Time After Time

Rating 4

Directed by Nicholas Meyer

Written by Nicholas Meyer and Steve Hayes (story), based on the novel by Karl Alexander

Starring Malcolm McDowell (H G Wells), Mary Steenburgen (Amy Robbins), David Warner (John Leslie Stevenson), Charles Cioffi (Police Lieutenant Mitchell) and Patti D’Arbanville (Shirley)

London, 1893: Jack the Ripper kills again, five years after his last attack. H G Wells unveils a time machine for his friends, gathered at his home. John Leslie Stevenson, a local physician, is the last to arrive. The police follow the trail of the Ripper to the house and discover evidence that implicates Stevenson, who disappears in the confusion, using the time machine. Fearing that evil has been unleashed on a utopian future, Wells follows Stevenson and ends up in San Francisco in 1979, where he meets bank worker Amy Robbins while trying to track down his old friend, who has resumed his killing spree.

‘Time After Time’ was released into cinemas in August 1979. I first came across it at the start of the 1980s on Betamix video and watched it several times during the next few years. I counted it as one of my favourite films. I had not seen it in at least the last fifteen years, probably even longer, when the opportunity presented itself again recently. I approached it with a degree of trepidation, fearing that it would not live up to my memory of it, but I need not have worried. I enjoyed it just as much again after all this time.

The film is based on a novel by Karl Alexander, which was, I believe, written at more or less the same time as the screenplay. It takes its inspiration from ‘The Time Machine’, the novella by H G Wells, first published in 1895, Wells himself, and Jack the Ripper, the notorious serial killer who brutally murdered five women in the Whitechapel district of London in 1888 and whose identity has still not to this day been established, despite countless theories and books written on the subject.

Wells is played by always watchable Malcolm McDowell, who will probably be best known to many of us for his startling performances in three of his earliest films, ‘If’ (1969), ‘A Clockwatch Orange’ (1971) and ‘O Lucky Man!’ (1973). Younger watchers might know him from the American television series ‘Heroes’. David Warner is terrifically malevolent, oozing a kind of decadent and slightly effeminate elegance, in the role of John Leslie Stevenson. Warner is a stage actor of considerable renown, particularly celebrated for his Shakespearian work, although he was plagued for many years by prolonged bouts of illness, self-doubt and stage fright. Mary Steenburgen, making just her second screen appearance, plays Amy Robbins. She made her film debut the previous year in ‘Goin’ South’, a film directed by and starring Jack Nicholson, for which she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award.

H G Wells, who was a socialist and pacifist and a political campaigner, hoped for a Utopian society in the future, a theme explored in many of his works, including ‘The Time Machine’. That theme is followed here, with Wells (the character) quickly discovering that his dreamed of utopian future does not exist. When he tells Stevenson they don’t belong in the future, Stevenson replies, “On the contrary, I belong here completely and utterly,” and goes on to say, “The world has caught up and surpassed me. Ninety years ago, I was a freak. Today, I’m an amateur.”

A film with a time travel theme is always going to have holes that we can poke our fingers through if we wish. One small quibble that I had when I first watched it and still have now is that Wells and Stevenson are both able to exchange currency from Victorian Britain in a late 20th Century bank in San Francisco without any problem whatsoever, which seems to me to be completely ludicrous. It would no longer be legal tender. Watching the film now, I did notice a few momentary asides that could be interpreted as having an anti-Islamic/Middle East slant, whether they are intended or not. These have nothing to do with the theme of the film or the plot, they are noticeable.

Director and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer is probably best known to many people as the director of two Star Trek films, ‘The Wrath of Khan’ and ‘The Undiscovered Country’. He also contributed to the screenplays of these two films and ‘The Voyage Home’. This latter film saw the crew of the USS Enterprise travel back in time to San Francisco in 1986 and it was these scenes that Meyer wrote.

Review posted 23 April 2009

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