Tuesday, July 15, 2014

THE TIME MACHINE: Blu-ray (MGM 1960) Warner Home Video

Sandwiched somewhere between being an uber-glamorized fluff piece and a probative – at times, platitude-driven cause célèbre for the modern world’s chronic unravelling socio-political landscape, George Pal’s The Time Machine (1960) has long since become a cultural touchstone in science fiction; spawned from the pen of visionary literary genius, H.G. Wells in 1895 and given a renewed lease as popular entertainment by Pal’s extraordinary and meticulous planning. In preparing his chef-d'oeuvre, Pal was conscious of two facts: first, Wells’ episodic novel, though utterly captivating and progressive for his then futurist readership, needed considerable work to be transformed into a major motion picture, and second; that he – Pal – had neither the time nor the budget to sincerely produce it. Not to worry: for Pal was something of a maniac when it came to pursuing passion projects – also, incredibly driven to succeed – especially when others sincerely believed he would fail. In short, he was a showman, who naturally gravitated to the art of animation for its fanciful abilities to will the impossible out of crude pencil tests and drawings. In some ways, sci-fi was a natural extension of Pal’s gifts.
His timing could not have been more apropos; literary scholarship, then on the cusp of rediscovering H.G. Wells; its demystification and appraisals of Wells’ authorship – including The Time Machine, sparking critical debate. Of particular academic interest were Wells’ prescient future forecasts regarding utopian/dystopian societies. Indeed, time travel had always been in Wells’ blood; his first account, The Chronic Argonauts, published in 1888 and widely regarded as the template for The Time Machine, later serialized in the Pall Mall Gazette, for which Wells was handsomely paid. Eventually, these stories outgrew the magazine to become a bona fide novel. Paramount in the book – unlike the movie – were Wells’ socialist political views, his distaste for the capitalist model and industrialization; depicted as plagues upon mankind, directly responsible for the inevitable decay and decline of civilization.
The concept may not have been original (Edward Page Mitchell’s The Clock That Went Backward preceding The Time Machine by nearly fourteen years), but it has since proved the most enduring; in no small way due to the overwhelming success of George Pal’s movie. In Wells’ novel, the protagonist, a Victorian inventor, is simply referred to as ‘the time traveler’; Pal and screenwriter, David Duncan rechristening the character ‘George’ – as in H.G. Pal’s decision to make the author his protagonist is in keeping with Wells’ insertion of his own third person running narrative throughout the novel. In the book, there is no mistaking the time traveler and the narrator as two different people. The movie combines the two, making Wells our hero and the focus of this story.
Likes H.G. Wells, George Pal was utterly captivated by the concept of time travel; his focus on creating the perfect look for the ‘time machine’ working closely with William Ferrari’s production design. Interestingly, the one ambiguous aspect in Wells’ novel is the description of the time machine itself, modeled in futuristic terms but without taking on any concrete form, presumably to allow the reader’s imagination to run wild. Alas, any movie based on such a fanciful concept demands the device be shown in all its futuristic glory. Pal was intimately involved in the sketch phase, incorporating design elements from the Victorian age; also a vintage barber’s chair. Pal was adamant the finished look of the machinery mimic the shape of a child’s sled; presumably because it suggested a sort of slaloming through time.
Ferrari would add gizmos, buttons, blinking lights, a crystal, and, various mechanical elements to this concept; also, in an era before seatbelts, a brass rail encompassing the time traveler for safety’s sake. Finally, Ferrari came up with strapping a large rotating copper disc to the back of the time machine; a sort of Victorian/modernist perspective on the contemporary airboat, and presumably used to propel the vehicle ahead similarly as a giant fan. Initially, Pal had hoped to have the disc capable of rotating both clockwise and counterclockwise as the time traveler moved back and forth within the space/time continuum. Alas, such a luxury proved not to be in his budget.  He did, however, succeed in adorning the disc with 365 rivets, one for each day of the year.   
Many viewing The Time Machine today will forget two things: first, sci-fi was generally not taken very seriously in the movies then, despite a few major attempts to legitimize the genre; most notably, MGM’s Tempest-inspired Forbidden Planet (1956) and Fox’s lavishly appointed, Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959). But studios were wary to commit to sci-fi, as it tended to veer toward loose B-grade Saturday matinee fluff; lowbrow popcorn filler about giant radioactive bugs or rubberized lizards, terrorizing rather obvious miniaturized cityscapes. The Time Machine, with its highbrow concept of illustrating the decline and gradual extinction of the human race, was therefore something of a departure; also a gamble – and finally, a giant leap into…well…the future, elevating the overall tenor of sci-fi on par with ‘legitimate’ movie-making.
Virtually all the major studios in Hollywood turned George Pal down. Undaunted, Pal would eventually secure $750,000 from MGM’s British apparatus; given the run of their California back lots to make his picture, and, employing visual effects artists, Gene Warren and Tim Baar to create some truly awe-inspiring mattes that would ultimately win the pair an Academy Award in 1961. Even by 1960 standards, The Time Machine’s budget was miniscule, making Warren and Baar’s contributions all the more startling and impressive. To illustrate the passage of time, Pal came up with an ingeniously economical solution; focusing almost exclusively on two stock shots; one – a time lapse showing a female window mannequin’s apparel in a constant state of flux, as clothing styles advanced from the Victorian age into the outer reaches of 20th century’s haut couture; the other, an overhead shot, presumably aimed toward a view of the sky through our protagonist’s solarium, with changing lights and a single streaking spot detailing the sun and moon, veiled with blown-in vapors to mimic the clouds and document rapid shifts from day to night and vice versa.
George Pal was to experience a minor setback during the film’s pre-production. He had already green lit Ferrari’s design for the time machine, pleased with the highly detailed miniature hand-crafted by prop builder, Wah Chang, when a devastating fire destroyed not only Pal’s Bel Aire home, but virtually all of his notations and artwork, original drafts of the screenplay and Chang’s model. Beginning anew, Pal managed to reassemble his resources and redouble his efforts in record time.  In casting the picture, Pal elected to go with a younger talent after first having entertained the notion of either James Mason or David Niven in the part. Ultimately, it was Niven and Mason’s star salary that drove Pal to accept an up and comer in their stead, and in Rod Taylor, Pal chose very wisely indeed. Taylor, with his dashing good looks, his formidable charm and his robust athleticism gave The Time Machine’s inventor a rather sexy edge to offset the Victorian prudery. It also made the romance between George and Weena (Yvette Mimieux), an inquisit-less member of the futuristic Eloi, sensual and appealing.
At 103 minutes, The Time Machine isn’t particularly interested in this romantic interlude; or in fostering the collected friendships between George and his small gathering of male compatriots from his own time: Sebastian Cabot as Dr. Philip Hillyer, the stuffy nonbeliever; Tom Helmore - the intrigued, though doubting Anthony Bridewell; Whit Bissel, mildly probative as Walter Kemp, and finally, Alan Young – fairly superb as George’s devoted friend, David Filby (later, his son, James – owners in a retail clothiers). No, in crafting The Time Machine for the cinema, George Pal has taken certain liberties with Wells’ tale, borrowing heavily from his own back catalog of experiences, making such ground-breaking sci-fi spectacles as Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1951) and Conquest of Space (1953). Despite his meager budget on The Time Machine, Pal gives us a spectacle befitting Wells’ masterwork and his own ambitions for a really good show; MGM’s Copperfield Court (built for their 1935 adaptation of Dickens’ David Copperfield) and the exterior of the cottage used in When Ladies Meet (1941) making their final on screen appearance herein; the latter as the exterior of George’s fashionable Victorian manor.  The Time Machine is a movie that could only have been made at the end of MGM’s once reigning supremacy as purveyors of such grand and glossy in-house entertainments; the studio already in steady decline and, like Wells’ mercurial daydreamer, never again to return to its former glory.
Our story begins on January 5, 1900 at the home of inventor extraordinaire, H. George Wells (Rod Taylor); his friends, devoted, though skeptical, are awaiting Wells’ return. His tardiness irks Dr. Hillyer; a telegram arriving several moments later and given to David Filby by George’s kindly housekeeper, Mrs. Watchett (Doris Lloyd), encouraging the old friends to start dinner without him. In the middle of the meal, George bursts into the room, thoroughly disheveled; his hair mussed, his shirt torn; trousers badly stained in dust and mud. Naturally, the group that also includes Bridewell and Kemp too, is both shocked and glad to see their old friend. George wastes no time in regaling his harrowing time traveling experience, reminding them of the last time they had assembled at his home. It was New Year’s Eve; George drawing their attention to a miniature model of the time machine he makes to disappear before their very eyes. Alas, the experiment is judged as a cheap magician’s trick by Hillyer; his inability to grasp how the space/time continuum works incurring George’s considerable disappointment and displeasure. All of the men are well-meaning and sympathetic. However, none believe he has created a machine capable of revisiting the past or entering the future.
Afterward, Filby urges George to come to his house to ring in the New Year. Instead, George elects to hurry to his laboratory where the full scale prototype of his time travelling device lays in wait for its first test run. At first cautious of the journey he is about to take, George advances slowly and begins to marvel at the subtleties of speeding up time; the way a newly lit candle on his bureau dwindles to extinction in a matter of moments; the immediate aging of flowers in a potted plant, the sailing overhead of the sun and moon in rapid succession outside his window; the changing mannequin in the shop across the street, attesting to the passage of time by its ever-changing trends in fashion. It is just as George predicted: the possibility of crossing into the fourth dimension in mere seconds of time lapse.
George presses on, to September 13, 1917; reunited with a man dressed in officer’s military uniform who he momentarily mistakes for David Filby. Actually, the man is David’s son, James, who informs George his father has died in the First World War. The economy in David Duncan’s superbly concocted screenplay allows for the audience to share in George’s great remorse over this loss, despite the fact David and George’s friendship is only briefly sketched out in a few well-timed and expertly played exchanges between Rod Taylor and Alan Young. Dissatisfied with the present, for George has always believed he belonged to another generation better than his own, George advances to June 19, 1940; alas, another time and another war – reunited briefly with James Filby. James recollects his first chance meeting with George, shocked to discover George has not aged at all since. Alas, their reunion is short-lived with air raid sirens heralding a bombing raid; George pressing on in his time machine to his next date, August 19, 1966.
Marveling at the technological advances, George is nevertheless dismayed mankind has yet to learn self-preservation; a violent assault on the city resulting in complete nuclear annihilation; the earth giving up its molten lava in the radioactive aftermath. Climbing aboard the time machine, George is spared the fallout of radiation poisoning, advancing beyond this hellish inferno; engulfed on all sides by the lava. It rapidly turns to rock, burying him alive.  A great deal of time passes; George advancing beyond the realm of all conceivable time; the machine coming to a violent rest near a sphinxlike temple on October 12, 802,701. Nature has encroached upon the earth; a vast preserve of exotic plants and flowers. At first, there appear to be no signs of life to welcome George into this burgeoning new epoch. For some time, he wanders aimlessly through the underbrush and forest, emerging at the base of a great temple showing early signs of decay (MGM’s redressed set and staircase originally built for the 1944 glossy Technicolor adaptation of Kismet and later, also seen in 1951’s An American in Paris).
George rescues a young girl, Weena from the nearby raging rapids, frankly appalled when none of the other humans casually seated around the shore’s edge seem remotely concerned as they quietly watch her drown. Weena is unresponsive to George’s intellectual inquiries, as are the rest of this blonde-haired and sugar-bowl haircut society, dressed in colorful diaphanous gowns; their blank stares unsettling and ominous. George learns from Weena they are called the Eloi. He also becomes aware of the Morlocks; a glowing-eyed, greenish/blue skin-colored sect of cannibals who are raising the vegetarian Eloi as their only food source. George demands to be shown what has become of the great storehouses of human knowledge; one of the Eloi men (Bob Barran) leading him to a cobweb-infested library where the great works of human civilization have long since turned to dust.
George is deeply wounded by this discovery; compounded by a more menacing precursor of things to come when he returns to the sphinx temple only to realize his time machine has been stolen by the Morlocks. He is trapped in the future. The Eloi are hypnotically summoned to the temple, the Morlocks employing the same air-raid sirens to lull them to their doom. George is unsuccessful at stopping Weena from following her brethren into the Morlock’s lair, climbing down a narrow passage into their cave and discovering a tomb of human remains. George and Weena are reunited. But the Morlocks attack George in an attempt to subdue and devour him along with the rest. George, however, does not go quietly. He also discovers the Morlock’s dim sight can be blinded by an open flame.
Using this discovery to his advantage, George wards off the Morlocks. The Eloi man discovers his own strength and, employing his fists aids George in his struggle against this enemy, helping to free them all from the Morlock’s lair. George encourages the Eloi to toss all of their brittle kindling into the Morlock caves, the blaze consuming the Morlock. Alas, returning to the sphinx temple, George finds that his time machine has survived, parked just beyond its doors, now ajar. The surviving Morlocks attack, George narrowly managing to climb back into his time machine and return to Jan. 5th, 1900. We regress to the moment where George first burst into the dining room, concluding his fantastic tale as Filby, Hillyer, Bridewell and Kemp look on; none believing his story, much to George’s mild frustration and great dismay.
As before, Filby is the last to depart for the night, George hinting to his old friend that he cannot remain in this present any longer. Too late, Filby realizes the finality in George’s farewell, breaking into his laboratory with Mrs.Watchett, only to discover both George and his time machine have vanished; presumably, for all time. Filby takes notice of three books missing from George’s shelf in the library, relaying to Mrs. Watchett he firmly believes George has gone on ahead to help the Eloi forge a new, and hopefully, better society than the ones George has left behind. 
In these penultimate moments, The Time Machine attains a level of bittersweet introspection, not indigenous to H.G. Wells’ novel but thoroughly aligned with Wells’ own socio-political critique of the times in which he lived; also the year Pal has made this movie; and sadly, something of a more far-reaching statement on man’s evolutionary inability to advance beyond the circumstances of his selfish drive. We remain trapped in a world of our own design; of pointless and inhumane conflicts and thoroughly needless self-destruction.  There is, to be sure, a pacifists’ streak running through Wells’ serialized narrative, faithfully carried over in David Duncan’s screenplay.
And Rod Taylor’s compassionate inventor, invested in a future generation he believes can be reeducated to respect the sanctity of human life, is exactly the sort of ambitious proto-pacifist Wells would have thoroughly embraced and admired. In his first starring role, Taylor delivers a performance faithful to the precepts of Wells and the burgeoning 60’s hippie counterculture; his proletariat and thoroughly contemporary message of ‘peace and love’ gussied up in the vintage trappings of Wells’ Victorian adventure yarn.  Without a doubt, George Pal’s kindly gentleman, his own enduring legacy, and his visionary resolve will remain indivisible with The Time Machine. At times, this is still an extremely affecting and effectively powerful indictment on modern times and the fate of our species.
An interesting postscript to the movie; when the old MGM finally marked its extinction by ransacking its mindboggling array of props and costumes, sold at auction in the mid-1970’s, Pal’s beloved time machine was among the artifacts;  stripped of its control panel and sold at the bargain basement price of $10,000 to a sideshow carnie who proceeded to take its battered remains on a national tour, where it was further abused, destroyed, dismantled, and, finally relegated to the scrap heap; discovered by actor/producer and archivist, Bob Burns III in, of all places, a thrift shop, and, in a delicate state of disrepair. Pursuing his passion, Burns and a select group of dedicated historians restored the time machine to its former glory; an extensive labor of love not unlike George Pal’s bringing the movie to light. The ‘new’ time machine premiered at one of Burns’ lavish Halloween parties, attended by Pal and his wife. Since then, the time machine has made various public appearances, still a cherished part of Burns’ private collection. The movie is likely to remain so for its legions of devoted fans - yours truly among them.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is mostly superb, with minor caveats to be discussed herein. For starters, this 1080p presentation is only single-layered. I have read countless debates claiming the issue is a nonstarter. My point is, if available disc space exists, it should be utilized to maximize the overall bit rate of any hi-def feature presentation. While some critics continue to question whether or not maximizing the bit rate actually improves overall video quality, yours truly is of the more progressive opinion that it absolutely cannot hurt. So, just do it and be done with it! The Time Machine was shot on a fairly miniscule budget; its 1.78:1 image lovingly exported to hi-def with all of the inherent flaws of its original source material intact. We are at the mercy of these original elements; the image weaving back and forth from razor-sharp clarity to fairly thick and occasionally blurry inserts; mostly in the shots heavily laden with matte work and other SFX. Also, color can waffle from vibrant hues to marginally less than; flesh tones looking relatively accurate in one shot, but then adopting a faintly orange tint in another. Again, this is NOT a flaw of the Blu-ray transfer! Neither is the slight gate weave that could have, and should have been corrected!
Overall, the image here is gorgeous and impressive; advancing in sharpness and color saturation and providing an exemplar of what good solid video mastering entails. Better still, Warner has given us a 5.1 DTS audio remix, enhancing the vintage 4-track Westrex recording. SFX are not aggressive, but Russell Garcia’s orchestral underscore sounds absolutely marvelous.  Best of all, Warner has dipped into its archives for a fascinating goodie: a vintage 1980’s documentary: The Time Machine - a Journey Back. This one’s truly bizarre, hosted by Rod Taylor as something of a ‘making of’ featurette; it morphs into personal homage (with participation from surviving crew and cast, and also features Michael J. Fox, who was then appearing in his own time travel classic, Back to the Future 1985) and finally, becoming an addendum (nee sequel of sorts) to the 1960 feature film; Taylor and costars Whit Bissell and Alan Young reprising their roles; Taylor’s George coming back to plead with Young’s Filby to partake in his grand adventure. Ultimately, he is unsuccessful, and George bids his old friend a final bittersweet farewell before embarking into the future, presumably for the last time. I’m not sure what to make of this convoluted, though thoroughly fascinating piece. It’s compelling and yet somehow thoroughly misguided. We also get the original theatrical trailer in 1080p. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


1 comment:

David M. said...

I saw this in the theatre as a boy, and it remains one of my all-time favourites. When I bought the widescreen laserdisc, I was thrilled by the sound of the orchestral score, which had clearly been lovingly remastered for the release, and delighted by the added clarity of the image, even enjoying the obvious matte lines of some of the special effects. I was equally pleased when the DVD added the independently-produced documentary, which I remember seeing ads for in the back of more than one genre-film magazine in the 1990's. The prospect of seeing the newly-filmed scene with Rod Taylor and Alan Young was certainly tantalizing, even if it was only on a mail-order-only VHS tape, but I never took the bait. I'm sorry I didn't, because they did a wonderful job with the documentary, and it's great that MGM recognized their work. Lastly, I'll add that on New Year's Eve 1999, there was only one movie I wanted to watch, and that was the one set exactly 100 years earlier. My copy of the Blu-Ray is waiting for me to pick up at Videomatica, and after reading your assessment, Nick, I can't wait to watch it tonight. H.G. Wells forever!