A third review requested by Andrew Johnson, with thanks for contributing yet again to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Personal anecdotes aren't criticism, of course, but in this case the anecdote shall lead us to criticism, I promise. The thing is, when I was a wee cinephile, I was quite addicted to George Pal's 1960 adaptation of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine. It was almost certainly the most violent and gory movie I had encountered at that point: one of the green-skinned subterranean humanoid monsters, the Morlocks, gushed blood out of its mouth when it died! Another one was shown onscreen decaying over the course of years rushed through in time-lapse, in extremely vivid detail! Its eye popped out! Basically, The Time Machine completely fucked me up, in the way that seven-year-olds crave being fucked up. I hadn't watched the film in fully two decades before seeing it for this review, but I could accurately remember some scenes right down to the editing. What I did not remember is that the sequence that so powerfully affected me is a mere blip in the overall movie; it's more than an hour into its 103 minutes before we even hear about the Morlocks, let alone see them, and they're not an active threat for more than 15 minutes or so.

Now the memoir turns back into a review, for what my experience teaches us is that you can't beat a great monster. Pal, an animator turned producer turned producer/director, knew from making a big impression with some good state of the art spectacle, and this time he went right off the edge of the map. Forget the staggering impact the film had on my 7-year-old self; as a fully-functioning thirtysomething, I'm still pretty well blown away by the film's violence. This is basically a silly matinee picture and it looks like it: one doesn't expect to run into gore effects that are as explicit as Hollywood in 1960 would have dared to try to sneak past the censors. Especially on MGM's dime, of all studios. It's legitimately shocking, even a half of a century after the specific effects that The Time Machine shows off have long since been surpassed. And it certainly tends to skew one's impression of what the film is and where its strengths lie, because the other thing I really really didn't remember is that the Morlock sequences are easily the worst part of the movie, despite all of Pal's bravura.

The movie starts on 5 January, 1900, which is dumb as hell, because it immediately flashes back to New Year's Eve just six days earlier, on the cusp of a new century. Here we find the greatly dissatisfied H. George Wells (Rod Taylor), a London inventor who thinks that humanity is the absolute goddamn worst. To get away from the miserable state of civilisation, George has perfected a time machine, or so he proclaims to his friends Philip Hillyer (Sebastian Cabot), Anthony Bridewell (Tom Helmore), Walter Kemp (Whit Bissell), and David Filby (Alan Young), the last of whom is the only one to even pretend that George hasn't gone completely around the bend. George doesn't care much about his friends' mockery, though; he's already built his machine, which allows him to travel any direction chronologically while staying in one place relative to the Earth's surface, and he hopes to use it to leave the ugly, amoral England of the Boer War to find a time when humanity has finally evolved beyond violence. His attempts dash all the optimism right out of him: he first lands in 1917, where he meets Filby's adult son James (still Young), and learns that his friend has dies in the Great War. George's second jump is even less successful: he stumbles right into an air raid during the Blitz of 1940. His luck takes an even worse turn when his third try lands him in 1966, just minutes before a nuclear strike that triggers a volcanic explosion. George has just enough time to enter his time bubble before he and his machine are covered with lava, and he has no choice but to move forward until the natural process of erosion reveals the outside world again.

That takes him all the way to 12 October, 802,701. Here, he finds a race of humans calling themselves the Eloi, according to Weena (Yvette Mimieux), a young woman who speaks pretty terrific English and looks pretty conventionally attractive for somebody with hundreds of thousands of cultural and physical evolution under her belt. George is eager to learn more about this apparently utopian future, but his inquiries reveal the Eloi to be massively incurious and almost dysfunctionally idiotic. It's the Morlocks, George starts to determine, who are the actual brains of this future society: they and the Eloi are two disparate branches of post-homo sapiens evolution, and the hideous underground dwellers are keeping the moronic surface dwellers as food stock. At any rate, they're smart enough to have stolen the time machine, and that means that George has to fight them off, all by himself, since the cow-like Eloi aren't going to put up any kind of resistance.

David Duncan's script leaves the plot of Wells's novel mostly in place, while denuding it of much of its detail and depth, but to be honest, I can't say that it's noticed. The movie is too busy being splendid to look at, frequently in ways that offer the illusion that it's brainier that it is, which was pretty much Pal's entire career as a producer of feature films. The biggest part of it is the setting: by virtue of setting its roots in Victorian London, The Time Machine attains an instantaneous level of seriousness, classiness, and literary prestige, and something about it just feels more weighty than if George was starting his forward journey from 1959 (if nothing else, the sequence in 1966, probably the most nuanced part of the movie - the way it makes a mere 6 years in the future seem dangerously alien is the sharpest piece of commentary Duncan and Pal line up - requires a Victorian time traveler to make any sense at all). And the movie does an absolutely extraordinary job setting up the reality of Victorian London right from the earliest moments, where a beautiful street set and some exquisite matte paintings establish the physical nature of the place as something that feels real but mediated, like it's a moving, living version of an aged photograph.

Then again, the effects work throughout the film is truly special (the film won an especially well-earned Oscar for them), starting with that matte and moving on to its groundbreaking use of time-lapse photography to visually depict time travel. It's too straightforward and unfaked for it not to have aged well, which makes this one of the only effects-driven films I can name that looks every inch as good after the passage of decades as it must have done when it was new (though the fact that its signature technique has become a mainstay of advertising and music videos means that it has lost absolutely all of its novelty), but eye candy isn't what matters. It's the way that the effects, as well as the design - particularly the design of the time machine itself, something like a sled with a giant spinning dish on the back of it that looks exactly like something a middle-class Victorian bachelor would assemble in his back yard as a hobby - casually establish the film's plausible reality in a way that isn't particular dazzling or spectacular: for the most part, the effects are just kind of there, hanging around over Taylor's shoulder, in the background. The showy parts are at least a little clever, not just dazzling: the film's justly celebrated use of a storefront mannequin and the change in fashions that occur over 40 years is a bravura moment, but also one that serves very specific story moments.

Generally, the steadiness and sensibility of the opening of the film - everything up to the lava explosion, itself a pretty marvelous effects sequence - is so confident and so very unlike the normal stylistic gyrations of sci-fi in that period that it's honestly disappointing to me when it stops, and the A-plot starts. The fable of the Eloi and the Morlocks simply isn't as successful visually: imagining a post-apocalyptic future was apparently harder than recreating Victorian England, or maybe the budget ran out, but really, everything in 802,701 looks a bit threadbare. I am powerfully reminded of the most ambitious episodes of Star Trek, to be specific, and it doesn't help that the story feels so much like something that could have showed up there - nor, for that matter, that Mimieux's performance is so shallow and blandly flirtatious, though in her defense, that's exactly what the role asks for.

Parts of it work, beyond a shadow of a doubt: the Eloi boneyard is good and spooky, and there are moments in which the Morlocks, standing in the shadows, can be made out only as a pair of glowing eyes that have a great tension and dreadfulness about them (and not just because the slightly shabby make-up can't be seen). It's just a bit shlocky in the execution, and given that The Time Machine is at best an example of really savvy, gifted execution of impressive sci-fi visuals, this is the worst possible sort of weakness to infect it at any point. Still, even in its weakest moments, the film benefits from being graded on a curve: in its production design, its historical orientation, and the scale of its production, this runs rings around nearly any other sci-fi film in its generational cohort. Eight years down the line, and this would look utterly primitive, but on its own merits, it's damned impressive stuff, and there's just enough esoteric concepts dancing through the screenplay to make it feel more intellectual than the usual sci-fi action-adventure. Between the handsome production and the nerdy writing, this offers an unusually smart, sophisticated aura for what amounts to an expensive B-movie. There's better sci-fi, undoubtedly, but not in 1960, particularly not with the sort of glossy studio polish that makes this such a treat to watch.