Time Machine, The (1960)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/21/05 12:39:12

"Time well spent."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT THE 2005 BOSTON SCIENCE FICTION FILM FESTIVAL: All good things must come to an end, and this year the marathon ended with George Pal's spiffy adaptation of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine. And to think, just a couple years ago, we narrowly escaped a preview of the new version because a print wasn't ready in time.

I try to be stingy with the four-star ratings, because it can be misconstrued as "perfect", everything a filmmaker can aspire to create. The Time Machine isn't perfect, but if you look at rating a movie as starting from having four or five clay stars in your hands and hacking a chip off (or chucking a star aside) every time the movie falls short, by the time this movie ends you should still have your original complement of stars. That last one may be a little scuffed up, and maybe a notch or two where you certainly considered cutting but held off after a couple seconds' thought about it being released in 1960, but it still rounds to a perfect score.

The movie starts with a haggard-looking Time Traveler returning from the future, before flashing back to a day earlier, when the man (Rod Taylor) is holding a dinner party for his friends, describing his marvelous new invention - a machine which can travel through time. Even though it's New Year's Eve, 1899, on the dawn of a new century, they're skeptical; the only one who believes "George" is his friend Filby (Alan Young), and even he takes the position that just perhaps there may be Some Things That Man Was Not Meant To Know. Defiantly, George climbs into his machine and travels forward in time, first to 1917, then 1967, and then, when knocked unconscious, eight hundred thousand years later. There, he encounters a placid group of people - the "Eloi" - who live in a sort of Eden. There are snakes lurking just outside, though - or, rather, inside, as the Morlocks emerge from underground to take a group of Eloi, including Weena (Yvette Mimieux), whom George has befriended.

One part of the story that Pal and screenwriter David Duncan seemed to grasp that could easily have been cast aside in order to make the story more "relatable" is that eight hundred thousand years is a long, long time. Even though they don't quite replicate Wells's Eloi (who were even more diminutive and child-like), they do present our thirty-thousand-times-great grandchildren as disturbingly alien, devoid of ambition, curiosity, or even the concept of group preservation. When Weena nearly drowns, only George lifts a finger to help her. They behave less like a community than a herd - which is, of course, exactly what they are. An outside observer might see the Eloi and Morlocks and Eloi as having a symbiotic relationship, but George cannot be dispassionate enough to be that observer (although one wonders what his reaction would have been if the Eloi were the monstrous-looking ones while the Morlocks were the pretty ones speaking English). Even the design of the computer from which the Eloi gain their knowledge reflects a seemingly inhuman aesthetic.

Also notable is how well this film works depending on how closely you look at it. The Time Machine functions perfectly well as an exciting adventure movie, but also has a few basic ideas if you scratch at the surface: George's first two stops on his trip through time are to times of war, but he doesn't hesitate to introduce conflict into the Eloi's peaceful world. Indeed, one could argue that the Time Traveler, rather than any Morlock, is the snake in this future Eden. The movie comes down hard on the side of action and self-determination being prefreable to peace and freedom from want, but there's enough thought there to at least raise the question.

The picture's fun to look at. There's something inherently fun about high technology built with Victorian-era aesthetics. Never mind that the basic technology didn't exist then, or what the Time Machine would have used as a power source - the knobs and dials are just spiffy-looking, even if they can't possibly attach to a contemporary mechanism. The look of the late 1960s is somewhat-futuristic for when the film was made, although it's sad to remember that the idea of a nuclear war being inevitable was so accepted during the Cold War. You've got your stop-motion effects of the world changing around the Time Machine's bubble. It's kind of disappointing that the film's vision of a peaceful, paradisical society is populated entirely by blond white people, though.

The performances are what the movie needs. The Eloi and the Traveler are both naive in their own ways, and Rod Taylor makes his character seem like a much more reluctant man of action than he actually is. Ms. Mimieux shows her character maturing by fits and starts, somewhat confused by these feelings of curiosity and responsibility that George's behavior has stirred in her.

Is The Time Machine objectively perfect? Probably not. But it kept an audience that had been through twenty hours of movies raptly attentive, and there are a lot of other five-star movies that couldn't make that claim.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.