Author H.G. Wells was a man ahead of his time. A writer of science fiction, he was entertained by society, but laughed at when he turned his hand to inventing the very devices that he wrote about. When the most notorious killer of all time uses Wells’ time machine to escape capture into the future, the writer has no choice but to give chase.
Released in 1979, Time After Time is one of the weirder films I was allowed to watch as a kid. My mother adored the movies (still does) and often threw caution to the wind so that she could see any film she liked with me tagging along to save the cost of a sitter. I still have nightmares about the hanging tree from Excalibur… a movie that introduced new horrors forever burned into my young mind. In the case of Time After Time, the scarring is less permanent as it involved relatively limited violence and was a magnificent movie.
Directed and written by Nicholas Meyer, Time After Time is a wonderful and intelligent flick and that should come as no surprise given that Meyer also worked on Stark Trek II, IV and VI as well as writing The Seven-Per-Cent Solution that told the story of Sherlock Holmes meeting Sigmund Freud (that’s the second mention of Freud on my blog in as many days… what can it mean?). In this case, Meyer has decided to bring two other historical figures together, H.G. Wells and Jack the Ripper while borrowing from his own fascination with science fiction in general and time travel in particular.
Time After Time opens in 1893, just as H.G. Wells is explaining the prospect of time travel to a group of assembled guests who find the subject just another piece of the eccentric writer’s fiction. The party takes on a grim air when it a policeman arrives looking for the Ripper… now known to be a friend of Wells,’ John Leslie Stevenson. Stevenson uses the time machine to escape into the future where he will be free from prosecution and Wells, after some deliberation, takes off after him.
The movie offers a few nods to the amazing George Pal film the Time Machine in the operation and exquisite design of the time travel vehicle. The special effects (just coming into their own in popular movies of the late 70′s after the success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) are excellent yet not too flashy as to distract from the story and the outstanding performances of the main cast. I would have to admit that the George Pal Time Machine is far superior, but I had seen this version of time travel first and as a kid I completely bought it as viable.
Ah, to be young again..
Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange, If…) is perfectly cast as the frail and strange Wells who is exuberant to be free from the constraints of the past. The character of Wells in the film is devout futurist and therefore gleeful at the prospect of actually getting to see where mankind is in the 20th Century. He has planned well and brought valuables to exchange for money and even has a solid pseudonym, Sherlock Holmes. It all goes pear-shaped and Wells is disenchanted and confused by what he had hoped would be a paradisaical future is instead very similar to the Victorian culture he sought to escape.
An actor who shines in a good movie, McDowell is happily in the right place here. He brings a humanity to Wells that makes him instantly likable and admirable. It saddens me to see a man who once starred in If…, O Lucky Man and A Clockwork Orange later appearing in Star Trek: Generations and a remake of Fantasy Island, but I guess you have to take what they give you. This is one of McDowell’s good ones.
Wells falls in love with a feisty bank teller Amy Robbins (played by Mary Steenbergen) who fits many of the ideals that he envisioned in the ‘liberated woman.’ Their relationship is very touching and as a viewer I almost forgot that Wells was actually tracking the Ripper in 1979 San Francisco. The real trouble arises when Wells insists on showing his lover the truth of his time machine and Amy glimpses her own future… in which she is brutally murdered by the Ripper, sadistically haven taken up his killings again.
McDowell’s opposite in Time After Time is the amazing David Warner (The Omen, Time Bandits) who just smolders on the screen as saucy Jack the Ripper. Warner has a definite skill for playing brilliant yet twisted and warped personalities that is bolstered by his unbelievable presence that is so daunting that it transcends the screen into voice work (such as Batman the Animated Series and Doctor Who Unbound in which he voiced an ‘alternate’ version of the Doctor). One of the more frightening aspects of the relationship between the two characters arises from the fact that Jack fancies himself and Wells as being of the same mind. Both learned men of Victorian society, Jack sees himself as above much of the world and extends that prestige to Wells whom he recognizes as a gifted individual, if flawed in his sentimentality towards women. He knows that Wells poses no real threat to him as the author is such a humanist and pacifist. In the end, it is this line that Wells must cross in order to stop the Ripper’s trail of victims.
Meyer’s Time After Time is a clever movie but it also has heart as it develops a sincere love story along with a gripping suspenseful adventure. It’s an unusual film, the likes of which you don’t happen upon often.
If you are a fan of vintage science fiction (I have to admit that I find speaking of a movie made in ’79 as vintage, but there you are), this is definitely worth a look.