He sacrificed life in the present—to find love in the past.
When Somewhere in Time was released theatrically in 1980, it was roundly bashed by critics and failed miserably at the box office. One critic observed that it "did for screen romance what the Hindenburg did for dirigibles." It quickly disappeared from theaters, apparently never to be seen again. However, with the growing popularity of cable TV and home video it found a new life and eventually acquired a devoted corps of fans. There is a small but vocal group of people who love Somewhere in Time, and they have kept it alive to this day. Universal has created a Collector's Edition of Somewhere in Time just in time for the movie's twentieth anniversary.
Facts of the Case
Richard Collier (Christopher Reeve, Superman, Noises Off, Deathtrap) is a drama student who has just written his first successful play. At a cast and crew party on opening night, an old woman appears out of nowhere. She places a gold pocket watch in his hand and implores him, "Come back to me." She leaves him standing befuddled, explaining to the friends around him that he has never seen her in his life.
Eight years later, Richard is a successful playwright living in Chicago. He is facing writer's block and takes an impulsive vacation. He finds himself at the magnificent Grand Hotel, not far from his old college campus. While exploring the hotel he wanders into the "Hall of History," where he is mysteriously drawn to an old photograph of a beautiful young woman. He becomes obsessed, and discovers that her name was Elise McKenna (Jane Seymour, Live and Let Die, Battlestar Galactica, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman), and that she was an actress who performed in a play at the old hotel in 1912. A trip to the local library to learn more about her quickly reveals her to be the old woman who gave him the gold watch; further research reveals that she died the very night she gave him the watch.
Richard's obsession leads him to visit an old professor of philosophy, who tells him of a strange theory of time travel involving self-hypnosis and leaving the modern world behind. Soon Richard embarks on a mysterious voyage through time and space to find his love.
Somewhere in Time was adapted by Richard Matheson from his novel Bid Time Return. Matheson has a long and distinguished writing career, both as a novelist and as a screenwriter. One of his better known Hollywood works is The Omega Man, which starred Charlton Heston and was based on Matheson's novel I Am Legend. Matheson started out as a writer for Rod Serling's original The Twilight Zone. His screenplay for Somewhere in Time reflects these roots as he creates a story that is essentially a fantasy, but centers on psychology, characters and relationships and eschews fancy special effects or any of the other sci-fi trappings you might expect from a time-travel story.
Director Jeannot Szwarc (Jaws 2, Supergirl, Revenge of a Blonde) truly loves this material. I'm familiar with some of Szwarc's more recent work, namely episodes of TV's The Practice, and he has shown himself very capable of focusing on characters and telling a compelling, dramatic story. He does his best here to present Richard and Elise as idealized lovers caught up in a classical tragic romance.
Among the cast, one actor stands out. Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Starcrash) plays W.F. Robinson, Elise's manager and guardian. He is jealous, protective and controlling, and does his best to thwart the budding romance between Richard and Elise. We discover that in his own way he loves Elise, and is certain that he can make her into the greatest actress of her generation.
The extra content on the disc truly qualifies it as a Collector's Edition. Included for your pleasure are a documentary, production photographs, theatrical trailer, production notes, cast and filmmaker information, a short featurette spotlighting the Somewhere in Time fan club, and a commentary track featuring director Szwarc. The commentary track is interesting, and Szwarc does a good job of explaining his motivations and intentions in each scene. The explanations I found most interesting concerned choices that were made against his better judgment at the request of the producers, the studio, even composer John Barry (Starcrash, Dances with Wolves, Goldfinger). In each case Szwarc is very gracious and maintains that the movie was better for these changes; in each case he would have been better off trusting his own instincts. The documentary, Back to Somewhere in Time, is quite lengthy at just over an hour. It includes interviews with many of the cast and creative personnel. There is a lot of good information here about how the participants feel about the movie now, twenty years later, and what their experience was making the movie. The documentary also gives some insight into various motives and methods used in the making of Somewhere in Time. It is interesting to note that the scenes everyone seems to be proudest of are the ones that misfire the worst. The production photographs section is of marginal interest at best. It contains forty-seven snapshots, each of which is displayed for six seconds. There are long strings of shots that are only slightly different from each other. It's all fairly monotonous.
The cast and crew information consists of the standard text screens of biographical information. They are nicely done and informative. Featured are Reeve, Seymour, Plummer, Szwarc, and actress Teresa Wright (The Best Years of Our Lives, Mrs. Miniver, The Little Foxes). The theatrical trailer is presented in its original aspect ratio. It is rather the worse for wear, very grainy with pronounced film defects. It manages to hit all of the emotional high points of the movie. It reveals quite a bit of the plot, but at least does not spoil the ending. The production notes cover several pages and are quite informative, but cover a lot of the same material included in the documentary.
The unique feature on this disc is the short (approx. three min.) featurette spotlighting the official fan club for Somewhere in Time. Apparently there exists a devoted network of fans of this movie that publish a quarterly journal and hold annual conventions. They remind one of the Star Trek crowd without the funny outfits. The organization is called INSITE—the International Network of Somewhere In Time Enthusiasts. This feature, while quite short, is fairly interesting as it attempts to explain what it is the devoted fans of this movie see in it.
Rounding out the disc are recommendations and a plug for Universal's email DVD newsletter. The recommendations section features trailers for Havana, Out of Africa, and Snow Falling on Cedars. The quality of these trailers varies widely, but it is nice to see actual trailers included in a recommendations section, as opposed to the cheesy thumbnails of DVD cases that several studios use.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite Szwarc's loving attention to the material, Somewhere in Time plays like "Screen Romance for Dummies." The audience is not allowed to experience anything in the movie without explicit instructions on how to react. There is no wonder or surprise here, as we are spoon-fed every detail and every emotional reaction. Some of this is done through bland, predictable plotting and writing. Some is done with quasi-dramatic musical cues that instruct the audience how to react to every scene. The worst spoon-feeding comes late in the film, as Elise sits for a photograph. Most people will know the minute someone mentions a photograph that this will be the picture that Richard falls in love with in 1980. Some people will only understand this after they see the photographer and camera. Even the slowest in the audience will get it when they see her costume and pose and the flashbulb goes off. But, someone decided that we might not quite get the connection, and decided to superimpose an oval "frame" over the picture for half a second. The result is a scene that starts out already dangerously close to melodrama but winds up ridiculous and insulting. Szwarc mentions in his commentary track that he was not in favor of this visual effect, but he went along with it anyway; he should have had the sense to fight harder.
At the heart of the movie is the romance between Richard and Elise, which is only superficially explored. There was a lot of potential in these two characters, but sadly we are not really allowed to know them. Sure, we see them riding in a carriage and a rowboat together, doing all the things that couples in the movies have always done. Theirs is not so much a romance as an accretion of cinema shorthand for romance. The audience is not allowed to see them as people, and has no reason to believe in or care about them.
All of this is further hampered by the performances of almost the entire cast. Christopher Reeve in particular simply tries too hard. He is so thoroughly good-natured and so intensely sincere that at times he seems like a refugee from an episode of Leave It to Beaver. Seymour does what she can with what she is given, but her part is so shallowly written that she is primarily an object for Reeve and Plummer to fight over. She does get one scene that is supposed to be incredibly romantic, where she addresses Reeve's character who is sitting in the audience while she is on stage performing a play. She delivers her lines with heart and conviction, but the deck is stacked against her. Between the stilted, unbelievable lines and the swelling musical score the scene sinks under the weight of blatant emotional manipulation.
For a Collector's Edition, Universal seems not to have spent much time on little details like the video and audio presentation of this movie. The video is presented in the proper aspect ratio of 1.85:1, but in a non-anamorphic transfer. It is not pretty. It is slightly soft and grainy throughout. It becomes even grainier in scenes with any darkness or shadows. Colors are faithfully reproduced but seem just slightly faded. There are also several problems with shimmering and false motion in backgrounds that should be static, such as a blue sky. There is also a lot of strobing and shimmering in clothing patterns, notably men's tweed jackets and the like. The picture quality seems to worsen late in the movie; the final scene, featuring Reeve and Seymour in an all-white set looks as though it were shot in a blizzard. Overall, this is a twenty-year-old picture that doesn't look a day over forty. The audio mix is Dolby 2.0 mono. It sounds slightly muffled and totally unimpressive. However, it is about as good as can be expected from this format.
Somewhere in Time is so sweet that it becomes saccharine, so serious that it becomes self-parody, so earnest that it becomes artificial. It is a tearjerker with no particular emotional resonance. Still, the movie has a devoted following of people who are passionate about it and the story it tells. If you think you might be one of them, then this might be worth a rental. Otherwise, forget it.
This movie is guilty of being a shallow, hollow movie that uses only the broadest and most obvious techniques to try to wring some sort of emotional reaction from the audience. Universal is guilty of giving the public a "Collector's Edition" with lousy video and mediocre audio. However, the selection of extra content is excellent, and that will keep us from throwing the book at them.
We stand adjourned.
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