The Time Machine
Produced and distributed by DreamWorks and Warner Bros.
Directed by Simon Wells
Screenplay by John Logan from a novel by H.G. Wells

Monster’s Ball
Produced by Lee Daniels and Mark Urman
Directed by Marc Forster
Screenplay by Milo Addica and Will Rokos
Released by Lions Gate Films

I first read H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine when I was 12 years old.  At the time, I had no way of knowing I was turning the pages of a socialist’s sour allegory of Darwinian capitalism and its unintended consequences.  I only knew I had to find out how the story ended.  When I got to the last page, however, I discovered something odd.  There was no ending.  Instead, the hero known only as the Time Traveler, having come back from one voyage into the future, disappeared on another.  What was this?  I wasn’t disappointed, just mildly shocked.  It was, I think, the first time a book had asked me what would happen next.  Such respect for the reader was new to me.  It was also my first intimation that stories could have consequences for life beyond their covers, that they might point outward from imagination to deeds, expecting readers to act on their own authority.  Later, I would discover Wells had written a warning to his own time.  Like most good science fiction, his tale concerned the present under the guise of the future.  This, oddly, is just what Simon Wells’ new screen adaptation of the novel does not do, even though director Wells is the great-grandson of novelist Wells.  So much for ancestral reverence.  

In the distant future of H.G. Wells’ narrative, the Time Traveler discovers a grotesque parody of 19th-century class conflict.  The human race has evolved into two decadent subspecies: the gentle, delicate Eloi, who live for beauty and music in a world that has become a permanent garden; and the Morlocks, who live in stygian caverns where they labor tirelessly at the machinery that makes possible the indolent comfort of their cousins above.  On one side are the heirs to the Oxbridge twits of Wells’ acquaintance, now even more effete and irresponsible than their 1895 forebears; on the other, the vast, beastly progeny of the workers transformed by millennia of dimly lit toil into little hairy beings of great physical quickness and technical dexterity.  At first, the Traveler reasons that these descendants of the privileged and the exploited have at last achieved social harmony.  Since neither species is capable of sustained critical thought, the Eloi do not feel guilty about their ease, and the Morlocks do not complain of their labor.

On closer inspection, however, the Traveler discovers this new balance in human affairs has come at a grisly cost.  The Morlocks have made the Eloi their cattle.  They periodically round up the more appetizing specimens and slaughter them for their dinner tables.  This is Swift’s “Modest Proposal” turned upside down.  Seeking to shame his British readers, Swift had recommended they take the next logical step in their economic cannibalism of Ireland and put baked Hibernian infant on their dinner menus.  Trading disgust for terror, Wells decided to threaten his upper-class readers.  Mend your ways, or be devoured by your lessers.  In effect, he was trying to head off the Bolshevik Revolution.  

Together with its political agenda, Wells’ narrative is filled with mysteries, adventures, and even a love story of sorts—all material that would seem ideal for a screen adaptation.  But filmmakers have been unable or unwilling to do it justice.  George Pal adapted the book in 1960, and while his film has some charm, it reduces the Eloi-Morlock division to the stock sci-fi explanation of the day: a genetic mutation caused by atomic radiation.  In 1979, Nicholas Meyer trivialized the book’s conceit in Time After Time by making Wells himself the Time Traveler pursuing Jack the Ripper from 19th-century London to 1970’s America.  Simon Wells has not improved on either effort.  Despite Guy Pearce’s convincing performance as the abstracted Traveler and some sparkling special effects, Wells’ film is a mess of undigested ideas—none of them in concert with his great-grandfather’s interests.  

Irrelevancies abound throughout the film.  In a textually unwarranted interpolation, the Traveler builds his machine so he can go back into the past to prevent his fiance’s untimely death.  When it seems he will not succeed, he asks obsessively, “Why can’t I change the past?”  Having given this opening episode so much dramatic space and urgency, Wells drops it altogether in second half of the film.  Why?  Stopping in the year 2037, the Traveler discovers the moon is shattering into fragments.  Why?  We never learn.  Arriving in the year 802,701, the Traveler meets the Eloi who, instead of the novel’s hapless weaklings, turn out to be an athletic collection of multicultural fashion models sporting tribal garb.  They look so remarkably healthy and muscular that you can’t help wondering why they don’t put up a fight when the Morlocks come to get their next meal.  As for the Morlocks, instead of lemur-like techies, they are a disappointing crew of brawny actors in hairy bodysuits and oversized yellow-eyed masks.  With the help of special effects, they leap and skitter about as though they have lost their place in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

By departing from the novel’s premise, the film not only violates the original story’s logic but sacrifices its distinctive vision.  It is all too apparent that Simon Wells has no genuine interest in his great-grandfather’s novel beyond the commercial value of its well-known title.  Deeming the story’s subtext irrelevant to its plot, the filmmakers have discarded it entirely, freeing themselves to embroider and invent at the leaden whim of their special-effects department.  But the energy of a narrative such as this resides precisely in the author’s political and philosophical intentions.  After all, they are what drove Wells to write his story in the first place.  Discard the book’s inner life, and you are left with a tasteless rind.  It’s as if someone were to film Paradise Lost and leave out Milton’s theology.  Wells is no Milton, but he deserves better than this, especially at the hands of his own progeny.  Or was Simon Wells intent on proving one of his great-grandfather’s fears?  H.G. often warned that our moral imagination might decay as we become increasingly dependent on technology.  Can it be that the Time Traveler’s lament from the year 802,701—“I grieved to think how brief the dream of the human intellect had been.  It had committed suicide”—is already coming true?   

Speaking of suicide, in Swiss director Mark Foster’s Monster’s Ball, several characters resort to its felicity.  Some of the audience may feel like joining them after watching this half-baked essay on the state of American racism.  

The story concerns the unlikely relationship between Hank (Billy Bob Thornton), a white corrections officer, and Leticia (Halle Berry), a black woman desperately down on her luck.  

Following in his father’s footsteps, Hank does death-row duty at a Georgia penitentiary, where he’s in charge of wafting his mostly black clientele to their final reward.  He is so glumly devoted to the family calling that he has brought his own son, Sonny, aboard.  A family that slays together, it seems, stays together, however unhappily.  The three men live in a household unleavened by feminine influence and suffused with a reflexive but waning racism.  Hank’s mother committed suicide.  His wife vacated the premises long ago, no doubt depressed by Thornton’s nearly catatonic performance in the film’s earlier scenes.  Then there’s the unsunny Sonny, played by Heath Ledger with all the verve of a human mold spore.  Unmarried, he makes do with occasional visits from a prostitute so perfunctory that a Sealy PosturePedic would seem passionate by comparison.  Oh, the dysfunction of it all.  These working-class honkies are marinating in a miasma of misogyny and racism.

We meet these gentlemen on the eve of an execution.  Hank and Sonny are in charge of hot-seat candidate Sean “Puffy” Combs, playing an African-American who is, for once, actually guilty as charged, a rarity in film land.  Puff Daddy even admits that he has done something really, really bad.  (Could it be a capital crime to besmirch Jennifer Lopez’s titanium reputation?)  A few nights after Hank fries Puffy, he meets P. Diddy’s wife, Leticia, at the diner he frequents.  Coincidentally, she’s just been hired as a late-night waitress.  Not aware of his role in her husband’s death, she’s glad to serve him his usual order: chocolate ice cream, which he insists on eating with a white plastic spoon.  This is symbolic foreshadowing.  You see, the spoon stuck in the ice cream represents . . . never mind.

Hank and Leticia are both grieving—she, for her husband, and he, for his son who, following family tradition, has just pulled the trigger on himself.  They meet a second time—again, by chance—when Hank comes upon Leticia moments after her 11-year-old son has been run down by a hit-and-run driver.  Hank rushes them to the hospital, but the boy is dead on arrival.  A few days later, Hank chances upon Leticia yet again and drives her home.  Having brought them together so often and established their need for consolation so emphatically, the script now engineers the characters onto Leticia’s sofa for the Big Scene, the one to which the movie’s ads so coyly allude.  Yes, by golly, Hank and Leticia actually get naked and sweaty on her couch.  

Although the script means to astonish us with this interracial clinch, such a romance is not all that surprising.  These are two people whom suffering has unmoored from their provincial notions.  They meet beyond the usual categories of their respective tribes.  Their emotions are kicked up; they are within arms’ length of one another; and they are attractive—Billy Bob, reasonably, and Miss Berry unreasonably so.  (She does her best to look plain but fails beautifully.) 

Still, as staged, their romance is entirely unconvincing.  We cannot help feeling bullied by the script’s muscle-bound contrivances.  Foster and his scriptwriters Milo Addica and Will Rokos are hellbent to place Miss Berry and Mr. Thornton on that couch, and they do not care how improbably they do so.  Of course, they have a higher purpose than showing Miss Berry in her altogether.  (Strangely, the camera seems far less interested in Mr. Thornton.)  Foster wants us to understand that the racial barrier is being dissolved in the heat of the couple’s overmastering passion, etc., etc.  

As is always the case when big stars doff their duds—the better to conduct athletic sex—this scene has been hailed as courageous, honest, and sincere.  The one thing it is not, however, is aesthetic.  When actors get naked, they may or may not sin morally, but there is no question that they do so aesthetically.  Bare-assed on the divan, Miss Berry and Mr. Thornton are no longer Leticia and Hank: They are merely themselves.  As such, the drama in which they are playing comes—you’ll pardon the expression—to a grinding halt.  Rather than continue to suspend our disbelief, we can’t help dwelling on some distracting real-world questions.  Were they embarrassed in front of the film’s technicians?  What do their respective spouses think of their whole-hog performances?  The less sophisticated in the audience might even wonder if their full body contact onscreen led to further intimacies off.  “For heaven rest us,” as Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields memorably put it, “we’re not asbestos.” 

Monster’s Ball alludes to the prison keepers’ celebration following an execution.  Drop the apostrophe, however, and it becomes an unintended vulgar pun for two outsized egos engaging in what comes naturally.  For all its good intentions, the film is finally little more than this.