Three years before he made what many consider to be not only the definitive Star Trek movie - Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - but one of the finest sci-fi flicks ever, writer/director Nicholas Meyer delivered unto genre fans the superb fantasy/romance/thriller Time After Time.
The film opens in 1890's London, where we are introduced to our intrepid hero, who is none other than famed writer H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell), albeit before he has written the novels he is well-known for these days, such as The Invisible Man, War of the Worlds, and - especially - The Time Machine. For, as Wells explains to a group of colleagues and friends over dinner, he is intent on traveling to the future, to a world where mankind is sure to have evolved past his base nature and can then concentrate upon creating a perfect society, a "Utopia" which Wells is sure he belongs in.
His guests are incredulous: however will he be able to achieve such a feat, much less one as absurd as this? With no small degree of pride, he takes them downstairs to show them a time machine of his own invention (which bears a resemblance to the one in George Pal's film, we note with a smile). They remain unconvinced, save for one - doctor John Leslie Stevenson (David Warner) and frequent chess opponent of Wells. Rather, Stevenson seems intrigued by the device.
Then, a knock at the door - a Scotland Yard inspector and a gang of constables, going door to door. The infamous murderer Jack the Ripper has struck again, and was last seen in this very neighborhood. A search of the house reveals a shocking truth; Stevenson's bag contains damning evidence (a blood-soaked blade) yet the no-good doctor is nowhere to be found, having apparently escaped. After the police and his guests depart, Wells' worst suspicions are confirmed - Stevenson has used the time machine to escape into the future, where he is free to ply his gruesome trade in a new time and upon an unsuspecting public. Wells concludes that he has no choice but to follow the madman he feels responsible for unleashing upon a society that is surely unable to deal with such a threat; San Francisco of 1979, as it turns out. And the chase is on.
Time After Time is easily one of my favorite films of all time, so fair warning that the rest of this piece will more or less be me raving about a flick that I absolutely revere. It's remarkably funny, the suspense scenes are heart-pounding at times, and the love story gets me every time. It's about as perfect as I could ever expect a piece of entertainment to be.
Meyer (later to give us The Day After as well as Star Treks II and VI) had dealt with a similar conceit previously - in his novel and script for The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, where Sherlock Holmes met up with Sigmund Freud. However, his inspired use of H.G. Wells pursuing Jack the Ripper into modern times trumps the earlier flick in every conceivable way. There's a charming juxtaposition between an old-fashioned style of filmmaking with the newer attitude of the late 70's; one that includes special effects that were probably cutting edge at the time, but are painfully dated today. And yet it doesn't matter one bit, as the effects are used sparingly and properly - namely, to serve and advance the story rather than be the focus of it. Especially when Meyer's story is so well told.
The fish-out-of-water device is something we've seen a thousand times and wasn't new in 1979 either, but works here, like any other tried and true idea does, because it's done with intelligence and wit. Watching Wells react to his surroundings - hardly the Utopia he had envisioned - is hilarious and telling. The sequence where he enjoys the pleasures of McDonald's for the first time is almost worth watching for in and of itself.
But burgers and fries are no match for the liberated American woman - Miss Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen) - that he meets in his search for The Ripper. Their romance is exquisitely handled and moving. Watching as they fall in love is a remarkable experience; it is something we are ACTUALLY able to see happen onscreen - McDowell and Steenburgen married shortly after filming and were together for a decade. They have a palpable chemistry between them and it's sweet without being saccharine or cloying; in fact, the moment where she first tells him "I love you" is one of the funniest things I've ever seen (played to perfection by Steenburgen) and an undeniably great scene in a movie full of them. A young and lovely Steenburgen is wonderful throughout the whole picture - she makes it pretty easy to fall for her, and to fear for her safety when The Ripper realizes her relationship with Wells.
Speaking of, let us not forget the menace and cold intellect of David Warner, who is just outstanding - this has got to be my preferred interpretation of "Happy Jack" (a minor quibble I have is that Meyer did not find a way to include that Who song in the film, but did put in some perfectly awful disco tunes in a nightclub scene). Warner plays Stevenson as a man delighted to find a place and time where he can more or less blend in, where he can be just another anonymous monster; as he says to Wells, "I'm home." Chilling stuff from the always dependable Warner, and some of his best work, and the same can be said of McDowell. I have shown this to people that I have previously watched A Clockwork Orange with, and when it's over I have to point out who McDowell played in each film, he is that unrecognizable here. Imagine a more radical departure from the roles he is normally associated with - try finding it. And the man is extraordinary in the part. Malcolm "I'll Kill You With My Crazy Eyes" McDowell playing H.G. Wells, romantic hero? You're fucking-A. I place it up there as a career high point, right next to his portrayal of A Clockwork Orange's Alex; the man is just that good. His Wells is a man of ideas, of course, but ideals as well - this may not be what he expected the future to be, but he will do his best to save it from the terror of The Ripper.
The recent DVD release is light on features, save for a commentary by Meyer and McDowell (which seems to have been recorded separately and pieced together) with some interesting observations from Meyer and enlightening memories from McDowell. An amusing original trailer as well as one for each version of The Time Machine - the original and the recent remake - round out the package. Admittedly though, the movie itself looks superb (particularly being able to see it in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio) and the sound more than does the job.
Time After Time is a clever, inventive, and unique piece of cinema, and my favorite romantic flick ever (what, like I'm gonna pick Dirty Dancing or something? Hell, no - my idea of a love story's got Jack the Ripper in it). An awesome movie and great directorial debut for Meyer.
Christ, I'll even forgive him for unleashing (in a tiny part here) Corey Feldman - in his film debut - upon the cinematic world. Now THAT'S what I call loving a movie.