When the Wells Run Dry: Time Machine, War of the Worlds

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Rating Symbols

HBS

Hot Babe Scientist. Linus Pauling never looked like this. Hollywood is now capable of dealing with a woman scientist. Someday they will be capable of portraying a plain, middle-aged or overweight woman scientist.

HUNK

Hunk Scientist. Linus Pauling never looked like this, either. Stephen Hawking may be a great heroic role model, but good looks sell tickets.

HCIM

High Caloric-Intake Monster. Large animals eat a smaller fraction of their body weight each day than small ones, a manifestation of surface to volume ratio. Hollywood critters, on the other hand, eat like shrews.

PAPWL

Pompous Ass who Pays With His Life. The pig-headed boss or political figure who refuses for selfish reasons to listen to warnings and gets killed. Occasionally it really happens; the governor of Martinique refused to evacuate when Mont Pelee began erupting 1902, and died in the resulting catastrophe. So did 30,000 innocent people.

SK

Superfluous Kids. Kids (generally repugnant) who serve no real dramatic purpose except to generate audience sympathy. I root for the monsters, especially when the kids do something stupid after they've been told not to.

CCHNC

Cookie Crumbs Have No Calories. And large objects (like asteroids) cease to exist once they're broken up.


The Time Machine (HUNK)

H. G. Wells’ novel is transplanted from Victorian England to Victorian New York. Instead of scientific curiosity, Professor Hardtegen (Guy Pearce) the hero is driven by the desire to avert his fiance’s death. He develops his time machine, travels back in time and steers her away from the fatal time and place, by hailing a carriage and traveling from Central Park to Bleecker Street, a fairly long haul by horse and buggy. She dies anyway. Realizing he cannot change the past (if you don't count getting your fiance killed a second time in a completely different place as changing the past), he journeys into the future. The visual telling of his journey from 1903 to 2030 is beautifully done.

By 2030, apparently, we have learned all about energy efficiency, since the dominant mode of transportation in New York is bicycles. The Empire State Building is dwarfed by surrounding buildings. Hardtegen visits the New York Public Library, which now stores all knowledge on a huge computer data base, whose interface is an image of a young black man. This scene is principally there to set up the later part of the movie.

Hardtegen jumps ahead to 2037, when he beholds a scene of devastation. A catastrophe on the moon is causing it to break up, raising havoc on the earth as well. He barely escapes and is knocked unconscious while his machine speeds ahead. Some parts of the animation of his passage through geologic time are well done, others, especially the scene of the incision of a deep canyon, are a bit too obviously computer generated fractals.

(According to rumor, the film originally showed a chunk of the moon destroying the World Trade Center. When the director saw the news on September 11, he reportedly said "Are you f###### kidding me?" Of course, the scene was cut.)

Hardtegen finally stops in a jungle 800,000 years in the future, and is rescued by a woman from the Eloi, the future surface dwellers, who more than anything else seem Maori-like. She, amazingly, knows English, but not the concept of “bra.” The Eloi live in cliffside huts for safety. Although the visual concept is lovely, it’s especially nice to see that in these days of computer animation there is still room for obviously painted backdrops.

It turns out the Eloi teach their children the “language of the stones” by tradition, from salvaged inscriptions, but most of them, predictably, forget it as adults, since opportunities to use it are rather rare. And here’s the first major scientific howler of the movie. The idea that people would continue to teach an extinct language for 800,000 years solely for the sake of tradition is pretty far fetched. There’s just not enough English on the stones to provide a basis for preserving a language. And since we somehow got from Proto-Indo-European to English, Russian, Hindi and French in maybe 8,000 years, the idea of preserving perfect idiomatic 21st century English for 800,000 years is just plain ridiculous. The movie can’t have him live with the Eloi for a year or so, learning their language? He’s got a time machine, for heaven’s sake! It’s not like he runs the risk of being late getting back.

Actually, the first blooper is the breakup of the moon and the alteration of its orbit, something we’re not likely to be able to do by only 2037. If we bring the moon as close as it seems to be in the movie, the tides will be something fierce, something not explored in the movie. When Hardtegen looks at the moon 800,000 years hence, he sees an irregular lump surrounded by a series of smaller fragments. Ignoring the physical problems of blowing up the moon or changing its orbit, an irregular lump thousands of kilometers across will probably have gravitationally deformed to a round shape in 800,000 years. As for the fragments, if they’re orbiting the earth they should be spread all over the sky. I doubt if satellites that large could stay in stable orbit around the moon for that long. In 800,000 years, there would probably still be a lot of loose debris, maybe a ring around the moon, the earth, or both, but most of the material would have re-accreted onto the moon.

Also, this is the site of New York in the far future. There’s a deep canyon running through it. So how come we don’t see ruined walls, subway tunnels, Mafia hit victims, and so on exposed in the sides of the canyon? Geologists are weird people. We notice stuff like that.

All is not well with the Eloi. There are no old people, but Hardtegen can’t get straight answers when he asks questions. It all becomes clear when the Eloi are attacked by the Morlocks, the other post-human species. Anyone familiar with the novel will know that by then, humanity has evolved into two species, the gentle surface dwelling Eloi and the brutal, subterranean Morlocks, who still have machines, although what they use them for is not very clear. The Morlocks hunt the Eloi for food. The Eloi - shades of Watership Down - have decided to cope with the issue by simply refusing to acknowledge it.

What is it with this people as food thing? It’s a stock part of schlock alien invasion films, where humans are apparently prime protein sources. Hey guys, ever heard of the food chain? Humans are too high up the chain to be much use as food. Why not just raise cows, which are pure herbivores, much larger, and too stupid to know better? Are there no other animals in 800,000 A.D? And while I’m no vegan, plant food is a perfectly usable source of calories.

Our hero’s rescuer, Mora, is dragged off. In the novel, her name is Weena. Okay, Weena probably wouldn’t fly with 2002 audiences, who are too illiterate probably to know there ever was a novel. Her little brother finally gets up the gumption to help, and leads Hardtegen to “the place of the ghosts,” entrance to the underworld. Inside he finds, guess what? The computer avatar who greeted him 800,000 years ago in the library. He’s the sole surviving interface. Frankly, I doubt we will be far enough along by only 2030 to create a machine that can be preserved as an artifact for 800,000 years, much less still function. But anyhow, the avatar tells him how to reach the entrance to the Morlock caverns.

Up until now, the film has been not bad. Transplanting the hero to America is forgivable, as are some of the other liberties played with the plot. From here on, it gets just plain stupid. Hardtegen gets into the Morlock caverns, finds grisly proof of their diet, and is captured himself. At that point, the producers, evidently feeling that Wells has been dead for 800,000 years, discard the original plot entirely. We find that Mora/Weena is being held, not for food, but for breeding. The hero is faced with a bioluminescent super-brain Morlock who also speaks perfect English. The Morlocks have bred castes suited for different tasks, and this one is a leader. He has so much brain it spreads down his back. He presents Hardtegen with his machine and tells him to go. Why? Why not just eat the hero and take the machine to use for Morlock purposes?

Hardtegen fires up the machine, then yanks the head Morlock aboard. They fight. Hardtegen shoves the head Morlock out of the time bubble around his machine, whereupon he does the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade disintegration bit. Hardtegen brings the machine to a halt billions of years in the future on a blighted and still Morlock-ruled world. I give up. If humans evolve that much in 800,000 years, why will they be at all recognizable in billions? Why will the Morlocks still be building the same style structures?

I have problems with the whole physics of the machine, and that’s not even counting the time travel part. If the bubble around the machine isolates its time from our time, then a second’s worth of light from inside should be spread out over many years outside, and its light emission should be almost zero. So why isn’t the bubble perfectly black? Or if light from outside still passes through the bubble, why doesn’t the bubble simply become invisible? Instead, it glows brilliantly. Of course, if it’s moving through time rapidly it will be visible to a stationary observer for only an instant. Or will it? It stays in the same place from 1903 to 2037 and beyond, and nobody, even in New York, wonders what the glowing sphere is? Inside, years’ worth of sunlight falls on the traveler in seconds. Why isn’t he charred to a crisp, or vaporized?

Hardtegen comes back, rescues Mora/Weena, then starts up the machine but jams the mechanism. They flee the Morlocks (in the book, Weena is lost) and, just as they reach the surface, the machine explodes, sending a time wave throughout the Morlock complex, aging the Morlocks by centuries instantly, but stranding the hero in the far future. Okay, just how did he know this would work? How did he know they would be at a safe distance when the machine blew up?

For that matter, when the head Morlock is pushed out of the time bubble, he's pushed back into a world of normal time. That means he has hours or days to figure out how to get back aboard. Why doesn't he starve to death before he disintegrates? And if matter can get into or out of the time bubble, why doesn't it fill with stuff while it's buried?

In the book, the hero plunges on into the very far future, finally ending when the sun is a red giant and life on earth is sputtering to an end. Neither film version of the story has done this part, which could be really poetic and powerful, but which offers scant opportunities for scantily-clad ladies, car chases, or blowing stuff up. The hero returns, sets out again laden with scientific gear, and never returns.

The film has some lovely musical moments, and the ending is nicely done. In fact, this movie does so many things well that the action sequence stands out as all the more stupid and pointless. Hardtegen in the future and his friends in 1903 share the same space, as the hero stands on the site of his home. Okay, we’ll ignore the possibility that the actual spot might be buried hundreds of feet deep or be hundreds of feet above the future erosional surface, nor will we ask how he found the spot in the total absence of nearby landmarks. The 1903 scene gradually takes over as Hardtegen’s friend and housekeeper wonder what became of him. Somewhat reminiscent of the end of Titanic. It’s like putting a Rolls Royce hood ornament on a Yugo. David Wells, H. G.'s great grandson, was a co-producer. For shame.

War of the Worlds (SK)

Okay, if you're at the top of your craft you measure yourself against the classics. Leonard Bernstein wrote a Mass not because he's a Catholic but because all great composers wrote Masses and he wanted to do it, too. So Spielberg wants to do War of the Worlds. Why not?

As the film opens, we see Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) finishing up a shift as a crane operator on the New Jersey docks. He arrives home to find his ex-wife waiting to drop off their two kids, Rachel and Robbie. Most Superfluous Kids in films are merely excess baggage; these two are thoroughly repulsive. Robbie is a rebellious sixteen-year old who has refined snottiness to an art form; Rachel is a screechy banshee subject to panic attacks over the tiniest things. (She's played by Dakota Fanning, who, for reasons that utterly defy logical analysis, got rave reviews for her performance.) Roll up the aliens in this flick, Independence Day, Predator and Alien, and they're still warmer and more appealing than the kids in this film. Five minutes into the film I was rooting for the aliens to eat, vivisect, disintegrate or do something really horrible to them. They're that slimy and hideous.

Soon a mysterious storm cloud gathers, glowing eerily. By now anyone familiar with alien invasion flicks should merely shrug, say "Oh, that's an alien spacecraft," and go about their business. Mysterious lightning bolts zap the ground, not accompanied by thunder. The storm ends as abruptly as it began. Thunder is caused by the sudden expansion of superheated air around a lightning bolt. It rumbles because there are miles of bolt in the clouds and it takes a long time for sound to travel from the farthest ends of the discharge. But short discharges from directly overhead will merely produce a loud crack. I don't know whether Spielberg actually reasoned this out, but it's sensible.

The bolts have as a side effect produced an EMP, or electromagnetic pulse, that fried most electronics, including automobile ignitions. Search EMP on the Web and you'll find tons of lurid speculation but precious little solid fact. The only large scale EMP ever produced resulted from a space-based nuclear test in 1962; military planners assume that space-based EMP's to disable electronics will be part of any large-scale nuclear war. There are also designs for smaller-scale weapons to produce local disruption. EMP produces very short but destructive power surges that can trip circuit breakers and burn out microelectronics. The EMP in the film seems to have been incidental to the lightning.

In any case, the EMP in this film has decidedly spotty effects. It disables all automobiles and household power, but a spectator still has a functioning video recorder. Ray finds one car that still runs, though it's not really explained why. The car was in the shop getting its starter replaced, although that wouldn't protect the ignition system from EMP. Disconnecting circuits may or may not provide some protection, and the metal of the car body would be a major protection. In any case, one part of the car that would be fully vulnerable to EMP would be the radio, because the antenna feeds energy from outside into the car, yet the radio works. Later on, we see military vehicles running, although trucks and Hummers aren't routinely hardened against EMP, and the avionics of jets and helicopters seem to be unscathed.

Crowds gather around the impact site, which soon begins subsiding into the ground. Then it erupts and a gigantic tripod-like walker about 200 feet high emerges. The tripod immediately begins blasting people and buildings with destructive heat rays that splatter gobs of fleeing onlookers around. Ray races home, orders his kids to pack quickly, grabs a gun, and commandeers the one working car in the vicinity. His plan is to take the kids to rejoin their mother in Boston. He realizes that his working van will be an attractive target, so his plan is to stay on back roads, though how exactly he plans to get from Bayonne, New Jersey to Boston and bypass New York solely on back roads is a mystery. First stop is the ex-wife's place, where the power is still on (and therefore there was no EMP, so why aren't there lots of cars on the roads?). Ray discovers to his disgust that Robbie has only grabbed food like salsa and salad dressing, so they end up going hungry, ignoring the fully-stocked fridge behind them.

They take shelter in the basement, only to be rudely awakened in the middle of the night. Next morning Ray discovers a jetliner has crashed next door. By this time the attack has been under way for hours. Why are there still planes flying at all? Evidently this airliner was empty because the split open fuselage reveals nothing but rows of empty seats. A news crew on the scene fills Ray and us in on events. The lightning bolts were actually how the aliens got crew members into the buried machines.

Ray and family march on. When they stop for a rest, Rachel wanders over to a riverbank, only to see a body float past, then more and more body parts. She's terrified into catatonia, which at least shuts her up and actually seems to improve her behavior. By nightfall they approach a ferry across the Hudson River. Now if your goal is to stay away from people, it seems to me a ferry crossing is the last place to go. That's a recipe for hordes of panicky people jammed into a small space and desperate to steal your car, which is just what happens. Ray tries to use his gun, but someone has a bigger gun and disarms him. Big Gun's triumph is short lived since someone grab's Ray's dropped gun and blows Big Gun away. As Ray and his kids trudge toward the ferry on foot, we see one of the more effective horror scenes in the film: a railroad gate goes down and a passenger train roars by - totally engulfed in flames. Interestingly enough there are a dozen or so cars on the ferry, all of which seem to have gotten there without being attacked by mobs.

As tripods appear behind them, the ferry casts off, only to be capsized by a machine surfacing directly below them (as everyone who's seen the trailers knows - I think Spielberg thought "Hey, nobody ever showed aliens sinking a ship before!"). Ray and the kids swim ashore and watch in horror as the machines rampage through the fleeing crowds, firing their heat rays. And there's one of my principal complaints about this movie - the aliens have no strategy. They clomp around randomly smashing small buildings and shooting at individual people - they don't target the power grid, or hit key cities or military installations first (the aliens in Independence Day had enough sense to do that). They don't have any weapons of mass destruction, no chemical or biological weapons, no orbiting or aerial weapons. Instead they run around like drunken frat boys on spring break ("Hey dude, let's go to Earth and trash the place!")

The military shows up and engages the tripods, and since this is one of the most respected directors around, with a keen eye for detail and consistency, we can be sure he won't resort to pseudoscientific schlock like protective force fields around the alien machines. Oops, there are protective force fields around the alien machines. I don't care if this is in the original novel or not - in this day and age it's an inexcusable cliche, all the more offensive because it's so easy to imagine scientifically reasonable alternatives. Come on, the aliens can't have automated defense systems that target and destroy incoming projectiles? Even we can do that. Not only do the aliens have force fields, but they glow green when hit. I guess I missed the article in Weird Alien Movie Physics that showed that force fields always have to glow green. Robbie runs off to watch the battle. A military analyst wrote in his review that the tanks were violating standard armor tactics by charging over the ridge instead of using the ridge as a shield.

Ray and Rachel are taken in by a weird survivalist who tells them "they've been planning this for a million years." If so, how hard could it be to take over a planet inhabited by cave men, or for that matter, medieval peasants? For that matter, if there are so many buried machines underfoot, don't you think we'd have tunneled or drilled into a few by now? Anyway, the episode in the survivalist's basement gives us a chance to watch the alien probe devices and the aliens themselves. Ray finally kills the survivalist when the survivalist freaks out from the stress (He starts trying to tunnel to New York City from halfway to Albany). The aliens grab Ray and Rachel and stuff them into a basket full of captives, but when the aliens try to haul Ray into the tripod, he grabs a couple of grenades from a National Guardsman's ammo belt, and takes down the tripod. Ray and Rachel finally make it to Boston, where by this time the aliens are succumbing to terrestrial diseases. In a nice touch, Ray's in-laws are played by Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, stars of the 1953 version of War of the Worlds. Robbie, it turns out, made it safely as well.

There's lots of good craftsmanship in this film, many homages to the 1953 version and the original novel, but overall, it just falls flat. Some works can be updated and some cannot. Time Machine could be updated (the stupid action sequence notwithstanding) but not War of the Worlds. It's like remaking Moby Dick; you could do an effective re-make set on a 19th century whaler but trying to update it to the 21st century would be ludicrous. You just couldn't generate sympathy for someone in 2005 obsessed with killing a whale; audiences would tell Ahab to deal with it, see a good prosthetics specialist, get on with his life and they'd cheer for the whale instead. Update King Kong to the present and you have the 1976 Dino Di Laurentis bomb; redo it as a period piece in 2005 and you have a mega-hit. War of the Worlds was wholly unique and original when it came out in the late 19th century. It still worked in 1953 when our own command of science was pretty elementary and we had just unleashed terrifying new technology, but it doesn't work now.

The reasons the 1953 film worked were first, we had some sense of overview. The heroes were scientists working to try to halt the invasion. In the 2005 version, Cruise is a desperate man on the run and we supposedly don't know any more than he does. Focusing on characters caught in a tight spot might work, except that we do know more than Cruise does because we know how the story comes out in the end. Also, character development has to focus on characters that evoke some sympathy and we might as well have asked Cruise to swim across the Hudson towing the ferryboat as to drag the dead weight of those two kids along. In World War II movies, panicky characters got slapped, but Cruise can't do that to his brats because it would provoke cries of child abuse. The second reason the 1953 version worked was that we really had the feeling humanity was on the ropes. Nothing worked and people were huddled in churches awaiting the end. In the 2005 version, the aliens haven't even caused that much damage (Boston is still largely intact and soldiers are still fighting).

Spielberg evidently wanted to portray the invasion as seen by people caught up in a disaster they don't understand. Whoopee. We are presently embroiled in a process in which people who don't understand what's going on will select the people who will direct our national policies. The very best we can hope for is that their choices will randomly cancel out so that informed opinion will determine the outcome. And I'm going to pay ten bucks to spend three hours watching people like that flail around in a disaster. In movies like this, clueless people serve only two dramatic functions: food, or targets.

And the ending just plain doesn't work any more. It worked in the late 19th century when most people could remember a time when disease microorganisms were unknown, and could imagine invading aliens having the same blind spot. Updated as a morality tale in 1953, as a reassurance that science would not supersede faith, it worked. Knowing what we now know about disease, we are expected to believe that advanced aliens would come to Earth without checking for diseases and parasites. They can generate force fields unknown to our science but don't have immunizations, or at least air filters, capable of stopping all disease organisms? They don't have first aid kits, or medical units for casualties? And if our microbes can infect them, why don't they have microbes that can infect us? Why don't they destroy us as thoroughly as our disease microorganisms destroyed unprotected societies during the Age of Exploration?


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Created 22 August 2005, Last Update 02 June 2010

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