Directed by Nicholas Meyer
The most striking scene in Time After Time comes fairly early into the film, when two time travelers from 1893, one accidental and one purposeful, debate the state of the contemporary world (at least as it was in 1979). One of them is H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell), the famous writer who was the subject of many of his own stories, including another similar one called The Time Machine (made into a 1960 movie, then remade in 2002 and based on recent reports will be remade soon with Leonardo DiCaprio). The other is John Leslie Stevenson (David Warner), aka the infamous Jack the Ripper.
Wells and Stevenson are friends in upper class London society in 1893. Wells elaborates on his disappointment in the violence of the world and expresses optimism that the future will be a grand utopia where such violence no longer exists (his vision of such a future involved socialism). This set up is almost beat for beat the same as in The Time Machine only this time one of his gathered friends just so happens to be Jack the Ripper.
When Scotland Yard shows up, they quickly learn (and Wells does too) that Stevenson is the infamous murderer, but Stevenson escapes by using Wells’ untested time machine. The machine then shows back up, appearing out of thin air before Wells’ own eyes, and our hero hops into the machine and follows Stevenson to November of 1979.
The rest of the film takes place in San Francisco where H.G. Wells struggles to make sense of this new, chaotic world. Though vibrant and exciting to be sure, it’s hard not to notice the violence in the news, on television and even in the more mundane ways people behave.
As keen as he is to learn more about this future, Wells is here only to capture and bring back his friend so justice can be done. After a bit of detective work (he will later tell authorities his name is Sherlock Holmes), Wells comes across a kind, forward bank employee named Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen). Their initial encounter involves Wells’ own fascination with the Women’s Liberation movement, which he makes sure to say he was in favor of (her response is “what changed?”), and soon leads to a long date that bleeds from one weekday afternoon into the next morning. Robbins is reserved but direct, and their courtship has the feel of an old Katherine Hepburn-Cary Grant comedy.
Robbins just so happens to have run into Stevenson earlier, and so she points Wells to his probable whereabouts. They then meet for the first time in the ‘future’ and continue their debate on the nature of man that was started in the first act. Wells is appalled that Stevenson is Jack the Ripper, but he is even more taken aback by the apparent violence in what he imagined would be a utopia.
Time After Time is ultimately a silly, entertaining movie, but this scene between the two time travelers is quite damning of our present day society (both then and now). Where Wells struggles to adapt in the most basic of ways to this new environment, Stevenson seems already to have blended right in. When he shows Wells the violent reports spread all over the midday news (apparently in 1979 it was grim news reports around the clock), Stevenson tells his old friend, “ninety years ago I was a freak, now I’m an amateur.” He will then say with some sort of sinister catharsis in his voice, “I’m home.”
I think that if you were to come across this movie on tv you might watch with a half-hearted interest, but when this scene came on it’s hard not to be riveted. Well again I should just speak for myself. I didn’t expect this kind of social commentary, even if it may seem heavy-handed and obvious and even if such social commentary was H.G. Wells’ kind of thing. It took me by surprise, and holy sh*t did it feel like a mic drop, I’m just not sure by whom.
A quick foot chase leads to Stevenson’s apparent death, and with him out of the picture, Wells and Robbins can focus on their own relationship. These sequences are riveting in their own way, mostly due to the work of Steenburgen and McDowell (who would marry a year after the film’s release) and the emphasis on changing gender roles. It’s Robbins whose efforts put their story in motion, and she stands her ground when he asks why she wouldn’t consider returning with him to 1893 (“You sound like my ex-husband,” she’ll say, regarding the man whom she met at an anti-war rally and who later tried to turn her into a domestic housewife). *The one thing I take issue with is that the film will end with her coming back around and deciding to go with him to 1893.
Soon there are reports of dead or missing prostitutes, and this tells Wells that Jack the Ripper is still out there. He will hunt him down, trying to work with the authorities who don’t believe a word he says, and it’s in this portion of the story that this starts to feel like the middle of Dirty Harry, with the hero chasing down a serial killer all over the most photogenic spots in San Francisco, often in the dark of night.
Things work out mostly as you expect, but an effective fake out or two, combined with the delightful sense of humor throughout the whole film, makes this quite the unexpectedly enjoyable watch.
My favorite moment comes between Steenburgen and McDowell when Wells says, “The first man to raise a fist is the man who’s run out of ideas.” Robbins takes a moment, as if to catch her breath, then just says, “I love you.”
Up Next: The Other Side of the Wind (2018), The Chase (1966), Dead Ringer (1964)