The Time Travelers is a low-budget 1964 sci-fi release from American International Pictures so you know it’s going to be lightweight goofy fun. Except that it isn’t. It’s actually a pretty decent little flick that explores some genuine science fiction ideas with a surprising amount of intelligence.
A bunch of scientists at an American university are working on a device to allow them to see into the past and the future. At least that’s what they expect the device to do but in fact it turns out they’ve done more than that. They haven’t just opened a window into other times - they’ve opened a portal.
When our four time travelers - chief scientist Dr Erik von Steiner (Preston Fostor), his junior partner Dr Steve Connors (Philip Carey), their lab assistant Carol White (Merry Anders) and maintenance man Danny McKee (Steve Franken) - go through the portal they find themselves in the year 2071, and it isn’t much fun. Nuclear war has devastated the Earth and the few survivors have taken refuge underground where they are under constant attack by bands of mutants. Now I know that so far this sounds pretty predictable and tedious and the whole “planet dying and it’s all our fault” thing is something that generally irritates me but don’t be put off. The story will take some unexpected turns and the movie gets better as it progresses. A lot better.
Our intrepid time travelers naturally would like to go back to their own time to warn of the coming catastrophe but they soon realise that would be impossible because of the time paradoxes involved. Yes, this is a low-budget 1964 sci-fi film that takes time paradoxes seriously and doesn’t resort to cheats to get around them.
The future survivors are making plans to leave Earth to start a new life on one of the planets of the Alpha Centauri system. They’ve built a starship but it’s a race against time - they have to be ready to blast off before the Earth becomes totally inhabitable and before the mutants learn to overcome their defences. At first they are quite willing to allow the time travelers to go with them to Alpha Centauri but then a rather nasty obstacle presents itself.
The leader of the humans of 2071, Varno (John Hoyt), is well disposed towards them but his second-in-command Willard (Dennis Patrick) is not friendly at all. On the other hand Reena (Delores Wells) is very friendly indeed towards Danny McKee. Romance is blossoming but can two people from different times have any chance of happiness together?
For most of the movie the plot unfolds in the way you’d expect in a 60s sci-fi movie but towards the end it starts to kick into high gear and takes a darker turn and starts throw in unexpected twists which culminate in the surprise (and very effective) ending.
The acting is reasonably solid. Preston Foster makes a fine movie scientist, complete with goatee and monocle. Look out for a cameo from legendary science fiction uber-fan Forrest J. Ackerman. There is alas a comic relief character in the person of Danny McKee but thankfully he’s not too irritating and he certainly doesn’t ruin the movie.
The special effects are, considering the budget, quite effective. The androids that play a large role in the world of 2071 could have looked meekly goofy but actually they work quite well - they’re a good example of imagination triumphing over lack of money.
Writer-director Ib Melchior was responsible for a number of rather interesting low-budget science fiction films that were usually slightly better than the general run of such movies. His Journey to the Seventh Planet is worth seeing. The Time Travelers is perhaps his most impressive effort. The script is above average and as director he comes up with a few quite striking images (especially the destruction of some of the androids towards the end). Having future Oscar-winner Vilmos Zsigmond doing the cinematography certainly helps.
Pacing is the factor that all too often shipwrecks low-budget movies but that’s not the case here. Melchior knows what he’s doing. The action does slow down a little in the middle of the movie but that simply makes it all the more effective when things really start to happen in the later stages.
It’s the ending that really marks out this movie as being something special. It’s unexpected and it packs quite a punch.
This film is one of four in Shout! Factory/Timeless Media’s Movies 4 You - Sci Fi Classics set. The transfer is pretty good and the colours are pleasingly vibrant (which is important since the movie has that classic 1960s futuristic sci-fi movie look). Overall this DVD set (which presents all four movies on one disc but at a very cheap price) is excellent value and is worth grabbing.
The Time Travelers is a very pleasant surprise indeed. This is one science fiction movie of its era that can be enjoyed as a classy thoughtful exploration of nifty ideas rather than having to be seen as a campfest (which it most certainly isn’t). Highly recommended.