Showing up late for a dinner is bad enough, but when a man is the host? Still worse, he stumbles in looking like he’s been run down by a carriage, and with a wild tale of having traveled through time to boot. That’s the start of H.G. Well’s The Time Machine, the story of a scientist-inventor who creates a way to move through the “fourth dimension”, time. This 1960 dramatization is fairly faithful to the original, though the tenor of the story is delivered differently. It’s an old enough book that most readers will know the plot: a man is thrown forward in time and discovers the descendants of man, a race of dim but happy Barbie people lolling about and eating fruit by day….and being occasionally dragged underground by hairy industrial Morlocks by night. After many scenes of wonder and peril, the unnamed Time Traveler escapes to the future, where he watches the sun die before returning home, in dire need of mutton. Here, any travel past the age of Eloi and Morlocks is dropped, and “George’s” entire story becomes one about fleeing man’s penchant for fratricidal wars.
Although the movie’s general theme changes from scientific wonder to bemoaning war, in truth the viewer loses nothing in the dropped scenes or the added message. Had the original novel been filmed scene for scene, we would have seen at best a rude model of a swollen sun, one that would surely appear dated now. In contrast, the time-lapse videography that so astounds George — the sight of flowers blooming and folding, of the sun roaring across the sky in seconds – these still have power to amaze, even in an age of Planet-Earth-type visuals. There is almost some humor in George’s misfortune at the outset: his first forays take him first to England amid the Great War, then World War 2, and then – so help me – the beginning of World War 3. His arrival among the Eloi is the result of attempting to escape a nuclear bomb, the resulting fallout, and geologic upheaval. George is a man of H.G. Well’s sensibility, who believed that scientific progress would be not only material, but societal as well, leading to global peace and prosperity. Seeing material progress still plagued by war – and then destroyed by it – makes George an unhappy camper, especially when he sees that humans have become docile vegetables, happy to bake in the sun and then be eaten. He injects some much-needed spirit in their little lives to resist the Morlocks, before returning home to fulfill his dinner obligation (a very polite gentleman is George) and then going back for the girl he left behind.
There are dated elements, especially the other visual effects: the Morlocks’ costumes, Weena’s classic fifties hair, and odd shots like the ‘recording discs’ that are played by being spun like a top. Altogether, though, it ages tolerably well, and is a delightful, old-fashioned story…quite a nice change of pace from today’s ‘gritty reboots’. (Speaking of: Wells fans may like Time After Time, in which H.G. Wells builds his time machine and promptly loses it to Jack the Ripper. Horrified at the idea of a beast running around in the utopia that will be The Future, Wells pursues him only to arrive in 1979 San Francisco. Paradise, it ain’t.)
There’s a fun little joke on one of the props: the machine bears a plate that identifies it as having been manufactured by one H. George Wells. And so it was!