H.G. Wells is an interesting case in the world of science fiction. In a lot of way he was way ahead of his time, coming up with ideas and notions nobody had thought of yet in terms of what the future might hold. However, he was hampered by being of the Victorian Era when science didn’t know nearly as much as it would even a couple of decades later. He couldn’t even foresee a future where WWII could even happen, because how could despotism exist when scientists are around to take charge? He did live long enough to see WWII, of course, but only just, dying in 1946 at the age of 79. It’s funny to me, then, that a movie based on Wells’ The Time Machine could be made so far after it was written, in 1960, but still set in Victorian times. It’s a historical view of the future made in a time that is now so old that its own ideas of the future are just as out of date as Wells’ were.
Directed by Austro-Hungarian expat George Pal, known for producing such high-concept, effects-heavy fare as Conquest of Space and another Wells adaptation The War of the Worlds in the mid-50s, The Time Machine might well be Pal’s crowning achievement, making a relatively simple and straightforward story a spectacle of technicolor glory and offering a lot of chills as well. This might also be one of the most faithful adaptations of a Wells novel, second perhaps only to 1936’s Things to Come, which Wells himself had final say over just about everything on. The above trailer is really fun mostly for Paul Frees’ voiceover. I love that guy.
Our hero is unnamed in the novel, simply the narrator whose journal we’re reading, but here he’s called George and is played by the dashing Australian actor Rod Taylor, who would of course go on to star in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds a few years later. At the beginning of the movie, he, a Victorian scientist in January 1900, staggers into a his home, disheveled, for a weekly meeting with friends and colleagues and regales them with a story about where he’s been. A week earlier at their meeting, he tried to explain to his friends and colleagues that traveling in time should be as easy as walking or jumping; it’s simply another dimension they have yet to break. All of his friends think he’s crazy and laugh off his ideas, and the model time machine he made, but his best friend Filby (Alan Young, doing his patented Scrooge McDuck voice) is worried, thinking he’s tampering with things that oughtn’t be tampered with.
But George had already built the full size version of the machine, and in true Victorian nature, it doesn’t make sense why it works it just works. It has a red velvet chair, a lever, a date and time counter, a spinning wheel of time, and other such nonsense that it’s not really a problem that we don’t get it. The time machine also only travels in time, meaning its position in space remains the same and the world merely changes around him. This is a pretty cool effect, as the further he pushes the lever, the faster through time he goes. This manifests in a lot of stop-motion timelapse photography and model work, which when coupled with the kaleidoscopic lighting, results in something really dazzling and unique.
His first stop is 1917, not too far down the road, but right in the middle of World War I. He exits to look around and meets a man who is the offspring of his friend Filby (also played by Young) who tells George that his father died just a few years earlier when the war with the Germans began, but he couldn’t bring himself to sell George’s house when he went missing so kept it there. Nice of him. George then goes forward to 1940, just in time to see some Blitzing going on during WWII, then goes to 1966 where everything looks futuristic and idyllic, but is actually full of air raid sirens and nuclear conflict. He sees Filby’s son again, much older of course, who tells the traveler to get into the bomb shelter before it’s too late. But it is too late, and an atomic bomb causes a volcano to erupt, destroying London. George gets back to the time machine just in time and the time bubble allows him to not get incinerated but the machine is covered in lava, which cools and hardens as he travels.
So George is kind of stuck, unable to materialize again until all the lava has eroded away. He has to travel to, get ready, the year 802701, millennia after the civilization that we know has been demolished. He stops the machine to discover a large sphinx where his house once stood and what looks to be an Ancient Greek-style blonde-haired society. He sees a woman drowning and nobody attempting to save her. He dives in after her, rescuing her, and is dismayed when she shows no gratitude, or emotion at all. This woman, we learn, is named Weena and is played by Yvette Mimieux. Weena. Her name is Weena. That’s in H.G. Wells’ book. In 1895 he named a female character from the future Weena. Weena.
She tells George that her people are the Eloi and he wants to know all there is to know, but is angered to learn they possess no books or culture beyond being pretty and blonde. They are entirely apathetic about themselves and possess no curiosity beyond that which is right in front of them. They are, however, terrified of the Morlocks, the monstrous underground dwellers who come out at night. She takes him, the next day, to an ancient museum that has “Talking Rings” which explain that the nuclear fallout lasted for centuries and people in the bomb shelters underground evolved over time. One group returned to the surface and became the passive Eloi, while the other remained underground and became the Morlocks, who basically keep the Eloi as free-range livestock which they pick off at will. When Weena is taken in one such round-up, George has to venture into the temple and deep into the Morlocks’ realm.
This is just a supremely enjoyable film. It’s rather quaint by today’s standards, and the science in it doesn’t really work at all, but it’s more about discovery and exploration and curiosity, which were things H.G. Wells treasured. Since it was made in 1960, the movie could use WWI and WWII as frames of reference for the time traveler, which were things Wells in 1895 would never have known about, but then it becomes more or less a continuation of the 1950s view of the future thereafter, when things progress to unimaginably futuristic heights very quickly. It wouldn’t be until the ’70s that sci-fi really became dark and dystopian, so for now, even the darker parts of Earth’s future, are housed inside a mostly positive view of what’s to come.
As far as H.G. Wells movies go, George Pal’s The Time Machine is right in the top tier, and a billion times better than the 2002 film adaptation. If you’re in the mood for a good afternoon’s viewing, give this pre-Star Trek, pre-Doctor Who flick a look.