For this week’s post, I’m digging into a couple of time travel movies. The time travel movie is essentially it’s own genre at this point. The idea of time travel is a fascinating one. The possibility that we could go back in time and fix mistakes, or go to the future and see what happens next without waiting for things to occur can be seductive. This week I selected two time travel films:
George Pal – The Time Machine (1960)
Nicholas Meyers – Time After Time (1979)
Both are based on books, and both involve H.G. Wells. Wells wasn’t personally involved in either film, but he did have an interest in film, having written the screenplay for a film called Things to Come. I imagine we’ll cover that at some point, and it’s not a time travel film, but it does cover a lot of eras.
Regardless, it should be an interesting journey, let’s get into it.
The Time Machine (1960)
An inventor invites his friends to dinner to show off his latest invention, a time machine. But when he enters, he is disheveled, and tells them about the adventure he has just taken, millennia into the future, seeing what became of the human race.
The film is directed by George Pal who’s career was mostly puppet based shorts. Rod Taylor stars as H. George Wells. The film also stars Alan Young, who is best known as the voice of Scrooge McDuck in the Ducktales series. The film was made in 1960. Now the 1960s were not a decade known for great movies, but this one has a lot to like. It’s based on the H.G. Wells novel The Time Machine published in 1895. In the book, the narrator is never named, but in the film, they explicitly cast Wells himself as the time traveller.
The film starts off with a simple dinner party in 1899. George has gathered his friends there, and he’s late. They’re all annoyed that he’s not there, and the housekeeper hasn’t seen him for days. He’s left instructions to his housekeeper to start dinner at 8, and as she does, he appears in the room, covered in grime, his clothes in tatters. He starts telling them a fantastic story of his adventure.
This begins a flashback which allows the character to narrate his experience. We are transported to another dinner party just a week before where all the men are gathered. Wells begins telling them about his latest invention. He brings it out in a fancy case. It’s a miniature time machine. He tries to explain the science of the 4th dimension to them, but it really only acts as a way to show how dubious his friends are that any of this is possible. He reveals that the model is actually functional, and sends it forward into time. His friend’s response is mainly that they don’t see any business value for it.
The film also introduces Filby here. He’s the man who owns a shop across the street, and George’s closest friend. The character is mainly there to give George some motivation to continue on with his experiments, and provide a link through some of the time traveling that George does. Once things move on, George invites everyone to dinner in 5 days, and goes to the full-size time machine which is in his workshop.
It seems really silly that George would go to the trouble to make a mini time machine for testing which he could never retrieve when he has a full-size one already completed. Not to mention the wires and circuitry he would have needed to achieve at the small size in an era where his home is still lit by gas lanterns. Speaking of which the method of powering the machine is never discussed.
After everyone leaves, George leaves a note for his housekeeper, and in his smoking jacket, heads straight for the time machine. The movie shifts gears here, into George’s attempt at a scientific observation of how the time machine works, and what he’s witnessing.
Unlike a lot of other film and television time machines, like the DeLorean from Back To The Future, or the TARDIS from Doctor Who, this time machine cannot move through space, only time. So it sits still, while the world changes around it.
This constraint creates a major highlight of the film, and what it’s most remembered for. And it also explains why a director most known for puppet films was hired. The special effects are really unique. George moves forward in time, watching the clock spin faster, and the days go by. He takes particular notice of the mannequin in the window of Filby’s across the street. For whatever reason Filby updates the fashion of the mannequin, but never does anything else with the window display. It works for the film, but stretches the logic of shopkeepers everywhere.
As he moves through time, he notices his house deteriorating. He stops the time machine in 1917 to see what’s going on. His house is completely abandoned. Boarded up, and filled with dust and cobwebs. He exits and sees his old pal Filby, who he goes to talk to, but then discovers it’s actually Filby’s son. We learn that George has been thought missing for the last 17 years, and Filby was his estate’s executor, but didn’t have the heart to sell it. George here also learns about World War I, and that his friend Filby died in it.
The film takes the opportunity to give us a look at major historical moments of the 20th century as experienced by someone who wasn’t involved with them. I haven’t read the book, so I’m assuming the film is taking advantage of the fact that it has 65 years of history to lean on. The book I imagine had a similar sequence where the time traveler saw various events of the 20th century as Wells might have imagined them. This is also similar to Things to Come, the screenplay Wells wrote in the 1930s. In that film, he predicted World War II against Germany, and that London would be regularly attacked by bombings.
The film hits the beats of WWI and WWII as George speeds through time, and he stops in 1966 when he hears air raid sirens. Here the film veers off of history and into a new story where London is incredibly technologically advanced. We see a monorail in the background, and a flat screen television in the shop window. We also see everyone moving towards the air raid shelters. Soon after his final encounter with an elderly Filby, the bombs go off, and George runs back to his time machine. The bombs set off the volcanoes. You know, all those volcanoes that London is always dealing with. And cover the area in molten rock. George is safe in his time machine while he’s moving, but he can’t stop until the rocks clear. This leads him past the year 800000 when the area finally clears and he begins to see signs of civilization again.
He stops in front of a giant structure with massive doors. He tries to open them, and can’t get in. He takes the lever from his time machine for safety, and starts exploring. He enters a lush garden, with fruit growing everywhere, and some dilapidated structures. He assumes everything is abandoned, but then runs across a group of blond men and women in simple clothing relaxing next to a river. The film does a good job of telling us that something isn’t right about these people. First off, they don’t seem bothered by the strange man with the strange clothes. Further, when one of their own begins drowning in the river and screaming for help, they don’t seem to care. No one bothers to help.
George dives in and rescues the woman, named Weena. Still no one seems to care. They all move towards one of the abandoned buildings that George saw earlier and sit down for food. George tries to get answers out of them, which Weena has told him are the Eloi. They show him their books, which have crumbled to dust.
The film starts to move more quickly here, as that night, George goes back to his time machine to discover it has been dragged into the mysterious structure. Weena finds him and tells him about the Morlocks. Blue skinned creatures that live underground.
The Morlocks are one of the highlights of the film for me. They all have blue skin (or in some cases in the long shots, very clearly just blue shirts) and their eyes glow in the dark. They also have heavy facial makeup that is suitably creepy. They really scared me when I was younger.
She also shows him a room with all sorts of old technology, one piece of which tells the story that after the great war humanity split, with one part moving underground, and another part moving back into the sunshine.
Eventually, George learns the truth, that the Eloi are essentially cattle for the Morlocks. Weena is taken by them, and George mounts an expedition to save her. He rallies the Eloi to fight the Morlocks, and they destroy their underground lair. George assumes his time machine is lost, but the next day they find the doors open in the mysterious structure and the time machine is there. George goes to get it, but it’s a trap. The door closes and the Morlocks attack. He manages to get back in the time machine and kill the Morlocks before returning to the past, telling his story.
His friends still don’t quite believe him, except for Filby. George returns to the future to help the Eloi build their new society.
Let’s see about the next movie.
Time After Time (1979)
In 1893, H.G Wells builds a time machine. He’s planning on his own time traveling adventure to the next century, when he’s sure that the world will be much more progressive. However, on the night he reveals this to his friends, Jack the Ripper strikes again. The Ripper turns out to be a friend of Wells, Stevenson, a local doctor, and he’s having dinner at Wells’ home when the police show up, having tracked the Ripper to this neighborhood. As they search Stevenson’s belongings, they find a knife and bloodsoaked gloves, but they can’t find Stevenson. Wells searches his own home and finds that his time machine is gone. Wells feels personally responsible, and decides to chase Stevenson through time to return him to justice.
The film is written and directed by Nicholas Meyer, who has a great career as a writer and director. But he started out as a novelist, and gained some fame in the 70s for a couple of books he wrote that mashed up literary and historical figures. This film mixes HG Wells and Jack the Ripper, and he also wrote The Seven Per Cent Solution, which mixed Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud. Both films had films based on them, but only this film was directed by Meyer, and this is his directorial debut.
The film stars Malcolm McDowell as HG Wells, David Warner as Jack the Ripper, and Mary Steenburgen as Amy Robbins, a love interest for HG Wells. McDowell plays Wells as an innocent dreamer, while Warner plays the Ripper as a harsh realist. It’s a great contrast between the two characters that sets them up as rivals throughout the film.
The film starts in 1893 where Wells is having a dinner party, showing the time machine off to his guests, one of whom comes in late, Dr. Stevenson. This film essentially starts the exact same way as The Time Machine. Wells has a dinner party, and then invites everyone to look at his time machine. He does a better job explaining the functions of his time machine. It has a setting that returns it to it’s origin time unless a special key is inserted on a trip, and it also has a crystal on the outside that will transport the passenger without the time machine. He points this out several times, setting it up as a major plot point later in the film.
This explanation serves to set the rules for the time machine, which is something pretty much every time travel movie has to do. When the Ripper takes the time machine away, the explanation sets the story in motion, as without it, we don’t understand why the time machine returns to Wells, and gives him the ability to follow Stevenson to the future.
The key becomes the central MacGuffin of the film. If Stevenson gets it, he can travel to another time, and Wells will have no way to follow him. If Wells returns to the past without it, then Stevenson can go anywhere he wants without Wells knowing where he has gone. Wells pragmatically grabs all the money in the house, along with the jewelry in case his money isn’t any good.
He gets in the time machine and goes to the same time that Stevenson arrived at. The film implies another detail of the time machine that isn’t made explicit, like the machine in The Time Machine, it doesn’t move in space, but rather, it appears in the location where the machine has been moved in the future. Wells ends up in San Francisco, in a museum exhibit dedicated to his own life.
Wells story plays like a fish out of water. But he’s clever enough to try to blend in and learn the local customs. His first order of business is to exchange his money. As he does, he realizes that Stevenson would have had to do the same thing, and begins going to other foreign exchange banks, asking about Stevenson. He hits paydirt when he meets Amy Robbins.
Amy is played by Mary Steenburgen and is the THIRSTIEST character I have ever seen on film. As soon as she meets Wells, she’s smitten. She gives him all the information he wants, including the hotel that she directed Stevenson to. She then asks him out before he leaves, giving him her number. But that’s pretty standard, not at all noteworthy. But later on, Wells happens to walk by the window of the bank, and Amy runs out of the bank to catch him, practically dragging him to lunch. She blows off work, spending the whole day with him, falling in love with him immediately. Her main personality trait is to fall for Wells immediately, and then be another object for Stevenson to threaten, and Wells to protect. But regardless, I’ve never seen a character fall for another character so fast, or so completely.
The film plays out like a fairly straightforward crime story. Stevenson restarts his crime spree in 1979, murdering girls just like the Ripper, and tries to get the key. Unlike Wells, Stevenson fits into 1979 perfectly. While Wells never changes out of the suit he arrived in, Stevenson makes a point to change into a new stylish outfit every time we see him. When Wells finds him and confronts him, Stevenson shows him the television, exploring how violent everything is. He recognizes immediately that this is a world that makes sense to him. He sees himself as a man ahead of his time and the world has finally caught up.
Wells reveals to Amy that he’s a time traveler. In order to prove he’s telling the truth, he takes her forward three days in the time machine. There they find a newspaper revealing that Amy will be a victim soon. But now they have the newspaper which gives details of the ripper’s next two crimes. Using that, they hope to stop him.
The action ramps up as the two race to save the next victim, and then protect Amy. There are some decent twists, and in the end, Wells uses his knowledge of the time machine against Stevenson, and takes Amy back to the past, where she becomes his second wife.
The Double Feature
As I was watching these films, I realized that I had never seen The Time Machine in it’s entirety before, just parts of it. What I was surprised to discover is that both of these films start from the same point, and then go off in wildly different directions. I have to assume that Nicholas Meyer did this intentionally. But I didn’t pick these films intentionally because of those factors. It surprised, and in fact delighted me.
The big highlights from The Time Machine involve the special effects, which were excellent for their time, and really capture what George experienced traveling through time. He gets a little creepy about the mannequin in the window, but that’s forgiveable. The other main highlight is the Morlocks. They really only are featured in a single sequence, but the director really makes the most of their screentime. They start out hiding creepily in the shadows, their eyes glowing behind their machines. When we see them in person, they have deformed facial makeup, a harsh contrast to the beautiful Eloi. The casting in this area is really good as well. The Eloi are all fit and healthy looking. All of the Morlocks are short and overweight, and the actors playing them are all hunched over and menacing.
For Time After Time, the premise is simply golden. Jack the Ripper is a character that has fascinated storytellers throughout history, and placing him in a different time is a really interesting idea. And introducing HG Wells into the mix as an actual time traveler is a great twist. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really live up to the premise. I can’t put my finger on a single thing that makes it fall down, but I think it’s at best a mediocre film. This was Meyer’s first director’s chair. He would eventually become a great director, working on some of the best films of the Star Trek series, and has been a consistently great writer for decades. This film certainly isn’t bad, but it certainly isn’t great either.
I have an herb garden out front. I’ve grown it for the past three years. The first two years, everything went fine, but this year, it’s been much tougher to keep going. My cilantro and thyme have died completely. I even replanted the cilantro, and it died again. Most of it is going fine, but I’m not sure why it’s been so much more difficult. It’s been a hot summer. It’s possible I haven’t watered it as well. I’ve also never grown cilantro before, so possibly it has different needs that I’m not aware of. I’m not even sure why I’m talking about it. But it’s on my mind this summer. But the struggle continues.
For next week’s films I decided to go with one that I’d never seen but always wanted to, and then dropped in another from the same director, so next week’s films are:
Billy Wilder – Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Billy Wilder – Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Filmstruck has a lot of Billy Wilder movies, most of which I have not seen, so picking the second one after Sunset Boulevard was a major challenge, but I settled on Witness for the Prosecution.
I’ll see you next week.