The film was a modernization of the Wells' story, making the Time Traveller a 1970s scientist working for a fictional US defense contractor, "the Mega Corporation". Dr. Neil Perry (John Beck), the Time Traveller, is described as one of Mega's most reliable contributors by his senior co-worker Branly (Whit Bissell, an alumnus of the 1960 adaptation). Perry's skill is demonstrated by his rapid reprogramming of an off-course satellite, averting a disaster that could have destroyed Los Angeles. His reputation had secured a grant of $20 million for his time machine project. A month from completion, the corporation wants Perry to put his project on hold so that he can begin work on a new weapon's project, the "anti-matter bomb." The unexpectedly early completion of the power module permits Perry to test his time machine the weekend before he is to begin the new project.
Perry time travels twice over the course of the weekend, and reports to Haverson (an analog to the novel's Hillyer), Branley, and J.R. Worthington (Andrew Duggan), chairman of the board of Mega Corporation. As Neil tells the story of his travels, reversed time-lapse images of building construction demonstrate Neil's passage backwards in time. Unlike the novel, the time machine and its rider do not stay in the same place as they travel through time, and the machine can travel to different locations. Perry first goes to 1692 Salem, Massachusetts where he is caught up in the Salem witch trials and found guilty of witchcraft. He is sentenced to be burned at the stake with his time machine. Tied up in the seat of his machine, he is able to free himself in order to escape. He detours into 1855 to avoid a time warp and arrives in the midst of the California Gold Rush, where he is shot at by miners and arrested for stealing a gold shipment. Perry's ingenuity and the distraction of a bank robbery allow him to escape.
When Perry returns to his lab in the present, he receives a chilling report of the environmental impact of Mega Corporation's latest weapons. Perry then travels into the future to supply proof for the report's projections and convince Haverson that Mega's current agenda will lead to global devastation. Neil witnesses the fiery destruction of civilization, but also the re-emergence of nature from the wasteland. During the devastation humanity retreated underground. Eventually some decided to return to the surface. Those who did so became the Eloi. Those who remained underground became the Morlocks. The Morlocks have just begun to "harvest" the Eloi for food when Perry arrives on the scene (the year is not made specific). He is befriended by Weena (Priscilla Barnes), who explains how the Eloi-Morlock world came to be. A special museum of technology, showcasing weapons from Perry's era, includes Perry's name on a card identifying a weapon he designed. A video and audio presentation in the museum reveals that Perry's new assignment at Mega Corporation will be directly responsible for the world's destruction. Before he returns to his own time, Perry and Ariel, the male Eloi, use plastic explosives found in the museum to seal off the Morlocks' three entrances to the Eloi habitat.
Perry gives his report to Haverson and Washington, and discovers they are uninterested in saving the world from destruction. Instead, they are interested in using the time machine to gain a military advantage over other world powers. Perry leaves them and returns to Weena and the Eloi, who are now free of the Morlocks.John Beck as Dr. Neil Perry
Whit Bissell as Ralph Branly
Priscilla Barnes as Weena
R.G. Armstrong as Gen. Harris
John Zaremba as the Secretary of Defense
Andrew Duggan as Mega Board Chairman J.R. Washington (pronounced "Worthington")
Rosemary DeCamp as Neil Perry's secretary Agnes
Jack Kruschen as John Bedford
John Hansen as Ariel
John Doucette as Sheriff Finley
Nick Steury as Dark Morlock
Parley Baer as Henry Haverson
Bill Zuckert as Charlie
Director: Henning Schellerup, Screenplay by Wallace C. Bennett, Release Date: 5 November 1978 (USA)
The role of David Filby from the 1960 film is replaced with Agnes, Perry's lab assistant. Aware of Perry's opposition to Mega Corporation's intentions, Agnes rejects Branly's encouragement to stay on after Perry's disappearance. She wonders whether Neil will ever return, musing, "After all, time is on his side" (similar to Filby's final line in the 1960 film). Whit Bissell appeared in both this film and the 1960 version.
Film critic David Sindelar defends the film against the accusation that it departs entirely from the novel. He states that the film's anti-war message was done better and more subtly by the George Pal film. Sindelar pokes fun at Perry's adventures in colonial America and the California Gold Rush and feels the Eloi appear and act too much like contemporary American young people.
The Collier & Heins Financial Consultants building complex in Salt Lake City, Utah was used for some of the modern era scenes. James Collier was president of the company in the late 1970s, and his office was used as Haverson's office. The Morlock scenes were shot in Park City, Utah, in and around one of the mines.