Monday, February 16, 2015

Your Face Picks Movies (Nolahn): The Time Machine (1960)

Film: The Time Machine (1960)
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

This is the second in a series of monthly reviews suggested by the guys at Your Face. This is Nolahn’s first pick.

Once upon a time when the world was new and my age could be counted on my fingers, I saw a part of The Time Machine, one of the films Nolahn has challenged me to watch. It might feel like a cheat, since I know I’ve seen at least part of this, but I’m also fairly sure I never saw the whole thing. I’d remember the Morlocks if nothing else and I don’t remember them much at all. But I’ve definitely seen a part of it, but it was also at a time when I was still struggling with learning to make a cursive capital S and the president was either Ford or Carter. When it’s been multiple decades, I think it’s fair to call this a first watch.

The Time Machine is the first big-screen adaptation of the classic H.G. Wells story of the same name. A scientist named H. George Wells (Rod Taylor) has invited some friends over for dinner, but he’s late. The men are frustrated and hungry, but allowed to sit at the table when Wells bursts into the room, dirty, clothing torn, and raving like a madman. Naturally, the men are curious, so Wells goes into his tale about where he has been and the things he has seen.

Sherman, set the Wayback Machine for New Year’s Eve, 1899. Wells, with the same group of friends in attendance, demonstrates his new invention. He has made a small device that looks like a cross between Santa’s sleigh and a fan boat in miniature. This he places on the table in front of the men and flips a switch…and the machine disappears. Into the FUTURE! The men are skeptical, of course, with scoffing championed by Dr. Hillyer (Sebastian Cabot). Wells’s friend Filby (Alan Young) wants to believe, but is skeptical as well. Wells is disappointed, of course, but asks Filby to come to dinner six days hence and asks him to bring the others as well. He also promises that he will not leave his house that evening.

Of course, this means that Wells is going to try out his full-sized model of the time machine that is sitting in his workshop. And so he does, moving forward a few hours at first and noting that while his watch has registered only half a minute, the clocks in the room have jumped ahead a couple of hours. His goal in moving forward in time is to find a time in the future where warfare has been abolished, so naturally (following the science-fiction rule of threes), he stops by World War I, World War II, and a future atomic war (the rule of three being two known quantities with one fictional to continue the pattern). That future atomic war somehow manages to trigger a volcanic eruption in the heart of London, which traps him in rock for millennia. Finally hundreds of thousands of years in the future, Wells and his machine are again open to sunlight, and he stops in a year with a six-digit designation starting with an 8, so, a long way off.

Here he discovers the Eloi, a race of innocent humans who inexplicably still speak English. He realizes that there is something odd about their civilization when one of them, a woman named Weena (Yvette Mimieux) starts to drown and no one helps her. The Eloi don’t work, study, or do much of anything. They can’t read and know virtually nothing. And soon Wells discovers that this is because they are both figuratively and literally cattle for the other branch of humanity, the Morlocks, who live underground. And, of course, the Morlocks steal the time machine, forcing Wells to go underground to get it back.

There’s a lot the film gets right and a lot that it takes license with for the sake of the audience. The idea that English would still be the same language more than 800,000 years in the future, for instance, is silly when the average teenager has difficulties understanding the writings of 400-year-old Shakespeare. But this is the sort of goofiness that I can overlook for a film like this. Adding language difficulties into the second half of the film would serve no purpose even if it would be far more realistic.

I kind of expected the pacing to be a problem, but it really isn’t. We don’t get to the Eloi and the Morlocks until the film is more than half over, but it doesn’t really feel like it’s taken us that long to get there. The slow move through history at the start is actually pretty interesting. It’s at least as interesting as the Eloi and the Morlocks, and honestly, it’s far more interesting than the Eloi, who are all kind of drips. This includes Weena, who we’re supposed to like.

Where the film loses me a little is at the end, when it suddenly becomes an action movie. A gang of Eloi is herded into the caverns by the Morlocks to eventually be slaughtered and eaten. Since Weena is one of them, Wells goes in to get her and to rescue all of the people. What ensues is a long hand-to-hand battle with the Morlocks that was missing only the Kirk/Spock fight music to be complete.

Nonetheless, for all its silliness and bad science, there’s a charm here that’s hard to deny. I like science fiction from this era because it’s always so much more ambitious than the technology allowed. If you can look past cheesy effects and some terrible scientific logic, this is really entertaining. Do it for the Morlocks.

We’ll call this a win. Your team is 2 for 2, Nolahn.

Why to watch The Time Machine: A great version of one of the classic science fiction novels of all time.
Why not to watch: Scientifically goofy.


  1. I'm so glad you enjoyed this! Yes, it's obviously scientifically dubious and the effects and fight sequences are what they are, but I think that's all part of the charm.

    I agree that is speaks volumes of the film that the sequences where the Traveler is inching forward through time to check out the seasonal fashions is just as engrossing as the more traditional action/drama set pieces later in the film. One other thing that jumped out at me when I showed this to my girls the other month was the music. No one really talks about the score to this film, but it has one of those great Movie Music kind of scores.

    - Nolahn

    1. I love science fiction from this era not in spite of but in part because of how goofy the science is. One of my favorite examples comes from The Day the Earth Stood Still, where "Carpenter" claims a distance for his homeworld that would put him well within our solar system. I shrug at stuff like that and just let it go.

  2. One of the very first HG Wells time-travel films I ever saw was 1979's "Time After Time," starring Malcolm McDowell as Wells himself, and David Warner as Jack the Ripper. It's dated now, very much a product of the late 70s, but I remember it being an interesting story. I caught parts of it on TV many years later and was again engaged by the plot. (I may also have had a kiddie-crush on Mary Steenburgen, whom I still find gorgeous.) Never saw the movie you just reviewed, alas, and also never saw the modern version with Guy Pearce. Have you seen either "Time After Time" or the 2002 remake of this 1960 film? If yes, how do you think those films compare with this one?

    1. For what it's worth, I like Time After Time, but you're right--it's extremely dated and doesn't hold up well. In fact, I saw that in the theater as a kid. I liked it better then than I do now, but a part of my enjoyment of it is undoubtedly from nostalgia. Time After TIme and The Time Machine obviously have a number of similarities, but the one is more a slasher/mystery while the other is pretty much straight science fiction. I think you'd enjoy The Time Machine for what it is.

      I haven't seen the Guy Pearce version, mainly based on its less-than-stellar reputation.

  3. You guys aren't missing anything by skipping the 2002 remake. They tried to introduce some new and interesting ideas, but overall it's very blah.


    1. That's pretty much what I heard--not good enough to be worth seeing and not bad enough to be funny.

  4. "Dubious science" -- then how do you account for this *working* replica of the H. G. Wells Time Machine ;)

  5. I happened to flip to TCM yesterday morning and discovered they were showing a bunch of science fiction movies. The Time Machine was one of them and it's one of the classics of the genre that I had never happened to see. It's also on the 101 Sci-Fi Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so I watched it right then.

    I liked it. As you said, the fact that the Eloi speak English isn't believable, but it's understandable why it was done. And since right before it I watched When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth which had about a dozen word vocabulary for the cavemen, it was a relief they didn't have the Eloi speaking in gibberish, too.

    I read the book decades ago. I can't remember if Wells had them speaking English in the book or not, but I tend to think not. I believe the time traveler learned their language.

    The remake stuck closer to the book in that the huge leap into the future was caused by him being knocked unconscious and the machine running until he woke up again, rather than being encased in rock until it wore down. The remake also matched the book by including an even further jump into the future after escaping the Morlocks, something this version skipped.

    I would say the biggest difference is that in the remake there is an "uber-Morlock" that is super intelligent and who the time traveler tries to negotiate with. I can't remember if that is from the book or not. In this version they are presented as if they are savages despite having machines and being the ones herding and cultivating the Eloi.

    One last note, there was an early episode of The Big Bang Theory where the time machine prop from this film played a key role. It's Season 1, Episode 14, if you have a way to easily stream it and are interested.

    1. I'm willing to give up quite a bit in terms of realism for the sake of the story. Having 20 minutes worth of pointing and grunting as communicaiton would be meaningless in this particular film, regardless of its reality and regardless of how important that might be in a different film, or even a remake done a different way.

      It's been years since I read Welles's novel. I should probably get around to it again some time--I have collection of his work with five or six of his classics, but it's been at least a couple of decades since I cracked it open.