Journey Through the Portal of Time With Danny to a World of Cheap Stage Magician’s Tricks!
DIRECTED BY IB MELCHIOR / 1964
BLU-RAY STREET DATE APRIL 27, 2021 / SCORPION RELEASING
It’s quite a paradox that only until recently in history of film, movies that attempt to depict the most fantastical worlds – such as robots, giant monsters, and future technology – often had the slimmest of budgets with which to do so. Ib Melchior’s The Time Travelers is no exception. In this case, however, the filmmakers have conceived of a clever device to help get past their budgetary hurdle. This helps elevate what would normally be simple B-movie fare into something a little more memorable.
Arthur C. Clarke once said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The Time Travelers takes this quote literally. The movie employs stage magicians’ tricks to masquerade as future tech. Metal rings instantly transform into squares, a character vanishes from one teleportation booth to appear in another. In one continuous shot a robot lies down, is disassembled, reassembled, and then gets right back up, using all of the tricks one would use to saw a lady in half. These effects are obvious for what they are, But you can’t hold that against the film because it’s a fun concept.
This idea came from the movie’s original screenwriter, David L. Hewitt (Melchior heavily rewrote Hewitt’s draft, though Hewitt still got a ‘story by’ credit). Hewitt also supervised the films “special effects,” as he worked as an illusionist in his teenage years, and was therefore familiar with the techniques needed for the movie. Hewitt would go on to direct his share of low-budget sci-fi and horror films throughout the 60’s. He would later be the effects supervisor on such films as The Quiet American, Rabbit Proof Fence, and Inspector Gadget 2.
The plot concerns a group of scientists (Dr. Grandpa, Dr. Steve, and Dr. Lady – their real names are unimportant), and Danny, the movie’s designated chucklehead. The group accidentally goes through a time portal into the year 2071. Saying “accidentally” here is being generous, as the scientists get themselves trapped in the future through a series of rather stupid decisions. When your movie’s designated chucklehead acts like a chucklehead it can be frustrating. When supposedly brilliant scientists act like chuckleheads that’s even worse.
Once in the future they discovered the last remnants of the human race preparing a rocket ship that will take them to another planet, with the help of their android servants. The design of the future androids is pure nightmare fuel. But the sequence in the factory showing their construction is fun, utilizing many of those aforementioned stage tricks.
These humans are under constant threat of attack from roving bands of radioactive mutants (fun fact: the mutants are played by the L.A. Lakers, as the filmmakers were looking for very tall extras for the parts, and there weren’t any to be found in Central Casting). The scientists, and Danny, are told they cannot accompany the humans on their rocket so they must somehow recreate their time portal and get back to the year 1964 where they can warn everyone of the nuclear holocaust that is to come.
The movie isn’t terribly interested in its plot, or in the questions it raises regarding causality. When the scientists, and Danny, announce their plans to go back and warn people to prevent catastrophe, another character declares this is impossible, because the apocalypse has already happened. They can’t change the past. For a movie about time travel, this sort of philosophical discussion should be its bread and butter, but the movie blows right past any debate. Likewise, the characters discover a ‘human/mutant hybrid’ lurking in the caves. He seems peaceful, intelligent, and curious. Does this discovery call into question everything the future humans have been led to believe about the surface mutants? I don’t know, because the movie doesn’t care to address it.
The Time Travellers was written and directed by Ib Melchior. Melchior was a Danish-American novelist. For fans of 60’s sci-fi, Melchior is a familiar name, having written The Angry Red Planet (which he also directed), Robinson Crusoe on Mars, and Reptilicus. Melchior also wrote novels and non-fiction books detailing his wartime exploits as a member of the U.S. Army’s Counterintelligence Corps during World War II.
Another notable aspect of the film is that it was photographed by Academy Award winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter). Zsigmond got his start in the 1960s (as William Zsigmond) shooting this kind of low-budget feature, before he was hired by Robert Altman for McCabe & Mrs. Miller and his career took off.
Movies like this don’t need deep characters, they don’t need fully fleshed out, three-dimensional characters, but they do need characters. Some kind of characters. Aside from their physical differences, there is nothing that distinguishes Doctor Steve, Doctor Grandpa, or Doctor Lady from one another. Danny is the odd-man out, here. As the chucklehead, he gets comedic beats, gets to fall in love with a future lady (and her mad luminphone playing skills!) and even gets to deliver an aside straight to the camera.
But The Time Travelers forgets (and it’s in no way alone among sci-fi films of this period) that small character beats can add so much to movies without adding anything to the overall budget. They enliven a screenplay and give the audience someone to care about, investing them in a story that on the face of it, is really quite ridiculous. That’s where the real magic happens.
Scorpion Releasing’s The Time Travelers blu-ray looks great. It’s new 2K scan shows off Zsigmond’s work wonderfully. The only other extra on the disc is the movie’s trailer.