- Year: 1979
- Director: Nicholas Meyer
- Starring: Malcolm McDowell, David Warner, Mary Steenburgen
After ten versions of A Christmas Carol, And Then There Were None, and last week’s The Time Machine, I am finally writing about a film that is not based on classic literature… sort of. 1979’s Time After Time is actually about H.G. Wells, but it imagines him in a world where he has actually discovered time travel.
We meet our hero, a heavily fictionalized H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell), who is apparently holding the annual mustache and beard competition at his home.
Wells shows his friends the time machine he has invented, as well the
Deus Ex Machina Vaporizing Equalizer, that if pulled out of the machine will override lazy writing to reach a happy ending send the traveler hurling through limbo for eternity. This raises so many questions. Why would an inventor put this in his machine? If it was somehow inevitable, why would he put it in plain view where anyone can just pull it out? Why isn’t it taped off or something? Didn’t someone tell the screenwriter that this should have been just a little more subtle? The only way this could have been more obvious would be if Anton Chekov was at the dinner, held up a gun, and said “Hey, they’re gonna use this in the third act.”
The party is interrupted by two Scotland yard policemen, who are afraid Jack the Ripper has struck again. While investigating the house, they discover an incriminating medical bag, but the owner has already escaped. Dr. Stevenson, played by The Great One, David Warner, has of course gotten into the time machine and taken off. Since he didn’t have the key, the machine returns and Wells follows him into the future.
After a long and very trippy acid sequence, featuring a lot of audio clips from the early 20th century, Wells arrives at an exhibit dedicated to himself in 1979 San Francisco. There is never an explanation given why he ends up in San Francisco instead of London, and while Wells is very confused at first, he just kind of accepts it. I don’t usually like trying to break down the science of time travel fiction, as it’s all theory anyway, but in-universe this should have been explained.
Wells tries to track down Stevenson, going to various banks to see if he had been exchanging any money. Unfortunately, along the way, he has to participate in every single fish-out-of-water cliche imaginable.
At one of these banks, he meets Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen), who is instantly smitten with him. Between H.G. Wells, Doc Brown and Ted Danson, what is it with Mary Steenburgen falling in love with men born in a different century? Their romance goes exactly as you’d expect—awkward attraction, quickly falling in love, he debates when to tell her the truth, she doesn’t believe him until he gives her physical evidence, Jack the Ripper tries to kill her…
There are a lot of predictable, run-of-the-mill tropes in Time After Time, but there is one thing that is exceptional—David Warner as Jack the Ripper. In my book, if you can convincingly portray Bob Cratchit and Jack the Ripper, your range as an actor is practically limitless.
Unlike Wells, Jack the Ripper aka John Leslie Stevenson fits into 1979 wonderfully. The scene in his hotel room where he and Wells are discussing modern society is probably the best in the film. Wells tries to make his former friend come with him, saying they don’t belong in this time period. Stevenson agrees that Wells is in the wrong time period, but sits him down to prove that he is in the right one. Flipping through channels of war movies, cartoon violence, and news footage, Stevenson declares, “I’m home,” and even notes he’s an amateur in comparison to other criminals in 1979.
Warner’s performance is terrifyingly chilling, and most of all subtle. This is a bit of a lighthearted movie, so you might expect the villain to be a scenery-chewing stock character, but he’s quite the opposite. His scenes are genuinely creepy, with most of his lines being spoken in an almost whisper. Heck, even when he doesn’t speak, his brilliant acting comes through. There’s a scene where he’s walking through the nightlife of San Francisco, getting ready for his next attack. Just by his expressions, we see all the sick sexual pleasure he gets out of his killing.
Even the brooding theme that plays when Stevenson is on screen is the best music in the movie. The cat-and-mouse game between Wells and Stevenson is enthralling, but that brings me to a big issue—it’s a romantic comedy where the antagonist is Jack the Ripper. If you want a charming fish-out-water love story, that’s fine, but when you mix in one of the most threatening villains in human history, it’s a tough feat to pull off. The scene pictured above, where Stevenson prowls for his next victim, is inexplicably spliced with scenes of Wells and Amy on their date.
When Wells takes Amy a few days into the future to prove the machine is real, they discover she will be Stevenson’s fifth victim. They go back in time to try to prevent the fourth, which they can’t do on their own due to a flat tire. Amy gives Wells a dime to call the police, even though payphones have never charged for a 911 call, and of course the police don’t believe him. They take him in for knowing so much about the murder and withhold his valuables in a scene that exists just to say “Hey remember when this happened to Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange?”. These police scenes contain yet another run of cliches that happen in every story where the lead knows something that no one will believe. Oh, but there’s one big whopper of a cliche left, and it’s one of the worst in all of cinema.
In case you can’t tell from this review, I love smart villains. Stevenson is shown to at least be Wells’ intellectual equal, and is actually shown to have much more street smarts than him, blending into a new society wonderfully. So why on earth in the third act does he suddenly lose IQ points? This final act should follow his brilliant evil plan, but it really doesn’t seem like something he’s mapped out well.
Wells tells the police to get officers to Amy’s apartment, and when they get there too late, they let Wells go. Stevenson has actually killed Amy’s friend, and lures Wells to him, so he can trade her for the time machine key. Haven’t movie villains learned that taking hostages never ends well? Stevenson has been built up as someone who could get the key anytime he wanted, just based on his wits, and now he’s resorting to something only a man who is out of options would do.
Wells takes on an extra heap of stupidity too, as he gives Stevenson the key. Stevenson doesn’t keep his word, and forces Amy to drive him to the museum where the machine is located. Again, in the time it would have taken for Amy and Wells to get to the police and explain everything, Stevenson could have easily hailed a cab and gone into the future. Does he really have to kill this one woman? He has the machine that will let him commit endless murders throughout history and never get caught, and he insists on killing a lone San Franciscan in 1979. I would get it if he held some kind of grudge against Wells, but that is never even hinted at.
Wells gets in Amy’s car (the key is conveniently in the ignition) and poorly chases Stevenson through the streets of San Francisco. Arriving at the museum, Stevenson is still insistent on killing her, but as he gets out his musical pocket watch (a trademark of all his killings), Amy runs away from him and towards Wells. As Stevenson starts the machine, Wells pulls out the
plot contrivance Vaporizing Equalizer and sends Stevenson into limbo.
Alright, even if Stevenson insists on taking Amy as far as the museum, why does he take her inside? He has no sexual interest in her, saying he doesn’t find her “particularly attractive—his only intent is to kill her. If he really wants to do that, why doesn’t he slice her throat the second she parks the car, and then quickly run inside to the machine? Wells would be grief-stricken and probably wouldn’t get to the machine in time.
I’m not saying that the villain should win in this movie, because that’s not what the audience wants. I’m just saying that the way the villain is defeated is obviously a last-minute addition. Sorry, but there’s no way the Vaporizing Equalizer was in the first draft of this thing. Someone just said “Hmm, our villain’s too smart. How do we defeat him?” and the response was “Magical off-switch.” Even worse, in-story it was H.G. Wells, one of the greatest writers of all time, who created this plot device. Is this some kind of meta joke I’m missing? I take notes while I watch these movies, mostly observations or things I may forget while writing, but all I could write here was “This ending is awful, just awful.” My thoughts remain the same.
Wells takes about 10 seconds to convince Amy to come back with him, because you know, love I guess. Amy Robbins was the name of H.G. Wells second wife… whom he openly cheated on, and who died twenty years before him, so yay happy endings all around.
Oh, this premise had so much potential. H.G. Wells invents a time machine and chases Jack the Ripper into the future. Think about how cool that sounds, but unfortunately it relies on too many “observing the future” jokes. H.G. Wells wrote the work of time travel fiction, so wouldn’t he understand the future might not be at all what he is expecting? There are still a few jokes that work, like when Wells finds the books he will one day write and calls them “Fiction, I hope.” This is funny enough in its own right, but is even funnier when viewed as a reference to the infamous Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast. Beyond this one, however, a lot of the jokes are tired, and there is even the occasional one that doesn’t make sense.
Um, this film is set in 1979, the same year in which it was made. There had not been an Exorcist III made yet, and it wouldn’t be until 1990. It would make sense to have this joke if the movie was set a few years in the future, but it’s set in the present day. Plus, it’s not like Exorcist films were coming at a rapid pace—the first came out in 1973 and the second in 1977. That was it. Well I’ve had enough of that tangent, so let’s take a look at the final score.
Story (14/30 Points)
Time After Time has such a great concept, and the back-and-forth between Wells and Stevenson is exciting. The romance between Wells and Amy is fairly dull and predictable, but it’s still sweet. The third act is just plain embarrassing, and that’s the major reason for this score.
Cast (24/30 Points)
David Warner is perfect as Jack the Ripper, making the most of every scene he’s in. His facial expressions before and during his killings say so much, and even in the poorly-written third act, he elevates the material. I’m fine with McDowell and Steenburgen, as they’re both great actors. They just have so little to work with here, that they can only be charming and not stellar.
Experience (13/25 Points)
The score is pretty nice, the last in the legendary career of composer Miklós Rózsa (Ben Hur). His Jack the Ripper theme is especially memorable. The time travel effects do not hold up, and while the shots of San Francisco are nice, there isn’t really much spectacular to see here.
Originality (9/15 Points)
Great concept, bad execution. Beyond that, the design of the machine is nowhere near as lavish as the one in 1960’s The Time Machine, and a lot of this is just stuff we’ve seen before.
FINAL SCORE: 60%
If you don’t mind a predictable but good-natured romantic comedy, you’ll be entertained. For me, it’s worth seeing for the performance of David Warner alone, who commands the picture with a creepiness that belongs in a dark thriller. Maybe Time After Time was trying to have something for everyone, and I suppose you’ll probably find something you like in it. It’s just a bit inconsistent.
Next week, it’s another romantic time-travel movie when I review 1980’s Somewhere in Time.