I’m taking a trip back in time for this week’s Slide THIS In Your Machine and recommending not one, but TWO oldies…well, they’re oldies where I come from. To be perfectly honest there really isn’t much of note that’s currently making a splash on DVD shelves right now. Sure, the Best Picture-winning Slumdog Millionaire was just released, but I feel like revisiting that film again would just be redundant. So much has been written about it by now, and most people who care at all about movies have seen it already, so what’s the point, really? Besides, I have a hankering to let loose about a film that’s been sitting on my mind a lot lately. (Plus another one that’s always there anyway, just for good measure!)
I wrote an article last week, recounting five great apocalyptic films. In it I made mention of a little picture from 1960 called The Time Machine and I said somewhere in there that I had a hankering to watch it right then and there. Well, folks, I wasn’t kidding. At that point, I entrusted myself with a mission to get my hands on a copy of that old gem that I’ve loved so much for so many years and watch the living hell out of it. And now I can proudly say mission accomplished and show up for my weekly DVD article to help you plan out your entire evening with two great (and totally necessary) time-travel classics, The Time Machine and Back to the Future.
Now, I think I must have some kind of an intense predilection towards the concept of time-travel, because ever since I was a kid, two of my favorite films have been George Pal’s 1960 adaptation of H.G. Wells’s novel and (especially) that 1985 Robert Zemeckis classic. And stretching the concept further than that, I’m absolutely crazy for the far more challenging ideas of time-travel presented in popular film and literature in places such as Donnie Darko and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (which presents a concept not unlike the way Dr. Manhattan perceives time in Watchmen). But right now, I’m here to peddle some of the simpler examples of my fondness for hopping among the STC (or Space-Time Continuum, for the uninitiated) upon you fine people. If this outstanding double feature doesn’t flux your flux capacitor, then you have no soul.
It’s probably best that you start out with The Time Machine. It was the first film of the two to be released (by about 25 years) and it’s based on the story that laid the foundation for time-travel fiction. (It’s also the one you’re less likely to have seen, although I wouldn’t dream of presuming to know what you have and haven’t seen.) At the open of the film, we see several different types of clocks floating through a black void—hourglasses, wall clocks, watches, and even Big Ben. Their ticking grows louder and more ominous until we cut to the opening credits where we’re treated to the terrific musical score by Russell Garcia, after which point we’re free to begin the picture.
The Time Machine tells the story of George (Rod Taylor), a scientist in England who, on the final day of the 19th century, sits down in his newly-constructed time machine and takes a journey far, far into the future. His machine, quite simply, is comprised of a chair and a lever, complete with many fancy little bells and whistles and a large spinning disc sitting upright at the back. We don’t ever really know how it works, we just know that it works. And that’s perfectly fine for the purpose of the film. The details aren’t what this movie is about—it’s far more concerned with the philosophical and even ethical questions raised by time-travel.
George covers a lot of ground in his time machine without ever leaving his home once. He sits in the comfort of his laboratory, watching out the windows as the sun goes up and down, up and down at rapid speed. He inches the lever forward, going a little faster. Across the street, the mannequin in the shop window changes clothes at the speed of light, the styles changing more and more as we goes further and further into the future. (It’s a terrific and classically cinematic device for conveying the changes over time!) He inches the lever forward more. The bombs of World War II fly overhead and soon his house (by this time, long since condemned) is no more. Skyscrapers are erected around him at top speed, and eventually he slows to a stop, just in time to watch panicked citizens hurry themselves into an underground shelter during an air-raid. He makes it back into his time machine just in time to not be horribly killed in the apocalyptic doom of that day.
With his time machine encased in lava and rubble, he speeds through time as fast as he can, years flying by in milliseconds, until the rock finally starts to crumble away, revealing before him the year 802701, where he stops to spend the majority of the film. I love that this story imagines a future, the specific date of which is so large, no one else ever even thinks to ponder its mysteries. Futuristic fiction seems to rarely stretch itself out much further than just past the end of our own decade. Setting the action in such a year as this creates a world that is all the more unrecognizably awe-inspiring to us, thus wholly enveloping the audience in the grand scale of this epic science fiction fantasy.
At first glance, he appears to have wound up in a Utopia. The people, known as the Eloi, appear to live a peaceful and pure existence in a land of abundant plant-life. But he soon finds the horrible truth about everything: the Eloi are being bred and preyed upon by the Morlocks, the vicious ugly monsters that live underground. And when George finds that his time machine has been stolen by the Morlocks, he takes it upon himself to fight against them so that he can try and get back to his own time and help the free the Eloi from the stranglehold of the Morlocks.
Like I said, The Time Machine is more concerned with philosophical ideas than actually deducing a cohesive means of time travel. There’s much in here about the escalating threats of war and nuclear proliferation and what it means for the future of man, but at its core, it’s about the thirst for knowledge. George wants to travel into the future so he can learn more about mankind—learn the things that books can’t tell him. When he arrives in 802701 and learns that humanity as declined into a state of complete and total apathy and they’re good for little more than being cattle for the Morlocks, he reacts in shock, horror, and disgust.
Still, these ideas don’t ever stop the film from being a terrificly exciting ride. From a technical standpoint, the film has some outstanding craftsmanship. Stop-motion effects are always fascinating to watch and there’s plenty to gawk at here as well as some terrific time-lapses, watching the world speed by before our eyes. The make-up job too, is absolutely worth mentioning. The Morlocks, in particular, are expertly designed and really quite creepy. Many well-executed shots inside their underground hideaway show them ominously lurking in the background and it has an intensely eerie effect. All in all, The Time Machine is a rousing trip that I promise will not disappoint.
And when you’ve finished up that one, folks, it’s on to Back to the Future, or as I like to think of it—the incest movie for the whole family (aren’t they all, though?). You’ve probably seen Back to the Future, so I’ll spare you an in-depth plot outline. Here are the basics. Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) invents a time machine out of a DeLorean and his young co-hort Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) accidentally gets sent back to 1955 when his parents were teenagers and he ends up compromising his own existence when the teenage version of his mother (Lea Thompson) falls for him instead of his father (the incomparable Crispin Glover)! Great Scott!! That is some heavy shit.
Unlike The Time Machine, the mechanics of time-travel are quite important to the plot of this one. See, Marty not only has to reunite his parents to save his own life, but he has to help the Doc (the 1955 version of the Doc) harness a bolt of lightning into the flux capacitor (which is what makes time travel possible) so that they can generate the 1.21 jigawatts needed to get the DeLorean to travel through time back to 1985. And if you don’t think any of this is complicated enough, then check out the sequels! (Particularly Part II which hops from 1985 to 2015 back to an alternate 1985 (where Nixon is still president!) and then to 1955 again! It’s so crazy!!) Back to the Future, in a sense, embodies the “science” quality of science fiction a little bit moreso than The Time Machine, which could easily be viewed as a straight adventure story, even (or especially?) in light of its philosophical musings. Back to the Future conjures up some mind-bending time paradoxes of its own and always seems to be ten steps ahead of the audience and sometimes even itself!
This timeless and monstrously entertaining film is the perfect showcase for a smart, clever, and very well-crafted script blending flawlessly with its director and cast to create one of the most memorable and original films of the past 25 years. It’s a fun and very funny film that’s got your signature eighties cheesiness and bizarre fashion styles (“Hey kid, what’s with the life preserver?”) and TWO popular songs by Huey Lewis and the News, and it all adds up to one damn awesome film. At the end of my life, I will have probably spent over three years worth of my time on this planet merely quoting this movie over and over and over again, let alone watching it. I just love it so damn much!
So these two flicks ought to keep you occupied for a pretty decent amount of time. They showcase the best of cinematic time travel, while giving you two entirely different experiences. You can start things off with your classically exciting and philosophical adventure yarn and finish up with the energetic, funny, and brazenly offbeat sci-fi comedy! So take a seat and treat yourself to this fine double feature as soon as you can. If you’re not consumed by the wild imagination and cinematic bravura of these two films, then you never really knew what watching movies was about in the first place, did you?
Buy The Time Machine on DVD HERE!
And buy Back to the Future on DVD HERE!