Tuesday, August 23, 2016

#2,182. Time After Time (1979)

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 notorious killers, was loose on the streets of a 20th century city? That’s the basic set-up of Nicholas Meyer’s 1979 sci-fi / thriller Time After Time, a movie with a cast every bit as impressive as that 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. Wells has 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 immediately return to the previous time period. With this machine, Wells hopes to travel to the future, by which point he believes mankind will have eliminated war, disease, and hunger.

The party is eventually interrupted by the police, who are looking for none other than Jack the Ripper! It seems that, after years of silence, the Ripper has struck again, killing a prostitute a few blocks away. Conducting a routine search of all the houses in the area, the authorities soon turn up evidence that 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 leapt forward to the year 1979 (that's what the controls say, anyway, when the machine reappears; without the key, it eventually returned to 1893). 

Feeling responsible for turning a madman loose on "Utopia", Wells follows Stevenson to 1979, where, because a display of his work is touring the world (which includes the time machine), the inventor ends up in San Francisco.

Though at first disappointed to learn that mankind is every bit as imperfect in the future as they were in the past, Wells nonetheless 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 track down his old friend. 

Naturally, Stevenson refuses to go back to 1893, and what’s more demands that Wells give him the key to the time machine (“I can’t have you following me through history” he says to Wells). 

Stevenson once again manages to give Wells the slip (but without 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. Wells, who has become romantically involved with Amy Robbins, continues to search for Stevenson, who he knows will not leave 1979 without the key. The question is: how many more people have to die before Jack the Ripper will finally be brought to justice?

Time After Time gets off to a great start with its 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 perspective 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 infamous killers. Best of all, though, is the scene where Wells leaves 1893 behind and takes off for the future, a sequence that features cool 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 America in1979 (via the standard “fish out of water” scenes). As if he wasn't busy 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, Time After Time tags along with Stevenson as he kicks off another murder spree while also trying to get the key from Wells. The tension of its opening scenes does dwindle a bit by the movie’s midsection (when Meyer and company focus primarily on the love affair between Wells and Amy), but it picks up again in the last half hour, when Wells and Stevenson face off against each other one final time (most of this ending will drag you to 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 20th century confrontation, in a room at the Hyatt Regency, results in several memorable moments, not the least of which has Stevenson switching on the nightly news and showing Wells that the "Utopia" he dreamed of never happened). 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 a fascinating tale of time travel and the performances of its three stars, Time After Time is a movie that’s well worth checking out.

1 comment:

Steve Green said...

McDowell and Steenburgen's chemistry was such they subsequently married.