FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*
Quick personal note: THE TIME TRAVELERS was one of the few 1960s SF-films that I saw in a movie theater, though not in its original 1964 release. To the best of my recollection, I saw it bundled together with two others films—probably THE GORGON and THE VALLEY OF GWANGI—in a triple feature that played a neighborhood theater, probably around 1967-68.
Thus my opinion of the film is partly informed by nostalgia. It’s not that it was ever a great favorite in the sense that I sought to see it any time it played on TV, nor did I add to my video collection once I had the chance to do so. Even at a young age I didn't deem it an equal to the classic SF-films of the preceding decade, such as THE WAR OF THEWORLDS and THIS ISLAND EARTH. Yet though I was probably catching whatever TV-broadcasts I could even by 1967, I have the feeling that TIME TRAVELERS was unusual in presenting a large number of “gosh-wow” wonder-elements in one package—a time-space warp, a post-nuclear civilization on future-Earth, radiation-created mutants menacing said civilization, a generations-ship that the surviving civilized Earth-people intend to use to voyage ot Alpha Centauri—and lots and lots of androids. This was a pretty good array of wondrous elements for an independent film with a pretty limited budget.
The film’s opening could have been set in the 1920s as easily as the 1960s. On an unnamed campus, a trio of scientists labor on an experimental time-viewing device. Somehow their device opens a time-space portal. The scientists— young man Steve, older mentor Von Steiner, and young lady scientist Carol—hesitate to explore the portal. However, dimwitted comedy-relief Danny, a technican from the local power plant, steps through the opening, entering a barren post-nuclear landscape, later revealed to be Eart circa 2071 AD. This forces the scientists to follow him. Fierce mutants, deformed by radiation, attack the time-travelers. However, the travelers are rescued by a member of a hidden civilization, who commands a troop of androids who have eyes but no other prominent features.
According to Varno (John Hoyt), the de facto leader of the hidden civilization, he and his people are the last normal human beings, mostly descended from scientists who survived the nuclear devastation. The mutants are the descendants of the military men who went to war, though the mutants blame the scientists for the world’s fate. Beccause food is scarce in the future, their only hope is to escape Earth is a generations-ship that will carry a complement of normal people all the way to Alpha Centauii. However, the rocket can only transport so many people—who will sleep in suspended animation while their androids tend the ship—and so Varno and his people can't take the time-travelers along. The travelers'
only hope is to use the future’s advanced technology to get back to their own time, even though that world is doomed to be destroyed.
Director Ib Melchior provided the script, which, aside from the nuclear references, would not have been out of place in a 1920s SF-magazine: exactly the sort of thing that the film’s cameo guest-star Forrest J. Ackerman would have grown up reading. All of the characters are paper-thin, the comedy-relief is lame, and some of the futuristic gimmicks wouldn’t have looked out of place in a 1950s TV commercial for Westinghouse products. Melchior even drags in a standard stage magician’s trick to stand in for having a person travel through space-time. Yet I don’t think it’s entirely nostalgia that gives me a sense of gravitas regarding humankind’s struggle to escape its own fate. One of the most effective moments in the script—though it passes without much comment—is when Varno explains that his people plan to launch the generations ship from the site of a mammoth atomic crater: new life springing from old death, as it were. More central to the plot is the “bitter necessity” that will force the scientists to leave behind the time-travelers to conserve space on the rocketship.
There are also slight indications that the scientist-cabal is far from the apex of humanity. Carol, the typical empathetic female, questions their choice to keep the mutants at arm’s length. When she’s told that the mutants won’t make nice, she accepts it, but in one of the underground caves she encounters a deformed, helpless fellow whom a scientist calls a “deviant.” Carol prevents the hotheaded scientist from executing the intruder, but after she succors the fellow, he disappears from the story-- unless he’s somewhere in the big melee that takes place when the mutants stage an invasion. The melee, by the way, is quite impressive for a tight-budgeted film like this one.
Some time-travel stories, such as BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER, allow for the possibility that the past can be changed, but I rather like how TIME TRAVELERS refuses to give the modern world that “out.” The scientists’ escape-project is destroyed, but the providential advent of the time-travelers makes possible the survival of humanity, albeit due to a whole lot of dumb luck. As a coda to this happy ending, Melchior repeats a lot of rapid-fire key scenes from the film to depict the strangeness of the temporal loop—and I must admit that he succeeded with the young me, as I felt my mind blown as much here as by anything in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.