The Time Machine (1960) **˝
A great deal has been written about the great revival of the gothic horror genre in the 1960’s, a revival best exemplified by the Hammer Film Productions movies and the AIP Poe cycle. In that light, I find it very interesting that so little attention has been paid to the concurrent efflorescence of what might be called gothic science fiction. What I’m talking about is that great mass of movies that were released particularly during the first half of the decade, which seemed to be set in a sort of alternate reality 19th century, where amateur scientists who have never conceived of the internal combustion engine somehow leapfrog entire generations of technology to produce submarines, airships, moon rockets, invisibility serums, and the like. Most if not all of these movies were based on the writings of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and with good reason. Both authors were products of that era, and usually set their stories in their own time. But until the 1960’s, most cinematic adaptations of their works had the setting updated to whatever the present day was when the films were made— War of the Worlds is a perfect example. I strongly suspect the reason why that changed in the 60’s had something to do with the rebirth of gothic horror in the waning years of the 50’s. There has always been considerable overlap between the horror and sci-fi audiences, and it seems likely to me that it was movies like The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula that re-acclimated many of the people who would later turn out for Master of the World or The First Men in the Moon to the idea of watching a movie set 60 to 100 years in the past. What all this has to do with The Time Machine is that this sturdy but unexceptional Wells adaptation was among the earliest such films to see release, and would serve as an excellent introduction to its subgenre.
This time around, our inventor hero is a man named George (Rod Taylor, from Colossus and the Amazons). George doesn’t like the 19th century very much, and he’s glad that it’s just about over (if we disregard the wrap-around prologue [and I am], the movie begins on New Year’s Eve, 1899), but that does not mean he has a whole lot of hope for the dawning 20th century, either. He’s something of a pacifist, you see, and finds the Boer War, the Anglo-German arms race, and all the other destructive military brush-fires going on around the world in his day inordinately depressing. But unlike his friends— David Filby (Alan Young, who mostly abandoned live-action acting in favor of voicing cartoons later in his career— he was Scrooge McDuck on “Duck Tales” and the robot 7-Zark-7 on “Battle of the Planets”), Dr. Philip Hillyer (Sebastian Cabot of Twice-Told Tales), Walter Kemp (Whit Bissell, from I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and Monster on the Campus), and Anthony Bridewell (Tom Helmore)— George intends to do something about it. Sure, he can’t change the world all by himself, but his secret experiments have shown him that he can fucking well remove himself from it, and go looking for one he likes better. For George, misunderstood genius that he is, has built a working time machine.
None of his buddies seem impressed, though, when he demonstrates the machine’s small-scale prototype. Hillyer, Bridewell, and Kemp act as though they don’t believe it really worked, and in any event, none of them can think of a way to make money off of the contraption even if it performs as advertised, and as we all know, that’s what really matters. Filby, for his part, has a somewhat different reaction to George’s demonstration. He has enough confidence in his friend as a scientist to believe George when he says the tiny machine vanished because it had been sent speeding off through time, but Filby thinks that’s all the more reason for George to forget about the project; he thinks such a technology would ultimately prove to be more trouble than it’s worth. You all know the refrain: Some things man was not meant to know. But when George’s friends file out of the parlor to seek their New Year’s amusements, the inventor locks himself in his workshop more determined than ever to take his time machine for a test drive.
George has little use for a trip backward in time. The study of history has taught him that humanity’s past is, if anything, an even more sordid cesspool of violence and despair than its present. So George sets his machine up to take him into the future. Just a couple of hours at first, but then, after the initial jump proves conclusively that the device works the way it’s supposed to, George really gets moving. His first stopping point is an unfortunate one for a pacifist; George halts the machine’s progress in 1917, where Filby’s son (whom George meets at random on the street in front of his ruined house [hey, the place has lain abandoned for seventeen years, you know]) tells him that Britain is at war with Germany, and has been ever since 1914. And wouldn’t you know it, George has the bad luck to pick 1940, at the height of the Battle of Britain, for his next destination. Finally, he tries again in 1966 (six years in the future when this movie was made), and gets to witness firsthand the destruction of London by nuclear weapons. He just barely makes it out of this little peek at the future alive.
But George actually has an even bigger problem on his hands than the death of London. Shortly after the nuclear war of 1966, a lava flow buries the spot where his house once stood (and where his time machine still stands), leaving him sealed beneath who the hell knows how many feet of solid igneous rock. The only answer is for him simply to keep going forward until erosion frees him again. By the time that happens, it is the year 800,701, and there have been some mighty big changes in the way the world works. At first, George fears that humanity may actually be extinct. But then he hears human voices drifting through the forest, and he runs to investigate. What greets him is the sight of maybe twenty young men and women— all of them blonde and peculiarly similar of countenance— lounging beside a stream. Suddenly, one of the women falls in, and is carried screaming away on the current. When George realizes that none of her companions have any intention of rescuing her (mighty odd, that), he dives in himself and swims to her aid.
The woman’s name is Weena (Yvette Mimieux, from The Black Hole and Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell), and her people are called the Eloi. The Eloi are a funny bunch. Not only are they almost totally ignorant of the world around them, they lack even the most fundamental curiosity about it— not at all the society of scientists and philosophers George was hoping for. They have no government, they do no work, they have no culture worthy of the name, and yet somehow all their material needs are provided for. Come to think of it, it’s easy to imagine that domesticated cattle would tell you many of the same things that Weena and her Eloi companions tell George, if only they were able to speak.
There’s a good reason for this, as it turns out. As George will soon learn, the Eloi act like cattle because they are cattle. In the year 800,701, the world belongs to another species of hominid, the Morlocks. They too are descended from modern humans, specifically from those humans who had the good sense to try to rebuild civilization underground in the wake of the mid-60’s atomic holocaust and its aftermath of lingering death. Eventually, these proto-Morlocks adapted to their new subterranean environment until they became an entirely new species. And somehow, the descendants of those who remained above ground became dependent upon the troglodytes, and gradually lost all but the outward appearance of their humanity, becoming little more than beautiful, bipedal animals. Sooner or later, the Morlocks began putting the Eloi to the best imaginable use for a large, slow, stupid, poorly armed animal— they started eating them.
George learns the first pieces of this story on his first night in 800,701. Against the warnings of Weena and her people, George (who has finally become disgusted with the whole cretinous crew) heads off after sundown to hop back aboard his time machine and go home. But when he reaches the spot where he left it, he discovers that somebody came along in the middle of the night and dragged the thing inside the big steel-and-concrete sphinx that was the nearest building to it when it dropped out of the time warp. The doors to the sphinx are immovably locked, so George makes himself a rough campsite, and prepares to wait out the night, in the hope that whoever stole the machine will come back outside. The last thing he expects to happen during this vigil is for Weena to come seek him out, and try to get him to come back to the ruined city where the Eloi spend their nights— this show of concern, to say nothing of the very pro-active measures it has motivated, is most un-Eloi-like, after all. George won’t have it though, no matter how much blubbering about Morlocks the girl does. Indeed, even when George finally meets his first Morlock, the time traveler is less than impressed. Their eons in the caves have made them so sensitive to light that even a burning twig sends them scurrying off, and despite their fearsome appearance, they aren’t even as strong as a well-fed Victorian gentleman. George and Weena stay the night right where they are.
The next day, George turns his attention back to the problem of his pilfered time machine. Eventually, he hits upon the idea of climbing down one of the Morlocks’ ventilator shafts and working his way into the sphinx from below. But while he is attempting to do this, an air raid siren suddenly sounds, and Weena wanders off toward the sphinx. Indeed, every Eloi within earshot is doing exactly the same thing (Pavlovian conditioning, anyone?), slowly shambling into the structure’s open doors, until finally the Morlocks’ cattle drive ends and the doors slide shut. Naturally, Weena is on the inside when they do. So George climbs back down the shaft, with “Rescue Weena” penciled in on his To Do list right above “Find Time Machine.” And once he finds all the Eloi bones in the Morlocks’ garbage heap (learning thereby just what the troglodytes do with their captives), and figures out just how flammable everything in Morlockland is, “Destroy Morlocks” takes its place on the list right between the aforementioned items.
There’s something that’s always bugged me about this movie, and while watching it again for this review, I finally figured out what it is. George goes to the future looking for a utopia, which for his purposes means primarily a world without war. He doesn’t seem to realize it, but he really does find one. And what does he do, having found what he’s looking for? He destroys it, that’s what! Yeah, okay. The Morlocks are ugly. They live underground, they eat the Eloi, and they probably smell pretty bad. But like it or not, the Morlocks, and not the cute and fluffy Eloi, are the true successors of humanity. They’re the ones with the learning, the science, the material culture. They’re the ones who’ve figured out how to clean up the 20th century’s mess and recreate civilization. If George wants to learn how his distant descendants finally learned to live without hatred and war, he should be talking to the goddamned Morlocks! But no. Instead, after Weena gives him the “I’m pretty and dumb— wanna fuck?” treatment, he finds a way to blow the whole Morlock civilization to kingdom come, no questions asked, just so that he can save her useless ass. Oh sure, George comes back home afterward, picks up a few important books from his library, and heads back to 800,701 to teach the Eloi how to live by themselves, but good fucking luck there. The fact of the matter is, George would have just as much luck trying to teach political economy to chickens.
Apart from that, The Time Machine is a perfectly serviceable movie, and it’s obvious that a lot of thought went into the details of the story. (Which makes it all the more puzzling, really, that its creators could have been so blind to the big picture.) Note, for example, that the main switch on George’s time machine is detachable, so that no meddling fool from whatever time he lands in can accidentally turn it on and strand him thousands of years from his own time. The treatment of George’s accident with the lava flow is similarly clever. Some might ask why he doesn’t just stop the machine, back up to a time before the flow, and then move the machine to someplace the lava doesn’t touch, but there’s a very good reason not to try this. Think about it. If George stops the machine, he’ll appear inside solid rock. He won’t be able to throw the machine into reverse then, because there will be rock completely surrounding his arm. If he were to stop the machine before the lava flow erodes away, all he’d do is suffocate himself to death.
The Time Machine is also well handled from a technical perspective. The time-lapse cinematography that accompanies the time travel scenes (a completely new technology in 1960, if I’m not mistaken) still looks pretty cool 40 years later, even if we can see much the same thing today in commercials for cell phones. The Morlock makeup was obviously designed on the cheap, but is adequate for the job. And the time machine itself is perfect; it looks exactly like something a Victorian gentleman with way too much time and money on his hands would come up with. The performances are professional (if mostly uninspired) all around, but Yvette Mimieux hits exactly the right note in her portrayal of Weena (though I admit I’m not quite certain whether that makes her a good actress or just an incredible dunce). In short, I can see why The Time Machine gets the respect it does today, even if the message it sends is almost exactly the opposite of the one its creators seem to have intended.