May 21, 2012

The Future(s) Market

Terror from the Year 5000 (1958)

Sci-Fi; Time Travel; Mutant Markets
About a year ago the media trumpeted a story that a team of researchers in Hong Kong had definitively ruled out the possibility of time travel. Never missing an opportunity to be stupid and mean-spirited, many of the reporters dressed up their stories with quotes from supposedly bummed-out science fiction writers and fans, adding insult to injury with dumbsh*t tag lines like "Watching 'Back to the Future' will never be the same again…" (or even more egregiously: "Shengwang Du (the Hong Kong researcher): 1, sci-fi nerds: 0").  The absolute joy in smashing the dreams and visions of people who don't attend black tie dinners or suck up to wealthy elites and politicians for a living was palpable.

Lost in the joyful myth-busting was a line or two of fine print about how the research only disproved one particular theory of time travel, and that other avenues (specifically Stephen Hawking's theories involving wormholes) had not been ruled out. I'm no scientist, and the closest I've come to high-level physics is watching The Big Bang Theory, but even a casual reader of science history should know that you never say never. Sure enough, as soon as some bigwig pronounces that heavier than air flight is an impossibility, here come the Wright brothers. And of course, every few generations or so, a true genius like a Newton or an Einstein shows up on the scene and totally upends what the lesser lights of the scientific establishment just know in their heart of hearts to be true…

So take heart sci-fi nerds everywhere! Your spirit and imagination are the true foundations of scientific progress-- in spite of the cynicism and smugness of CNN reporters!

Movie poster
While you're waiting for that next great leap in scientific thinking, there are a lot of imaginative ideas that have been put on film. If you're a time travel fan like me, you might just want to travel to the past (via film of course) to see what the future holds. A while back I reviewed World Without End (1956), about time-traveling astronauts. In that case, the time traveling was the accidental result of Einstein's theory of time dilation at near-light speed.  The obscure Terror from the Year 5000 puts another spin on the concept, where earth-bound scientists play host to a time-traveler. The result is 66 minutes of ultra-low-budget campiness, with a couple of neat ideas that struggle to overcome the yard sale sets, discount special effects and wildly uneven acting.

In a remote part of Florida, Prof. Howard Erling (Frederic Downs), along with impetuous assistant Victor (John Stratton), lovely daughter Claire (Joyce Holden) and creepy groundskeeper Angelo (Fred Herrick), has retreated to an island estate to conduct experiments with a matter transporter (very reminiscent of The Fly, also released in 1958). Only in this case, the matter is transported across time, not space. It seems the test objects they've been sending through the machine are swapped for other objects that are sent back by unseen entities (people?) living far in the future. Impatient Victor wants to plow full steam ahead to test the machine's full capabilities, but the older and wiser Prof. urges caution (and is perhaps more than a little afraid of the unknown).

Claire's solution to the bickering is to bring a third party to the lab to help assess what the good Prof. and Victor have stumbled upon. She anonymously sends a figurine from the future to an archaeologist and former colleague of Erling's, Robert Hedges (Ward Costello), with a note suggesting he date it with the Carbon-14 method. Hedges is intrigued (and frightened) by two results: the Carbon-14 dating returns an astonishing negative number, dating it thousands of years into the future (a physical impossibility for such a test, but we'll let that go for now), and one of Hedges' assistants accidentally discovers that the figure is highly radioactive. Bewildered, but not ready to believe his old friend is trying to poison him with radioactivity, he hops on a plane for Florida.

Not realizing Claire had sent the statue to Hedges, Erling is surprised to see his old friend, but is relieved to have another scientist around to offer a "second opinion" on the project. Victor quietly seethes, seeing Hedges as a possible impediment to his own plans for the machine, and a rival for his fiancee Claire's affections (what the sophisticated, vivacious Claire sees in the immature, moody Victor is hard to fathom).

Victor stares into the time portal.
In this eerily-lit shot, Victor stares into the time portal.
One of the film's best scenes involves Erling and Victor demonstrating temporal transference to the skeptical Hedges. They put an ordinary bottle into the chamber, and after a process that looks like an ordinary 4th-of-July sparkler shooting off, the bottle is miraculously replaced by a shiny, futuristic-looking pitcher (which Erling handles with tongs due to the radioactivity). Hedges marvels at how the bottle has been "transformed." Not transformed, traded, retorts Erling.
Erling: Think Bob, throughout human history, what has been the first activity of explorers in any new region?
Hedges: Map-making I suppose.
Erling: No Bob, barter, trade.
Still doubtful that Erling and Victor are actually trading with human(oids) in the far future, Hedges proposes that they try exchanging something of his own, just to make sure there's no trickery involved. He fishes a Phi Beta Kappa key out of his pocket. After the "sparkler" does it work on the key, they take an ordinary-looking medallion out of the chamber. One side is blank, but on the other, Hedges sees two words spelled out in Greek: "Save Us."  The music swells as the three men knit their brows in wonderment.

Semi-convinced now, Hedges agrees with the Professor that they should take it slow until they know exactly what (and who) they're dealing with. The brash assistant Victor can barely contain himself-- he wants to contact the civilization on the other side of time and shower himself with fame and fortune… and if present day society benefits from its contacts with future humans, so much the better. You guessed it-- he conducts secret experiments on his own, and it all ends pretty badly.

Thanks to Victor's meddling, we get to see:
  •  A dead, three-eyed mutant cat sent special delivery from the future
  •  A mysterious, grasping arm that comes out of the time portal to slash at Victor
  •  A knock-down, drag-out fist fight between Victor and Hedges
  •  A gratuitous cheesecake shot of lovely Claire undressing in her bedroom
  •  The time exchange portal cranked up to full power by the obsessed assistant (the machine looks like somebody's hot water heater with a window in it, with coils coming out of it at odd angles)
  •  A mysterious, mutated human of the future who is surrounded by visible radiation, hypnotizes with her fingernails, and literally steals the face off of an unsuspecting nurse with a special mask
Unfortunately, all of this is a lot less interesting than it sounds. Some intriguing ideas are there, but the budget and crew (including most of the actors), are just not up to pulling it off. The acting ranges from wooden (Downs), to eccentric (at one point Costello, for no explicable reason, skips merrily part way down a corridor), to quite good (starlet Joyce Holden's career in B movies and TV started and ended in the '50s).

Salome Jens as the mutant woman from the future
The mutant woman from the future lectures the 1950s
humans about their terrible stewardship of the Earth.
Salome Jens appears in the last climactic minutes as the mutant from the future. Fortunately for Salome, most of her screen time is with the very attractive "stolen" face-- the filmmakers were wise to limit the perfectly awful mutant makeup (her "true" face) to a couple of brief shots. She even gets a chance to chew the scenery as she lectures the present day humans about the awful way they treated earth, precipitating environmental catastrophe and war, leading to a community of radioactive mutants.

Perhaps the best reason for looking up this obscure programmer is that it is apparently a first for filmed American science fiction. Bill Warren, in the 1986 edition of his book Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties, states that
This modest film is somewhat interesting for an imaginative premise, and is the first American feature film I know of to depict a time machine. Scientific time travel via machine turned up in some serials [in the '40s], and there was accidental time travel in World Without End.
He goes on to say:
Terror is only adequate in terms of production; a few of the actors do fairly good work; there's a hangdog air to the whole movie. Most audiences probably found it of little interest, but I don't think it deserves to be completely overlooked. It has some imagination in its conception and enterprise in its execution.
While I think "enterprise" is a bit too complimentary to describe its execution, there's no doubt about its imagination. The idea of using a time portal to trade with a future civilization is about as original as it gets. (Almost 30 years later, Steven Spielberg's 1980s TV show Amazing Stories featured David Carradine as a surly dirt farmer who stumbles upon an unseen people -- or group of things -- living deep under the earth. He trades with them via a deep, dry well and a pulley system. But then he gets greedy. "Thanksgiving" is one of the best episodes of the entire series.)

A DVD copy (sans sarcasm) is available from Movies Unlimited.