It is New Year’s Eve 1899, and in London, inventor H. George Wells (Australian actor Rod Taylor) has four dinner guests: David Filby (Alan Young), Dr Philip Hillyer (Sebastian Cabot), Anthony Bridewell (Tom Helmore) and Walter Kemp (Whit Bissell).
He shows them a model of his latest invention, a time machine, which, he claims, will enable him to move in the fourth dimension, Time.
George’s friends are sceptical but agree to meet again for dinner five days later. As soon as they leave, George climbs into his velvet-upholstered time machine, pulls the lever and takes a trip to 1917 and World War I. He then overtakes London in the Blitz during WWII and narrowly escapes death in the nuclear bombardment of London during World War III in 1966.
On 12 October 802701, he arrives in a strange tropical paradise populated by two very distinct races – a carefree and passive vegetarian people called the Eloi (who have pudding bowl haircuts and wear white cut-off robes) and a subterranean troglodytic albino race called the Morlocks (who look like deranged blue Wombles with lightbulbs for eyes and who harvest the Eloi as food).
There is also a love interest for Wells in the shape of Yvette Mimieux’s Weena – who looks like she’s just emerged from the set of a shampoo advert and is less childlike than the Weena of the novel. She takes George to the decaying ruins of a library, where a futuristic audio technology called the Talking Rings (voiced by Paul Frees) – a sort of audio version of the Encyclopedia Britannica – reveals that centuries of warfare were responsible for the present state of affairs.
The Oscar-winning effects by Gene Warren and Wah Chang are superb, and the travelling-through-time scenes remain unforgettable as the world speeds up around Taylor and his time machine, and the years roll by in stop-motion.
Of particular note are the shop dummy that models a century’s worth of fashion and the dead Morlock who rots to bits at the end.
The movie only really comes unstuck when George leads a Spartacus-like revolution against the slave-driving Morlocks before (or is it after?) stumbling into dinner with his friends on 5 January 1900 and relating his incredible story. Only Filby believes George’s story, and when his guests depart, George flies back to Weena, taking three unnamed books from his library with him.
As the final credits roll, the audience is left to speculate on what the titles of those three books might have been.
The leaden 2002 remake has little to recommend it beyond Samantha Mumba in a string bikini!
H. George Wells
David Filby/James Filby
Dr Philip Hillyer
Talking Rings (voice)