back. He works for four years on a time machine. When it’s complete, he

"In a week, we'll have never have had this conversation."

"In a week, we'll have never have had this conversation."

dresses in his best and gets into a chair with parasol-like apparati above and below it that spin, generating a sphere around the machine in which time does not pass. The scene changes before we see his journey. He goes back to the night Emma died, meets her, and steers her away from the park. He extracts a promise from her to go home and stay there until morning. Just when he thinks he has triumphed, a model T goes hay wire and runs her over.

The Time Machine of 2002. Also makes a great cup of jo.

The Time Machine of 2002, often mistaken for a coffee maker.

In the next scene, Alex mutters to himself “Why can’t I change the past? I could come back a thousand times; see her die a thousand ways. I can’t find the answers here … not here … not now…” Only then do we see his now archetypal journey forward as the sun becomes a blurred line overhead and trees spring up like gysers around him. We see a pull-back shot in which a biplane, then a twin prop, then a modern jet and finally a satelite fly over Alex, before we see a shuttle landing on the moon. Alex’s attention is caught by an advertisement declaring “the future is now!” and he stops in 2030 (28 years in the future at that time). A pedestrian looks at his time machine and remarks “bet that makes a hell of a capuchino.”

The advertisement is for realestate on the moon, where a colony is being built. Alex walks into the Fifth Avenue Public Library, drawn by all the new techonology, where he meets Photonic (Orlando Jones), a sarcastic computer program who walks inside panes of glass and offers to retrieve data from the library’s system (below). When Alex asks to learn about time travel, Photonic

"Live long, and prosper."

"Live long, and prosper."

rolls its eyes. Disapointed, Alex gets back into the time machine and travels forward another 7 years. When he sees chaos around him, he stops. Military vehicels race through the streets, and the ground shakes violently. Upon dismounting, Alex is accoasted by several soldiers who urge him to come with them underground. He demands to know what’s going on, assuring them “Yes, I’ve been living under a rock!” They tell him that the demolitions for the lunar colony over the past 7 years have changed the moon’s orbit, and caused the moon to start breaking up. Alex looks skyward and sees the moon, much larger than ususal, and riddled with cracks. At that moment a crack opens in the earth. Alex races to his Machine before the crack destroys it, and mangaes to throw it into gear just in time. However, his Machine is rocked by the disaster, and he hits his head, and is knocked uncouncious.

Samantha Mumba as Mara.

Samantha Mumba as Mara.

Out of control, the Machine hurtles through time. We see glacers come and go and the ground rise above the timeless sphere and then fall back below it. Rivers carve canyons in the blink of an eye. Alex eventually regains conciousness just long enough to stop the Machine at (you guessed it) A.D. 802,701, before slipping back into oblivion. He awakens in a bed somewhere with a bandage on his head. He walks out into a community of huts built on the side of a cliff. He is confronted by people he is unable to communicate with, until a woman named Mara (Samantha Mumba) asks “Do you know my words?” in perfect English. It turns out that the Eloi in this version have discovered “the Stone Language” carved in stone and concrete relics from our time, and have kept it alive as a tradition. Most Eloi lose the ability to speak it by adulthood, but Mara teaches children, so she has retained it.

Quite different from the Eloi in 1894 and in 1960, the Eloi of 2002 are highly industrious, growing crops, and building windmills. There is no evidence of anything being done for them by anyone else. However, they live under the opression of a fear that they refuse to speak of. Alex suspects it has to do with the reason none of the Eloi seem to be older than their early twenties. He awakens one night from a nightmare in which he is being drawn toward a frightening statue in the forest. Mara tells him “we all have that dream,” but refuses to say more. We later learn that that same night, Alex’s pocket watch was stolen by Morlocks, which explains why the Eloi have no machines. Alex gazes up at the remains of our moon, now a collection of chunks that make a spectacular stream across the sky, and thinks “You were right, David. We did go too far.”

He learns what the Eloi’s unspoken fear is when the Morlocks first attack. The Morlocks of 2002 are considerably more formidable than in the other versions, traveling fast on all fours, and then fighting on two legs. They bear more resemblance to the Uruk Hai from The Lord of the Rings, stalking between rows of their machines. After Mara, along with others, is dragged underground in an

Guy Pierce gets mideval in the 8000th century.

Guy Pierce gets mideval in the 8000th century.

attack,  Alex demands to know why the Eloi will not fight back. An Eloi replies “those who … ‘fight’ are taken first.” So between 1894 and 2002, the relationship has made a full transition from ironic justice to shameless opression. The Eloi lack technology not because of laziness, but because the Morlocks use coordinated attacks to keep them helpless. The end result, however, is essentially the same, as Alex finds out. He discovers Photonic again, its panes of glass tarnished and cracked, but still functional (after 800,000 years. Right). Photonic directs him to the statue he dreamed of, this version’s Sphynx. He climbs down into it and discovers a grizly slaughterhouse scene that audiences were spared in 1960. After being captured, he sees Mara locked in a cage and meets the “Uber Morlock,” brilliantly played by Jeremy Irons, though he is well hidden in a great makeup job.

Spy Morlocks mark targets for Hunters.

Spy Morlocks mark targets for Hunters.

The Uber Morlock extends peculiar hospitality to Alex, protecting him from the bestial Morlocks, answering his questions and even returning his Time Machine and pocket watch. He explains:

“After the Moon fell from the sky, the Earth could no longer sustain the species. Some managed to stay above, while others escaped below, and centuries later when we tried to emerge into the sunlight, we found we could not. So we bred ourselves into casts.”

The hunter Morlocks are bred to be predators but also to be controlled. The Uber Morlock is of a cast that concentrated on expanding its cerebral abilities. He says that without control the hunters would exhaust the food supply in a matter of months. He also controlls the Eloi and keeps them fearful.

The Uber Morlock calls Alex by name and knows who he is and why he has traveled through time. He also projects pictures into Alex’s head, putting him back in his laboratory with Emma. Alex learns learns that some Eloi, like Mara, are not consumed, but instead are used as“breeding vessels” for Morlock colonies (yuck).

Alexander is reunited with Mara.

Alexander is reunited with Mara.

Finally, the UM explains to Alex “You built your time Machine because of Emma’s death. If she had lived it would never have existed, so how could you use it to save her? You are the inescapable result of your choices, just as I am the inescabable result of you (?).” He then shows Alex the Time Machine. “You have your answer. Now go.” At this point, Alex has to be thinking “I came 8,000 centuries for a lame explanation like that?” This is the first version that tries to adress paradox in time travel, but it completely ignores exerything besides Emma’s death that Alex changed by going back.

Tell me this isn't scary.

Tell me this isn't scary.

Long story short, Alex kills the UM. After outsmarting a creature that has demonstrated the ability to read and controll his thoughts, Alex uses his pocketwatch to jam his Machine. Mara asks “What are you doing with it?” He replies “Changing the future.” The jamming results in a sort of explosion of time, that rusts metal and rots Morlocks in the blink of an eye, and destroys their lair. This, while undeniably ham-fisted, is also undeniably cool. He saves Mara and they live happily ever after.

Rather than inequality or war, this version is concerned with rappidly

The Time Machine of 1960, now in a museum.

The Time Machine of 1960, now in a museum.

expanding technology. Once again, the social evil warned of in 1899 creates havoc in the near future that forces part of humanity undergroud to evolve into monsters, who return to feed on those above. The time traveler once again abandons what he set out to find, and finds happiness in the time he has traveled to.

All three versions suffer a certain weakness. The problem with basing a story that covers 800,000 years on a single societal concern should be obvious. 800,000 years eclipses all of recorded history aproximately 100 times. And yet, even the near future is hard to portray acurately. George Pal’s portrayal 1966 looks quite droll only 50 years later. Simon Wells’ portrayal of 2030 will no doubt look the same in 2050. It’s rediculous for a writer to asume that what’s on his mind at the moment will be shaping the world so far down the road. Good science fiction will, of course, include some social critisism, but there’s a reason most science fiction stories don’t take place so far into the future. The book comes the closest to acknowledging this, as it doesn’t try to tell a story that weaves all the centuries together. Wells’ hero simply leaves Wells’ time, goes to a time when the world was unrecognizable, comes back, and tells the tale. However, this also makes the book the least engaging and most depressing version.

George comes home, looking how I felt at 1 am after finishing this review.

George comes home, looking how I felt at 1 am after finishing this review.

For dramatic purposes, Pal’s version is a clear improvement over the book, because it takes the same basic plot and makes it into a story of rebirth, rather than degeneration, and of good triumphing over evil. It’s rather hard to buy the hippie philosophy 50 years later, however. The 2002 version seems to be the least preachy of the three, and while it does at times sacrafice thought for Hollywood sensationalism, it has some good messages about facing your fears and finding what’s truly important in life. Each version is a noteworthy embodiment of the values of its time. In sum, I would have to say I liked the version from my century the best. But of course, I would.

The book

1960 version

2002 version

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