H. G. Wells published his science fiction novel The Time Machine in 1895, with the English writer subsequently credited with having popularized the concept of purposely travelling through time using a machine, rather than mysteriously appearing in the past or future by random or divine intervention. Almost two decades following his death in 1946, his book was then turned into a movie which won an Oscar for its then advanced time-lapse photographic effects. But does the 1960 movie stand up to the test of time more than half a century later?
While the Time Traveller’s name is never revealed in the novel, in the movie the main protagonist is named after the famous writer himself, with the story following the adventures of a distraught scientist, George Wells (Rod Taylor), who invents a time traveling machine. His intention is to disprove the skeptical views concerning humanity’s future expressed by his good friend David Filby (Alan Young) and a group of colleagues by seeking a utopian city in the future. Unfortunately, after traveling to the year 802,701, having made a few brief stops along the way, Wells discovers his utopia never came to pass as it and all of mankind has devolved into a simplistic, primitive world where the peaceful but childlike Eloi try to survive against the carnivorous, nocturnal species of underground dwellers called the Morlocks.
The story and its morals are about as old as this movie’s production date. It’s a lesson that keeps coming back to us again and again in popular culture. Humankind always seems destined to destroy itself, though I feel the greater impact this film has is when dealing with the emotional distress that George goes through as he travels to and witnesses certain pivotal points in time. The focus on the human drama element hits much harder than say the 2002 remake, which incidentally was directed by H.G. Wells’ great-grandson, Simon Wells. And the original has a sense of heart and warmth that I think makes a striking contrast to the dark picture portrayed of civilization’s ultimate obliteration. There’s a real desire and effort to elevate the human condition as Wells struggles to deal with a new world that is basically desolate and full of cattle, while everyone he knows and loves has long since aged out of existence.
While the 2002 remake certainly looks new but feels empty, it’s impossible not to hear the word “dated” buzzing around in your head when you see how poorly the effects and makeup have aged in the original 1960 film. While I think both time travel movies have strengths and weaknesses that hold up where the other falls short, one aspect of the original that I do think actually stands the test of time is the goofy design of the time machine itself, which in a nostalgic way combines fantastic technology and archaic engineering elements, with Art Nouveau.
Ironically enough, the newer film made the time machine look flawlessly futuristic and that was the problem. A time machine from a scientist in that time period would more likely look like the one from the 1960’s version rather than the 2009 one. I also feel the Eloi and the basis behind their relationship with the Morlocks works far more effectively in the original than it did in the remake.
While it is generally more tempting to view remakes and ignore the older original “outdated” versions, The Time Machine is one of those few older films that I think serves up enough good old-fashioned sci-fi magic, as well as heartfelt drama, that is strong enough to allow the casual viewer to look past the dated effects and see the character of the content. In this movie-making age that promotes style and special effects above all else, The Time Machine stands out as a warm-hearted tale with morals, and characters that live on long after this film’s release date, and that’s as much anyone could ask for in a story.
I give “The Time Machine” 2 and ½ stars out of 4.