Warner Bros. (1979) 112 min. PG
Director: Nicholas Meyer
Screenplay: Nicholas Meyer based on novel by Karl Alexander
Cinematography: Paul Lohmann; Editing: Donn Cambern
Production Design: Edward C. Carfagno; Costumes: Sal Anthony & Yvonne Kubis; Score: Miklós Rózsa
Stars: Malcolm McDowell (H.G. Wells), Mary Steenburgen (Amy Robbins), David Warner (Stevensen), Charles Cioffi (Lt. Mitchell), Patti D’Arbanville (Shirley), Joseph Maher (Adams), Andonia Katsaros (Mrs. Turner), Shelley Hack (Docent), Cory Feldman (Boy at Museum)
Along with ‘The Ripper’ episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker TV series with Darren McGavin, and the 1988 centennial miniseries Jack the Ripper with Michael Caine, Time After Time is, looking back, likely what started it all, sparking my lifelong obsession with the science of Ripperology. Despite my affection as a kid for Time After Time, which I must have watched a thousand times on HBO or Cinemax, I have, unfortunately, rarely rescreened it as an adult. So, when I re-watched it after so long, I was genuinely pleased by how well it holds up. Already a cult film in its own day, it’s weathered the years so well, as attested by the very short-lived TV series of 2017, by now it definitely deserves to be certified a ‘70s cult classic.The debut film of director-writer Nicholas Meyer, Time After Time is a fascinating, funny, frightening, romantic fantasy that breathlessly interweaves fact, fiction and spellbinding literary imagination into a fantastical tall tale, inspired by the outline of Karl Alexander’s novel, which was still unfinished at the time the movie was made. Taking off from precisely the same place as George Pal’s 1960 adaptation of The Time Machine, just after H.G. Wells (played by Malcolm McDowell here) has unveiled his new invention to his friends. Before he can take it for its preliminary spin however, it’s hijacked by Jack the Ripper (played by David Warner), who commandeers it to rocket into the future, with Wells in hot pursuit. Teaming up with an emotionally insecure bank teller (played by Mary Steenburgen), Wells races to hunt down the Ripper, and stop his killing spree.Though it had its antecedents, both on the big and small screen, it appears to have been the modest success of Time After Time, with its clever storyline, that served as the opening wedge in the popular time travel sub-genre that was to come. Titles released in its immediate aftermath, such as Time Bandits, Somewhere in Time, Timerider, The Final Countdown, The Philadelphia Experiment, and the tv show Voyagers, would all feature characters slipping backwards or forwards through history, righting wrongs and usually rubbing shoulders with famous personages along the way.The creative impetus for Time After Time may actually have stemmed from the ending of the previous year’s Superman movie, starring Christopher Reeve, who would subsequently appear in his own time slip cult fantasy, Somewhere in Time (1980). His Superman blockbuster had wrapped with the comic book character literally reversing the flow of time, to bring Lois Lane back to life. It was one of the few movies of the era that I can recall, apart from Time After Time itself, to dabble with the then unconventional notion of manipulating the spacetime continuum to alter past and future events. Expanding this concept down avenues of thought that seemed hip, creative and novel for the late ‘70s, the idea would come to its modern fruition with the back-to-back juggernauts of The Terminator (1984), and Back to the Future (1985). Opening the interstellar floodgates to the type of time travel movies screens have been deluged with ever since, these twin titans sparked off endless and ongoing debates concerning time loop logic.But here, despite being the movie’s main gimmick, the time travel motif simply subsists in its most embryonic form, one that’s never fully realized. But viewers can clearly sense the signposts for the more exciting things to come in the future, which would push the envelope further. Especially in the final scene, with the lovebirds climbing into the time machine to blast off to destinations unknown. This setup would be repeated, almost verbatim, at the end of the first Back to the Future film. Indeed, actress Steenburgen would go on to be specifically cast in the third Future sequel, as a means of paying respectful homage to her appearance in the granddaddy of the modern time travel genre.And since Time After Time doesn’t expend too much excess energy on the illogicalities that it raises (such as how an English time machine contraption conveniently winds up in a San Francisco museum. Or how Steenburgen’s character isn’t missed by anyone when she jumps forward a week, etc.), the viewer can derive no pleasure mulling over the gaffes, since they don’t detract, in any essential way, from the movie’s plot and larger themes. Getting hung up over them would take all the fun out of what remains a genuinely creative, beguiling little movie. It’s too fun a roller coaster ride for that.Blasting all the way back to the ’70s, to observe this sub-genre’s near-genesis, tends to make Time After Time seem almost genteel, being nearly half a century removed from us itself at this point. Which is fitting, I suppose, considering this movie is less concerned with the logistics of time travelling, than in contrasting the changing times, with Wells’ quaint, courteous Victorian past juxtaposed with the loud, chaotic, pushy present. In fact, the film’s actual interests lie far afield, and prove far more fascinating, than the now overly familiar idea of time hopping.Far more spellbinding, for instance, are the expertly written, ingeniously played philosophical debates between humane traditionalist Wells, and the misanthropic, modernist Ripper, concerning the rising violence rates and creeping social decay of present-day society. Warner, who enjoyed one of the most memorable of horror movie death scenes in The Omen (1976) and would go on to play the villain in Time Bandits, is brilliant in this, one of his best roles. Oddly, his Ripper occasionally feels reminiscent of McDowell’s own, iconic lead character in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). Certainly, the two would appear to possess the same dystopic, dehumanized, predatory view of the futuristic worlds they inhabit. Making one wonder whether director-writer Meyer hadn’t intended his Ripper’s assessment of the future as a sort of vague callback to Kubrick’s own cold, dispassionate depiction of it, in his controversial earlier film. In addition to these similarities, Warner had already played a very similar, Ripper-like role in the 1974 anthology From Beyond the Grave.Warner’s Jack claims that, unlike chivalrous, Old World Wells, he belongs in the gone to hell present day, that he had to, in fact, wait for civilization to devolve to the point where it could catch up to his own insane levels of cruelty and violence. In certain ways, he antedates Ian Holmes’ claim to have invented the 20th century, at the end of From Hell, many years later. As the images we see on his tv confirm, society has ratcheted up the kill count to previously unthinkable levels over the course of the 20th century, with war, genocide and indiscriminate mass shootings far surpassing even the Ripper’s most depraved dreams of bloodletting. With Vietnam a still recent memory Warner’s Ripper, like Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux, released in the wake of WW2, claims his paltry number of kills seems like amateur hour compared to the large-scale, industrialized atrocities being waged today with a world-wide scope. Jack believes reprehensible modern society deserves a scourge like him as divine retribution.It’s idealistic Wells, a polite gentleman from the civilized, Victorian era, who must temper the wild ramblings of Jack’s fevered brain, by serving as counterpoint. Meyer sets Wells’ visionary dreams of utopia against the Ripper’s bleak, dystopic take on things. Having often envisioned the world of tomorrow in his writings, forecasting that modern civilization would have evolved into a socialist utopia by this point, Wells instead finds it’s regressed in the opposite direction. Yet, rather than being repulsed by things as they are, the way the Ripper is, Wells instead finds his curiosity piqued.Where Jack is preoccupied with the diabolic devices the world has devised to kill with a new machine-precision – tanks, atom bombs, poison gas – Wells himself finds the tinkerer in him instead arrested by all the engaging new contraptions and gadgets that prove themselves superior to any of his own inventions. He dutifully jots down research notes on everything, as if the world were something to be studied under a microscope, rather than experienced. Whereas Jack quickly adapts to the modern world, dressing like a trendy hippie, Wells retains his tweedy airs of chivalry and grace.Jack murders women, where Wells respects and wants to protect them. But he must find a way to defeat his arch nemesis in their deadly, cat and mouse game of chess, before it’s too late, without himself being ‘corrupted’ by modern society, lowered to Jack’s same brute level, by resorting to violence. As Jack well knows, once one succumbs to their innately savage impulses, it becomes a contagion, one that’s catching. So, throwing down the gauntlet, he plays devil’s advocate, daring Wells to catch him if he can, while still remaining non-violent. Director Meyer was clearly determined to craft a film in the spirit of the civilized, old-fashioned Wells, instead of the violent, modernist Jack, so one can sense where things have been compromised for the censors. The sex and violence (which generally take place offscreen) have been toned down greatly, and the romance and fantasy elements emphasized. The result is a slasher film the whole family can enjoy. Time After Time’s biggest flaw is that its tame PG-rating mitigates against a convincing depiction of a ‘70s moral hellscape, on the level of a Taxi Driver or Looking for Mr. Goodbar. One that would justify Jack’s blanket assessment of modern society as a teeming cesspool. Indeed, looking back on the ‘70s from the vantage of a new century, the era seems largely benign. Certainly, the flashes the movie offers us of the decadent disco clubs and meaningless, pay-for-play one night stands Jack entices his victims into, seem harmless enough now, and probably did at the time as well. Meaning that his all-consuming fury against the new world he wanders through, lacks real fire. In fact, it ends up possessing the same hollow sound as the moral outrage of other conservative fundamentalists of the day, railing against the direction the world was headed. The words Meyer puts in his Ripper’s mouth make him sound like a far-right religious nut, prophesying from the pulpit against left -wing liberals and a sexually permissive society, the seventh signs that the end is nigh. Like an evangelical, he’s wishing to wash what they deem to be the evils of modern civilization, away in a biblical blood tide. He has such a dark and dystopic view of the world, it’s little wonder the Ripper seems almost relieved at the end, when he disintegrates into a million subatomic particles. What really has this Ripper all riled up are the same things outraging other social conservatives, sending them scurrying for their guns instead of knives – a more progressive youth culture, civil rights, feminism, the sexual revolution, all the turbulent social upheavals that had come to define the ‘60s and ‘70s, and were regarded as threats to traditional, bedrock values. Given his reactionary, knee-jerk response to how the world had changed in the interim, Jack actually comes across as far more conservative and old-fashioned in his views than seemingly staunch Victorian Wells. For the incensed, self-righteous villain of the piece, this may seem a properly hissable tone to strike, since it veritably reeks of the same sort of self-righteous Victorian morality that equated the wages of sin with death.Considering the dark, dangerous night world Jack glides through, in which we’re not asked to sympathize with any of his victims, viewers might be inclined to agree with his soulless world view. That is, if it wasn’t for the way the moviemakers have conceived Wells’ romantic interest, Mary Steenburgen’s Amy Robbins. As a fluff-headed, slightly dizzy, thoroughly modern working girl (if one far different from the type the Ripper targets), she serves as living proof of how cockeyed Jack’s twisted assessments about the present actually are. Which tends to validate the director’s creative decision to depict this ‘world of tomorrow’ in the funny, inquisitive way Wells sees it, rather than the weltering hellhole of the Ripper’s fancy.On unsteady legs, in a San Francisco where she shakily speaks of another quake to match the big one back in ’06, Steenburgen, subsisting in a state of constant self-analysis, possesses all the nervous edge of one of Woody Allen’s New York neurotics. Tapping into the Me Generation zeitgeist of existential anxiety, she’s unsure whether she’s being self-assertive or pushy by asking the old-fashioned Wells out to dinner at a restaurant that slowly spins round on its axis, like the Space Needle. The shifting scenery behind them, as the camera angle switches from one to the other, serves as an ideal metaphor for how disconcerted the two are, trying to navigate what is in fact, a brave new world for both of them. One seemingly spinning off its axis at times, as they struggle for equilibrium. Just as fish-out-of-water Wells is trying to find his way in this future tense, Amy is searching for her own sure footing in a modern world which feels almost as alien to her, having been turned upside down as it has, by the changing times. Her head spinning, as a self-declared ‘liberated woman,’ she’s trying to find a comfortable niche for herself in a freewheeling, hedonistic ‘70s San Francisco, where her charming hesitancy and insecurities leave her feeling she doesn’t quite fit in. Similarly, much of the film’s fun comes from watching Wells, who was considered a visionary in his own day, a man far ahead of his time, now coming across as the most out-of-touch and conservative of fogeys. Over the course of the film, he must become increasingly acclimatized to how different the current world is from what he’d prognosticated it would be, and how far beyond his wildest imagination women have advanced in society. Even Amy’s sexual forwardness goes amusingly far beyond his own, once scandalous, advocacy of ‘free love’ (a quaint term she claims to not have heard since middle school).Leaving them all at sea as to how they should relate to one another romantically, now that the world views men and women as equals, and traditional courtship rituals no longer seem applicable. This ‘new woman’ shocks him with her stridency, while she’s attracted by his ‘old-fashioned’ manners, such as gallantry and courtliness, all rare qualities she doesn’t often encounter in modern men of her own time, where chivalry is dead. Which has left Amy unfairly shafted in love, time after time.And because ‘genius’ Wells, who McDowell endearingly plays as a wooly-headed fuddy-duddy, finds himself in over his head when out of his own time, Amy must of necessity, take him by the hand by taking the wheel. Quite literally, slipping into the driver’s seat and appropriating the more traditional ‘male’ role in their relationship. As she insists, his little boy lost quality brings out her maternal instincts. Steenburgen’s Amy is a life force, whereas Jack can only rain down death. So, it makes sense that he would feel compelled to eradicate her, since she flies in the face of his dark, all-consuming vision of the world and the worth of its women. Sprightly and spunky, with eyes that crinkle up with kindness, a baby’s whine and a hesitant, unsure quaver to certain words, with her birdlike vulnerability Steenburgen really blossomed in this role. Having only appeared in the Jack Nicholson Western Goin’ South prior to this, the actress would win the supporting Oscar the following year, for her equally captivating performance as Paul Le Mat’s flighty first wife in Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard. But she was deserving of the award for her un-nominated work in Time After Time, playing another slightly kooky, passive woman who’s too nice, wearing her heart on her sleeve, while doggedly struggling to get her chaotic life together, and find some emotional stability. Steenburgen and McDowell, who would marry in real life, make a wonderful romantic couple. Using their characters to contrast the old with the new the movie, with its San Francisco setting, even incorporates swoony elements from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Visiting the misty Muir Woods, where they’re surrounded by old growth forests and towering redwoods that have stood for millennia, comparison is drawn between both films’ fraught themes, concerning reincarnation and how the haunted past can still blend into the present, the living intermingling with those long dead, as modern girl Amy does with H.G. Wells and Jack the Ripper. All of which make Meyer’s claim that this Hitchcock homage was unintended, quite hard to credit.A bespectacled McDowell, who’s been aptly described as ‘owlish’ in this part (he’d have made a great Dr. Whooo), was coming down off his lead role in Tinto Brass’ sexually explicit Caligula (1980), when he accepted this part, his Hollywood debut, to emotionally disengage himself. Certainly, Time After Time’s vision of the modern day is nowhere near as hellish as Caligula’s conception of ancient Rome. Cast against type, playing against David Warner’s variation on his Clockwork Orange character, McDowell hadn’t been as endearing onscreen since O, Lucky Man!, several years earlier. And his Berkeley Square bit proved one of his last popular, mainstream successes before his star began to wane.Sandwiched between the groundbreaking, Oscar-winning work of Superman (1978) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Time After Time’s special effects are adequate, but of their time. They don’t bear comparison to such sci-fi bellwethers as Alien, which was released the same year. But they’re serviceable enough, and wisely kept to a bear minimum. In fact, the effects appear surprisingly similar to those in The Time Machine, released twenty years earlier, as does the design of the apparatus itself, a sort of golden plated aeronautical device, that would seem more appropriate to Jules Verne, since the look was actually based on the Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.With a little propeller in the front and retrofitted wing tips on the sides, it’s ringed with bejeweled jellybeans and topped with a clear globe eggshell. Inside is what appears to be a Vegas slot machine where voyagers can take a gamble on a dashboard comprised of date and timecards, bleeping buttons, knobs and levers. The overall effect is of a scaled up, gold link time piece, clearly intended as homage to the machine in George Pal’s original. Strangely though, the conception for Wells’ trip forward into the future would appear more indebted to the trippy, stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, than the inventive, Oscar-winning time-lapse photography of Pal’s Time Machine. Proving everything old is eventually new again.