Directed By: Nicholas Meyer
Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Mary Steenburgen, David Warner
Tag line: "H.G. Wells races through time to catch Jack the Ripper!"
Trivia: The studio had wanted Richard Dreyfuss for the role of H.G. Wells
What would happen if Jack the Ripper, one of the 19th century’s most damngerous figures, made his way to a 20th century city? That’s the basic set-up of writer / director Nicholas Meyer’s 1979 sci-fi / thriller Time After Time, a movie with a cast that’s as impressive as its premise.
The film opens in London, 1893. H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) is hosting a dinner party for some of the city’s most influential men, including his good friend Dr. John Leslie Stevenson (David Warner). His reason for bringing them all together? To unveil his newest invention: a time machine! Using the sun’s power, this time machine can transport a person to either the past or future, moving at a speed of 2 years per minute. He’s even installed a safety feature, in case the rider is injured during the trip; unless a key is inserted into the controls, the machine will return to the previous time period from which it left. With this machine, Wells hopes to travel to the future, when he’s convinced mankind will have eliminated war, disease, and hunger.
It’s then that the party is interrupted by the police looking for none other than Jack the Ripper, who, after years of silence, has struck again, killing a prostitute only a few blocks away. Conducting a routine search of all the houses in the area, the authorities soon turn up evidence that proves Dr. Stevenson himself is the infamous Ripper! When he’s nowhere to be found, it’s assumed that Stevenson somehow slipped away right after the cops arrived. It isn’t until everyone has gone home that Wells discovers what really happened: Stevenson stole his time machine, and has leaped forward to the year 1979 (that's what the controls say when the machine reappeared; without the key, it returned soon after). Feeling responsible for turning a madman loose on Utopia, Wells follows his friend to the future, where, because a display of his work is touring the world, the inventor ends up in San Francisco (the time machine is part of the traveling exhibit).
Though disappointed to learn that mankind is every bit as imperfect in the future as they were in the past, Wells sets to work looking for Stevenson, and with the help of pretty banker Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen), who exchanged some of Stevenson’s British pounds for dollars a few days earlier, Wells manages to find his old friend. Naturally, Stevenson refuses to go back to 1893, and what’s more demands that Wells give him the key that will prevent the time machine from returning to its point of origin (“I can’t have you following me through history” he says to Wells). Stevenson does escape once again, but not with the key, and over the course of the next several days picks up where he left off in 1893 by murdering a handful of prostitutes. As he does so, Wells, who has become romantically involved with Amy Robbins, continues to search for his old friend, who he knows will not leave 1979 without the key. The question is, how many people have to die before Jack the Ripper can finally be brought to justice?
Time After Time gets off to a great start with a handful of scenes set in 1893, the first of which has the Ripper murdering a call girl in a back alley (in a cool twist, Meyer gives us a first-person view of the action, as if we’re looking through the Ripper’s eyes). Equally as good is Wells’ dinner party, when the famed writer / inventor discovers that his friend and chess partner is actually one of history’s most violent killers. Best of all, though, is the scene in which Wells leaves 1893 behind and takes off for the future, a sequence that features both interesting special effects and a unique way to mark the passage of time.
Once in San Francisco, Time After Time branches off in a number of directions, following Wells as he tries to find Stevenson while at the same time acclimating himself to 1979 (via the standard “fish out of water” scenes). As if that wasn’t enough, Wells also kicks off a romance with Amy Robbins, a flighty but loyal young woman who fell for the dashing Englishman the moment he walked into her bank. Though this love story seemingly pops out of nowhere, both McDowell and Steenburgen do their part to make it as believable as possible (they have a good chemistry together). In addition, the movie tags along with Stevenson as he murders one woman after another and also tries to get the key way from Wells. While the tension that builds up in the opening scenes does dwindle a bit by the movie’s midsection (when Meyer and company focus primarily on the love affair between H.G. and Amy), it picks up again in the last half hour, when Wells and Stevenson face off against each other one final time (most of this end sequence will have you on the edge of your seat).
McDowell and Warner are exceptional as the former pals who become mortal enemies, and their scenes together have a real energy to them (their first confrontation, in a room at the Hyatt Regency, results in several memorable moments, not the least of which has Stevenson switching on the TV and showing Wells that the "Utopia" he dreamed of never happened, and likely never will). Equally as strong is Steenburgen, who finds herself drawn into a situation she can hardly believe.
In fact, there was only thing about Time After Time that rubbed me the wrong way, and that was its score. It’s not that Miklós Rózsa (who handled the music for such award-winning films as The Thief of Bagdad and Ben-Hur) did a bad job; on the contrary, the music is quite good. But the filmmakers rely too heavily on it, throwing it into scenes that would have been better served with silence (there are also times when it's way too loud, making it more of a distraction than anything).
Still, thanks to its fascinating tale of time travel and the performances of its three stars, Time After Time is a movie that’s well worth checking out.