Home > Reviews > Another really bad ’70s SFTV movie: THE TIME MACHINE (1978)

Another really bad ’70s SFTV movie: THE TIME MACHINE (1978)

I was recently reminded of the existence of a movie I saw on TV as a child and rarely since: the 1978 NBC adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, starring John Beck as the Time Traveller and Priscilla Barnes as Weena. The main thing I remembered about it was its distinctive design for the time machine, which basically took the general idea of the machine from the classic 1960 George Pal movie, modernized it, and replaced its ornate circular design with a more high-tech triangular design. Well, that and John Beck’s very ’70s mustache and hairstyle. As for the actual story, I remembered virtually nothing. So out of curiosity, I went looking for it on YouTube. My options were a blurry print of just the movie, or a somewhat clearer copy with videotape tracking glitches (Beta, I think) and most of the commercials left in, as well as the introduction and main cast credits that are left out of the other version. I actually remembered a couple of the commercials from my youth, and getting a nostalgic glimpse of the advertising of the era was more entertaining than the film.

I mean, this movie is bad. Really, really bad. I thought I had somewhat fond memories of it in my youth, but it just goes to show that I had no taste back then, because it’s horrible. Really, I don’t know how this monstrosity came to be. It was apparently made as part of a series of TV-movie literary adaptations and historical films under the Classics Illustrated banner, though the intro glossed over the fact that those were comic books and tried to pitch it more as a Masterpiece Theater knockoff. Anyway, its writer, Wallace C. Bennett, had only a few previous writing credits, and its director, Henning Schellerup, had a prior filmography consisting exclusively of porn and exploitation films, though oddly he would later go on to direct a number of Bible-themed documentaries (while not entirely giving up the porn), plus a couple more films in the Classics Illustrated series and a Thomas Edison biopic. The directing is unremarkable, with slow pacing, flat performances, and mediocre effects work, but the writing is just awful and had me constantly wondering what the hell they were thinking and who thought any of this was a good idea. I’m writing this review just to get my frustration off my chest.

First off, it takes forever to get around to adapting the novel. It opens in space with a Soviet satellite being knocked off course and coincidentally heading straight for Los Angeles, where its nuclear reactor will detonate on impact (which is not how nuclear reactors actually work). The only computers powerful enough to let the military intercept it in time belong to a defense-contractor megacorporation whose name is actually Mega Corporation. Our hero Neil Perry (Beck) works for Mega, though he doesn’t show up until 9 minutes in, just in the nick of time to figure out why the computers are malfunctioning (it’s because they’re heat-sensitive and there are too many people in the control room) and correct the intercept missile’s course. Then he takes some time with his secretary to lament having to work on superweapons (what, a genius like him couldn’t get hired somewhere else?), before getting called in to the boss’s office to justify why he’s late developing the “Laser Death Ray” (that is literally its official name) yet has spent 20 million of Mega’s dollars on something else. The big bosses are played by Andrew Duggan and Parley Baer, but Perry’s direct supervisor, the most sympathetic exec of the three, is played by the stalwart Whit Bissell, a veteran of the 1960 The Time Machine as well as a regular in Irwin Allen’s The Time Tunnel (and John Zaremba, another Tunnel regular, appears briefly as well).

The meeting is the first scene that has anything to do with the book, since it’s the updated version of the iconic scene where the protagonist demonstrates his invention of time travel using a working miniature of his machine. (Bissell gets to flip the switch on the model this time, rather than just watching as in 1960.) But nothing about it makes sense. At first, Perry seems surprised that he’s being asked to account for the redirected funds, yet a moment later, jarringly, he says he anticipated the request and has brought a model. He then tells the execs about his time travel research for the very first time, which made relative sense for an 1890s gentleman inventor showing off his self-funded achievement to his friends, but makes no sense for a 1978 scientist-engineer reporting to his own direct supervisors within a corporate hierarchy. How has he gotten as far as a working model and full-size prototype without any of the prior theoretical and engineering groundwork being made public? Especially since we learn that he has subcontracted the construction of the power unit to another branch of the company, so there’s no way this is something he’s done all by himself. It just makes no sense within this context.

In any case, Perry’s bosses are underwhelmed by his demonstration and order him to abandon his time machine and go to work on inventing an antimatter bomb (because naturally he’s the kind of fictional scientist who’s an expert in every field at once instead of a single specialization). He’s disheartened, but the aforementioned power module gets finished a month early, so he decides to take a time trip to prove the value of his work. Rather than going forward as in previous versions, Perry starts out by going backward, and the rest of the first hour is wasted on a brief, pointless interlude in 17th-century Salem (where he’s burned as a witch and escapes from the pyre in the time machine) and an interminably long, equally pointless interlude in the Old West (where he gets accused of claim-jumping, shot at, arrested, and chased a lot), all merely to pad the film and presumably make use of some available backlots. All of history to choose from and they went for two of the most obvious, lazy cliches. Note that this version abandons the idea that the machine stays in one place relative to the Earth’s surface, even though it uses a crude approximation of George Pal’s stop-motion effect of buildings being built or unbuilt around the traveler. This is another thing that makes no sense.

It occurred to me to wonder if this film was meant as a backdoor pilot for a series, with Perry’s sojourns in the past being samples of the kind of weekly adventures he could have. But they’re just too superficial and plotless to work as “episodes” in their own right, since Perry hardly interacts with anyone except to be captured, threatened, or chased by them.

Anyway, Perry eventually gets back to the present, coincidentally just in time for a random co-worker to present him with a report suggesting that — shocker — the weapons Mega Corporation is building might devastate the Earth’s environment! Why, the ozone layer might start to become eroded as soon as the 30th century! Oh, my stars and garters! But according to the random co-worker, the bosses have dismissed the projections, saying there’s no proof what will happen in the future. With this convenient motivation just handed to him by a plot puppet, Perry hops back in his machine to get the “proof” — although he doesn’t think to bring any camera, recorder, or instruments forward with him to gather it!

It isn’t long (in more than one sense) before he sees nuclear explosions go off around him and lands in a radioactive wasteland, less than a century in his future. You’d think that would be enough proof to take back (if he’d bothered to document it in any way!!), but he has to get around to the novel’s plot eventually, so he gratuitously keeps going forward until the vegetation recovers and he winds up in the Eloi-Morlock future at last, although it’s only in the early 3000s instead of 802,701 AD, and the Eloi speak perfect English (despite a gratuitous fakeout scene where Weena initially remains mute for no good reason so that we’ll be surprised when she does speak). Also, despite not knowing what fire is, these Eloi are not passive, pampered sheep, but are descended from a segment of the population that chose to come up from underground and risk the hardships that the Morlocks feared. So they bear little resemblance to Wells’s Eloi. They even have a very good understanding of their history, thanks to a convenient local museum of weapons and war records that Weena shows Perry — complete with a display of a futuristic hand weapon with a card next to it saying “Laser Death Ray invented by Neil Perry.” Yes, really. Then, this simple, backward Eloi who’s never heard of fire shows Perry how to activate the museum video that explains the whole history of the end of the world with crisp narration and an unending orgy of military stock footage (including plenty of fiery explosions) — and I kept wondering, if this is how civilization collapsed, who the hell made the video documentary about it afterward???

Anyway, then the Morlocks attack and take several Eloi captive, so Perry goes down to rescue them and discovers that the Morlocks use them as livestock to consume. So the movie’s anti-war theme gets thrown out the window as Perry decides that the only hope for humanity’s future is to commit genocide, exterminating the Morlocks with the conveniently intact plastic explosives in the war museum. So he teaches the peaceful, idyllic Eloi how to commit mass murder with bombs, yay. (Okay, granted, the 1960 film had a similar beat of the Eloi learning to fight back. Still, it was less thematically muddy than this.) He then hops back in his time machine to bring his “proof” to his Mega bosses — though he doesn’t think to bring back any of those convenient video records from the future and has no proof except a totally unverifiable anecdotal account!!

Which… somehow… his bosses completely believe without question, without a shred of actual proof!! Aaaahhh!!

Yet they don’t care about his warnings of apocalypse, instead wanting to exploit the time machine to get ahead of their competitors on new weapons breakthroughs. Which Perry is suddenly opposed to once more, so he pops back off into the future before his bosses can take the time machine away from him. Instead of the ambiguity of the original and the 1960 classic, we see him happily reunited with Weena and the Eloi, who will now be able to rebuild human civilization… with a breeding stock consisting exclusively of blond white people. Oh dear. And just before that, to further remove any ambiguity, Whit Bissell was given a closing speech in which he expressed utter certainty that Perry and the Eloi would be able to rebuild a perfect society in the future. Try not to think about the implication of an all-white, all-blond civilization being humanity’s perfect future, or of getting there as the result of the total extermination of the only other race on the planet. I doubt the filmmakers intended that implication on purpose, though, because nothing whatsoever about this film had any real thought put into it.

(Meanwhile, if he left permanently for the future, then how did he finish the Laser Death Ray? Is the timeline mutable in this version? Maybe the sign in the museum just meant that he designed it and others finished it.)

This was just… so… bad. I’ve seen some lame ’70s sci-fi TV over the past few years (plus of course when it first aired in my youth), but this may be the worst example I’ve rewatched in recent memory. It’s just staggeringly inept and does no justice to its source material. It’s almost an insult to Whit Bissell to include him in this, rather than the tribute they presumably intended. (At least the insult to H.G. Wells and his classic would be made up for the following year with Nicholas Meyer’s Time after Time.) The story barely honors the source material except in broad strokes — which isn’t a bad thing if the original material has worth in its own right, but in this case the writing is incredibly thoughtless, directionless, and lazy, with its attempt at an anti-war theme sabotaged by its own incompetence. John Beck is miscast as the lead, never convincing as a brilliant scientist and never conveying a trace of the emotion he should feel when faced with the downfall of civilization. Priscilla Barnes is lovely as Weena, but not called upon to be anything more, and these Eloi are so mundanely human and show up so late in the movie that there’s little to say about them. The character-acting stalwarts like Bissell, Baer, and Duggan do their usual workmanlike job with what they’re given, but what they’re given isn’t much. I have to wonder why the people involved even bothered to make this. Or why I bothered to watch this. Seriously, folks, just go see the George Pal version again, or Time after Time.

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