Edgar G. Ulmer and Sci-fi Noir

I always love a good time travel yarn. I double love it if it’s directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, who made one of my all-time favorite noirs, Detour (1945). So I had high personal expectations for Beyond the Time Barrier (1960), a cheap, obscure sci-fi movie that happened to be streaming online through the magic of Netflix Instant. It’s not exactly a great film—OK, maybe not enough good. It’s very prone to the clichés and bad writing endemic amongst low-budget Cold War sci-fi. But it’s still very much worth a viewing.

That’s because it’s weird and visually striking, in a way that recalls Ulmer’s history as a set designer during the height of German Expressionism. It’s got a plot that’s familiar now, but wasn’t much used in films at the time: test pilot Bill Allison (Robert Clarke) goes on an experimental flight into the upper atmosphere, somehow goes beyond the time barrier, and lands only to find his Air Force base in a shambles. After wandering around the bleak wilderness, he spots a giant, solar-powered citadel, and is suddenly teleported inside.

There, he ends up in the middle of post-apocalyptic politics as the Citadel’s leaders each try to use him for their own purposes—including, potentially, the repopulation of the earth in the wake of a civilization-ending plague that rendered most human beings infertile and mutated. Plus some accidental time travelers from Russia want to use his ship to get back to their own respective times. It’s a surprising amount of conflict for a movie that’s barely over an hour long, with some surprisingly original conceits that occasionally one-up the film’s big-budget rival, George Pal’s The Time Machine. (Although Beyond the Time Barrier‘s bald, scaly mutants are nowhere near as effective as The Time Machine‘s morlocks.)

By far the most appealing element of Beyond the Time Barrier, though, is its visual aesthetic. The most obvious recurring example is the triangles that dominate the sets, whether in the shapes of doors or in the overall design of various rooms. Bars and shadows also proliferate, so the whole Citadel feels like a giant, futuristic panopticon. This sense of confinement goes along with the film’s unexpectedly intense pessimism. After many stand-offs and confrontations, Allison may get back to his own time, but 1) the future’s still fucked over and 2) he ends up mysteriously aged beyond his years.

Or look at those first few moments as he wanders around the countryside in the ruined future, as represented by a real-life rural area shot in stark black and white. It’s like something out of Godard, maybe Alphaville or Week End, in how it forges the dark future out of the present. As always, Ulmer was the film industry’s most frugal visionary, using pocket change to make bizarre, unsettling nightmares about the human capacity for selfishness and betrayal. At times, Beyond the Time Barrier may sound like a generic Buck Rogers-esque sci-fi saga, but deep down it’s full of the same despair that powers Ulmer’s other offbeat forays into the dark side of the soul.

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