Take two icons of the 19th century – one infamous (Jack the Ripper), the other renowned (visionary novelist, H.G. Wells), toss in a dash of whimsy and a pickle of a plot – the latter, clumsily supplied with crippling contrivances, far too conveniently concocted coincidences and more than few glaring narrative pot holes by screenwriter/director, Nicholas Meyers - and populate the claptrap with three very fine performances from Malcolm McDowell, Mary Steenburgen and David Warner, and you have a fair idea where Time After Time (1979) is headed…or not. The implausibility of time travel is one thing. The thorough silliness of this movie’s meandering stratagem is quite another; and yet intriguingly realized, despite some glaringly inexplicable oversights. As example, Wells’ time machine, made out of spare parts in his basement no less, and, looking very much like a Coney Island pinball arcade novelty, is supposed to function on harnessed solar power. Yet, it manages to levitate, firing animated sunbursts of rainbow-bright color, inside windowless rooms without any assistance from the sun.
Okay, ‘it’s only a movie’, as Hitchcock would say; and seventies’ psychedelic sci-fi, no less. Still, Time After Time ought to have already been a disaster in the making. Indeed, it did little box office in its own time, but has since cultivated a reputation as a cult classic. Oddly enough, I found myself engrossed by it in fits and sparks. When Meyers can think of something clever to say, he and cinematographer, Paul Lohmann exhibit a remarkable presence for creating energetic cinema space with their glossy ‘show and tell’, wallpapered from main title to end credits in a deliciously over-the-top score, written by one of Hollywood’s éminence grise; Miklós Rózsa. Alas, in directing his first movie, Meyers falls into at least one predictable trap as a novice, taking us on a Cook’s Tour of San Francisco; the locations arbitrarily chosen simply to show them off in travelogue fashion (The Golden Gate Bridge, the Hyatt Regency – where parts of The Towering Inferno were shot, the Palace of Fine Arts, built for the 1915 exhibition, and so on). While these locations are greatly enhanced by Lohmann’s superb framing, they really have nothing at all to do with the plot, nor are they even, arguably, the best locations one might have chosen to stage the action.
All things considered, Time After Time has to be one of the nuttiest screwball pseudo-Wellsian outings ever machinated for the movies. It earned a paltry $13 million back in 1979 (hardly a heavy-hitter), but acquired legions more adoring fans on reputation alone. Many continue to regard it with uncharacteristic fondness even today as – strangely, again after a hiatus of nearly twenty-five years, I sincerely do. I would not go as far as to call Time After Time ‘every bit as magical as the trick around which it revolves’, but there is an unmistakable ‘quality’ to it – of unprepossessing innocence and ingenuity – that lingers with a curious zing and smite against contemporary pop culture; also, fervently in search of the ‘feel good’, dwindling throughout the 1970's and ruthlessly in even shorter supply from our movie-going compost these days. I wanted to enjoy Time After Time more than I did, and yet, cannot deny I unexpectedly appreciated it more than I ought – having already seen far too many ‘better’ movies about time travel and thus grown incredibly jaded in my opinions. But Time After Time has the benefit of a terrific cast, the three principles able to sell its tripe as treasures aplenty. Even without McDowell, Warner and Steenburgen, Time After Time is already plugged into our collective wish fulfillment DNA with its life contemplation and ‘what if?’ scenarios. Stop me if you have already heard the one about the guy who dreamed he could go back and change something about his past or journey into the future.
Time travel has always fascinated mankind in much the same way as the proverbial fountain of youth. Authors have had great fun with the notion our perishable bodies might find eternal preservation, either through the looking glass (Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland) or off in Never-Neverland (J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan). Wells was, of course, an extraordinary daydreamer on such matters; his life’s work committed to a sort of occultism in his search of immortality (The Time Machine, The Invisible Man). Time After Time isn’t particularly interested in Wells' Darwinian philosophizing, or even his more clairvoyant powers of social observation. Malcolm MacDowell’s H.G. is instead a sort of avuncular time-traveling buffoon, whose scientific powers of observation border on genius, even if his mercurial social skills barely rank him two points above an autistic savant. The time-honored movie-land cliché has always been that men with very large brains equally suffer from a tragically emasculated libido, and general inability to relate to women. And so it is with McDowell’s Wells. He hasn’t a clue what to do with a good woman – even a provocatively batty one, preferring the cloistered company of a group of intellectuals – and one raving psychotic. Ironically, the estate of H.G. Wells did not take umbrage to the movie’s pretense Dr. John Leslie Stevenson (a.k.a. Jack the Ripper, and, played with seedy aplomb by David Warner) was Wells’ best friend. But in matters of romance, our H.G. needs a liberated boy-crazy airhead from the future, spouting mutilated feminism (Steenburgen’s Amy Robbins ought to have been reincarnated as a peroxide blonde), to smartly yank his crank a quarter turn to the left. Wells was, after all, a bit of a socialist.
Time After Time begins in foggy/soggy London, circa 1893. We are in the thick of the White Chapel district, dark and gloomy, highlighted by a singular splash of color; an inebriated prostitute, Jenny (Karin Mary Shea) exiting a local pub. She is stalked by an unseen ‘admirer’ who presently offers her a quid for what she believes is a few minutes work in a nearby back alley. But only several moments into having hiked up her skirts, the ole girl hears a memorable melody coming from the stranger’s pocket watch before having her throat slashed. The Ripper departs. But his handy work is discovered by a bobby (Clement St. George), who makes chase, signaling for assistance with his whistle. Nearby, popular science-fiction writer, Herbert George Wells (Malcolm McDowell) has gathered a group of intellectuals for dinner. Though none are aware of it, as yet, Wells intends this to be his farewell party. For, having studied and presumably mastered the space/time continuum, Wells has erected a solar-powered time machine in his basement. The contraption includes a non-return key, to keep the machine and the traveler's destination in sync, and, a ‘vaporizing equalizer’ to maintain the traveler and machine on equal terms. Soon, Wells will embark upon his great journey into the future where he believes mankind will have founded a utopian society. Boy, is he in for a culture shock!
The party is interrupted by the late arrival of Dr. John Leslie Stevenson (David Warner), still carrying his medical bag. After being shown the time machine, the small group of friends is startled when the housemaid announces two Scotland Yard detectives, Inspector Gregson (Laurie Main) and a Sergeant (Michael Evans) waiting at the front door. The detectives forewarn ‘the ripper’ has struck again nearby. They are conducting a search of all homes in the vicinity. Alas, Stevenson has left his blood-stained gloves from his latest victim in his medical bag. He flees into the time machine and escapes incarceration. However, not in possession of the ‘non-return’ key, the machine later returns to Wells’ home without its occupant. Wells notes the machine’s dateline has stopped on Nov. 11, 1979. Determined he should pursue John into the future to apprehend and return him to his own time in order to face the consequences of his actions, Wells arrives in 1979; his time machine and other collected works all part of a travelling museum exhibit currently on display in San Francisco. Reasoning John would have to exchange English pounds to U.S. dollars before embarking upon his exploitation of the future, Wells begins to frequent the various banking institutions and make his inquiries.
At the Chartered Bank of England, Wells is introduced to Foreign Currency bank manager, Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen) who, after openly flirting with Wells, offers up the necessary information. Not only did she wait on a man matching Well’s description, but she also recommended the Hyatt Regency as a place he might call home while staying in San Francisco. Wells hurries to the Hyatt, finds John and threatens to take him back to London in the time machine. John is impressed with his old friend’s powers of deduction, but equally as unimpressed by his pedestrian faith in virtue, honor and integrity. Told by Wells neither of them belongs in the future, John is quick to reason that the future has caught up to his insanity. In a world utterly gone mad, even he appears to be a novice. “I belong here,” John explains, “…completely and utterly. I'm home. Ninety years ago, I was a freak. Now... I'm an amateur.” A struggle ensues, John nearly murdering Wells before a hotel maid stumbles upon their fight, causing John to make a daring escape. Wells makes chase, but John is struck by a passing car. Wells hurries to the hospital, but is told by a mistaken nurse that a man matching John’s description has since died of his injuries.
The middle act of Time After Time is an awkward blend of romance and pathos. Wells inexplicably returns to Amy at the bank. She takes the rest of the afternoon off to go sightseeing with him. Yet, despite having only just met, Amy confides in her best friend, Carol (Geraldine Baron) she has found ‘Mr. Right’. After a fashionable lunch, a stroll through the sequoias, and, a very late supper, Amy attempts to get to know Wells better in her apartment. Predictably, the couple falls into bed. But Wells keeps his identity to himself for a while longer, soon realizing John is still alive and stalking women in Frisco’s red light district. He confides in Amy. She naturally does not believe him. So, Wells takes her to the museum and shows her the exhibit dedicated to his life. He also encourages Amy to take a trip in the time machine. Very reluctantly, she agrees; Wells advancing the dateline meter by only a week to prove to her time-travel is possible in an instant. Alas, upon their arrival into this not so distant future, Amy reads a newspaper with a sensational headline about her own murder. As she is listed as the ripper’s fifth victim, Wells deduces they must go back in time to prevent the murder of the fourth; a prostitute named, Dolores (Shirley Marchant) who was still very much alive when they made the leap into the future.
Using the newspaper’s account of the grisly discovery of Dolores’ body dredged from a pond in Prospect Park, Amy and Wells race ahead of the ripper, who has already picked up Dolores inside a seamy discothèque and is also presently headed for the park to finish her off. Regrettably, Amy’s car experiences a flat en route. While Amy fixes the tire, Wells rushes to a nearby phone booth to alert police of the approaching murder. All are too late to intervene in John’s latest killing; Amy and Wells arriving just in time to witness the police fishing Dolores’ body from the water. Wells now has another idea. Since Amy is not scheduled to be killed until later the next afternoon he leaves her locked in her apartment to go to the police and explain the entire scenario. Unfortunately, Lt. Mitchell (Charles Cioffi) clearly thinks Wells is a nut. It doesn’t help matters, that in order to conceal his identity, Wells lies to Mitchell and his assistant (Read Morgan) his real name is ‘Sherlock Holmes’. Meanwhile, back at the apartment, Amy takes a heavy sedative to calm her nerves. Instead, it knocks her out. She awakens with mere minutes to spare before impending doom. Back at police headquarters, Mitchell has decided Wells might actually be the ‘San Francisco Ripper’. Realizing time has run out, Wells, determined to save Amy whatever the cost, tells Mitchell he will gladly confess to all the unsolved murders, if only the police will hurry to Amy’s apartment to save her from becoming the latest victim.
Agreeing to this bargain, Mitchell deploys two officers to Amy’s apartment. They discover the door ajar and the brutally dismembered remains of a woman inside. Knowing now Wells cannot possibly be the ripper, Mitchell sets him free. Tormented at having presumably failed the only woman he has ever truly loved, Wells blindingly walks back toward Amy’s apartment, passing the darkened Palace of Fine Art. He is confronted by John who is holding Amy hostage at knifepoint. She tearfully explains how the dismembered remains found in her apartment are Carol, whom she had invited for dinner a week earlier. John wants Wells’ non-return key in trade for Amy’s life. With the key, John can escape into the time machine and never be found again. Wells complies. But John is not about to let Amy go. The pair escapes in a car and Wells makes chase, remembering from his earlier ride with Amy, how to operate her vehicle. The three meet at the museum after hours; John breaking the glass doors to get inside and thus setting off the alarm. With only moments to spare before they are found out and likely arrested, John pushes Amy aside and steps into the time machine with the key. But Wells now reaches for the machine’s external vaporizing equalizer. Without it, John and the machine will travel at different speeds of light; hence, John’s molecules are vaporized and he is destroyed. Before museum security arrives, Wells tells Amy he must go back to 1893. He still has much important work to do. She hesitates, but at the last possible moment elects to make the journey with him. To hell with her feminist ideals. This is love! The movie concludes with an epilogue, explaining Wells and Amy Robbins were married until her death in 1927.
What is the correct label for Time After Time? It’s not a mystery – conventional or ‘un’. Within the first five minutes we already know who the ripper is and why he has come to the future. And Meyer is not particularly interested in catering to the sci-fi aspects of this endeavor either. Once we make the quantum leap from 1893 to 1979 and Wells concludes his rather lugubrious dissertation on utopia, there is a decided absence of the supernatural suspension in our disbelief. Superficially, Time After Time ought to have been a harrowing thriller…except its’ middle act is mired in a convoluted screwball notion of becoming an ageless love story: one that simply fails to captivate. The movie’s finale is pure ‘race against time’ pulp – literally. I suppose if I had to call it like I see it, then Time After Time is clearly a mutt; its’ one salvation being, that like most mongrels, it is woolly and careworn, but ultimately lovable, warm-hearted and satisfying.
Time After Time is a fairly unsophisticated oddity at best: albeit, teeming with a sugary sweetness that only intermittently fails to entertain. The picture’s shortcomings do not negate its joyously obtuse charm and that is saying quite a lot for Nicholas Meyer; also about the acting chops of Malcolm McDowell, David Warner and Mary Steenburgen. But Meyer has managed more than a minor coup; to entangle the audience in his faux historical piece of fluff and fancy, adding a dash of the macabre to the excursion, and mixing it all up in the enigma of time travel. If only he had been a little more bravely daring, a dash extra sure-footed too, especially in his middle act, then Time After Time might have been truly memorable. As it stands, it is modestly engaging throughout, with an infectious vitality and some competently rendered little jabs of pleasure. Wells’ heavy-handed platitudes about the perennial fate of societal evolution – predicated on the violence men do – hampers our appreciation for the lighter caper aspects in this adventure yarn; as does the awkward segue from wild-eyed adventure to tepid romance. There is no getting around it. It’s the middle act that threatens the picture. It just feels like a roller coaster stuck at the top of its first apex, delaying, rather than augmenting, our heady slalom down the other side of the hill; mere filler until Meyer can figure out how to maneuver us into his last act finale.
Malcolm McDowell’s performance is undeniably Time After Time’s redemptive standout; full of recurrent pantomime, empathy and the occasional flash of very wry wit; in short, very British. His H.G. Wells is an unexpected cross between a refractory intellectual and Benny Hill. Asked by Amy to quantify whether the suit he is wearing is the fashion in England, McDowell’s diminutive Brainiac replies, “It was when I left.” When he speculates that “…every age is the same…only love makes any of them bearable” his words resonate with heavy-hearted remorse. MacDowell is an undeniably gifted thespian. He can effortlessly toggle between these blithe moments of glib repartee and the more meditative bits, selling most ever situation as authentic. The ruse is not quite as convincing with David Warner; director, Meyer resisting to show us the moments when John’s artificially affable exterior gives way to the heated frenzy of his sexual psychoses. Still, Warner is delightfully sleazy in the part; a glint of something not quite right pithily caught in his eye as he exacts vengeance on the unsuspecting victims for the atrocious ‘maternal’ influence that presumably hewed an unspeakable monster from this man. Cumulatively, the victims are ripe for the slaughter; an atypical flock of mindless sex kittens a la the seventies ‘twinkle-twinkle/get down and let’s boogie’ ilk. Those old enough can recall, with fond embarrassment, the era that gave us Mop n’ Glow commercials with women swabbing their kitchen linoleum in high heels and a ball gown or provocatively hunched in a micro-mini and go-go boots. What can I tell you? It was the seventies.
Under any other circumstances, I might have given Mary Steenburgen the Razzie Award for playing the perfunctory witless and tit-less bubble head in a role tailor-made for Diane Keaton, except, herein, Steenburgen gives us flashes of befuddled sincerity and astuteness, even if the middle act relegates her to a Valium stupor as our cursory damsel in distress. Modern day feminists will likely bristle at Steenburgen’s take-charge, sexually free, if marginally vacuous and frizzy-haired working gal, feigning forthwith and no nonsense, but actually just looking the part while exceedingly desperate to leave her knickers in a ball on the backseat of the first Cadillac sporting a gentlemanly pair of trousers behind the steering wheel. A girl can get into a lot of trouble that way. But the burning and itching herein is mostly cerebral – alas, no cream and/or pill for that – as Amy seduces H.G. without much effort or even much consternation about the morning after on his part. Given Wells is from a far more stringent era, he discouragingly and unpersuasively falls into line with the erotic notions of this ‘wanna hump-hump’ disco baby. Still, Steenburgen’s Amy is a fairly amusing and occasionally heartrending third wheel in this buddy/buddy comedy turned ugly and surreal.
If only Nicholas Meyers had had the temerity to truly break out and away from the most pedestrian ‘fish-out-of-water' clichés, then Time After Time might have clicked with more staying power. It lingers in the consciousness – that much is certainly true – but only as an inelegantly constructed and extended dream sequence. The brief time-travel SFX severely date the movie. But even these are not enough to sink the project. I suppose I ought to thank Nicholas Meyers for forgoing the usual evocations of the modern age as an overcrowded, drug-saturated/gang-banging dystopia; the more fashionable interpretation in American movies back then; exalting urban blight and decay. Fair enough, not all of what we see in Time After Time is beautiful; but even the sordid ‘blue’ nightclubs frequented by the ripper are back-lit by some impressive neon tubing and strobe lights, impeccably lit and photographed by Paul Lohmann. Don’t get me wrong. I continue to regard Time After Time as a very enjoyable way to kill a couple of hours (pun intended). But I am still sincerely trying to figure out the reasons why.
I have to admit I was singularly underwhelmed by Warner Archive’s Blu-ray presentation of Time After Time. For starters, a lot the visuals are softy focused to the point of occasionally appearing blurry. Never having seen this movie projected theatrically, I really am unable to say whether or not this ‘look’ is stylistic the result of Paul Lohnmann’s cinematography, or a sincere flaw in this 1080p transfer. While exterior photography in then ‘present day’ San Francisco has that distinctly bright, flat appearance of an extended TV episode ripped from Kojak or Starsky and Hutch, interiors tend to adopt a sort of washed out patina of garish hues. Fine detail is wanting throughout; the diffused cinematography really lending nothing to Blu-ray’s superior capabilities to bring every minute detail to light. I detected no ‘wow’ moments in skin tones; no refinements in hair or fabrics, and contrast that, at best seemed either ratcheted up a notch during the exterior scenes, but less than punctuated during others shot under the cover of night. The movie’s prologue, supposedly taking place in London (but actually photographed on the same Warner sound stages where two decades earlier Phyllis Kirk’s scared goat of a girl fled from Vincent Price’s deformed artiste in House of Wax, 1953) are blurrily nondescript herein; obscured by mood lighting and fog effects, suffering from a decidedly anemic spectrum of desaturated colors, with contrast slightly weaker than anticipated. We get lost in this indistinguishable muddy brown/beige/black mess. Only close-ups satisfy. There is also some weird residual blurriness that creeps in around the peripheries of the film frame. Consider the scene where Amy and Wells lay their plans to set a trap for John while seated at Amy’s kitchen table; Amy, in the left of the anamorphic frame, momentarily annoyed by her lover’s apprehensiveness, adjusting herself in her chair, her face suddenly and inexplicably going out of focus.
The pluses here: a remarkably clean print with no hint of the occasional dirt and/or scratches mildly distracting on Warner Home Video’s old DVD. Otherwise, Time After Time looks average instead of spectacular. You won’t be amazed. Oddly enough, you also shouldn’t be too disappointed. The 2.0 DTS is a marked improvement over the old 2.0 Dolby Surround on the DVD; more subtly nuanced in unexpected ways. Alas, it too exhibits a few unhealthy distortions; a line of dialogue uttered by one of Wells’ colleagues in his basement, suddenly crackling and unclear; dialogue occasionally overwhelmed by Rosza’s score to the point where it sounds awkwardly balanced. Extras are limited to a trailer and audio commentary from MacDowell and Meyer: well worth a listen but ported over from the old DVD release. Bottom line: Time After Time is a movie I hesitate to recommend because it is saturated in glaringly shortsightedness of an unevenly paced narrative I generally abhor. Curiously, my affections for this movie remain intact. So, yes – see it. But accept it for what it is: B-grade nonsense with a few very fine performers thrown into the deep end of pool of nonsense. Clever? – hardly. Entertaining? – generally. But another 'time' and another 'Welles' would have made far more of this inventive claptrap! Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)