Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Time Travelers

Ib Melchior, a science fiction author and screenwriter (his SPACE FAMILY ROBINSON concept became a Gold Key comic book and the basis for LOST IN SPACE, not that Irwin Allen ever acknowledged it), wrote and directed THE TIME TRAVELERS using more ambition than bucks, thanks to the clever special effects work of co-writer David L. Hewitt. It seems possible that Allen may have cribbed this idea too for his TIME TUNNEL TV series.

The acting is stilted, the sets cheap and unconvincing, Richard LaSalle’s score obnoxious, and Hewitt and Melchior’s screenplay clunky and badly paced. No, THE TIME TRAVELERS isn’t a good movie, but it’s loaded with low-budget charm and clever ideas. Hewitt created many of the special effects “in camera” without opticals. By using ordinary stage magic, he achieves an amazing shot of an actor playing an android walking into the shot, laying on a table, and having his head removed and reattached by technicians before standing up and walking away. The shot serves no purpose except to show off, but it’s fun.

On an unnamed college campus, four scientists—stern older Dr. von Steiner (a soporific Preston Foster), who wears a monocle so we’ll remember he’s German; hot-headed Dr. Connors (Philip Carey); blonde Carol (the appealing Merry Anders); and youthful comic relief Danny (Steve Franken), who annoyingly exclaims “Holy McKee!” to express astonishment—accidentally open a time portal to the not-too-distant future—the year 2071, to be exact.

Stumbling through, the party is shocked to discover the Earth is a burnt-out wasteland—the result of a nuclear holocaust. Unable to return to 1964 while chased by mutants (played by various Los Angeles Lakers), the scientists are rescued by Gadra (Joan Woodbury) and a gaggle of faceless androids, who take them to their leader Varno (John Hoyt). Varno explains that the Earth is becoming completely uninhabitable and shows off his spaceship, which will take the remaining humans to a new colony on Alpha Centauri IV.

One of Melchior’s most ingenious ideas is THE TIME TRAVELERS’ downbeat twist ending, which was innovative in 1964—so much so that Hewitt copied it in his uncredited 1967 remake JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF TIME. Overall, despite the rough patches mainly caused by not enough money to spend (I guess Preston Foster came cheaply), Melchior does a nice job getting his imaginative vision on the screen. It helps that he had two terrific young cameramen helping—Vilmos Zsigmond (CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND) and Laszlo Kovacs (GHOSTBUSTERS)—who enliven the dully dressed cave sets with bright colors.


Arizona Mike said...

I remember enjoying this as a kid, watching it on Saturday afternoon. I'll have to give it another watch.

Ib Melchior had his hand in a lot of interesting projects, like ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS. He was also an Army Counter Intelligence Corps agents during WWII, and wrote an autobio of his THE THIRD MAN like experiences, as well as another nonfiction book about Hitler's Werewolf Corps, a group of psychotic Hitler Youth teens trained to be a terrorist group in the event the Allies won. They did a couple of assassinations before falling apart. Always wondered why no one made a movie about that.

Grant said...

It took me till a few years ago to see it. Another clever thing is Dennis Patrick's character, who's the "villain" of the story but never completely acts like one - for one thing, it turns out he isn't lying about the ship being unable to take the others along. He's more like just a big pain to them than an all-out villain (unlike the similar characters in ones like WORLD WITHOUT END) , which is kind of original.