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Friday, October 24, 2014

The Time Machine ('78)

The second film adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel was a made-for-television movie that appeared as part of ABC’s “Classics Illustrated” series. Normally, television movies are outside of the scope of this study, but this TM makes a handy bridge between the George Pal film of 1960 and the 2002 version. John Beck stars as the Time Traveler, this time named Neil Perry. Priscilla Barns plays Weena. As with the other film adaptations, there were some liberties were taken, some contemporary spin applied and yet some faithfulness to Wells’ original.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A Russian satellite malfunctions and begins to fall to the earth. Mega Corporation’s untried anti-missile missile is ordered deployed to intercept the radioactive satellite before it hit’s LA. Dashing, liesure-suited Neil Perry rushes in with his pocket calculator to correct the missile’s course. LA is saved. Mega Corp is happy, but wants to know what Neil spent 20 million dollars on. He shows them his time machine prototype. The Mega Corp brass are unimpressed and cancel his project, come Monday. Since it’s Friday, Neil decides to test his machine to give them proof. He goes back in the past to 1692 and his accused of being a witch in Salem. He escapes to the American west in the middle 1800s. He is pursued as a claim-jumping criminal. Returning to 1978, a coworkers shows him how mankind is doomed soon, due to atomic mismanagement. Neil travels forward in time to learn what happens, but goes too far. He sees nuclear explosions and a barren landscape. Then he sees trees regrow. He stops. Behind him are big bronze doors. He encounters the Eloi and meets Weena, all of whom speak 20th century American english. Weena shows him their museum, which has “old” weapons on display, including the Death Ray pistol which Mega Corp wanted him to develop. He plays some video tapes to learn the fate of mankind and nuclear armageddon. That night, the Morlocks break into the Eloi building and capture several, including Weena’s brother Ariel. Neil ventures into the Morlock underworld to rescue the captives. He finds them, and they all escape. Neil gets the idea to use some C4, on display in the museum, to seal up the Morlock tunnels. He mounts an expedition to plant the explosives. This eventually works, with the Eloi escaping and Neil finding his machine. He narrowly escapes the angry Morlocks by returning to 1978. The Mega Corp Chairman wants to exploit the Time Machine for financial gain. Neil escapes in his machine, to return to Weena. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Wells’ novel is fascinating, so adaptations of it are bound to inherit at least a little of that fascination. The deviations from the book are amusing as windows into the late 70s mind. Priscilla Barns makes a very desirable Weena. Less vacuous than TM60’s Weena and less noble-savage than TM2002’s “Mara”.

Cold War Angle
While the Cold War as motivator for contemporaneous sci-fi, had fallen out of fashion, it was evident (in spades) in TM78. Repeating the Cold War moralizing of TM60, it is nuclear holocaust that wipes out mankind as we know it. The fear-filled notion of super bombs lives on in the dreaded Anti-Matter Bomb which Mega Corp wanted Neil to develop and which the recordings blame for the global devastation. TM78 lays the blame squarely on the steps of the Military-Industrial Complex.

Notes
Deviations from the Book — None of the three english-speaking adaptations follow Wells’ book faithfully. Detailed deviations would be too tediously long. Brieflh: TM60 and TM2002 add intermediate stops in the future before reading Weena’s time. TM78 added a couple stops in the past too. All three deviate in Hollywood fashion in making Weena more of a love interest and allowing happy endings where the traveler and Weena are reunited. In the book, she dies.

Hall of Knowledge — Wells’ novel had a Palace of Green Porcelain, which was a derelict museum. It told no particular backstory, but did supply the Traveler with additional matches and a club for a weapon. TM60 has a museum, but added the “talking rings” as a plot device to tell backstory. TM78 repeated the hall of knowledge, but upgraded the audio to video tape to fill in the backstory on what happened to mankind. TM2002 took the Hall of Knowledge video notion from TM78, and expanded it in the form of a snarky virtual librarian.

Fashionably Pacifist — One of the very 70s features of TM78, is the flagrantly anti-war message in the Hall of Knowledge. On display are weapons of war, over which Neil can opine: “Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to preserve the weapons of history. Perhaps as a tragic reminder of how Our history has a way of repeating itself. As always, there are the innocent victims, like Weena.” Neil gets a personal guilt trip for finding that his Death Ray is among the weapons. Bad military-industrial-scientist, Bad. Undermining the moralizing, is how Neil uses the museum’s explosives to save Eloi from the evil Morlocks. That would be the very sorts of reasons weapons have always existed — to save ‘good people’ from the ‘bad people.’

Smug Modernism — An amusing (or infuriating, depending on one’s demeanor) is how TM78 uses trite historical stereotypes to (a) pad out the run time and (b) that modern people are smarter/better. The first is the witch trial scene. This is a favorite of smug modernists. The real history is smaller and less tyrannical. Ah, but that doesn’t sell. The "gold rush" western scene perpetuates the handy stereotype that in the crude “olden days” everyone was armed with 30-30 Winchesters or Six-guns and regularly shot each other up for the slightest of provocations (if any). Of course, recycling old costumes and sets was a way to stretch the run time on a budget.

Time And Distance — Where TM60 and TM2002 were careful to keep Wells’ notion of traveling through time, not space, TM78 is not careful at all. Neil leaves his military-industrial-lab in Los Angeles, but appears in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. He then appears in the west (the Dakotas?) in the 1800s. Neil’s machine was, apparently, able to home in on a place (his lab) as well as a time.

Car Nuts — Fans of obscure automotive trivia will be delighted at seeing a CitiCar on display in the Hall of Knowledge. This all-electric mini-car was a response to the gas crisis of the mid-70s. A glorified golf-cart, the CitiCar was nevertheless America’s most mass-produced (modern) electric car until Tesla came on the scene. Weak performance and the easing of the gas crisis doomed CitiCar to obscurity. Nowadays, it is a museum item.

Similar Endings — All three TMs end with the time traveler’s friend, musing with the time traveler’s female worker. In TM60, she’s the housekeeper. In TM78, she’s his secretary. In TM2002, she’s a housekeeper again. In all three, the friend gets to sign off with some time-related witticism. in TM78, the friend says, “Time is on his side.”

Bottom line? TM78 is obscure, but exists in YouTube form. Fans of TM60 may be amused at the 70s remake in 70s flavors (Burnt Orange and Avacado Green). TM78 is a neat bridge between TM60 and TM2002. A fun night (for ardent TM fans) would be a triple feature of the three. TM78 isn’t amazing or better than TM60 or TM2002. It is the poorer cousin, if anything. Still, it has its amusements.

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