United States. Directed by Nicholas Meyer, 1979. Starring Malcolm McDowell, David Warner, Mary Steenburgen. 112 minutes.
“What if H.G. Wells really was a time traveler?” is a logical question and one that many narrative works have sought to explore. With Time After Time, writer/director Nicholas Meyer goes one step further and asks, “What if H.G. Wells really was a time traveler…and he chased Jack the Ripper into the future?” Malcolm McDowell plays Wells and David Warner plays his (wholly fictional) friend Dr. John Stevenson, an eminent surgeon who steals Wells’s time machine and uses it to escape when the police discover he’s really the Ripper. When the machine returns to Wells’s lab without its passenger, he decides he has no other choice to follow the mad doctor and stop him–a journey which leads him to San Francisco in the year 1979.
Meyer is best known for his association with the Star Trek movies based on the original series, particularly The Wrath of Khan. Keeping that in mind, it’s hardly surprising that he produced a thoughtful work imbued with a strong humanist point of view. The historical Wells was a utopian socialist, and so is this fictional counterpart; unapologetically so, in fact. He goes into the future assuming the human race will build its perfect society within four generations, but humanity disappoints by improving its efficiency with warfare and violence. By contrast, Stevenson feels more at home in the new age than in his own time. Meyer, McDowell and Warner lay out the differences between the characters in a chilling sequence about halfway through the film.
The film maintains the consistent tone of a rollicking adventure yarn, neither tipping too far in the direction of “too light-hearted” or “too dark” despite a number of elements which must have bordered on camp even in 1979. (Look, it’s Jack the Ripper, wearing a leisure suit and stalking his victims in a disco!) Unfortunately, the more science-fiction-oriented elements of the script don’t hold up to scrutiny; several elements of the time machine’s operation are obvious contrivances to keep the plot moving. I also felt one minor twist towards the end of the film was a bit of a cheat, although I understand why Meyer went in that direction.
McDowell and Warner deliver two of the best performances of their careers. McDowell perfectly embodies the idealistic yet naïve Victorian gentleman with plenty of wit and charm, while Warner radiates menace as an intellectual and philosophical psychopath. Mary Steenburgen is the weak link in the primary cast as Amy, a bank employee who aides Wells in his hunt and later becomes his love-interest. Her line-readings are a bit stiff and she doesn’t have much chemistry with McDowell. In her defense, she doesn’t have much to work with. Meyer attempts to strengthen the character with corny and too on-the-nose dialog about Women’s Lib, and he largely relegates her to a passive role for much of the final act of the film.
Despite some flaws, Time After Time is an enjoyable thinking person’s adventure tale, buoyed by two fine performances and a well-thought-0ut set of themes. Very much worth looking into.