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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Time After Time (1979)

November 26th, 2010
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For years, Star Trek fans spoke of the odd-numbered curse that afflicted the Trek movies.  The odd-numbered films (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and Star Trek V: The Voyage Home) seemed markedly inferior to the even-numbered ones (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country).  True Trek fans, though, knew that there was nothing supernatural at play.  The simple fact is that the even-numbered Trek films were of a higher quality because those were the three Trek films that benefitted from the involvement of Nicholas Meyer.

This talented filmmaker wrote and directed Star Trek II and Star Trek VI (the two darkest and most adult entries in the franchise) and was heavily involved with scripting Star Trek IV (by far the most commercially successful film in the saga until J.J. Abrams’ recent Trek reboot).  The commentary on the DVD of Star Trek IV reveals that Mr. Meyer basically wrote every scene of the film that takes place back in 1986 (while Harve Bennett scripted the opening and closing scenes set in the 23rd century).  Basically, this means that Nicholas Meyer wrote the bulk of the film!  (Mr. Meyer states in the DVD features that the first line of his part of the movie is Spock’s wonderfully deadpan comment that “judging by the pollution content in the atmosphere, we have arrived in the latter half of the 20th century.”  Such a good line!)

As an enormous fan of Mr. Meyer’s work in the Star Trek universe, I have long wanted to check out his 1979 film, Time After Time.  For years I’ve been hearing about this film that Mr. Meyer directed, featuring H.G. Welles travelling through time to combat Jack the Ripper.  (Though somehow in my head I had gotten the idea — which has been my impression for YEARS now! — that it was Sherlock Holmes traveling through time, not Welles… go figure…)  But, while well-received at the time, Time After Time is a pretty forgotten film these days, and my personal “must-watch” list of movies is pretty long, so it took me until last month to get to see the film.

I know this film has some fervent fans, but I can’t really say that it’s an undiscovered treasure.  Time After Time was clearly made with a lot of love and care, and there certainly is a lot to enjoy in the film, but over-all I must say that it hasn’t aged terribly well.

In 1893 London, H.G. Welles (Malcolm McDowell) unveils his newest creation to his stunned dinner companions: a time machine.  Welles intends to travel into the future to investigate what he assumes must be a utopian human society.  However, unbeknownst to Welles (but, to quote Mel Brooks, knownst to us), one of his dinner companions — his frequent chess-partner John Leslie Stevenson (David Warner) — is actually the serial murder Jack the Ripper.  When the London constabulary track Stevenson to Welles’ home, he steals Welles’ time machine to flee to centuries unknown.

Luckily for mankind, Welles had programmed the time machine to automatically return to its point of origin.  When the machine returns without Stevenson, Welles reluctantly decides to use it himself to follow his former friend, so that he can be stopped.  Welles ends up in San Francisco in 1979, a stranger in a strange land.  With the help of a young woman he encounters soon after his arrival (a very young Mary Steenburgen), Welles must navigate our futuristic-to-him world in order to stop Jack the Ripper before he can wreak havoc on an unsuspecting populace.

The central hook of a time-traveling H.G. Welles vs. Jack the Ripper is a great one, and Meyer and his collaborators (including writer Steve Hayes) really sink their teeth into the idea.  Time After Time is more of a ripping pulp yarn than any sort of serious, grim drama, and I think it was wise of the filmmakers to go in that direction.

The casting of the two leads was very well done.  I knew, going in, that Malcolm McDowell and David Warner were the stars of the film, but I of course expected Mr. McDowell to play the villain!  (After his star-making turn in A Clockwork Orange, Mr. McDowell has spent a career playing some phenomenal villains in films.)  So I was quite surprised — but pleasantly so! — to see that Mr. McDowell was in fact playing the hero, H.G. Welles.  He’s quite winningly gentle in the role.  As for David Warner (Time Bandits, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country), he is wonderful as the villainous Stevenson (Jack the Ripper).  I have always loved Mr. Warner’s unique voice and intonations, and he’s quite chilling as the deranged murder nicknamed Jack.  It’s nice to get to see Mr. Warner in such a central role.

One of the central ideas of the film is that the murderous Stevenson feels much more at home in our violent modern world than H.G. Welles does.  In one of the movie’s best scenes, Stevenson flips through the TV channels, which show one violent scene — from the news, from movies, from professional football — after another, taunting Welles that 1979 resembles Jack the Ripper’s inner fantasies come to life far more than it does Welles’ dreams of a utopian society.  That’s a fascinating idea, and it’s to Mr. Meyer’s credit that this notion is incorporated into the film.  I just wish that it had been explored a little more thoroughly, rather than getting pushed aside in order for the film to focus on the romance story.

Speaking of which, it’s great fun seeing Mary Steenburgen in such an early role.  She’s certainly heartfelt in the role of the heroine Amy, though she’s shortchanged by the script.  It just seems insane to me that she would ask Welles out on a date only seconds after first meeting him, with him sounding like a lunatic (since he’s totally unfamiliar with how anything works in 1979).  The love story between Welles and Amy is supposed to be a central story-line in the film, but the movie never convinces me that she could really fall in love with Welles — let alone have anything at all to do with him!

It was funny, though, to watch this film and compare it to Back to the Future Part III, in which Ms. Steenburgen plays almost the EXACT SAME ROLE!  In both films she’s an intelligent, somewhat daffy free-thinker who, sort of unbelievably, falls in love with the crazy-seeming stranger who is actually a time-traveler from another age.  Heck, in Back to the Future, one of the things that connects Steenburgen’s character Clara with Doc Brown is their shared love of the work of H.G. Welles!!  Pretty funny.

(By the way, that’s clearly not the only place in which Robert Zemeckis and the makers of the Back to the Future films were inspired by Time After Time.  I must say that the time-controls on Doc Brown’s DeLorean bear a striking similarity to the time-controls on Welles’ machine…!)

[NOTE: Soon after writing this review, I began reading Nicholas Meyer’s memoirs: The View From The Bridge.  I’ll be posting my full review of this terrific book soon, but I just wanted to note my amusement at coming across the following passage, in Mr. Meyer’s description of the surprising influence of Time After Time: “Steven Spielberg, producer of Back to the Future, told me that his team had studied Time After Time, running it again and again.”  Guess my observation was right on the nose, huh?]

As you can see, there’s definitely a lot to praise in Time After Time.  But the elements of the film didn’t gel into a whole that I really connected with.  I mentioned in my introduction to this piece that the film hasn’t aged well, and I think that’s a big part of the problem.  The over-wrought score might have worked at one time, but to my ears in 2010 it was laughably over-the-top, pulling me out of what should have been serious moments.  The special effects are incredibly cheesy.  I felt at times like I was watching an old episode of Doctor Who, and not a motion picture made two years after Star Wars.  And while I have written, and truly so, that I really enjoyed the all three of the film’s lead actors, I found all of the performances in the film to be a bit stiff and stagey.  This might be due to the script, or perhaps some inexperience on the part of first-time film director Mr. Meyer.  But the over-all effect was that I kept being reminded that I was watching a film from 1979, rather than being totally drawn into the story.  (In  my mind I kept comparing this film to The Wrath of Khan, which Mr. Meyer directed only three years later.  That is a movie that has aged remarkably well — the performances, the visual effects, and every other aspect of the film are every bit as potent and engaging today as they were back in 1982.)

I also kept comparing the film to Star Trek IV. The fish-out-of-water time travel story in that film is remarkably similar to Time After Time. Many of the beats that we see the confused Welles go through as he makes his way through modern San Francisco are very similar to what we see Kirk & co. experience.  (Note that the Trek gang ALSO find themselves in San Francisco!)  There’s a moment in Time After Time in which Welles attempts to hock some of his personal items, in order to get much-needed cash.  When the pawn-broker offers him a specific amount of money, I half expected Welles to ask, “Is that a lot?” (the way Kirk does in Trek IV)!  I think Star Trek IV is a much more successful film, over-all, than Time After Time.  In Trek IV, Mr. Meyer was able to nail the tone that I think he was striving for in Time After Time — that is, being able to mine lots of humor (and some social commentary) from watching a time-traveler try to make sense of everything that you or I would find totally normal, but wrapping those moments in a life-and-death sci-fi story.  Looking back on it now, Time After Time feels to me like an exercise that allowed Mr. Meyer to explore ideas and themes that he would better capture in his later works.

If you’re looking for a retro sci-fi adventure, then Time After Time is worth a look.  But, to me it’s more of a curiosity that I don’t think I’ll be revisiting too soon.

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