Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 21, 2016):
In general, we find two kinds of time travel movies. One variety takes people from the present and sends them to different eras. The Back to the Future flicks went that way, as did the TV show Quantum Leap.
The other sort shows folks from different eras who come to visit the present. That happened in the Terminator movies as well as Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
Normally movies of the latter variety feature future people who head back into the past. This makes sense since those films need to develop a reality in which time travel exist. Since we know that inhabitants of the 19th century lacked the technology to make this happen, it wouldn’t seem feasible for them to come and visit us.
Or would it? In 1979’s Time After Time, writer/director Nicholas Meyer finds a way to bring a resident of 1890s Britain into the 20th century and still allow it to seem believable. He does this via the use of a historical figure of the era: writer HG Wells.
In the film, we learn that Wells (Malcolm McDowell) actually constructed the device depicted in his novel The Time Machine. He reveals this to a panel of cronies that includes respected surgeon John Lesley Stevenson (David Warner).
Unbeknownst to Wells or his friends, however, it turns out that Stevenson is actually the notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper. Minutes before the confab, Jack offed another prostitute, and the police track him to Wells’ place. However, Stevenson makes an inexplicable escape.
Before too long, Wells figures out what happened. Stevenson took off in the time machine and landed in 1979, where he remains. A safety mechanism causes the device to come back to Wells’ basement, and HG heads out in search of his villainous friend.
The craft lands in 20th century San Francisco, not Wells’ native London. Wells attempts to get his bearings in this new society - one that he believed would be a social utopia - while he also tracks Stevenson.
As part of the latter effort, Wells meets Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen), a bank employee who exchanges foreign currency. She encountered Stevenson the prior day and tells Wells at what hotel to find the villain. She also makes a move on him, as she quickly becomes smitten with him. We follow their love story as well as the pursuit of Stevenson.
Over the years, Time After Time earned a great deal of positive attention, but I never saw it until I received the DVD in 2002. I think all of us have films that we want to see but take years to actually do so, and Time was one of those for me.
While I was happy to finally check out Time, I can’t say that it did a lot for me. That said, I enjoyed the film and thought it offered a lot of positives.
The premise seems outstanding. Meyer takes unrelated history via the reality of both Wells and Jack the Ripper and joins them in an inventive way. That linkage might have been enough, but to then send the Ripper across the years and force Wells to play detective and chase him appears inspired.
Though this concept creates many “fish out of water” situations, Meyer doesn’t lay them on too thickly. These bits pop up from time to time – like HG’s visit to McDonald’s - but the film doesn’t rely on them heavily. The movie easily could degenerate into a series of Wells’ reactions to the modern world, so I appreciate the restraint shown by Meyer; he includes just enough to satisfy our appetites.
Time features a solid cast, and they all offer good work. Better known for nasty roles like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, McDowell plays against type as the idealistic and fairly innocent Wells, and he did nicely in the part. He maintains a certain wide-eyed naïveté but also comes across as intelligent and forceful.
Warner manages to make Stevenson believably ruthless and cruel but avoids a one-note performance. Steenburgen brings her usual warmth and likability to the fairly bland role of Amy.
Where Time falters relates to its execution. The film offered Meyer’s first directorial effort, and he still seemed wet behind the ears in that regard.
Time exhibits inconsistent pacing and lacks the necessary focus. I know that Meyer didn’t intend for the Ripper part of the story to be its main thrust, as he felt more interested in the love story between Wells and Amy. That’s fine, but the chase for Stevenson gets a little too lost along the way, so it feels like the story makes too much of a detour.
As with most - if not all - time travel flicks, plot holes cause some issues. Most of these revolve around the existence of the time machine itself. Wells spends much of the movie trying to locate Stevenson and making sure he stops the various murders. Why not use the time machine to go back to the period before the first killing and then show up at that location and halt it?
Because then we’d have no movie. Admittedly, these are small concerns, and when you watch a film of this sort, you really need to toss most thoughts of that sort out of the window; these issues become inevitable.
Despite some problems, Time After Time offers a generally compelling and enjoyable piece. It isn’t quite as terrific as I expected, but it seems fairly solid nonetheless.