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The Time Machine Review

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by Chris McEneany Sep 20, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    The Time Machine Review
    Welcome to another entry in the Retrofest, folks. This time it is the turn of one of my real childhood favourites, something that I recall very fondly from seeing on a dismal Saturday afternoon, whilst suffering from a very heavy cold and with the rain battering down outside, as George (The War Of The Worlds) Pal's 1960 production of H.G. Wells' classic novel The Time Machine colourfully transported me into the vibrant world of the peaceful Eloi and their cannibalistic neighbours, the Morlocks. Simple, slight, but effortlessly charming even today, the first film adaptation of this fantasy trendsetter won an Academy Award for its groundbreaking special effects and practically paved the way for the many tales of time travel that followed. In fact, the theme had been virtually ignored by Hollywood until George Pal, obviously believing he had found his cash-cow in the works of H.G. Wells after the success of The War Of The Worlds, took up the mantle and shoehorned-in the glitz and razzle-dazzle that only American money could provide in bringing the story to vivid Metrocolour life.

    The theme of such Einstein-pondered travel is one of the most head-scratching concepts of all of sci-fi's sub-genres and often provokes intense debate about the hows, whys and what ifs. Wells hadn't worried about the mechanics and the physics of it though ... and therefore, reasoned Pal, he wouldn't either, keeping the science of the piece unelaborated-on, yet exquisitely elegant to look at. As George, the Victorian boffin setting his eccentric sights on pastures new, Rod Taylor becomes the exception to the rule about sci-fi eggheads being in the background of the action. He may have invented this regal-looking time chariot, but he is, first and foremost, an adventurer. His lofty ideals about escaping from the dark side of mankind's nature - the Boer War is raging and he feels that science is just being plundered to find ever-more powerful ways with which to kill and destroy - are merely the hook to sit him in the comfy-looking confines of the time machine and resolutely push off into the void of speeded-up evolution. His assembled associates have already scoffed at his wild notions and his best friend, David Filby (played by Alan Young, who would go on to supply voices for the 80's anime series Battle Of The Planets), has seen the burning resignation in his eyes and, alone, fears that George is meddling with things that can only end in disaster. “If what you say is true ... then destroy that thing, George ... before it destroys you!” he implores, providing the level-headed practicality of a man content with the world he lives in.

    But, as with H.G. Wells, himself, George is unsatisfied with, and even ashamed of, the society he was born into and eagerly takes the ultimate plunge into the unknown, catapulting an awe-filled audience on the verge of what would soon, in reality, become the hippie, peace-loving explosion, along with him for the ride.

    “At last, I had found a paradise ... but it would be no paradise if it belonged to me alone.”

    Whilst George's hopeful impetuousness is still somewhat tentative, he affords himself a couple of stop-offs to his own near future. Wars still dominate the civilisation that he finds on his future doorstep, as does good old Alan Young, now essaying Filby's son, first as a polite and earnest young man during the Great War, and then later on, in a highly stylised 1966, as a more irascible, and cynical, air raid warden whom George literally stumbles into minutes before a calamitous atomic bombardment rends open the earth, spilling forth a fantastically lurid sea of lava. These chance meetings do go a coincidence too far, it is true, but they still add the vital residue of a connection between the traveller and the passage of time that has taken place. Despondent at Man's unending thirst for conflict, George pushes ever-onward, letting the world evolve around him as the centuries whistle by, to the accompaniment of effective stop-motion and camera trickery, all the while compelled by the urge to find something worthwhile, a utopia where mankind can live in harmony with itself. A wonderful touch is the sudden stop he makes in the far distant future, when nature appears to have regained control of the landscape - the time machine spins around and abruptly pitches him out onto the grass whereupon a surreal dew-fall christens him in this new-found land. “A vast garden,” is how he terms his surroundings, in awe of the giant-sized fruits growing all around him as he begins to investigate. Pal and Taylor make the most of the eerie atmosphere of George's apparent loneliness - the traveller chancing upon the decrepit remains of a great banqueting hall, now overgrown with vines and crumbling with disrepair. But the evidence of people are all around him and his desire for company and solace from the woes of the past lead him into contact with the passive race of starry-eyed youths who populate the top-side of this apparent paradise.

    Whilst the girls of this new breed are all gleaming models with flouncy hair and angelic complexions - which is nice - the blokes prancing around the meadows and beside the river all have the sad misfortune of having been cloned from Geoffrey, the presenter from the vintage kids' TV show Rainbow - which is just plain scary. They also have a look of the humanoids suffering under the rule of the Daleks in the Peter Cushing film Dr. Who And The Daleks. Apathetic, and disturbingly oblivious to the plight of one of their number when she falls into the river, these people exhibit none of the attributes that their ancestors created and worked to maintain, such as compassion and individuality - a state of affairs that the knowledge-hungry George finds appalling. They provide no answers to his questions about their hedonistic society, and the books he eventually finds that may hold the clues to the last thousand years of history just crumble to dust in his hands - the pages, like the human inheritors of the Earth, having gone to seed. But, of course, this peculiar Eden has a wonderful serpent coiling beneath its lush gardens - the big, blue-skinned, light-bulb-eyed monstrosities called Morlocks, who live in the caverns beneath the ground. Creepy critters who shun the sunlight and farm the unwitting Eloi like cattle, the Morlocks are wonderfully frightening beasts that have somehow managed to build vast machines underground, the chimneys for their weird endeavours poking out of the plains above and the mystery of their ceaseless toil never actually explained.

    Yvette Mimieux is simply adorable as the unfortunately named Weena, the girl that George rescues from the raging river, and subsequently falls in love with. Then again, with her pretty-as-a-picture doll's face and skimpy pink wrap, she is the epitome of what every red-blooded male would hope to find in their own utopian idyll. However, stuck in a role that demands little more of her than to scream and pout and exude dumbstruck innocence in the face off Rod Taylor's consternation feels quite trite and clichéd considering some of the stronger female roles that were appearing at the time. Janet Leigh's doomed Marion Crane from Psycho, for instance. Even though the performance is in keeping with the flock-mentality of her brethren, this still feels like stereotypical step backwards. But then she is purely there do get our hero's testosterone up, giving him a reason to fight for this race of otherwise hopeless Morlock-fodder, instead of just leaving them to it, and simply moving on.

    Australian Rod Taylor really only made an impression with this film and Hitchcock's marvellous The Birds, his rugged good looks all-too-often glossing over a certain shallowness. However, as the time-travelling George, a man so depressed by the era into which he was born that he will stop at nothing to escape it, he is perfectly cast. As the dapper, homebody-cum-boffin he has a ready authenticity, decked out in his fine attire and waited on by the loyal Mrs Watchett whilst he busies himself in his laboratory to the detriment of a social life. Even his friends, all apart from the sentimental Filby that is, are mere associates that he calls upon in lieu of real confidents. And, frequently confounded by his passion for a better world, they are too quick to dismiss his flights of fancy and heartfelt obsession to find a society and a time that isn't predisposed with destroying itself. The pain of his lonely and misunderstand existence is well observed by Taylor with only slight expressions of disappointment or a morose downturn in his voice, yet these small affectations still convince us of a man uniquely out of synch with his time. His moments with Filby are genuinely moving because, even if Taylor and Young don't exactly seem like a best friend combination, there is something sweetly touching and poignant about their relationship. It is also very heart-warming to see that Filby never ever gives up on his friend, looking after the old house in the hope that he would, one day, return. In fact, it is these early scenes that work best, providing an impetus to the journey that George must make and a tangible excuse for him to come back.

    “You have all the time in the world.”

    “You are right, David. That's exactly what I have - all the time in the world.”

    George's question of whether or not Man can change his own destiny, or alter the course of history is the crux of a much weightier topic than Pal's film sets out to answer. David Duncan's screenplay tantalises with such remarkably heady themes, yet continually throws them away in favour of more comic-book escapism, the film, when compared to much more cerebral attempts in recent years, just lapsing into a lurid adventure that uses Wells' story as set-dressing rather than as a springboard to stimulate the mind. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that approach, and I certainly wouldn't dream of denouncing the sheer fun of The Time Machine as a movie, yet it remains an indication of the forsaking of intelligence so prevalent in the films of the era. Wells, himself, was a forward thinking individual who not only liked to question the morals and societal ethics of his time, but attempted to find the logical outcomes of the war-like, right-wing doctrines he saw shaping the world around him. His original novel, for instance, took the stance that the class divide would evolve - or devolve, if you like - into the working class Morlocks literally feeding off the cosseted capitalists they serve. In a way, Duncan's adaptation taps into this, but only in a glossy, smoothed-over style. The big hairy, apelike Morlocks still serve the passive Eloi, who are unencumbered by chores or duty as the troglodytes do everything for them - prepare their food, their clothes etc. - but lost is the intellectual observation of such an ironic switch-a-round. George is fascinated and intrigued by this new civilisation, his realisation that the Eloi's apathy - something he is initially angered by - is not their fault, but rather the fault of their ancestors, the very people and society that he, himself, fled from is touched upon with only the most fleeting of impacts. Thus, his decision to stay and help the new age hippies - for this is exactly how this lazy, nature-lounging breed is depicted - seems more governed by simply his love for Weena. Over the years, critical reappraisal of the film has sought to denigrate this shallow, dot-to-dot style of narrative, sniping at Pal's formulaic approach to what was, in fact, a high-brow concept in Wells' original novel, but you must remember that the Cold War was still uppermost in peoples' minds and escapist fare revealing the happy underdog triumphing over the toiling communist machine was exactly the type of result they wanted to see. And you haven't got to probe too deeply to find the allegory in Pal's film.

    But, just as pertinently, sci-fi spectacle, with plenty of action and romance, doesn't even need a hidden meaning to be a success ... and what Pal lacked in his interpretations of great intellectual works of fantastic fiction, he more than made up for in his passion for creating visual splendour.

    The small time machine, George's captivating prototype is, in my opinion, the single most gorgeous image in science fiction movie history. Yep, even more so than the resplendent arrival of the mothership in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, or the hypnotic skyline introduction to Blade Runner. The prop itself, even more so than its full-size incarnation, is something that occupies a uniquely whimsical part of my imagination, fuelling the belief in the small boy who still resides there, that anything is possible. In fact, I would eagerly trade all the props and memorabilia that I have collected over the years - well, perhaps not the Gladiator stuff (!) - for this one, small piece of elegant fantastica. Peter Jackson can keep his original King Kong maquettes and armatures, and all those intrepid Indiana Joneses can keep their precious Star Wars artefacts dug from the sands of Tunisia - the tiny little time machine, with its plush velvet-padded box is, to me, the Holy Grail of fantasy film paraphernalia. Nothing else captures the awe, wonder and sheer innocent magic of what could be in quite the same way. Intricately designed and fascinatingly ornate, the mechanics of its ability to travel through the Fourth Dimension are blissfully ignored when George proudly shows it off to his bemused and pompous acquaintances for its graceful little test-run.

    “Have you been at The Front?”

    “Front? What Front?”

    “Why, the war, of course.”

    “What war?”

    The film score, by Russell Garcia, is another fine component of The Time Machine, and one that supplies all the warmth of character, giddy sense of Imperialist adventure and genuinely fresh-sounding dynamics for a world beyond our own. Fusing the sounds of multiple clocks and timepieces into a cacophonous suite during the intro sets the tone for a glorious, old school symphony of lush romance, eerie menace and all-out frantic action. The wistful theme for the timeless bond between George and David is sweetly tinged with mourning and the strange effects during George's uneasy walk through the woods, as paranoia begins to affect him, supply a suitably spooky mood. The production designs are wonderfully evocative, as well. The diseased-looking sphinx architecture that crowns the temple entrance to the Morlocks' lair is a truly mysterious edifice. The ominous underground caverns of the beast-lords looking like a much more lavish set from the original Star Trek TV show - polystyrene rocks gorgeously lit with weird reds and greens, creating a deeply atmospheric cave of doom. The matte paintings stretching the futuristic cityscape of London have that nostalgic air harking back to the days of the old Universal gothic horrors - obviously fake, but still impossibly beautiful.

    Even if the movie makes mistakes - the bizarre apathy of the Eloi when faced with their inevitable culling is written in colourfully broad strokes that are clearly aimed at a more juvenile audience - the big climactic Morlock smackdown is a classic of frenzied one-man-against-an-army warfare, decades before Arnie would take up arms. Rod Taylor even reveals himself to be quite a daredevil - leaping around the set, dodging flames and grappling with meaty, blue-painted stuntmen who all do this sort of thing for a living - in smartly filmed and highly exciting long takes that many actors of a higher calibre would have refused to undertake. It's all very spirited stuff. Check out the little splashes of gore, too. This, and the horrible realisation of what the Morlocks actually do with the Eloi once they have summoned them - cleverly done via the ghostly wail of an ancient air raid siren - were things that haunted me as a child. The sight of the shaggy beasts converging on the helpless flock of Eloi hiding behind the flimsiest of curtains still makes me shudder even now.

    Great stuff, folks, so long as you don't expect anything more than a simple, stylish adventure. Next time, we are going to take a comprehensive look at one of the greatest and, without question, the most influential horror film ever made ... James Whale's immortal Frankenstein, in its glorious 75th Anniversary Edition. Halloween's on the way. Sweet dreams.