A lot of "hard" science fiction stories take an emerging technology, and try to imagine how it could possibly go catastrophically wrong. When "Beyond The Time Barrier" came out in 1960, the Cold War was in full swing, and so was nuclear testing. People expected to be annihilated by atomic bombs at any moment. However, this film depicts a futuristic world that doesn't go out with a bang, but with a whimper.
Falling into the "cautionary tale" category, "Beyond The Time Barrier" turns out to be better than its press would have you believe. Marquee posters play it up as a horror film, and the theatrical trailer running at the beginning of the DVD hypes the dystopian future angle, full of murder, intrigue, mutant uprisings, and a sterile society resting its hopes for a future on the gonads of two young and uncontaminated people.
I watched this trailer with my jaw hanging slack, wondering "what fresh hell is this?" But I am happy to say, I was delightfully surprised by a film that was better made and more plausable than I had been led to believe. Of course, in the realm of 1960's B-grade science fiction films, that bar is not very high to begin with.
We start off with Major Bill Allison (played by the film's producer, Robert Clarke), a hotshot Air Force test pilot, preparing to take the new experimental X-80 jet aircraft (played by an F-102) to a suborbital flight. The mission is described in fairly realistic-sounding detail in the preflight prep meeting at the Sands AFB (played by Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Texas).
Allison takes his jet into a steep climb, using rocket boosters to break the records for altitude, but something peculiar happens while he is coming over the top of his parabola to return to Earth, for when he lands back at the base a half hour later, it is lying in ruins, the sort of disuse only years of abandonment can cause.
Confused and more than a little freaked out, Allison rounds the end of one building and sees a weird, futuristic city in the distance, and decides to walk toward it, hoping to find out where his is, and what happened to him. As he approaches the city, however, he is incapacitated by a paralyzing ray, and awakens to find himself imprisoned in a huge bell jar, being stared at by a handful of young, deaf and mute people wearing unfamiliar clothing. One of these people is a beautiful young girl who makes no point of hiding her open admiration for the strapping young man struggling to escape from the bell jar. She signals for him to be brought before the city's ruler, the elderly, good-natured man the people call The Supreme, but who the girl knows as Grandpa.
The Supreme, and his cynical captain of the guard, have as much trouble believing Allison's story about having come from 1960, as he has believing that he is now in 2024. The Captain thinks he's a spy, but because Trirene, the cute girl, has the hots for him and being telepathic, can read his mind, the Supreme chooses to believe him and, after a brief trial in which Allison proves he's really clueless by being thrown into a dungeon full of angry mutants who accuse him of "scaping like Kruse and Bourman" and leaving them to die, the Supreme gives him his own quarters and the run of the Citadel.
Allison soon learns that a devastating plague sparked by cosmic rays began to cause mutations among the populace of Earth starting in 1971. While many people were infected, numbers of them saw the danger and began building underground cities like the Citadel, closing themselves off from the surface world. The bell jar in which Allison had awakened was cleansing him of surface radiation.
Unfortunately, no one could really escape. As it happened, the atomic war everyone had been dreading never happened--but all the testing ruined the atmosphere, allowing the planet to be bombarded by cosmic rays which made everyone sterile and gradually go bald and insane. By the time they realized what was going on, everyone had already been exposed. Only Trirene, for some unexplained reason, seems to still be fertile, and since Allison left Earth in 1960, he has escaped the plague, and so is expected to become Trirene's mate and "save the future of humanity."
Allison, however, is not the only time traveller here. Trirene brings him to meet three imprisoned scientists, the Russian pilot Captain Markova (played by the director's daughter), who came from 1973, and the Germans General Kruse and Dr. Bourman, who came from 1994. They, too, experienced similar temporal anomalies, which Kruse and Bourman explain to Allison--after first surreptitiously blocking the surveillance devices with McGyver-like tricks--that if you take the speeds at which their planes were travelling, and factor in the speed of the Earth's rotation, plus its speed through space, plus the speed of the galaxy, you get pretty close to the speed of light, and so they briefly broke through "the time barrier" when their craft hung suspended while the solar system moved ahead in time x-number of years before they came back out of the temporal stasis. A side note--it's utter rubbish, of course, but the earnest way it's delivered in the film makes it sound almost plausable.
So anyway, these four are called "scapes" because they somehow escaped the plague (although really, the other three have got to be infected, too) and for this reason the Captain hates them and doesn't trust them, convinced they're going to try to make a break for it; and once Kruse and Bourman learn that Allison's plane is sitting at the airfield in perfect working order (and, presumably, carrying enough fuel for a second flight) they figure out a formula to allow Allison to fly back to 1960 and try to avert the plague in time to save the world.
The Captain finds out about this plan, and hauls Allison before the Supreme, who pleads with Allison to stay with them, be a good little boy, and get his granddaughter knocked up as soon as possible so they can save humankind. Allison calmly tells him that he is duty-bound to try to escape.
Meanwhile,Captain Markova sneaks down to the dungeon, knifes the guard, and releases the captive mutants, exhorting them to take revenge on the city. Allison is horrified by this, but she and Kruse and Bourman say it's a diversion to allow them to get out of the city. Then they start fighting amongst themselves, each wanting to be the one to fly back in time, with the predictable result that all three of them get killed.
So does Trirene, shot by accident when the fight broke out. Allison delays his escape to carry her back to the Supreme's apartment. The old man, grieving, gives Allison his blessing and Trirene's ring, and shows him to the secret passage to the surface.
Allison follows the formula, and succeeds in returning to 1960, but something has gone horribly wrong. When he is pulled from his plane, he has aged sixty-four years, which helps to convince the Air Force doctors and officers that his story is true. Word comes that Kruse and Bourman are currently both students at universities in Europe. The film ends with the lead investigator quietly stating, "We have a lot to think about."
Like a lot of science fiction, this story is more fictional than scientific. I got the feeling that they kind of had to write in ways to get around plot holes that appeared while they were filming, and since this movie was shot in ten days, that's probably true. This is the only explanation I can come up with for why the previously level-headed trio of time-travelling scientists suddenly turned on each other--they had to be written out of the script. They knew that their time periods were infected, so why would they want to return to them?
It is never explained why Trirene is assumed to be fertile, unless being freakishly pretty is an indication. To be honest, the whole new-Adam-and-Eve subplot was kinda creepy. It was also not really explained why just about everybody living in the Citadel were deaf-mutes, or whether Trirene was the only telepath, or why the mutants could speak, or why the Supreme seemed entirely ignorant about the United States of America, considering the plague started 53 years earlier, and he was clearly in his late 70's or early 80's.
On the plus side, the sets were impressive. The abandoned airfield was played by Marine Corps Air Station Eagle Mountain Lake, and the Citadel was built in the Texas Centennial Exhibition Fair Park buildings, using a motif of triangles that give this film a fairly unique and beautiful style. The scene where Trirene is swimming (nude) in her pool was shot at the hotel where the crew was put up during production. They really made do with minimal props and extant sets, and borrowed the jet fighter from the Air Force, which also gave them footage to use of the test plane in flight. And the film exploited the publicity for The Time Machine by going into release a month before that classic movie.
This film makes a little go a long way, and is far less stagey and incredible than many in the genre. In other words, it's watchable, it doesn't go where you expect it to, and it doesn't stretch your suspension of disbelief too far.
But it might be better to skip the trailer.