The Time Travelers (1964)
Danish writer/director Ib Melchior was a huge sci-fi fan. He directed two science fiction movies which are minor classics today (the other being The Angry Red Planet from 1959), and served as screenwriter for no less than seven sci-fi movies (only one of which, the famous/infamous Reptilicus, was in Danish), including the original Deathrace 2000 (1975), plus, among other things, an episode of “The Outer Limits” (1965). He may be Denmark’s single greatest contribution to international science fiction.
Arguably, his 1964 effort, The Time Travelers, is the most fondly remembered of his works. It is the most rigorously scientific of his movies, offering some worthwhile speculating about the nature of time. This well-made movie was also a major influence on subsequent movies and TV shows about time-travel, such as, in particular, the show “The Time Tunnel” (1966).
In The Time Travelers, a small team of three scientists (and Danny, a lowly electrical engineer who drops by at the right/wrong time) are performing a time experiment which produces results very different from what they were expecting. They end up creating a portal to the year 2071, and when they rather incautiously walk through it, it collapses behind them and they are trapped in the future.
Of course, there has been a nuclear war. Most people are irradiated mutants, but one last bastion of healthy people – descendants of scientists – are holding out in a mountainous base. The mutants, who still have some capacity for thought, blame the scientists for the nuclear war, and are constantly attacking their base. The scientists are working furiously on a big rocket to the stars; they are going to settle a life-supporting planet orbiting the sun’s neighboring star Alpha Centauri. They do most of this work with the help of docile androids.
As the four time travelers appear, they are welcomed by the future scientists and taken on a tour of their facility, during which we are introduced to an impressive array of scientific wonders, including how the androids are made and how super-food is grown. These scenes are packed with rather amazing (for the time) special effects, shot in long continuous scenes without cuts.
The scientists from 1964 get along rather famously with the 2071 ones, with the exception of one of them, who understands that the rocket they’re making is not going to be able to carry four extra people. So the 1964 people will have to stay behind. But they are helped to reconstruct their time machine, so they might have the chance to return to their own time (futile as that seems to them, now that they know there will be a nuclear war).
The movie features quite a few interesting bits of characterization and even comedy. The gender roles are a bit old-fashioned, but there are insightful comments on how a future society of very few people would work socially, and those are not old-fashioned. Generally the movie is full of solid ideas which could have been explored in great detail. The writing and the vision behind the story is sure-handed and highly scientific, and really quite a joy to experience. There are several angles to the events and the character portrayals, and the movie doesn’t make a final moral judgment, but lets each side speak for itself.
In one case there is a silly detail: in the future, the female scientist from 1964 (the only one who is not a doctor; possibly she is just an assistant, and of course she has a crush on the younger of the two scientists) suddenly asks what a photon is. Of course, it is impossible to be involved in advanced science at all without knowing what a photon is, but the scene is meant to explain some details of a photon-drive (laser-powered) rocket engine of the future to the audience, so it is justified in that sense.
Our time travelers do finally end up returning to their own time, but, they arrive in a state of accelerated time, so they can’t fit into their own time (where they find their former selves still existing, from before they went into the future), and they age a year every few minutes. So they manage to use a tiny period of time during the original experiment to put themselves a hundred thousand years into the future. What happens to them there, we do not see.
The ending is very nice for a time-twister. We see our main characters going in a loop, through their adventure, from the original experiment in the present, to 2071 and back again, repeating this loop faster and faster. It’s cool, but actually it doesn’t quite win me over. You see, time loops come in two varieties: open and closed. The closed loop is a paradox where all of time/the universe is trapped in a single endlessly recurring and repeating event. Not much fun in the final analysis, as we have seen with the Terminator movies (where the chip that makes the terminators work comes from a future where it came from a past, where it came from a future, where it came from a past… etc.). The open loop is when some events undergo a loop, but the overall progress of time can continue afterwards. This is what we see in movies featuring a self-consistent time scenario, like Twelve Monkeys (1995), Summer Time Machine Blues (2005) and Timecrimes (2007). In The Time Travelers, which also features an open time loop, the ending chooses to focus on that limited loop aspect, showing it as endlessly repeating, as if it were a closed loop. It doesn’t show us what happens to our main characters in the far future, but shifts the focus in the closing scenes to the versions of the characters who keep repeating the events – even though, to them, they only go through those events once! But, it’s still an ending that demonstrates the problems and potentially loopy paradoxes of time-travels in an intriguing way, and that’s cool, too.
In the final analysis, this is actually an astonishingly good movie which holds up extremely well under many different kinds of scrutiny. It is almost worthy of inclusion among the ten best time-travel movies ever. A serious, big-budget remake that maintained and expanded on all its virtues could be an amazing science fiction movie. The Time Travelers is not out on DVD; this review is based on a VHS tape. One can only hope for an eventual, cleaned-up Blu-ray release, which would demonstrate many of this classic movie’s special effects and other directorial virtues much more clearly.
Director: Ib Melchior
Cast: Preston Foster, Philip Carey, John Hoyt, Merry Anders and others
Runtime: 82 min.