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The Time Machine (1960)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE TIME MACHINE (1960)

Starring: Rod Taylor, Yvette Mimieux, Alan Young, Sebastian Cabot, Whit Bissell, Tom Helmore

Written By: David Duncan, HG Wells (novel) Directed By: George Pal

The Short Version

This is the time travel story by which all others are judged.

Just remember: if you get the urge to scratch your head about something, let it go.

The pacing is the key to making it all work.

The time lapse effects are enjoyable to watch.

The Time Machine is required viewing; that’s all there is to it.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

BACON & SWISS BURGER.

A hearty, tasty classic; never mind the holes.


Pairs Well With...

SYRAH.

“That’s one thing I like about George.  He’s got the best Syrah in the south of England.”

“There was my library, where I once talked with friends about the time machine.”


Even after the passage of more than half a century, it’s still easier to get six people to agree on pizza toppings than it is to find a general consensus opinion of George Pal’s take on The Time Machine.

To some, it’s a quaint little movie full of holes.  To others, it’s a wonderful visual achievement.  To some, it’s a film loaded with flat characters and half-realized notions.  To others, it’s a well acted, well presented exercise in socially conscious futurecasting.  The only two points that most everyone seems to agree on are that whether or not it’s a “great” or even a “good” film, The Time Machine is a true classic in the “landmark motion picture” sense, and that it is the standard by which all other time travel movies are to be judged.

As for what I think of The Time Machine…

I accept its Significance as a given, and I also accept that the laws of Modern Pop Culture demand that everyone see this movie at least once; indeed, I will second that notion.  With that said, taken exclusively on its own merits, The Time Machine is a good, but not great, film that overcomes its flaws with wonderful pacing, lovely visuals, and one of the most fantastic closing lines in motion picture history.

But let’s get that bad news out the way first, shall we?

First, the people who accuse The Time Machine of being loaded with flat characters are absolutely right; of the whole bunch, only the character of Filby (Alan Young, whose voice will immediately be recognizable to all as that of Disney’s Scrooge McDuck) displays any real depth.  Even our time travelling hero, George (Rod Taylor, The Birds), comes across as an intellectual blunt instrument with only one personality setting.  And the Eloi – the recognizable half of humanity’s future – well, even the department store mannequin that we’ll be discussing in a moment has more moxie than they do.

What’s more, these mostly flat characters populate a very watered down version of HG Wells’ groundbreaking novel.  The split between the Morlocks and Eloi as originally written was a commentary on both a seriously discussed social theory of Wells’ day (the separation of the “upper” and “lower” classes taken to a very literal extreme) and on Wells’ fascination with eugenics.  Neither of these things makes it into the script; only the standard science fiction writer’s disgust with war survives as a theme.  With a single exception, whenever the opportunity for profundity presents itself, The Time Machine resorts to what could be called the “lowest common denominator” answer.

And that’s all before one considers the logical inconsistencies presented by the script, which range from the standard conceit of the Eloi speaking and understanding English (though let’s face it, it’s something most viewers will readily accept even knowing that they’re looking 800,000 years into the future) to utter absurdities such as characters asking what time it is and hunting down their watches even when they’re sitting in a room full of over a dozen clocks that have just chimed the hour.  If “attention to detail” is your thing, you may very well find yourself with a headache by the time this movie’s over.

And yes, to modern eyes, “quaint” is a reasonably accurate description of the overall look and feel of The Time Machine, especially when the matte art starts getting obvious.

But…

Yes, with the exception of Filby, all of the characters are rather flat, but it doesn’t matter.  Sure, George may only run on one personality setting, but that setting happens to include a compelling vocal delivery that allows him to tell his story with absolute conviction – always a good quality to have in your film’s on again/off again narrator.  His single-minded purposefulness might make him a dull houseguest after a week or so, but for relating one story and playing out one exploratory adventure, it’s perfect, and Rod Taylor does an excellent job of making it so.

The actor is helped immensely, of course, by his director.  George Pal guides the sled that is The Time Machine with steady precision; it’s not quick, but it never stops, either, so once the viewer gets settled in after the first few minutes, there’s never a chance to get bored.  Indeed, this solid pacing is what ends up covering most of the movie’s sins; there’s just no time to dwell on them as long as the story keeps moving.  It’s only after the movie’s finished that most first-time viewers (at least the ones not covered by the “attention to detail” trap noted above) feel the urge to say “hey, wait a minute…” and it that point, it’s called “thought provocation.”

And let’s be honest: very few movies can pass the “fifty year test” without looking at least a little “quaint.”  The fact is that for its day, The Time Machine was cutting edge, especially for its use of a wonderful little technique called “time lapse photography.”  It doesn’t matter that anyone with a modern camera phone can do the same thing now; when it comes to using the technique for cinema, this flick still sets the standard.  The use of time lapse photography as a device for showing George’s passage into the future is inspired, and the employment of the department store mannequin and her ever-changing fashions as a guidepost is an absolute stroke of genius.  Sure, the matte art of the future is easy to spot, but so what?  It still beats some of the CGI of today.  And simple though it may be, the design of the time machine itself is outstanding; there’s a reason that “sled” has since become a cinematic icon.

When all is said and done, The Time Machine is far from being the masterpiece that many would like to believe it to be, but it doesn’t have to be in order to be worthwhile.  It’s still an interesting story and a fun, fascinating adventure.  (As for being no substitute for the novel… seriously, few movies are.)  Nor is the fact that it doesn’t answer most of its own questions a problem; indeed, that’s part of what makes the film interesting, because it therefore invites the viewer to try and answer those questions for him or herself.  Personally, my favorite of those is the last one.

Bottom line, it may not be the greatest time travel movie ever made, but The Time Machine remains the standard by which they are judged for good reason.  Whether one normally follows its genre or not, the movie is definitely worth catching at least once, and when you’re done, you can try to answer for yourself:

“Which three books would you have taken?”

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, September, 2012

For my friends Ralph Fontaine, Glynis Mitchell, and Michael Montoure, who have their own dreams of time travel


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