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Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Time Travelers

Ib Melchior, who brought us Angry Red Planet ('60), Journey to the Seventh Planet ('62) and helped adapt Defoe's novel to give us Robinson Crusoe on Mars ('64) was both writer and director of another imaginative film: The Time Travelers (TTT). It repackaged some familiar tropes and traditional themes but gave them a mid-60s flavor. A team of scientists accidentally travel to earth's future to find it post-apocalyptic ruin.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Dr. Erik von Steiner, Steve and Carol are working on a time camera in a university lab. They want to get images from the past and future. Technician Danny watches. The time camera keeps not quite working, so Steve cranks up the juice. Sparks and smoke fly. The image is a rocky wasteland 107 years in the future. Danny discovers that it's actually a time portal. They all go through and are quickly chased by a band of tall mutant men. They flee into a canyon, then a cave. There, they are saved by advanced people with androids. Earth had a nuclear war that wiped out everything. Only bands of mutants remain. Supplies are limited in the caves, so Dr. Varno's people have built a rocket to take them to New Earth (Alpha Centauri 4). Several scenes depict the wonders of technology. The four time travelers cannot come, for lack of supplies and room. They build another time portal machine as best they can remember. Just before the rocket is to blast off, the mutants attack en mass. Despite crowded fights in the tunnels, the mutants are winning. The rocket catches fire, falls and explodes. Holed up in the time portal room, Steve fires up their new portal. They see the university campus on screen. The mutants break into the portal room. Another pitched battle rages. Many people flee through the portal, then close it behind them. On the campus, they find they're in a frozen moment of time just before the original portal machine sparked. The screen is black and dial set for 100,000 years in the future. They all climb through. The scene brightens. Our 13 time-refugees stroll in a peaceful looking sun lit field and trees. Meanwhile, back in the university lab, the story resumes as it began. A video montage of clips quickly retells the story, then repeats faster and faster until the images blur together and dissolve over a photo of a galaxy. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Time travel movies are inherently more thought-provoking. TTT is no exception. The acting is respectable and action plentiful enough to keep interest up. The special effects are pretty good for a limited budget, sometimes taking on the feel of stage magic.

Cold War Angle
TTT contains a blatant and familiar Cold War message: Nuclear war will ruin the earth. To explain the earth of 2071, Dr. Varno plays some stock footage of 1950s nuclear tests and destruction. His somewhat florid homily is the film's cautionary message. "Earth is now just a burnt out sterile slag in space. The last generation mutated -- once humans --, the offspring of the radiation saturated survivors, roam the desolate surface, possessed by the insanity of crippling deformities of mind and body. When they are gone, earth will be lifeless, and incapable of sustaining life, as the barren moon itself."

BunkerVision -- It had become received canon that a post-nuclear world would have a remnant of normal people survive underground. Those on the surface would become mutants. World Without End ('56) was about some people from the mid-20th-century who travel to an earth in the future. That post-apocalyptic future has the "normal" people surviving underground and the surface roamed by brutal mutants. This trope appeared early on in 1000 Years From Now (or "Captive Women") ('52) in which the normals lived underground the the mutants on the surface. This was also a feature in Beyond the Time Barrier ('60) -- normals below, mutants above.

Freeze Frame -- A notable feature in TTT was time could be different for people in the same space. Our intrepid survivors get back to the university, only to find everyone frozen in a moment, or at least moving very very slowly. This asynchronisity makes the new people invisible to the frozen people. Also of interest was that the "fast" people could not affect matter in the slow time. Objects were frozen and immovable to them. Ib Melchior wrote this trope into another time-warp screenplay for the series Outer Limits. The episode The Premonition (January 1965) featured a test pilot and his wife who became frozen in a 10 second bit of time. They could move no objects there, but fashioned a way to save their daughter from being struck by a runaway truck, by using the seatbelts from her car (which was apparently taken into the time warp with them). The interesting thought in all this, is that someone can visit the past, but would be asynchronous with it, so could not change it anyhow. Erik, Steve and Carol could not prevent the nuclear war.

Fertile Seeds -- The concept of a re-creatable time portal had enough legs to spawn repeats. Journey to the Center of Time ('67) would come from co-writer of TTT, David Hewlitt. It will be a repeat of the trope. The 1966 TV series Time Tunnel would serialize the historical adventures possible with such a portal. Even such later TV shows as Stargate SG-1 would revisit the handy notion of a time portal. It's just too handy of a trope to not re-use.

Android Fascination -- Much run-time is devoted to a fascination with building the androids. The gee-whiz nature of the androids almost competes for the role of the purpose of the story. Even the fight scenes devote special attention to damaged androids fighting on or one long segment in which an android burns to a charred frame.

The Future is Groovy -- the future envisioned in sci-fi was becoming more 60s flavored. Note the segment in which Reena (in short floofy skirt and tall white boots), gyrates as she plays electro-techno music on the multi-colored Lumichord. Of course it helps that Delores Wells was Playmate of the Month, June 1960. The imagined future was taking on more of a mood of sensual abandon. Very 60s, Very groovy.

Bottom line? TTT is a cut above the usual B-grade sci-fi. It is one of American International Pictures' better efforts. It is not well known, but for fans of the genre, is well worth the effort to find and watch.


Blaze Morgan said...

Ah, delightful coincidence. When I discoverd your site a week or two ago, I tried to recall the name of this movie. I skimmed the film titles and saw nothing that struck a chord. Ah, well, sez I.

And here we are! I saw this movie as a young lad. Just a year or so too young to fully follow it. I do recall pestering my Dad with many questions, especially with the time loop ending business. Your descriptions jogs memories loose left and right.

I think it'd be fun to see it again, grooviness and all.

Patty Ewing Robichaud said...

I have been trying to remember the name of this movie for years! I must have seen it a hundred times in the early 1970s (on TV all of the time in Los Angeles)...

Thanks to you, I found it on YouTube:


Anonymous said...

One of my fave time travel films, it played on a double feature with the Dave Clark five film having a wild weekend