The Time Machine (1960)

Directed by George Pal

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It’s December 31, 1899 when George (Rod Taylor) gathers his friends to introduce them to a device that can travel through time.  Before questioning the capability of his invention, they interrogate his motivation.  George is disgusted with the ways of the world, mostly the wars, and try as he might, his friend Filby (Alan Young) fails to convince him to stick it out.

Despite a small demonstration, the men do not believe that he’s figured out a way to leap forward and backward through time.  Once they leave, George decides to throw all caution out the window and travel quickly through the future.

At first he jumps days and weeks into the future, admiring the time-lapse photography of flowers blooming and the mannequin across the street changing wardrobes.  Then he decides to take a look around in 1917 where he meets Filby’s son (played by the same actor) who has to inform him that there’s a world war going on.

Personally offended by the state of the world, George gets back into his time machine and comes back out in 1940.  He initially believes the same war has been going on this entire time as machines in the sky rain down fire, but soon he concludes this must be a new conflict.

Next he arrives in 1966 (the first depiction of the “future” from this 1960 film) where his neighborhood looks much more like the Jetsons, with sleek buildings and fancy cars.  He runs back into Filby’s son who somehow remembers him from 49 years earlier.  A siren demands their attention, and Filby’s son hurries into the bomb shelters ahead of a nuclear attack, followed by the lava of a volcano eruption.

George jumps into the time machine and endures the heat and then cold of the volcanic remains.  The world is covered in rock, and he speeds up the machine until the rock crumbles away.  He finally stops the machine on October 12th in the year 802,701.

This is when the movie goes full sci-fi, turning into something like the Planet of the Apes.  The subsequent story has nothing to do with the movie’s hook.  Instead of contemplating time and the destructive forces of the world (and ourselves), the movie turns earth into a foreign planet with lobotomized versions of ourselves.

I mean, okay, there is a message here.  The humans in the year 802,701 seem to have no conflict but only because they care nothing about themselves and each other.  When a woman appears to be drowning, none of them react.  They have no need to work and no need to care.  Later we will learn that they are only there as feeder mice for the Morlocks, a species that lives underground.

The point of all this is to show that the conflict remains.  This new world gives George a battle to fight, something he seems to relish despite his hatred for war when the story begins.  Maybe he likes war but only if there’s a just cause.

The first hour of this movie is what captured my imagination.  It’s simple and direct but nonetheless poignant.  George flies through time, with no fear of getting trapped in the future, and this allows him an opportunity to meditate on time, humanity and the inevitability of life and death.

As George moved decades into the future, and even all the way to the Morlocks’ time, I found myself stuck thinking about the subjectivity of time.  In George’s perception, Filby and company are still around.  A few hours may have passed, so in his way of seeing things, they remain alive.  His relationship to them is shaped by his own perspective.

In reality, however, he is 800,000 years into the future, long after they’ve died.  Both realities exist in this moment but only because George anticipates returning home.  George shows some concern for his friends, when he thinks he may be stuck in the future, but that concern would in theory be rendered moot because the people he worries about are already dead.  It’s essentially some version of Schrödinger’s cat.

That sort of paradox is what peaked my interest in the film, but it’s never something explored.  George is a somewhat delusional, deranged, intoxicating protagonist.  He feels like an amalgamation of the less pristine Kirk Douglas characters, whether from The Bad and the BeautifulAce in the Hole or Lonely Are the Brave (among others).  It’s the George character who fuels the story, and though the hook of the film is the concept of time travel, it quickly gives way to George’s own romantic visions of the future.

He develops a love interest with a woman as placid as Spock, and his seething anger for the way the people of the year 802,701 live contrasts heavily with his supposed intelligence.  He’s a scientist but not an anthropologist, and there’s something captivating in that gap, what he doesn’t know.

Still, the movie isn’t concerned with that.  As an impetuous, intelligent, resentful scientist George is a complex figure, but the conclusion of the film deals with a somewhat cringe-worthy battle against the Morlocks for freedom of all humans.  It’s a bit underwhelming compared to what feels like an exciting glimpse into H.G. Wells’ initial vision of the future.

Up Next: Ballast (2008), Cronos (1993), Unfriended (2014)

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