by Miguel E. Rodriguez
DIRECTOR: Nicholas Meyer
CAST: Malcolm McDowell, David Warner, Mary Steenburgen
MY RATING: 6/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 87%
PLOT: Before he wrote any of his famous novels, H.G. Wells pursues Jack the Ripper to the 20th Century when the serial murderer uses the future writer’s time machine to escape his time period.
There are two scenes in Time After Time that are genuinely shocking from a story perspective. One involves a newspaper headline. The other involves a bloody crime scene. The first I should have seen coming, but the second I never would have guessed in a million years, and I literally yelled at the TV when it happened. That’s good plotting.
Those two scenes are the only things that prevent me from giving Time After Time a lower score. That, and the fantastical, thought-provoking nature of the story itself. Too bad both those scenes and the plot are buried under layers and layers of hackneyed dialogue and the kind of forced situational comedy that would be more at home in Three’s Company than in a sci-fi adventure.
First, the good stuff. After a credits sequence that looks inspired by countless grade-Z movies before it, the story starts back in London, 1893, two years before H.G. Wells would write his first novel, The Time Machine. A prostitute is murdered in a dark alley, victim of the infamous Jack the Ripper. Later that night, Wells hosts a dinner party at his house for some friends and shows them something he’s been building in his basement: a fully functional time machine. It doesn’t quite resemble the famous machine from the 1960 classic The Time Machine – it looks more like a ride vehicle from an amusement park than a chair with attachments – but the Victorian details are all there. There’s some talk about a vital key needed to return to their present and a VERY important device that is discussed without being precisely explained, at least not to my satisfaction. When it makes a reappearance late in the film, I was still mystified as to its actual purpose other than a convenient deus ex machina.
Suddenly, Scotland Yard appears. Turns out they tracked Jack the Ripper to Wells’ doorstep. Tricky Jack awaits his chance and uses the time machine to escape…though, without that handy key mentioned earlier, the machine returns to its point of origin on its own, leaving Jack stranded in a world 86 years in the future. Wells feels duty-bound to bring Jack to justice, so he follows Jack, setting up the meat of the next few reels: a man from 1893 London struggling to adjust to daily life in 1979 San Francisco.
(It must be noted that the bulk of this film’s budget was clearly NOT devoted to the visual effects department. The effects on display as Wells travels through time are cheesy at best. I’d try to describe them here, but my words cannot possibly do them justice. I couldn’t even find a decent still shot to embed here that would accurately convey just how low-rent they are. I recently watched 1974’s execrable Zardoz, and I’m here to tell you, from a VFX perspective, Time After Time makes Zardoz look like Interstellar.)
H.G. Wells chasing Jack the Ripper through time? This is a great plot from a sci-fi perspective, a thrilling “what-if” tale. I had heard about this film for years but was never able to find a copy until recently. The scores on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes are decent. Not stellar, but decent enough that I was pretty sure I would enjoy it. The movie was directed and co-written by Nicholas Meyer, the mind behind The Day After, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. That’s not a bad track record.
But, man oh man…for most of the film’s middle section after Wells arrives in 1979, the movie’s brain goes on sabbatical. Example: he walks into a McDonald’s, takes careful note of how the customer in front of him orders a meal, then does his best to literally impersonate the customer. He doesn’t just order what he orders…he gives an impersonation of the customer’s voice and accent. Why? He doesn’t do that at a pawn shop or a bank. No, it’s just there because someone thought it would be a laugh to see Malcolm McDowell do a broad American accent.
I can’t deny that the potential is there for real humor. I couldn’t find it. I thought these scenes were completely at odds with the tone of the first third of the film. Wells meets a bank teller, Amy, (a very young Mary Steenburgen) who inexplicably falls in love with him at first sight. She’s so taken with him she impulsively asks him to lunch, an act that, in 1979, was directly at odds with 99.99% of all other screen romances, so kudos to that, I guess. But why? I’m not saying Malcolm McDowell is an affront to the concept of human beauty, but…really? As Wells, he’s the 19th-century version of a science nerd. Amy is not a character so much as a cardboard placeholder to be moved and manipulated according to the whims of the plot.
The dialogue is clunky, to say the least. There is a foot-chase between Wells and Jack that is devoid of suspense. The score by Hollywood legend Miklós Rózsa feels utterly out of place, as if someone simply lifted Rózsa’s score from some other film and plugged it in where necessary. There is simply no romantic chemistry between McDowell and Steenburgen, as evidenced in a painfully unfunny scene when they sit on a couch and she declares: “Herbert, if you don’t take me into your arms, I’m going to scream.”
Another actual line of dialogue: “My mother was rather an atrocious woman in her own way, but her many failings did not include raising mentally deficient sons.” That’s not a real person talking, that’s a writer trying to imitate George Bernard Shaw.
No doubt someone out there will tell me I missed the boat with this movie somehow. Perhaps Rózsa’s score is intentionally “retro” to make the whole movie feel as temporally displaced as its characters. Perhaps the intention was the same with the hopelessly amateurish visual effects. Who knows. It’s possible. Maybe there’s a better movie here somewhere and I’m not equipped to find it. I doubt it, but it’s a possibility. In the meantime, I’m going to keep this movie in my collection as an example of how a great story can be derailed by poor execution.
And maybe I’ll bring it out if my fellow Cinemaniacs are in the mood for a “So-Bad-It’s-Good” movie day.
[P.S. Keep your eyes open for the screen debut of an 8-year-old Corey Feldman.]