Beyond the Time Barrier (1960): A Movie Review
You know something? For a seventy-five minute science fiction movie from 1960, Beyond the Time Barrier is a decent picture.
We've moved on, of course, in terms of special effects, set design, and creature make up. But I can imagine that this must have been a fair-to-good big screen theatrical spectacle in the year 1960, nearly sixty years ago.
A major in the United States Air Force test pilots a special new rocket. He is to pilot this rocket on a trajectory that is meant to provide crucial data, which will help plan out mankind's further encroachments into "outer space."
The film is set in the year 1960. Now, during the course of the major's flight, his vessel seems to have, somehow, cracked the seal holding everything in the universe in its proper time relation.
He has broken the time barrier. In doing so, he finds himself propelled forward in time, sixty-four years later --- the year 2024.
The major finds that most of the world has been, apparently, rendered desolate by some means.
What remains of civilization seems to be concentrated in a few underground cities, or citadels, each administered by some kind of authoritarian governance.
The Time Machine
In a nod to H.G. Wells' classic, we find a conflict between two branches of humanity, you might call them:
- "mutants": bald and rather feral looking. They bore the immediate brunt of the radioactivity-caused mutation, which also renders them sterile.
- Then there are the normal looking humans, known as 'scapes' by the so-called mutants (those who escaped "the cosmic plague").
- But no one has truly "escaped" the plague. The normal-looking humans are, in fact, in "first-stage of mutation." You see, all of the normal-looking humans, except two, have been rendered deaf and mute.
- All of them, every single one of them has been rendered sterile.
- The tension between the "mutants" and the 'scapes' is born of the perception, on the part of the former, that the latter "left them to die" in the radioactive areas --- this part is somewhat vague.
The major is captured and brought to the citadel's leader and his right hand man, the commander of the armed forces (these are the two normal-looking humans left who can hear and speak: they communicate with the others through sign language.
They accuse him of being a spy, of course, which he denies. The major has no idea where he is or how exactly he got there.
This verbal tug of war goes on for a bit before a new element is introduced: the beautiful granddaughter of the citadel's leader. She, too, is deaf, mute, and sterile. However, she has the telepathic ability to read minds.
By this extrasensory means she has found truth in the major's words. Therefore he is released into her custody, so to speak.
I want to pause here to say that Darlene Tompkins (as the aforementioned granddaughter of the citadel's leader) is the best thing in this movie. She is irresistibly adorable in this role and proves herself to be a fantastic thespian, giving a vibrant, innocent yet sexy, hopeful with a touch of melancholy, charismatic performance, despite never speaking a word.
Somehow (I do have to stress the word 'somehow') it is determined that the major, from 1960, is a true 'scape.' He is not infected with the plague.
It turns out the there are other true 'scapes.' There are three others: One comes from the year 1973; another comes from 1994; the third comes from another time that is not specifically named, as I recall.
The Matrix (1999) Anticipation
Beyond the Time Barrier (1960) is rather "forward-looking for its time" in that it anticipates a core element of a movie made thirty-nine years later called The Matrix (1999), the first movie of the trilogy.
The issue with The Matrix is that there is a real world, in which people are bald and naked and hooked up as human batteries powering the world's new masters, the computers; and "the matrix" the illusory world in which people look, feel, live, work, and play like always.
This latter, illusory world is the matrix. When one is "freed" from the matrix, one comes alive to his true existence... blah, blah, blah....
The point: The Matrix is a whole lot more pleasant than the real world.
There is a scene in which we learn that one of Good Guys is actually a "double agent," as it were, who had made a deal with the computers. In return for his cooperation, he will be plugged back into the matrix, and presumably, given the matrix-life of his choice and design.
"Ignorance is bliss," and all that...
Now stay with me. Back to the movie at hand.
The three others have been put to work maintaining the solar energy facility.
Anyway, it turns out that the cosmic plague has been caused by a gradual wearing away of the ozone layer, which protects the Earth from the most harmful cosmic radiation. This erosion is dated (for purposes of the film's anti-nuclear war political messaging) to the time of the first atomic bomb test.
The film determines that the way to prevent the cosmic plague is for our friend, the major, to go back to the year 1960 and "warn them."
Two of the three other true 'scapes attempt to hijack the process. One tries to go back to 1973 instead, before she is killed. The other traitor attempts to go back to 1994 before he is killed.
The latter traitor explicitly tells the major that "they will never believe you," back in 1960 --- which is why he wants to go back to 1994, where "I will know nothing about it," meaning the cosmic plague.
Let's wrap this up
I said that this film is not bad for what it is --- a seventy-five minute science fiction film from 1960 --- and that is true.
I give this a 5.5 out of 10.
This film falters because its mechanism of revelation had not been well sorted out.
What do I mean by "mechanism of revelation"?
The question is this: When the major gets back to 1960, how is he going to tell "the world" what he has learned in a way that is meaningful and impactful to the world?
What I call the mechanism of revelation is critically important to the film of this kind. It helps to give coherence to a film. It serves to clarify "where a film is going," so to speak.
The mechanism of revelation for Beyond the Time Barrier is forced.
By the way, there is a nod to H.G. Wells' Country of the Blind (short story, 1904), in the condition in which the major returns to his time of 1960. I won't say what it is, so as not to spoil it for you. But that is one way in which the mechanism of revelation is forced.
Another way in which the mechanism of revelation is forced is his possession of a special ring. The ring belonged to the leader of the citadel. As analyzed by the Air Force base scientists of 1960, this ring is supposedly made of material entirely unknown to the planet Earth of 1960.
Why should this substance be so foreign? Its only from sixty-four years into "future."
Is the movie saying that the erosion of the ozone layer, caused cosmic rays to strike the Earth, which interacted with the surface of the planet in such a way as to make new substances?
If so, the film never makes this explicit.
I do not blame the screen writers, actors, or director for these flaws. They did all they could within the confines of a seventy-five minute science fiction film of this level of ambition --- which is to say, rather ambitious.
There is a historical reason behind the profusion of seventy-five minute or less films released in the 1950s and 1960s, which I won't go into here.
I think that this as good a movie as anybody could have made under these confines. These days, if Beyond the Time Barrier were a student film at some arts institute, it would certainly get an A+.
That's the final word, then.
The review in summary: For a seventy-five minute science fiction film from 1960, this is decent. It is probably as good a film as anybody could have made under its confines. If this were a student film today, it would most certainly get an A+ at any arts institute in the United States of America.
Thank you for reading!