Sunday, May 15, 2011

Classics Revisited: Time After Time

(1979) Written and Directed by Nicholas Meyer; Based on a novel by Karl Alexander; Starring: Malcolm McDowell, David Warner and Mary Steenburgen; Available on DVD

Rating: ****½ 

What’s It About?

What if H.G. Wells had actually constructed a functional time machine so that he could witness the future utopian society that he had long envisioned?  Time After Time begins with this premise and runs with it, having fun along the way by contrasting 19th and 20th century societies.

The story begins in 1893 London.  Jack the Ripper is loose in the streets of Whitechapel, and another prostitute has met her untimely end.  The trail leads to Wells’ friend, John Leslie Stevenson, who arrives late for a dinner party.  Stevenson successfully evades the police by escaping into the future with Wells’ time machine.  Wells takes it upon himself to pursue Stevenson to modern-day San Francisco and bring him to justice.

H.G. Wells is played by everyone’s favorite droog, Malcolm McDowell (in a rare protagonist role).  He must have enjoyed this casting choice, considering that his co-star, David Warner is stuck playing Jack the Ripper.  Over the years, McDowell and Warner have usually been typecast in villain roles, so it begs the question, did they flip a coin to determine who’d play the bad guy and who’d play the good guy?

McDowell is convincing as the slightly nerdy, intermittently befuddled (but astute) Wells.  He’s the proverbial fish out of water, and a perfect representative of the 19th century.  His puzzled reactions to the 20th century represent a disconnect between his naive concept of a future utopia and the realities of a changed world with relaxed social mores.  His observations are tainted, viewed through a lens skewed by quaint notions of chivalry.  Much to his chagrin, he learns that giving his word as a gentleman doesn’t get him very far in contemporary San Francisco. 

David Warner does what he does best in the villain role, as John Leslie Stevenson, conveying an unrelentingly calm menace while never seeming over the top.  He’s a sly predator, versed in the ways of polite society, yet unable to contain his true nature.  Stevenson is always one step ahead of Wells, as evidenced by his chess match with him at the beginning of the film.  Filmmaker Nicholas Meyer references Sherlock Holmes several times in the film, and the contentious relationship between Wells and Stevenson appears to closely parallel Holmes and his arch nemesis Professor Moriarty.

As Wells’ modern-day love interest Amy Robbins, Mary Steenburgen compliments McDowell and Warner’s more showy roles.  Robbins is a contemporary woman, in charge of her fate, not content to passively accept whatever life throws at her.  Steenburgen brings a sincere, natural quality to her character.  She’s intelligent, independent and assertive, but not to the point of being overbearing.  There’s some good chemistry between Steenburgen and McDowell, which isn’t all too surprising, considering their real-life offscreen relationship at the time.

The music in Time After Time inhabits its own distinctive character.  Prolific composer Miklós Rózsa (Spellbound, The Thief of Bagdad) provides a fantastic score that perfectly captures the feel of a classic science fiction film from yesteryear.  Sweeping and romantic, with a hint of intrigue, Rózsa’s score lends the film a more epic scope.  It punctuates the action, transporting you back to another time when suspension of disbelief was the only price of admission.

Time After Time is not above some minor quibbles.  Sadly, the modern world isn’t what it used to be.  Time After Time shows its age in the fashions, technology and music of 1979.  It’s hard not to laugh, seeing David Warner cruising a disco in his groovy threads (Only in the 70s would wearing a black turtleneck sweater with a denim vest not be considered a fashion faux pas.).  The date of events depicted in the film are also a bit off, similar to the previously reviewed Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde.  The scenes in Victorian London take place in 1893, although the Jack the Ripper murders occurred in 1888.  

Why It’s Still Relevant:

The subject of time travel, inherent paradoxes and all, continues to fascinate filmgoers and filmmakers alike.  Who wouldn’t want to open a window into another era, either to passively observe or actively change the course of events?  It doesn’t really matter that attempting to logically assess time travel as it occurs in movies forces one to inevitably go around in circles and never accomplish anything except a big headache. 

On a side note, Mary Steenburgen was no stranger to the time travel motif, as she would explore similar character dynamics a decade later in Back to the Future III.  While the settings were different, she would once again play someone grounded in her own time, falling in love with a man from another century, and faced with believing the unbelievable.

Despite the now-dated “modern” world depicted in Time After Time, much of the social commentary remains intact.  There is certainly more that we can relate to in the society of 1979, compared to 1893.  Wells envisions a future utopia that is bereft of war, poverty and inequality of the sexes.  What he encounters in 1979 is far from the world of his dreams.  Stevenson argues that time has caught up with him, and it is Wells who is out of step.  Society has only become more violent, modern warfare has become more efficient at wholesale slaughter, and guns are more easily accessible.  A fleeting glimpse of numbers tattooed on a concentration camp survivor’s arm is testament to this increasingly alarming paradigm.   There has been no widespread distribution of wealth in the 20th century.  Everything is still driven by money, as Wells soon discovers.  Although the women’s liberation movement referenced in the film seems dated by 21st century standards, many of the concepts behind it are not.  Gender issues such as sexual harassment and wage inequalities are still as topical now as they were more than 30 years ago.  On a lighter (but no less insightful) note, Meyer’s script takes a jab at the ubiquitous fast food culture that has emerged.  Convenience has taken precedence over quality, as embodied by Wells’ disconcerting visit to a McDonald’s restaurant.

Time After Time asks us to imagine that H.G. Wells’ speculative fiction stories were not mere flights of fancy, but based in reality.  The film works as a fine pseudo-sequel to 1960’s The Time Machine, but stands on its own as an alternate history about the “real” history of Wells.


  1. I've always loved Time after Time. And I remember it was released just a couple of days before the date that appears on Well's time machine in 1979! I remember seeing in at least 3 times when it opened (of course my crush on Malcolm McDowall was a big factor) and it's romance mixed with really great suspense had me hooked from the get go! Thanks for the great review!

    1. Thanks for the kinds words, Therese! It's one of my all-time favorites, and the leads are just perfect. I have fond memories of seeing this in the theater as well. :)