"Ninety years ago I was a freak; now I'm an amateur…I'm home."—Jack the Ripper (David Warner)
From The War of the Worlds to The Time Machine to Things to Come, the science fiction of H.G. Wells had a place in the imagination of the public in general and Hollywood in particular.
Facts of the Case
Scientist, author, humanist, Socialist. Gentlemanly Herbert George Wells (Malcolm McDowell) lives the life of a Victorian intellectual and Renaissance man. He entertains a circle of similarly-situated friends with dinner parties where he regales them with his theories on free love, the inevitability of socialism, and the shape of things to come.
On of his frequent dinner guests is John Lesley Stevenson (David Warner), a respected London surgeon. He is H.G.'s frequent chess opponent, a dear friend to the entire group, yet strangely aloof and distant from them all.
One evening, after dinner, Wells leads his guests to the basement of his posh London home, and shows them the result of his latest foray into the world of science. He has created a time machine, capable of flying forwards and backwards in time as easily as locomotives travel between London and Manchester. Wells explains the basic workings of his machine to the intense interest of all present, particularly Dr. Stevenson.
Their evening is interrupted when the police arrive at Wells' door. There has been a murder nearby, and it looks to be further work of Jack the Ripper. Evidence soon unmasks Stevenson as the Ripper, but before they authorities can apprehend him he makes a clever escape—in the time machine. Wells follows him to San Francisco in 1979, eighty-six years into the future. The two Victorian gentlemen play out a dangerous game of chess in unfamiliar 20th century surroundings.
Wells receives assistance in his quest to catch Stevenson in the form of Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen). Amy is a modern woman, fully enjoying the fruits of Women's Liberation. While Wells considers himself a proponent of gender equality, it is clear that Amy is beyond his wildest expectations. The two fall into a relationship that is part Victorian courtship and part 20th century love affair.
Director/screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Seven Percent Solution, Sommersby) was known primarily as a novelist and occasional screenwriter before this, his directorial debut. He turns in an outstanding freshman effort, capturing the feel of Jack the Ripper's London and modern San Francisco with equal aplomb. His direction is not perfect, but shows occasional flashes of genius. Of particular note is the time travel sequence itself, where we hear snatches of sound from the beginnings of radio to the present day, all played against a psychedelic blur of colors and patterns. I had previously thought the opening sequence of Contact was quite masterful, but now I realize that it was stolen wholesale from this sequence in Time After Time.
The story that Meyer constructs is a bit contrived to be sure, but it works. It also provides some commentary on modern life that is perhaps a bit heavy-handed, but still thought provoking. When the Ripper wants to demonstrate to Wells that his kind will ultimately win out and that Wells' positive outlook for the future is completely wrong, all he has to do is turn on the television. What the two men see there seems to vindicate Stevenson as a man before his time, and condemn Wells as a man hopelessly out of date. Meyers never lets his commentary overshadow his storytelling, however; as he mentions in the DVD commentary, the object of the movie is to make us feel, to respond to the situations on the screen, not to make us think. If he has done his job, the thinking will come later, after we have finished enjoying the movie and can reflect on the subtle points he wants to make. (I have a list of filmmakers in mind who should listen to Meyer before embarking on another project.)
Another major factor in the successful telling of this story is the strong cast. Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen met and fell in love while working on this film, and they remained married from 1980 to 1990. As the relationship between their two characters takes center stage, their natural chemistry is unmistakable. Traditional gender roles are reversed as McDowell's Wells, stuck in alien surroundings, must depend on Steenburgen's Amy to survive in the bizarre world of the 20th century. McDowell projects a convincing sense of 19th century earnestness, which compliments perfectly Steenburgen's unique blend of independence and shyness. Warner also does a good job as the Ripper, a role that at one point prior to filming was considered for Mick Jagger.
Time After Time comes to DVD courtesy of Warner Brothers in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The transfer is excellent, especially considering the age of the film. Subtle details like the smoke from a lantern in Wells' home come through with amazing clarity. Colors are strong, rich, and lifelike, including fleshtones. There are moments where the transfer shows just a bit of softness or where the picture seems a bit too dark, but they are not severe or frequent. This being a 1970s film, the color palette does tend to favor warm tones and takes on a sort of beige look at times, but that is not a fault of the DVD transfer process. There is some aliasing to be seen, as well as the occasional bit of distracting edge enhancement. Black levels are solid but maybe just a hair light from time to time. Overall, this is a very nice-looking transfer.
Audio is presented in Dolby 2.0 Stereo. There's not much to say about it, really—the sound is nice and clear, and dialogue is sharp and easily understood. This is not a film that would have given your sound system a workout, even if it had been reengineered into a concocted surround mix. As it is, the sound quality is good and the mix is adequate to the task.
Extra features on this disc are a mixed bag—some good, some completely worthless. Among the quality extras we find a trailer for Time After Time and trailers for the 1960 and 2002 versions of The Time Machine. We also find a commentary track featuring Meyer and McDowell. This track is an interesting look at the creative process of the sometimes difficult, immensely knowledgeable, and always fascinating Nicholas Meyer. Meyer and McDowell make for an interesting duo during their commentary, which is full of interesting insights into Time After Time and Meyer's philosophies on making movies in general. Hearing how he held his ground and made this film on his own terms- while learning the filmmaking basics of camera placement and lighting—makes for very interesting listening. There are a few gaps, and it appears that neither Meyer nor McDowell had watched the film recently to prepare for the commentary, but on the whole it is more than worth a listen. On the other end of the special features spectrum we find an "essay" entitled "It's About Time." Now, I've done my share of writing, and teaching people how to write, and I've got to say that this is no essay. Rather, it is a collection of short summaries (like TV Guide descriptions) of a number of films that have absolutely nothing in common except for a reference to time travel. The other "feature" is called "Cast and Crew," and it delivers exactly what it promises—a list of some of the actors and Meyer. Just names, no photos, no bios, nothing. Rather a waste of time.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This being Meyer's directorial debut, it is only natural that there would be a few missteps. One choice that provoked unintended laughter occurred during the opening scene of the film. After a fairly impressive long take and tracking shot that opens the film, the Ripper seduces a victim and leads her down a dark alley. There is some fairly skillful camera work, implying what she thinks the Ripper has in mind without showing anything explicit. Then, as she realizes what his real game is, a look of horror fills her face—and then we hear a loud r-r-r-rip as he kills her. I'm sure Meyer didn't intend it to sink his scene and destroy the tension he had worked so hard to build, but it comes across as a particularly bad auditory pun.
More important to the film, it seems to me that the true identity of Jack the Ripper was telegraphed too openly and revealed far too early on. The audience understands that Warner is the Ripper the minute he appears on the screen at Wells' home; perhaps a bit more of setup and surprise would have been in order here.
In his commentary track, Meyer mentions how difficult it was for the studio to market this film because it crosses so many genre lines. It works as comedy, a thriller, science fiction, a romance, and includes a healthy dose of social commentary. It is a unique film, and one well worth your time.
Not guilty! The movie, DVD, and director are released with the thanks of the court.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary Track Featuring Director Nicholas Meyer and Malcolm McDowell
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