The Bad Movie Report


The Time TravelersJourney to the Center of Time

It's very uncommon that I'll subject myself to two bad movies at a time - frankly, my time is at such a premium these days that watching two movies for review is a bit foolhardy - but in this case, it proved irresistible. Oh, I started out with the one - Journey to the Center of Time - but this movie filled me with such a singular feeling of deja vu that I had to dig out my copy of The Time Travelers to confirm a suspicion: that yes, they are basically the same movie.

The plots are similar: A group of three scientists trying to create a window which will allow them to see into the future overload their equipment (in both instances, by "turning up the laser cycling...all the way!"), creating a time warp which gets them (and a fourth non-scientist) involved in an internecine conflict in the future. When they do manage to get back to their own time, they arrive just a little too early, finding the past versions of themselves (and everyone else) frozen in time. They have no choice but to re-enter their various time machines and go somewhere else; then the frozen folk snap into motion and the film begins to loop itself into an endless circle. The end(s).

Plagiary? No, though I suspect a Larry Buchanan-esque made-for-TV remake. The co-writer on Time Travelers was David L. Hewitt, who in turn directed Journey, sort of paralleling the writer of Creature from the Black Lagoon re-directing his script as Octaman. The world of bad movies is indeed small.

Time Travelers is the bigger-budgeted of the two, had an actual theatrical release, and is by far the better movie. Dr. Von Open mike night at the Improv is getting out of hand.Steiner (Preston Foster) and his two assistants, Dr. Steve (Philip Carey) and Carol the Chick (Merry Anders) are laboring away at Unnamed University trying to get the aforementioned time portal working. The fourth wheel arrives in the form of Danny the Maintenance Guy (Steve Franken), who will also be serving as our Odious Comic Relief for the evening. Danny informs the crew that the "Front Office" has commanded him to shut down their power-gobbling operation. This leads Dr. Steve to "up the laser cycling", etc., with the result that the time portal lives up to its name, and Danny steps through onto a desert vista 107 years in the future, soon followed by all the others for various reasons, until the unstable time warp collapses, marooning them.

Chased by a horde of savage mutants into a cave, our heroes discover the last vestiges of human civilization living underground, led by Dr. Vardo (John Hoyt, last seen in these pages in Flesh Gordon). The last survivors of the inevitable nuclear war, their numbers supplemented by androids, these last few hundred scientists are laboring against time to complete a starship and escape in a millennial ark to Alpha Centauri. The incredibly unlikable Councilman Willard (Dennis Patrick) makes sure there is no room in the starship to accommodate our travelers, so they must reconstruct their time portal in the space of a month.

KAIJU BIG BATTEL.... oh, forget it.Unfortunately for our future folk, the mutants make a final attack on their stronghold just as they are preparing to launch and blow up the starship. Fortunately for them, the time portal is ready and the last stragglers of jump-suited humanity join our heroes in the present, or, rather, a few seconds before the movie begins, frozen people, la la la, movie loop, the end.

In Journey, "Doc" Gordon ("Special Guest Star" Abraham Sofaer) and his assistants are working in a research laboratory, and the Time-Vision thingie is working, but only for viewing 24 hours in the past. The fourth wheel arrives in the form of Bean Counter, Junior (Scott Brady, last seen in these pages in Castle of Evil), who is more than willing to shut down the project and use the scientist's work on laser technology to make weapons for the military. This causes Dr. Mark (Anthony Eisley, last seen in these pages in Dracula vs. Frankenstein) to not only up the laser cycling, but turn on the protons full blast, too, with the result that the entire lab is hurled through time to the far-flung future.

This time, the war is not between humans and mutants, but humans and aliens, with the aliens the more likable and friendly ofSee?  I wasn't kidding! the two. Dr. Vina (the improbably named Poupee Gamin), the leader of the pasty-faced aliens, warns the humans about a "laser weapon" developed in their time, before the warlike humans bust into their dimly-lit stronghold and blast her. Our heroes get back to the time lab and hit reverse, only to find themselves on a collision course with another time vehicle. Bean Counter panics and blasts the other vessel with the laser, almost shattering the overloaded ruby and murdering everyone on board the other ship. It also causes the lab to slip its "time locks" at the Foundation and overshoot the present, winding up in prehistoric times.

And this time it's the Bean Counter who foolishly goes out for a walk, with everyone else following, leaving Karen the ChickOkay, who wants out of this movie? (Gigi Perreau) behind. When a suitably blown-up lizard attacks the lab, she discharges the laser at it and the ruby shatters, leaving them stranded. Fortunately, as our heroes hide in a cavern from the beastie (looks like some form of monitor lizard to me), they discover volcanic activity has produced a number of huge gems. Gordon theorizes that a ruby of the same size and shape might get them home, but Bean Counter is only interested in stuffing as many gems as possible in his pockets.

After Gordon falls into some lava (Bean Counter pulled the one essential gem holding the volcano together out of a wall), everyone tries to make it back to the lab, but Bean Counter gets there first, piles all his rubies on the laser and takes off without Mark or Karen. On his way back to the present, however, he finds himself on a collision course with another time vessel, and hears the very same radio broadcasts Mark had made earlier, and his own panicked declarations that he "has to stop them". And thus does the Bean Counter commit Cosmic Suicide.

For some reason this brings an intact time lab back to Karen and Mark, who take it back to the present, but too early, frozen people, time loop, blah blah blah. The end.

These two might not sound like the same movie, but the similarities are too close to ignore.

  1. The techno-babble surrounding the operation of both time portals is identical.
  2. Reason given by both Dr. Hero's for pushing the laser cycling to the top: "If the ruby shatters, we're out of business... but if we don't get this thing to work, we're out of business anyway!"
  3. Both Dr. Hero's allude to Fleming and his work with penicillin as research that seems, on the surface, worthless.
  4. When the Resident Idiot goes for a stroll in dangerous conditions, the elder scientist always follows because "I'm the senior; it's my responsibility." Dr. Hero then follows, because in Travelers he sees mutants tracking the Doc; in Journey because there's a lizard cavorting on a nearby miniature set. Then The Chick leaves because she gets scared.*
  5. The advanced peoples in both movies have no problem immediately discerning that our heroes are time travelers from the past.

Cheesecake... of the FUTURE!Ib Melchior, the director of Time Travelers, directed another staple of Saturday afternoon movies, The Angry Red Planet, and wrote a slew more, including the beloved Reptilicus. Travelers definitely takes the high route, with the future story taking up a generous three-quarters of the film. This gives us a chance to see the android construction facility, the spas of the future (ah, a little skin, 1964 style!), and what future chicks do when they're on the make for Comic Relief from the past - they play music for them on something called a Lumichord™.

The androids are a striking, memorable creation, with holes for ears and mouthExploitation or budget-minded casting? and quite human-looking eyes (I know that sounds absurd, since there have to be real people playing the androids, but you know what I mean...). Almost all the futuristic super-science is achieved by use of stage illusions (in the vulgar parlance: magic tricks) which ups the realism just a notch. And speaking of realism: there is a scene with some genuine pathos, when Carol finds and ultimately protects a "deviant", a mutant who is hounded and banished, especially by the brutish tribal mutants. As a child, I wondered how they did the makeup on this guy, his lack of feet, the way his hands look like pincers. Looking upon the movie again, with the eyes of an adult, I realized that the man, Paul Strudwick, is genuinely deformed.

On the other hand, Journey was unable to afford any of the nice sets and effects enjoyed by Travelers. With all the money doubtless going for the technical stuff in the labs, the film is a poster child for the old low-budget maxim: talk is cheap, action costs money. The first half-hour of the movie, in fact, is little more than blather and explanations of the space-time continuum, the sort of thing during which you can easily leave the room for a sandwich. At one point where the scientists first overload the circuits, however, the portal affords us a brief glimpse of the rat-bat-spider from The Angry Red Planet, doubtless Hewitt saying 'hi' to Ib.

Traveling through time is signified by setting the camera in the center of the set and spinning it around, finally coming to rest on the view portal itself, where stock footage begins to play: galaxies for going into the future, various pieces of war footage from WWII back through sword-and-sandals for the past. This takes up more time. Also padding things out is the central control room of the Foundation, where two technicians (Andy Davis and Tracy Olsen) are doing their damnedest to bring the errant lab home; these sequences feel quite a bit like Irwin Allen's Time Tunnel series.

The aliens and their UIL set.The view we get of the alien's spaceship is... um hm, the starship from Travelers. The interior of the ship is a black room, with aliens standing on short columns, and the final battle between the humans and aliens is a motley, hastily improvised affair; I swear that one of the "laser weapons" is a toy machine gun with barrel sawed off and an enormous wire whisk glued in its place. A lot of the physics on display is pretty suspect, too - the computers in the lab and the control room were synchronized before the accident, and this somehow gives them the ability to track the lab. How are they getting power from a laser ruby? And why does radio work when you're traveling through time?

Forry!The casts in both movies are pretty good, particularly the main characters - all the actors involved have pretty lengthy filmographies (the fact that I can keep linking to earlier reviews bears this out). Even the Lyle!Comic Relief in Travelers is not given enough time to be truly odious, and Journey, bless it, has no comic relief. The minute you see Preston Foster you just know he's a brilliant scientist - it's the goatee and the monocle. I may be alone in this, but I've always really liked Scott Brady; although in every movie I can remember him in, he seems more like somebody's PE coach who wandered into auditions by accident. And did I mention that Journey features Lyle Waggoner (of Carol Burnett and Wonder Woman fame) as an alien? And Travelers can boast horror fan icon Forrest J. Ackerman (again, Drac vs. Frank) as a technician who makes a typically bad pun?

Director Hewitt (last seen, etc., etc. directing The Wizard of Mars) actually does a fair job of keeping our interest up, given that there is more money sitting on your dresser right now than there was in his budget. Hewitt has a long and varied filmography, including, I notice, "Special Photographic Effects Supervisor" on The Outing, an awful teen take-off-your- clothes-and-die movie filmed in Houston and featuring Red Mitchell, my ex-roommate and star of Forever Evil. So there, I finally managed to work in my personal angle. I told you the world of bad movies was a very small one.

To sum up: Time Travelers is a pretty sturdy, enjoyable piece of 60's sci-fi; it has the better camera work (Vilmos Zigmound!), the better ending loop, and at least gives us a view of an idyllic forest where our heroes wind up. While Journey.....

Well, let me put it this way: in the cusp of the 70s-80s, there was a brief vogue for generic products; you know, the plainHello!  Would you care to make a donation to the Unification Church? white boxes with sans-serif block letters that proclaimed: MACARONI AND CHEESE (parodied brilliantly in Alan Cox's Repo Man: note all the different sized and shaped boxes that simply say: FOOD). There was also a line of thin paperback novellas that said WESTERN and ROMANCE. There was, of course, one entitled SCIENCE FICTION. Journey to the Center of Time is that generic novel made into a movie: it contains One Brilliant Vaguely European Scientist, One Heroic Scientist, a Plucky Girlfriend, A Villain, An Alien, A Rocketship, A Time Machine, Overwrought Library Music, and A Giant Lizard. Add cliches and stir.

The generic mac and cheese filled me up, and was quite serviceable. But the experience from plopping down the extra buck for the macaroni and Velveeta® was so much better....

 The Time Travelers

 Journey to the Center of Time


- February 7, 1999