George Pal was by no means the first to bring the concept of the time-travel machine to the cinema; however, this film is fondly remembered as a classic of the genre. This is perhaps because it carries the mantle of the great H.G. Wells, on whose seminal novel it is loosely based - very loosely based. In The Time Machine: An Invention, first published in 1895, Wells did indeed invent the concept of the time machine, as a device to explore one of his favourite themes: social evolution. In the remote future that he imagines, a divided culture of Eloi and Morlocks serves to allegorise the inequities of Wells' own British Victorian society. Wells follows this with a stark account of the cooling of the sun and the subsequent death of all life on Earth. David Duncan's screenplay for The Time Machine avoids these unpleasantries in favour of a formulaic Hollywood-style romp in William Ferrari's beautifully designed time-travelling sledge. In a further attempt at populism, the film's tagline, "You will orbit into the fantastic future" owes more to the then recent Soviet Sputnik satellite programme than to time travel.
The Time Machine begins with a montage of ticking clocks, pre-echoing (and perhaps influencing) Zemekis' opening sequence in Back to the Future (1985). An interminable exposition sequence then follows, in which Australian Rod Taylor's Victorian inventor, H. George Wells, tries to explain the nature of the fourth dimension to his surprisingly unresponsive friends. With its audience now 'prepared' for the intricacies of time travel, the film takes George into the future, but the result is largely disappointing. It is, however, interesting to note that, unlike the majority of cinematic time machines, this one does not jump instantaneously from one point in time to another. Instead it travels through time; its passenger actually experiences each moment as it rushes past him. This concept allows George to see things changing around him, courtesy of Gene Warren and Tim Barr's Oscar-winning photographic effects. It gives rise to the whimsical notion of a shop window mannequin whose clothes (but not underwear) follow the fashions of the next sixty years. In the film's best sequence, George gets out of his machine occasionally to see how the world is faring without him. This manages to coincide with two world wars, and in the film's only touching moment: George is saddened by the absence of old friends. This, he realises is the inevitable lot of the time traveller. He stops next in 1966 and witnesses the atomic apocalypse of a third world war.
After this all-too-brief glimmer of intelligence, the film descends into farce as George travels to a seemingly absurdly naïve vision of 802701AD. Here, despite taking the moral high-ground, George helps the docile Eloi to defeat their troglodytic Morlock overlords, who have been breeding them for food and labour. Particularly tedious is his silly romance with pretty Eloi, Weena, played to simpering sixties perfection by Yvette Mimieux - scant preparation for her role as Dr Kate McCrae in Disney's The Black Hole 19 years later. George returns to 1900AD, but he is unhappy. The final scene shows an empty laboratory; George has taken his time machine and gone back to the future.
USA; Galaxy Films / MGM; 103 minutes; UK cert. 12
Producer: George Pal; Writer: David Duncan, story by H.G. Wells; Cinematographer: Paul Vogel; Editor: George Tomasini; Special Effects: Gene Warren, Tim Barr, Wah Chang; Art Direction: Geroge W. Davies & William Ferrari; Music: Russell Garcia.
Cast. H. George Wells: Rod Taylor; David & James Filby: Alan Young; Weena: Yvette Mimieux; Dr Phillip Hillyer: Sebastian Cabot; Anthony Bridewell: Tom Helmore; Walter Kemp: Whit Bissell; Mrs Watchett: Doris Lloyd.
Back to BFI Essays