Time After Time (1979)

31 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Here’s a wonderful premise for a movie. H.G. Wells, author of “The Time Machine,” has actually created a working model of a time machine, only to have Jack the Ripper come in and use it to escape into the future—our time. And so, Wells must use the device to travel into the future to track him down, finding himself amongst this strange world of automobiles and fast food, among other things. That’s a great idea for a movie and that movie is “Time After Time,” which is just about as delightful it sounds.

The first twenty minutes takes place in London, England, 1893. Jack the Ripper (David Warner) is on the loose, murdering women he meets on the street. He’s also one of the guests of a special dinner party hosted by H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell), who knows nothing of his friend’s deeds. He shows his guests the time machine, kept down in his basement, and explains every detail to them (and to us). He announces that he plans to use the machine to travel into the future, which he’s sure will become a social utopia.

Soon, Scotland Yard detectives search the house for the Ripper, who makes a quick and easy escape via the time machine. So, Wells decides to follow him to the year 1979 and somehow track him down and take him back to 1893.

He awakens in the history museum in San Francisco, California, inside the model of the time machine at the H.G. Wells display. Though the city is not exactly what Wells thought of when he expected “utopia,” he finds joy in exploring this new territory (and new time) and solving every riddle he can come across—he sees a newspaper headline “Colts Maul Rams,” attempts through the banking system to get some money, orders a “Big Mac, fries, and a tea to go, please,” and in the movie’s funniest bit, tries his hand at hailing a taxi.

The main joy of “Time After Time” comes from the fish-out-of-water portion that takes up a lot of the movie. It’s great to see this bright, intelligent Englishman from the past exploring the cultures of America’s future. Because Wells is so smart, innocent, and quick-witted, it’s easy to sympathize with him as he goes through all of this. The screenplay by Nicholas Meyer (who also directed this film) also has a share of sly wit in the dialogue, such as a scene in which Wells is told by his lunch date that she likes his suit—“Is that what they’re wearing in England?” she asks. “It was when I left,” he says. It also allows some social commentary in which Wells meets the Ripper in a hotel and is taught why he belongs there and Wells doesn’t—he shows him violence on TV and proclaims that he’s home. “The world has caught up with me and surpassed me,” the Ripper explains. “90 years ago, I was a freak. Today I’m an amateur.”

The screenplay also allows a romance to take place amongst the comedy of the fish-out-of-water tale and the quick action of H.G. Wells’ pursuit of Jack the Ripper. It occurs between Wells and a helpful, flirtatious banker named Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen), who later in the movie finds herself about to be the Ripper’s latest modern-day victim.

The romance is written well, and so is the character of Amy, I suppose. But the problem I have with this movie is Mary Steenburgen’s performance. Steenburgen speaks her lines in such a flat, artificial matter that you have to wonder how this fun actress was directed to play the role. She’s just too awkward and uncomfortable in this movie. That’s a strange criticism, because I would have expected Steenburgen, a wonderful actress, to be one of the best things in the movie. Now, she’s my least favorite element of the movie.

But the two lead actors—Malcolm McDowell and David Warner—own the screen. McDowell is wonderful in this role of the intelligent H.G. Wells. And he’s funny when he doesn’t know he’s funny, which means he owns the comedic moments. David Warner is suitably menacing as Jack the Ripper, playing it straight.

If I am going to complain about Mary Steenburgen’s performance, I should point another quibble I have with this movie. There’s a crucial plot point that is so obviously set up at the beginning, only to have us wait and wait until it pays off at the end. And since we know the outcome of the plot point, there’s no surprise.

But “Time After Time” does have a lot to like about it—particularly Malcolm McDowell and the fish-out-of-water story. This is a fun movie about time travel with an appealing lead character and a sharp-witted screenplay.

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