The Last Time Machine

By Robert Barry, 31 May 2012
Image: Beyond the Time Barrier

The west used to dream of travel to the future, but since the ’70s all roads seem to lead to either dystopia or nostalgia for the past. Robert Barry reviews the fate of the time machine through a century of film


On 9 October last year, standing on a makeshift stage, his voice amplified by the ‘human microphone’ of massed voices echoing his words, Slovenian philosopher, critic and contrarian Slavoj Zizek addressed the Occupy Wall Street protesters in Zuccotti Park. ‘In April 2011, the Chinese government prohibited on TV and films and in novels all stories that contain alternate reality or time travel. This is a good sign for China,’ he insisted. ‘It means that people still dream about alternatives, so you have to prohibit this dream. Here we don’t think of prohibition. Because the ruling system has even suppressed our capacity to dream.’


At first glance, this statement may seem hard to comprehend; perhaps even absurd. There has been no shortage of time travel films in the West recently. Only last year, critics hailed a return to form for Woody Allen with Midnight in Paris, which saw Owen Wilson as a romantically inclined American who finds himself transported back to the days when Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald stalked the Rive Gauche. Later this year, Brick writer/director, Rian Johnson is due to release Looper, a film which sees Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a mob hitman contracted to kill his future self.


Image: Poster for World Without End, 1956


Nonetheless something has changed in cinematic representations of time travel during the period variously described as postmodern, post-industrial, or post-historical; the political implications of which are hinted at in this apparently elliptical assertion by Zizek. Since some time towards the end of the 1970s, though there have been plenty of films about inhabitants of the present travelling back to the past (Midnight in Paris, A Sound of Thunder, Timeline), or inhabitants of the future returning to the present (The Terminator, Time Cop, Twelve Monkeys), even several which see people from the past travel to the present (The Philadelphia Experiment, Les Visiteurs, Time After Time); we have seen almost nothing of time travellers journeying to the future. With very few exceptions, which for reasons we will explore later are frequently just as revealing, the last 35 years have witnessed the imposition of a tacit injunction against journeys into the future.


In 1895, Robert W. Paul, the pioneer of British cinema whose ‘Theatrograph’ brought moving pictures to the music hall, patented a device inspired by the H.G. Wells novel The Time Machine. Paul’s invention would allow paying customers to take a seat in a mock up of the machine from Wells’ book and witness ‘fantastic scenes of future ages’ thanks to the wonders of cinema. Though today we might find the grandchildren of Paul’s idea in almost any theme park, the original was never constructed. Nonetheless it established, at the very dawn of film, a close connection between the new entertainment and the 19th century’s passion for tales of the future.


A decade later, Paul returned to a similar theme with a five minute long silent picture called How to Make Time Fly in which a small girl speeds up the flow of time by the simple expedient of removing the pendulum from a grandfather clock. As the clock’s hands whizz about its face, so too do events in the around it. Aided by the undercranking of Paul’s camera the traffic outdoors accelerates, the girl’s father wolfs down his supper, and a group of painters and decorators are suddenly seized by a rapid surge in productivity. Paul’s film would inaugurate three quarters of a century in which the cinematic apparatus and special effects were used as means to travel through time.


How to Make Time Fly was soon followed by another five minute short, this time by Gerard Bourgeois for the Lux cinematography company of France. This 1910 one reeler presented a Wallace and Gromit-esque vision of automated domesticity complete with push-button bread buttering, motorised shoes and even a travelling chair to take you to work. The following year, Pathé responded with One Hundred Years After, a tale of the future modelled after the classic 19th century template established by Bellamy’s Looking Backwards and Wells’s own The Sleeper Awakes. Tom Editt – the name a thinly disguised reference to Edison – is locked in a vault in cryogenic suspension for a hundred years. Reflecting the then topical theme of women’s suffrage, Editt wakes up to a world ruled by women and must seduce New York’s mayoress in order to persuade her that men deserve the vote – a trope repeated in Allen Curtis’, 1914, film, In the Year 2014.


Image: Buck Rogers, television serial, 1939


This series of technological utopias, still very much in the mould of Victorian future fiction, continued unabated through to the inter-war period with former vaudevillian El Brendel’s sci-fi musical, Just Imagine in 1930 and the popular Buck Rogers serial of 1939. All of these pictures shared an essentially similar take on the future, predicting advanced technological innovation and automation, and gleaming Metropolis-esque urbanism. The world of the future was broadly utopian – if somewhat over sanitised. The role of the traveller from the past is then twofold: on the one hand to share in the audience’s astonishment at the exciting new technological wonders, to say with Buck Rogers’s young friend Buddy, ‘Say, what kind of machine is that anyway?’ On the other, to provide a rootsy, hands-on practicality that is lacking in the brave new world of tomorrow and generally ends up saving the day. Thus fulfilling a similar function to the propagandistic television programming in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Player Piano, which assures the proles that they still have a vital role to play in the bright automated future.


All of this was to change with the Second World War and, perhaps more importantly, the atom bomb, whose shadow looms large over time travel films from this point forward. Arch Oboler’s Strange Holiday, produced by General Motors in 1942 but not released until a couple of months after the bombing of Hiroshima, animates many classic wartime fears when Claude Rains returns from his holiday to find a futuristic America overrun by fascists. Ken Hughes’, Time Slip (1956) sees radiation sickness shove Gene Nelson’s Mike Delaney just seven and a half seconds into the future. In World Without End, from the same year, astronauts returning to Earth from a Mars mission find themselves 200 years after ‘the atomic war of 2188’. Whilst Edgar G. Ulmer’s Beyond the Time Barrier (1960), partly filmed amidst the art deco backdrop of that year’s Texas Centennial Fair, sees test pilot, Bill Allison (Robert Clarke) arrive in a world beset by a cosmic plague that closely resembles radiation sickness.


Image: Poster for Time Slip AKA The Atomic Man, 1956


This era of time travel cinema, whose iconic image remains the statue of liberty jutting out of the sand at the end of Planet of the Apes, characteristically evokes what American media theorist Vivian Sobchack calls ‘a future with no future’. The atom bomb had destroyed any faith in the redemptive power of technology. The advance of time now promised no more than ‘decay and entropy’. But if the future was bleak, there nonetheless remained a protagonist to go in search of it.


This period saw the first cinematic adaptation of Wells’ The Time Machine (directed by George Pal in 1960). When the friends of Pal’s time traveller ask him to think of the commercial possibilities of historical tourism, he shows no interest, insisting, ‘I prefer the future!’ But when he tries out his contraption he finds himself first in a late ’60s of air raid sirens, nuclear explosions and fall out shelters; then in a far future in which the very idea of time and historical change has become meaningless. ‘There is no past, there is no future’ says Weena, the young Eloi he befriends.


In fact, from the earliest cinema up to the end of the ’70s, there were remarkably few films in which anyone showed much interest in going backwards in time. 1921, 1931 and 1949 all saw screen adaptations of Mark Twain’s novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court. Twain’s satire from 1889, about a man from the present waking up in the sixth century after a blow to the head, was itself one of the few 19th century time travel tales which saw anyone going back in time, and remained as singular in the ’20s or the ’40s as it had been in the 1880s.


Image: Chris Marker, La Jetée


Other than that, a small number of films – amongst them Chris Marker’s La Jetée and George Roy Hill’s Vonnegut adaptation Slaughterhouse-Five, both of which see their protagonists going both backwards and forwards in time – use backwards time travel as a means of circling around the trauma of the Second World War. In Slaughterhouse-Five this is explicit, and we witness the bombing of Dresden. In Marker’s film, however, the voice over suggests that the war mentioned several times that led to the present devastation is some future war of unimaginable horror, while the images we see all show destruction caused during the Second World War.


One of the notable elements of Hollywood’s various attempts to ‘remake’ La Jetée’s basic plot of a man from the future, haunted by the image of a woman from the past, who returns in order to avert some catastrophe (James Cameron’s The Terminator, Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, Brad Anderson’s Happy Accidents) is that they all omit the sequence in which the man travels even further into the future. ‘Again,’ as Marker’s narrator insists, ‘the gates to the future were closed...’


With the punk’s cry of ‘No Future’, the voyage to tomorrow largely left the silver screen. Though films would continue to be set in times to come, the man from the past through whom the audience would vicariously marvel at the new technological wonders, the protagonist who, like Wells’ own time traveller, was interested only in the future, became largely a thing of the past.


The mid ’70s had given us Peter Fonda’s Idaho Transfer, in which a government project sends young adults 56 years into the future in order to leapfrog an ecological catastrophe and build a new society; and Jérôme Laperrousaz’s Hu-Man, which finds Terence Stamp in the role of an actor who must undergo a televised trial by fire (and earth, air and water) before being sent into the future – before a live studio audience.


But in 1978, Derek Jarman inaugurated a trend for time travel films in which historical figures from the past – in this case, Queen Elizabeth – are zapped into the present, with Jubilee, a film which featured prominent punk scenesters Adam Ant, Siouxsie Sioux and Ari Up. A similar idea was pursued in the following year’s Time After Time, in which Jack the Ripper steals a time machine from H.G. Wells himself and flees to the late ’70s, and was later lampooned by such popular favourites as Bill and Teds Excellent Adventure and Les Visiteurs.


Meanwhile, in America, the opening crawl to George Lucas’ Star Wars (‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...’) announces the descent of Stateside sci-fi into a period of terminal nostalgia from which it is yet to recover (think of last year’s Super 8). Sobchack relates this nostalgic turn, which involves the reframing of technological wonder in terms of a thoroughly domesticated feeling of hope, of space exploration as a youthful jape and alien visitors as cuddly innocents, to the almost simultaneous release of the first films to address American involvement in Vietnam -- Coming Home, The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now.


In the very next year following the release of Coppola’s sprawling tale of dada militarism in South East Asia, United Artists released Don Taylor’s The Final Countdown. As if in response to the acceptance of failure in Vietnam, The Final Countdown proposes the gung-ho fantasy of a modern US Navy aircraft carrier, the product of decades of astronomical military expenditure and high-tech research, being sent back in time to the traumatic moment of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941.


Otherwise, time travel films in the ’80s seem to circle endlessly around the Freudian primal scene. As feminist film critic Constance Penley points out in a 1988 essay for Camera Obscura, both Back to the Future and The Terminator, two of the most successful time travel films of the decade, involve the fantasy of somehow arranging or being present at the moment of one’s own conception. In interviews about the making of Back to the Future 2, director Robert Zemeckis has made clear his resistance to films about the future, so when Marty McFly does arrive in 2015 he spends all his time in a nostalgia bar (‘Cafe 80s’) and an antique shop before quickly being whisked back to the ’50s in a seemingly endless compulsion to repeat the trauma of the primal scene.


Image: John Woo, Paycheck


John Woo’s 2003 Philip K. Dick adaptation, Paycheck, is another film that seems at first to break the embargo on visions of the future but ultimately only ends up strengthening it. Ben Affleck plays an engineer, Jennings, who unwittingly builds a machine that can see into the future but, whereas in Dick’s original short story, Jennings then joins forces with his employer to use the machine to overthrow a totalitarian government, Woo’s film concludes with Affleck destroying the machine as an intrinsically evil contrivance. ‘Seeing the future will destroy us,’ he insists. ‘If you show someone their future, they have no future. You take away the mystery, you take away hope.’


Practically the only other films to feature future oriented time travellers recently are remakes – Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, and another adaptation of The Time Machine by the author’s own great-grandson, Simon Wells. Wells’ take on The Time Machine adds a wholly new back story to the invention of the machine. Unlike the book and Pal’s previous adaptation, the time traveller (here called Alexander Hartdegen and played by Guy Pierce) first wishes only to travel back in time, only reluctantly turning to the future in order to find out why he can’t change the past. In a telling moment, as Hartdegen first zooms through time, he pauses at 2030 at a sign saying ‘the future is now’, only to realise it is an advertising billboard for a lunar property developer.


The future has become a patch of real estate already sold off. Back in the mid ’90s, Jean Baudrillard saw the future evaporating in the real time television broadcasts of the first Gulf War. But Italian theorist Franco Berardi sees the end of the future as coincident with the final colonisation of every last scrap of space on Earth. A former member of the autonomist group Potere Operaismo, and co-founder of the pirate Radio Alice, he sees the turning point taking place in 1977, the year the Sex Pistols released Never Mind the Bollocks, with its cry of ‘No Future’; the year of the ‘last revolt’ of the proletariat against capitalism in Germany and Italy; the year Steves Jobs and Wozniak trademarked Apple, preparing the Wired ideology of libertarian cyber-utopianism; the year ‘of passage beyond modernity.’


1977 is also the year Peter Sasdy directed Welcome to Blood City, probably the first feature film about virtual reality. For Berardi, since Welcome to Blood City, the ‘Virtual Utopia’ of cyberspace has swallowed the imagination of the future. It was also around this time – in fact, two years later in 1979 – that the US Federal Reserve adopted the policy of monetarism, thus laying the groundwork for the very crisis that triggered the Occupy Wall Street protests at Zuccotti Park. ‘The era of post-future has begun,’ says Berardi, but the need to imagine alternatives is now greater than ever.




Robert Barry <robertwilliam AT> is a freelance writer and composer from England, currently based in Paris. You will find his blog at and music projects at