Friday, June 30, 2017

The Time Travelers (1964) – MST3K Review

Summary:

Three scientists are working on a window that will allow them to view events across time. So far they haven’t been very successful, and their funding is going to be cut off. Steve Connors (Philip Carey) decides to crank the power up to 11 for a final try. Dr. Steiner (Preston Foster) and Carol White (Merry Anders) aren’t as keen on the idea but go along with it. They experiment works… kind off. The resident lab groupie, Danny (Steve Franken) discovers that the working window isn’t a window at all, but a door. And because of the extra power boost they are looking nearly 100 years in the future.

Due to series of events, our three scientists and Danny go through the doorway and end up stranded in the future, which is a grim place. World war has destroyed the earth’s surface and only mutants survive. Underground is a group of advanced humans lead by Dr. Varno (John Hoyt) who are constructing a rocket to take them away from earth. They use some seriously creepy looking androids to help build the rocket and fight off the mutants. You see, resources on earth are nearly depleted and the mutants don’t want to be left behind. Can our Time Travelers figure out a way to avoid mutant attacks, return to the 60s and make sure this future never happens?

Movie Review:

Your lab coats won't save you now!
Every once in a while Mystery Science Theater 3000 finds a movie for riffing fodder that is not all that bad. In fact, I would say that Time Travelers is a lot of fun all the way around without the riffing. If you’ve never seen it before you may find yourself being pulled into the twisted time travel adventure and miss half the  riffs that Jonah and bots launch.

Written and directed by Ib Melchior, this man helped bring Reptilicus to the screen. But Melchior brings a bit more to the table when it comes to the script for this film. In Reptilicus he was tied to the typical giant monster movie tropes, but here he can play with time travel and the impacts on the travelers themselves.

Which one of you fluxed the capacitor?
While the characters in Time Travelers aren’t terribly engaging or well developed, the plight they find themselves in is interesting. These are your typical scientist types. Foster plays the older wiser scientist. Conners is the younger hot head who doesn’t play the by the rules. And Anders is… well she’s the girl. I guess we should just be happy that they have a female scientist at all in a 1964 film. But don’t expect her to actually contribute too much to the technical parts of the plot. She’s mostly around to make observations on the future culture and be saved by Steve.

Danny is the everyman character. He spends most of his time in the future with his mouth hanging open and hitting on the future ladies. Franken plays him a little broadly, but that is par the course for a movie like this. He adds a bit of levity to the scenes with some wry comments and bad pick up lines.

In the future everyone has a gaggle of creepy androids
following along behind them... um... yay?
Where Time Travelers ends up shining is as we explore the futuristic society. The way the humans have adapted using the androids (ignoring how darn creepy those things look) as a slave workforce and army is interesting. It allows the scientists and technicians to focus on working on the rocket. But it also keeps these greater minds from actually interacting with the dying earth and the mutants directly. These people were made by their situation, but they also perpetuate it by ignoring the plight of mutants and any who are like them. Carol’s compassion toward a partial mutant is looked at as detriment, but we understand how she can feel for those unfortunates.

"Wow, Simon got a lot more complicated."
All technological leaps our heroes see, the oranges that grow instantly, the music/light show, the ability to capture images of distant worlds, is all interesting and I like that the plot spends some time showing us all these elements and allowing our characters to interact and comment on it in some ways. It gives perspectives from both sides of the dilemma.

Time Travelers’ real weakness is mostly due to budget constraints. The concept is solid, but there are some moments where the execution is less because the effects look a bit silly, or the androids are just too darn creepy.

Alas poor Data. I knew him Horatiotron.
Yeah, let’s not ignore the elephant in the room any longer. Are these things supposed to be uncut nightmare fuel? As melty and lumpy as the mutants are, the androids are just wrong with their O shaped mouths, dead eyes and cone heads (inspiration for the Saturday Night Live sketch of the 70s?). They seem helpful enough, but I swear if I caught this film on TV when I was a kid, they would have scarred my psyche for life.

I will admit that the whole sequence in the repair bay is a lot of fun, with solid practical effects and slight of hand to make the whole thing interesting to watch… and then you get another close up of an android face and you run screaming from the room.

Oh wait, is this a Tom Baker episode? Cool!
There are a few bad points. The pacing of the film is on the slow side, but that is more a relic of the time it was made. For a scientist film made in the 1960s it actually moves along pretty well. Some of the sets look a little flimsy and the model work for the rocket isn’t all that convincing, but I’m willing to give it all a pass. Time Travelers does such a good job focusing on crafting a solid sci-fi story and doing it as well as it can, I find it to be a bit charming and entertaining.

Tom gives the rocket a helping hand.
Right up to the ending. The story attempts an interesting twist, something that could have come right out of a Rod Serling script. It will certainly remind some viewers of one of the old Star Trek episodes. But due to some editing on by the crew at MST3k it ends up not making a whole lot of sense. I’ve seen the movie twice and while I appreciate the effort, I’m also not quite sure what the heck happened at the end. Not in a good 2001: A Space Odyssey way, but more in a Starcrash kind of way (but we’ll get to that in good time too).

The Time Travelers is a solid B grade sci-fi adventure, with an engaging story and some fun visuals. Jonah and the bots find plenty to work with, but does this turn out to be too easy of a target for them?

Episode Review:

Take a trip to the uncanny valley... to hell!
When the episode ended my wife turned to me and said that the whole thing reminded her strongly of a Joel/Comedy Central era episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Maybe it was the fact that The Time Travelers feels like it would be something they would watch after The First Spaceship on Venus or even 12 to the Moon. Jonah’s style of riffing certainly feels more like Joel’s easygoing style and less aggressive than Mike’s.

That said, I could see The Time Travelers being a big favorite for anyone who loves a good 50s/60s scientist movie. All the tropes are in full force and Jonah and the bots have a good time with them. For the most part the riffing is solid, although they are still clustering riffs rapidly together at times. This creates some pacing and timing issues that I noticed in all the early episodes of season 11.

"What is he doing the its ro-batch!?"
They do end up picking on the character of Danny quite a bit. I’m not sure the character earns it. He’s kind of annoying but not as aggressively annoying as Paul from Cry Wilderness or Akton from Star Crash. For some reason they go off on him quite a bit. Some of the riffs are funny. I do like when Jonah comments that the scientists should get Danny a Highlights magazine while they do important stuff. Later when they attempt to use a matter transporter device on Danny and he appears in a 2D form Tom says, “He’s more Polaroid than man, twisted and Danny.” Quite a few Star Wars based riffs in this one, especially when Crow does a C-3PO impression during the robot repair bay sequence.

Oranges... OF THE FUTURE!
There are also a lot of fun riffs based on the concept of time travel and how the movie’s script attempts to explain and execute them. Crow takes time to remind Jonah and Tom that he often travels through time at the rate of one hour per hour. Later on when the scientists declare that they have gone over the target time they were aiming for Crow asks, “Do I get paid overtime to go overtime?” When our heroes return to the 60s only to realize they arrived before they actually left Crow asks, “Hey, did the movie just lap itself?” Those are all valid questions.

Are they going to give him a less creepy head?
But my favorite riffing sequence in The Time Travelers takes place during the robot construction sequence. As we take a full tour of the robot repair bay we get a great combination of riffing. On the one hand the disturbing robot faces cause all kinds of hilarious jokes from Jonah and the bots. But then Tom and Crow are intrigued and disturbed by seeing other robots being created. Their reactions are priceless. The sequence only suffers a bit form the speed of the riffing here, I was laughing so much that I missed many jokes even during the second viewing.

"Our oranges have the vodka already inside, so you
don't have to!"
The host segments are right in the middle of the road. It starts with Jonah and the bots playing “Never did I ever…” but the bots take the easy way out with things like “Never did I ever breath oxygen.” During the invention exchange Crow invents the edible silica packet for your snacks. It allows you to do the forbidden act and not die a horrible death. The Mads come up with the After-life alert, modeled off the silly looking medallion from Cry Wilderness. After you die you can contact someone using the After-life alert to ask for help getting to heaven… or the other place. After The Time Travelers in the film ignore safety protocols Crow and Gypsy are concerned that Tom and Jonah may do the same thing. So they create a helpful safety film for them. Jonah and Tom think the whole thing is goofy. At the next break Jonah keeps introducing new robot friends. This enrages Tom and Crow and they destroy them! But Jonah may be doing this on purpose.

A difference of opinion about how to celebrate
200 hilarious episodes.
In the next break we get another guest cameo as Dr. Varno played with gleeful relish by Elliot Kalan. You may recognize Elliot from The Daily Show where he was a writer as well a performer. You also get a chance to see Joel Hodgson out of his Ardy garb and play Larry the orange tree scientist. The two are cruising through space being the party animals they are. They invite Jonah and the bots to come along on their galactic party, but Jonah declines (much to the bots disappointment). When the episode ends Kinga declares it a success and says it is the 200th episode of the series (if you count the KTMA episodes). How time flies when you’re riffing.

Yeah I think the mutants have the right idea.
This is a fun episode with a solid riffing session and a watchable movie. Fans of the classic science fiction episodes featured on older MST3K episodes will find a lot to enjoy here. You really get the feel that The Time Travelers could have appeared on season three or four of the original series. For me, while I had a good time, it didn’t quite hit those high points I was hoping for. The rushed riffing hurt it and the movie’s pacing is on the slower side. As usual, I’ve already run into people that say this is their favorite episode of the season. I can recommend it for sure, but it is not in the top tier.

I give it three dead eyed androids out of five.


This episode is available on the Netflix streaming.

"Doh! How are we supposed to get Back the Future?"

4 comments:

  1. It’s the rare scifi movie with a US release made before 1965 that I haven’t seen. They were a staple of independent channels on weekends and late-night prior to 1970, and I certainly sought them out. Yet somehow I missed this one. Time paradoxes have been in scifi almost from the beginning, perhaps reaching full expression in Robert Heinlein’s 1959 short story “All You Zombies” in which a person through time travel and sex change is both of his/her own parents.

    Maybe this film needs to be seen uncut – or maybe not. Sounds fun either way.

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    1. Yeah I'm with you. I've never heard of this film or seen any clips from it. It was an all new experience for me and that may be why I found myself pulled into the plot of the film when I watched it the first time. It really is a well put together movie for its time and budget. I think you'll enjoy it if you manage to find it.

      According to Jonah the movie ended in a "Groundhog Day" fashion with our heroes looping through the same day several times at the end. The writers found it very difficult to riff, so they cut that sequence out of the final film. I don't know if it really adds much to the final scene of the film (which really comes out of nowhere), but it would have resolved one odd plot element that seems to be dropped in the MSt3K version, but was addressed in the original.

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  2. From the look of that third picture, I wonder if that's where Aykroyd got the inspiration for his Coneheads routine. I've never seen this film either, but I'm curious. It does look cheesy, but I can overlook that. What's weird is I sometimes listen to SF podcast and the casters comment about how older effect ruin the movie for them yadda yadda. I can't totally understand that perspective. I sometimes wonder if newer special efx haven't ruined a generation to appreciate older films.

    The other day I was listening to a podcast comparing the 50s Thing From Another World, the 80s Carpenter Thing, and then the prequel. They all loved Carpenters and even the prequel, but had the same feeling about the first film. Sad, I still think that it's a classic and suspenseful. I guess you had to grow up with them.

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    1. Yeah I really think the Coneheads were inspired by these androids. I know Ackroyd is a big sci-fi fan in general (the guy knows his Lovecraft too). So it wouldn't surprise me if he knew of this film.

      I think older special effects do look very dated to most younger eyes. I see folks of a certain age griping about poor CG from the early 1990s, so it isn't relegated to just the pre-CG stuff. What I find interesting is that they can't move past the effects and see how well the movie works on its own. In that way, I think "The Thing" and "The Thing from Another World" are both very good movies, because they are both very well put together.

      I have the same issue when I hear folks complaining about dated synth sounds in 80s and 70s film scores. That was the state of the art at the time the scores were made. But it really hard for some listeners to separate what they hear as "cheesy" because it has been parodied so many times, from when it was original and new.

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