The future is strange and mysterious, and within its ill-defined confines there holds many vague threats that can chill the blood of even the most optimistic individual. That is the premise of Robert J. Gurney Jr.’s ‘Terror from the Year 5000 (1958) – a premise that starts out with some promise only to be dashed to pieces by Gurney’s terrible, terrible movie. After assaulting the audience with one of the loudest, most bombastic voice-overs in cinematic history accompanied by some of the most uninteresting stock footage assembled, the film properly opens up in the cramped basement laboratory of Prof. Erling (Fredric Downs), who, along with his financial backer and assistant Victor (John Stratton) have built a prototype time-machine that can retrieve objects from the future (as well as tremendous amounts of radiation).
The un-dynamic duo’s latest find, a statuette, is sent by the Professor’s daughter Claire (Joyce Holden) to a colleague of his, a Richard Hedges (Ward Costello), who, through the use of radiometric dating and black magic (more on that later) determines that the statuette is from the year 5200 AD, and insanely radioactive. Curious (as well as a little miffed over being dosed with radiation), Hedges goes out to the Professor’s “island laboratory” (cue evil laugh) where the Professor reveals that 20th-century objects put in the machine seem to be "traded" for analogous future objects by intelligent life. However, unbeknownst to the Professor, Victor as has been fiddling around with the machine after hours in hopes of getting a living visitor – a quest that ultimately ends in tragedy and ridiculously pompous speeches about the future being “what we make of it.”
First off, if the statuette (and later, the ‘Terror’) is from the year 5200 AD, why isn’t the movie called ‘Terror from the Year 5200’? Admittedly not as catchy as the original title, but still, why not just change the script so that the statuette/Terror are from the year 5000 instead? Speaking of necessary script changes, a piece of advice to all future movie-makers: if you’re going to make a “science-fiction” film, it might be useful to know some actual “science”, or perhaps ask someone with some knowledge on the subject before you go and make your film.
Case in point: Hedges claims that he used carbon-14 testing to determine that the statuette is from the year 5200 AD. First of all, carbon-14 testing does not work on metal objects, but only on materials that were once alive or part of something that was once alive. Since the statuette is made of metal/mineral, such a method would yield no tangible results. But even if carbon-testing did work on non-living material, unless ‘carbon’ is Latin for ‘magic’, it is impossible to determine future dates from an object using carbon-testing, or any ‘testing’ method for that matter.
Also, no one in this film seems all that concerned with the exuberant amounts of radiation that they all seem to be getting dosed with, either from the machine or from the objects that come from the machine. Its only after 3/4s of the way into the movie that these “scientifically inclined” people decide that maybe, just maybe they ought to be wearing radiation suits when using the machine or confronting the Terror from the radioactive future (the same future from whence all the objects they’ve been handling and tossing around came from, and knew to be radioactive because its determined in the first quarter of the film that the statuette –hence everything else – from the time period their mucking around with is burning with radiation).
These points might sound “nitpicky” to some, but bear in mind that this film presents itself as a “science-fiction” movie, and as such, one expects it to adhere to the principals and tropes of science-fiction. You don’t make a horror movie and then not put any scary scenes in it, or make a romantic comedy that has no romance, so why would it be acceptable to make a science-fiction movie without any actual science in it?
But even if one overlooks the sheer non-scientific approach this film takes regarding its subject matter, there’s still the matter of the cast, none of whom appears to have interacted with another human being before staring in this picture. The trees in the swamp surrounding the Professor’s house are less wooden than Gurney’s cast, and probably less incompetent too.
Aside from the aforementioned “showering in radiation without a care”, Gurney’s script (and the cast’s less than stellar performance) sees their characters: (1) not calling the cops after they find a dead body (2) leaving the professor’s unarmed daughter to watch over a radiation-burnt Victor while the Professor and Hedges go out hunting for the titular Terror (3) having the Professor and Hedges calmly stroll back to the house when they discover yet another dead body and realize that the nurse (Salome Jens) whom they left with Claire is actually the Terror wearing the dead nurse’s clothes and face. For a group of “scientists”, the characters sure do lack a surprising amount of common sense (or perhaps they’re just not thinking clearly because all that radiation they’ve been exposing themselves to has destroyed their brains).
To call Robert J. Gurney Jr.’s ‘Terror from the Year 5000’ a terrible movie is a severe understatement. There is little, if anything to be gained from this picture, its sole saving grace being that the script is so poor, the performances so stilted, and the film so ridiculous that ‘Terror from the Year 5000’ falls under the category of “so-bad-its-good” filmmaking. If unintentional comedies are a pleasure for you, then look no further than Gurney’s film, because it has some of the best examples of accidental comedy to be found. For those seeking a genuinely frightening or interesting film about time-travel, look elsewhere.
Find the nearest Blockbuster (assuming they still exist) near your home so you can rent this film almost immediately. Or, if you prefer that movies came to you instead, set up a Netflix account and start your ordering as soon as possible.