The Time Machine (1960)

Director: George Pál

Synopsis: In George Pál’s 1960 film The Time Machine, British inventor H.G. “George” Wells returns home to England on New Year’s Eve 1899 to recount to a group of friends his recent adventure traveling into the future in his newly-built time machine. In his story George recounts the disastrous near future of the 1960s as well as the distant future of 800,000 years later, during which time the human race will have splintered into two groups – the passive, surface-dwelling Eloi and their brutal, subterranean Morlock masters.

Review: Being a science-fiction film, Time Machine knows its place well enough to avoid preoccupation with its impressive special effects and instead focus on the story and its messages regarding education and nuclear warfare. (Yes, the best of science fiction has always featured an element of thoughtful social commentary. J.J. Abrams, you may want to write that down.) With the character of George traveling through time but remaining stationary in space – with the time machine, as George explains, never leaving the confines of his house in the spatial sense – the concept of physical space remains integral to the movie. Director George Pál does a magnificent job of staging the action in the same physical space across multiple different time periods, maintaining continuity between various elements in George’s immediate periphery such as the sun dial, Filby’s department store across the street, or even the machine itself in relation to the front yard and the laboratory. The production design of the different time periods is quite impressive (albeit primitive by today’s technical standards) but never overdone, with wide shots used for establishing shots only when prudent and close-ups reserved for only the most interesting or important items in the scene. One can only imagine the field day that modern directors would have trying to cram as much clever items into each shot as they possibly could. (I hope you’re still writing this down, Abrams.)

Regarding the movie’s script, what strikes me as most interesting about Time Machine is the fact that the physical conflict of the story, in which George rescues the Eloi from the Morlocks in the underground factory – images and sequences which have usually been prominently portrayed on VHS/DVD covers and movie trailers – takes place a mere twenty minutes before the movie’s end. The rest of the movie up to that point boasts little action, having instead taken its time to set the stage by establishing not only the person of George and his relationship with his contemporaries back in England, but also such plot elements as nuclear sirens and underground shelters that will later feature into the logic behind the Eloi’s blind vulnerability to the Morlocks’ ways. This greater emphasis on storytelling over special effects – despite the fact that the movie is, in many ways, a special effects movie – is a large part of what has continued to preserve Time Machine’s appeal even after all these years.

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