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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Out of This World Sci-Fi Classics: The Time Machine (1960) review



Rod Taylor (H.George Wells), Alan Young (David Filby/James Filby), Yvette Mimieux (Weena), Sebastian Cabot (Dr. Phillip Hillyer), Whit Bissell (Walter Kemp)

Directed by George Pal

"I say, George, if you're going to start floating about in the future, aren't you going to rather mess things up for the rest of us?"--David Filby to his good friend, H. George Wells.

The Short Version: Time is definitely not of the essence in George Pal's phenomenally entertaining, provocative science fiction classic. At 102 minutes, Pal's picture takes its time exploring the themes and ideas of time travel -- the possibilities and dangers inherent in tinkering with such fantastic notions. Characterization and acting are top notch and the Morlocks are formidable, frightening foes once we finally see them. A genre milestone and required viewing for serious cinema buffs -- so don't waste time adding it to your DVD collection!

The time is the dawn of the 20th Century. Fascinated with the concept of time travel and the 4th Dimension, George Wells constructs a magnificent machine that possesses the power to propel a person into Earth's past, or its future. Traveling several years ahead in time, Wells bears witness to numerous events and a devastating nuclear holocaust. Finally, he uncovers the fate of mankind in the year 802,701. In this far-flung time-period, Wells discovers a regression of humanity. This new world is populated by two races -- the acquiescent Eloi people and the mysterious Morlocks -- human beings driven underground from the horrors of past wars that have evolved into cannibalistic albino creatures. The Eloi, normal humans who live topside, are docile, passive, and herded like cattle as food for the monstrous Morlocks. Wells enters into this futuristic, but backwards environment and attempts to free the Eloi in the hopes of creating a better future for mankind.

Much has been said over the years about the cinematic achievement that is George Pal's THE TIME MACHINE (1960). Brilliant in concept and execution, none of it would have been possible without the original novel written by famed author, H.G. Wells. The author had passion in his writing of this iconic tale, and Pal had an equal amount of passion in capturing its essence on film. I've never read the novel, but there seems to be differing opinions on the faithfulness of the film to the book. At any rate, it's a fabulous cinematic journey that not only stimulates the mind to the potentiality and folly of man's ambitions, but also sports some wonderfully colorful special effects to dazzle the eyes betwixt moments of exposition.


"...I don't much care for the time I was born into. It seems people aren't dying fast enough these days. They call upon science to invent more efficient weapons to... depopulate the Earth."

Early in the film, George's good friend David Filby asks him why the fascination with time. George's response is, in part, the above quote. However, George shows nothing but apathy towards the notion of visiting Earth's past. His vested interest lies in setting foot into man's forthcoming historical eras. What's appealing about George and David's conversation is that George is obviously a man of peace. He hopes to find a better life for all in what lies ahead. He doesn't stop to think that science could possess the propensity to create devastating weapons of war; that advancements over the years will, in all likelihood, lead to even more catastrophic events -- which it does. 

Wells' passion for peace, and the hopes of finding it in the future becomes more of a pipe dream the further into the future he goes. The irony of all this is that once he reaches the far-flung future of man's destiny, the pacification of humanity, and domination by a tyrannical -- in this case, mutant oppression -- the nature of war begins anew; and he's forced to fight alone to free a subjugated race.

Not everything is perfect, mind you. Some of the effects are a bit wonky, but for a picture made on an estimated budget between $750-$800,000 in 1960, it's a stunning endeavor, all things considered. There are a variety of matte shots, miniatures and numerous instances of time-lapse photography to represent the passage of time. Wah Chang and Gene Warren were among the crew who worked on the visual effects masterfully executed here. Efforts were rewarded in 1961 when Warren and Tim Barr won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. 

Additionally, the sets are lavishly constructed -- particularly the macabre, underground Morlockian lair; the costumes are sterling -- especially the nightmarish design of the flesh-eating Morlocks, themselves. 

The grisly face of the Morlocks turned up again in George Pal's more kid-friendly 7 FACES OF DR. LAO (1964). In that film, the Morlock costume was refurbished into an Abominable Snowman.

Their neolithic, ape-like appearance blends creepily with the monsters ghoulish features like the sharp, protruding fangs, claws and glowing eyes. Essentially, they are us -- but through a frightening process of de-evolution. This concept of humans retreating to underground domiciles and regressing into malformed versions of their former selves became a staple of SciFi exploitation features and horror movies over the years. Two examples being Bruno Mattei's horrendous RATS (1983) and Neil Marshall's modern horror classic THE DESCENT (2005). Furthermore, the creatures in Pal's movie are a stark contrast to the docile, yet socially regressed race of the Eloi.


"It was disconcerting to see the sun arch in less than a minute... to see a snail race by... my flowers flinging wide their petals to embrace the new day... and the hours speeding across the face of my sundial... and the flowers closing their eyes for the night. It was wonderful! Changes that normally took hours occurring in seconds..."

The sequence where Wells goes 17 years into the future is a marvel of meticulous time-lapse photography used to further the story as Wells explains his elated experience through voiceover. He spies the changes in fashion via a mannequin displayed in a shop window across the street. This provides him a great source of amusement while he toys with his device before going on a much longer stretch of future highway. Additionally, we see the changing of seasons as the years pass within seconds before our eyes.

This sequence is made all the more poignant when Wells stops his machine on September 13th, 1917. He's still inside his own house -- which has now been boarded up from the outside. Upon exiting, the storefront across the street has changed, as well as the town around him. A motor car pulls up (something Wells has never seen before) and a familiar face steps out. It's Filby -- or more accurately, Filby's son. Their brief conversation is telling for Wells, and what he hears makes him melancholy as evidenced on Rod Taylor's face. His friend David has died, and that the country has been at war with Germany since 1914. The news relayed to Wells through Filby's son regarding David's refusal to sell Wells' estate because he thought he'd return someday is a bright spot that brings a bit of joy to his face. It's also a touching moment that details the strong bond of their friendship. 

This section of the film goes further in eroding his dream of experiencing the perceived ascension of civilization. Instead, he encounters more and more the downfall of man that culminates in a nuclear holocaust occurring in 1966. Again he runs into Filby's son -- now much older -- who begs Wells to get to a shelter amidst the sirens emitting throughout this futuristic city. Fans of FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) will spy a guard run past Wells decked out in one of the space suits worn by the cast (see pic below)

At first Wells marvels at the constructs, ignoring Filby's warnings, but his admiration is quickly dashed once the bombs hit resulting in massive destruction and a volcanic eruption that burns everything away. His next stop is where the biggest surprise of all awaits him. 

The arguments of time travel, the various dimensions, the make-up of space and what occupies it are all bandied about cogently in David Duncan's script; and lend parallels to ancient, and or medieval theories on whether the world was flat or round. Just as seafaring explorers like Christopher Columbus sought to prove the world was a sphere, so does H. George Wells seek out to prove his theories of traversing the fabric of man's past and his future. Granted, the validity of such a feat has yet to become science fact, but the way the idea is presented here seems highly probable and logical -- yet the means of how to go about it is where the element of imagination remains firmly within the parameters of science fiction. Even so, it's an awe-inspiring journey we watch Wells undertake.

As the dreams and aspirations of man are the driving force in this movie, other humanist traits take precedence as well. Wells talks of self-sacrifice. It is a recurring theme in a sense. It represents the entire being of the George Wells character. He risks his life for the knowledge of what lies ahead; and again to wage war against his own ideals to save a race of people for the sake of prosperity. 


"What have you done? Thousands and thousands of years of building and rebuilding... creating and recreating so you can let it crumble to dust! A million years... sensitive men dying for their dreams FOR WHAT! So you can swim, and dance... and PLAY!"

The moment where Wells realizes man's future isn't what he'd expected comes once he's mingled with the Eloi. With many questions of their strange behavioral patterns and how they survive without a social structure, he asks about books, and if they have them, where they're located. One of the men states casually they do have books. Wells is taken to where said compendiums are kept. Hopeful he'll find the keys to this new world, what he uncovers is a sobering answer to the stagnation of this race of young people -- bereft of anyone with any age about them. The volumes aligning the shelves in the dilapidated domicile crumble to dust in Wells hands. It's a powerful moment as is his infuriated response. 

His despair is totally lost on the Eloi who stands in front of him emotionless, non-caring. Books, like everything else, are meaningless to them all. Coming from a world where people strive to do better for themselves, to create, to invent, to thrive -- it's a completely alien concept to Wells that an entire race of people would show indifference to advancement, or even a lack of concern for their own lives and the lives of others.


In addition to perusing themes of time travel, there's a striking social subtext lying just under the surface during the last half of the movie once Wells ends up among the Eloi people. Wells is startled to learn there's no government, no laws, and no one works. At first glance, their lifestyle is a paradise, but ultimately proves to be poisoned by excessive passivity. What passes for their city is in disarray and severely unkempt (see pic above). But again, this is a social structure lacking in even the most rudimentary understanding of responsibility. It's akin to being among a race of small children in adult bodies.

However, it is gradually learned that another, mysterious race of beings known as the Morlocks provide for the Eloi. The Morlocks give them everything they want till they're called away by an hypnotic siren eerily reminiscent of those of past centuries that heralded a coming doom. In this case, they're being led like animals to a slaughterhouse -- the antithesis of a protectoral sanctuary.

By comparison, in our modern age, society continues to be indoctrinated into a welfare state where a government provides everything for you, leaving you with no self-reliance or need to do better. Essentially, you become a slave to a ruling class much like the Eloi seen in THE TIME MACHINE. Thankfully, it hasn't gotten to the point where the masses are herded as food for a totalitarian regime. But something like what was seen in SOYLENT GREEN (1970) may turn out to be a feasible, frightening reality in itself at some point.

"So this is man's future... to bask in the sunlight, bathe in the clear streams, and eat the fruits of the Earth with all the knowledge of work and hardship forgotten."

Upon reaching his final destination in the year 802,701, Wells finds the peace he'd been looking for; at least it appears that way upon first inspection. The land is clear of the multitude of buildings and busyness of those in the streets of eras prior. There's a bounty of plants and vegetation, as well as a peculiar Sphinx situated where his house once stood so long ago. Traveling on foot, Wells spies a group of humans frolicking and playing near a stream. He's found what appears to be paradise -- free of the constrictions of responsibility. 

His attitude changes once it becomes apparent these people, called the Eloi, display no emotional attachments. They are child-like in their concern for what goes on around them. They simply live to exist -- indifferent to death, or even cognizant of what life is. As touched on above, they have no individuality. Wells discovers his ultimate disappointment in all he'd hoped to learn from what the future held for the human race; and man's impending finality was due to his own squandering of knowledge used for destruction and power as opposed to future enlightenment. It's also here where the film embraces both profound ideals and also some good old fashioned Saturday matinee monster movie action.


The original TIME MACHINE was something of a big deal during my childhood -- probably more so for my father than me as he experienced it theatrically. When it first hit videotape in the early 1980s, he rented it and boasted about how great it was; and it was, only I was hesitant about viewing it at that age (I was between 8-10). As much as I loved monster pictures, I was more attracted to films bearing overly sensational, exploitable titles; so something with a relatively plain moniker (by my young standards) seemed unappealing upon first glance. Needless to say, my attention wandered till the time traveling parts kicked in; and by the time the Morlocks made their presence known during the last half, I was riveted to the screen. The monster scenes only takes up a small portion of the picture, but the action comes so fast and furious, it was a ghoul-lash goldmine for a small monster kid such as myself. When it was over, I knew I'd just viewed something special that I grew to appreciate more and more as time wore on. It was one of a scant few times me and my father shared a bond, and I'm glad he parlayed the spectacle of this classic to me.


The finale in the Morlocks dark domain is relatively brief, but it's jam-packed with suspense and excitement. For monster fans awaiting a grisly payoff, you definitely get one during the approximately 10-12 minutes we see the nasty denizens who reside below the Earth's surface. Rod Taylor puts his athleticism to the test in a whirlwind of action -- punching, tossing and clobbering a slew of encroaching monsters. Initially fighting alone to subdue the cannibalistic creatures, the Eloi standing by in fear, finally get up the nerve to fight back. It's a turning point in the film, but for those wanting more of the monsters, the Morlocks put in one last appearance once it seems they're finally defeated.

Seemingly outnumbered, the fire-fearing Morlocks prove to be no match. The humans make their escape, destroying their slavers in the process. It's a wonderfully choreographed sequence that moves at a frenetic pace. Once we get a full on glimpse of these nocturnal creatures, it's a non-stop struggle to escape to the surface. This portion of the movie successfully imbues a tone of palpable horror and the set design of the Morlock domain with its pseudo futuristic machinery intermixed with cavernous terrain emphasizes these horror elements.

Australian actor Rod Taylor was perfect for this role. It was his first such lead role, and it lead to numerous others. Prior to his building the Time Machine, Taylor had a supporting role in another film -- WORLD WITHOUT END (1956) -- that dabbled in time travel, or Time Dilation, to be more precise. Taylor also took a role in a terrifying season one episode of the TWILIGHT ZONE (1959s 'And When the Sky Was Opened') that dealt with a different time theme -- one of time displacement wherein a persons existence is literally erased. A comical lead for Taylor came in 1960 with the occasionally witty Italian peplum spoof, COLOSSUS AND THE AMAZON QUEEN (1960). Another classic lead role came in 1963 with Alfred Hitchcock's THE BIRDS. Taylor was also among Hollywood's on and off screen 'Tough Guys'; appearing in such testosterone infused pictures as 1968s brutally violent DARK OF THE SUN and 1970s gritty DARKER THAN AMBER.

American actress of mixed heritage, Yvette Mimieux will likely be best remembered for her role in THE TIME MACHINE as the beautiful Weena. She again appeared with Rod Taylor in the aforementioned DARK OF THE SUN (1968). Other credits include the average underwater science fiction film THE NEPTUNE FACTOR (1973) and Disney's big budget outer space adventure THE BLACK HOLE (1979). One of her best acting roles came in the form of the gripping MACON COUNTY LINE (1974) style thriller, JACKSON COUNTY JAIL (1976) for Roger Corman's New World Pictures.


George Pal's timeless 1960 production went on to be a true classic of the Science Fiction film genre. The original book by the revered H.G. Wells was influenced by scientific theory. In regards to the film, It would seem to have been a great influence of its own on other films and television programs. Below are a sampling of films and television shows that had elements of THE TIME MACHINE before and after its release.

1. Irwin Allen's single seasoned SciFi TV series THE TIME TUNNEL (1966-1967) dealt with a government financed 'Time Machine'. Threatened with closing the project, two of the machines creators enters the title tunnel and ends up on various adventures throughout Earth's past and future.

2. The classic SciFi-Horror series THE TWILIGHT ZONE featured a great episode from season two entitled 'Back There'. This episode concerned a theorist who, much like the Wells character in THE TIME MACHINE, sits among a table of friends discussing altering history should time travel be a possibility. Ultimately, he ends up in America's past just shy of Lincoln's assassination and attempts to stop it.

3. Universal Internationals pulpy SciFi-Horror opus THE MOLE PEOPLE (1956) featured scientists who find an ancient Summerian society living far beneath the Earth. There are two races here as well -- one ruling class and another that's oppressed with an iron hand. The albino beings control this subterranean society and use the monstrous mole men as their slaves. This concept is somewhat reversed from the Wells story and its filmic interpretation. No time traveling, but its association is with its depiction of a subterranean society.

4. 1985s SECRETS OF THE PHANTOM CAVERNS aka WHAT WAITS BELOW follows a similar trajectory as THE MOLE PEOPLE. It also features an underground race of albino humanoids who rule the world below amidst giant snake monsters and other perils. Don Sharp directs a good cast that includes Lisa Blount, Richard Johnson, Robert Powell and Timothy Bottoms.

5. The original STAR TREK (1966-1969) had a season two episode that shared familiarity with concepts as seen in THE TIME MACHINE. Entitled 'The Apple', the plot involved Kirk and a landing party encountering a benevolent race of humanoids whose sole provider is Vaal, a stone edifice they worship as a god. This race of people mirror the Eloi of THE TIME MACHINE, but with some minor differences. Instead of being lured into the bowels of a giant monument to be eaten, these people enter to feed it, instead. It turns out to be an alien computer that keeps these docile people stagnant and the equivalent of slaves; their survival depending entirely on Vaal.

6. The iconic PLANET OF THE APES film series was infamous for its depiction of time travel and the shocking results of man's folly. It, too, featured humans as passive as those of the Eloi. Only here, the humans were far more animalistic in this version of Earth's future where evolution was turned upside down. The endings of both films are diametrically opposed to one another -- Pal's picture ends optimistically while the ending of Shaffner's movie is engulfed in pessimism.

7. Other movies that tread similar territory include the BACK TO THE FUTURE trilogy. The first film from 1985 made time travel an 80s phenomenon and was influenced by the 1960 George Pal production. The same can be said for Nicolas Meyer's TIME AFTER TIME (1979) wherein Malcolm McDowall played H.G. Wells who goes in pursuit of Jack the Ripper, who has fled into Earth's future (San Francisco in 1979) using his time machine.

8. THE TIME MACHINE (1960) was reinterpreted as a Made For TV movie in 1978, and the famous machine made guest appearances in television shows like IN SEARCH OF and the PBS series, COSMOS. It also put in a cameo appearance in Joe Dante's GREMLINS (1984). A forgettable, CGI infested remake arrived in 2002 starring Guy Pearce in the lead role.

The script, effects and performances aren't the only notable aspects of this George Pal favorite. Russell Garcia's soundtrack is simply incredible. It's rousing in all the right places, striking a perfect tone for whatever mood each sequence calls for. The main theme is especially boisterous; and those themes that dominate the hellish domain of the Morlocks are suspenseful and gripping. Garcia lent his sonic excellence to Pal's ATLANTIS, THE LOST CONTINENT the following year in 1961.

Paul Vogel's cinematographic skills accentuate the vibrant colors emanating off the screen. Whether it's an exterior, or a stage-bound set, Vogel's camera captures an otherworldy, ethereal quality that brings the fantasy to life, and makes the humanistic sequences all the more fanciful.

Beginning much where it ends, the film culminates on a lovely note filled with romanticism and infinite possibilities for a better future. Now equipped with the knowledge of man's destiny, Wells quietly, and abruptly decides to return to the Eloi to help them make a new life for themselves -- to teach them self-preservation -- and to make a new life for himself with the lovely Weena. 

George Pal's milestone of science fiction may possibly become science fact some day, but till then, it presents viewers with a cavalcade of provocative ideas to peruse and ponder while we all hope to learn from past mistakes; and hope for a better future for ourselves and those whose lives we touch. In that, this 1960 classic will remain a timeless, and timely piece of American cinema that will continue to shape movies to come.

This review/article is representative of the Warner Brothers 4 disc set paired with FORBIDDEN PLANET, SOYLENT GREEN and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.


Tommy Ross said...

INCREDIBLE post!! MONUMENTAL, simply stellar...great work, thanks.

venoms5 said...

Thanks so much, Tommy! I'm glad you found it of interest.

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