Posted in: Film Reviews, Science Fiction

Review: Time After Time

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

The time-travel premise of Time after Time is coyly signified by the use of the old Warner Brothers logo music of the Forties over the opening of the film; but in this self-billed “ingenious entertainment,” most of the ingenuity lies in the conception, very little in the realization. Nicholas Meyer’s direction, predictably, lies along literary rather than cinematic lines; the production design and photography are surprisingly uninventive for a film of such fantastic possibilities; and the special effects are downright flaccid. The montage depicting H.G. Wells’s journey through time—in pursuit of Jack the Ripper, who has preceded him into the Seventies by borrowing Wells’s time machine)—is a warmed-over 2001 lightshow, with the time traveler hearing, selectively, important voices of the 20th century, but seeing nothing at all: a pale contrast to the almost unbearably exciting time trip in the George Pal The Time Machine. The technological doubletalk about the key to the machine and its drive element is unclear, as is the reason why the machine, after being used by Jack, returns to its location a few seconds later, not to the original time at which it was borrowed—but it is so obviously there just to set up the gimmick to be used in the climax that one can predict the ending barely five minutes into the film.

With a chess match as jumping-off point, the film establishes itself as a battle of wits between Wells and his erstwhile friend Dr. John Leslie Stevenson, who has been discovered to be Jack the Ripper. Wells credits himself with having learned how to master his opponent when, using the time machine, he inadvertently discovers the Ripper’s upcoming crimes. But in fact his knowledge of the future doesn’t enable him to learn his enemy’s thought processes, since Jack is still surprising him even at the end of the film; and his application of the time machine to the tactical face-off runs him smack up against the eternal problem of time-travel stories, the problem of Oedipus: Knowing one’s own fate, is it possible to alter or avoid it altogether? Or, in Christian theological terms, does foreknowledge imply predestination? Though hardly an original theme (Rod Serling did it scores of times), this central problem is the most interesting aspect of Time after Time. Though the film has a basic sense of wonder (when Wells describes his time machine to a friend, who mutters “Poppycock!”, Wells replies simply “Why?”) and several nice touches (I like Dr. Stevenson’s late arrival at Wells’s house, sans gloves, and the greeting “Hello, John” as a subtle revelation of the Ripper’s identity), it contains a lot of gratuitous padding, and frequently goes too far for the sake of cuteness.

Unexpectedly transferred to a San Francisco art museum’s “H. G. Wells exhibit” when he follows .the Ripper in his time machine, Wells replaces his broken spectacles by obtaining a spare pair from the drawer of the desk where he has always kept them: but since he has just traveled from 1893 to 1979, this makes no allowance for anything that might have happened to the desk or the glasses in the 86-year interim. A bigger flaw is in Victorian buff Meyer’s odd misconception of Victorianism. In San Francisco, 1979, Jack the Ripper says to H.G. Wells, “You’re so Victorian,” an expression he could hardly be expected to have used after spending only a couple days in 1979, and which, in any case, he would undoubtedly have applied equally to himself, even if he understood all that modern parlance associates with the term. The diabolic and violent nature of our times is polemically described in the film as being in perfect harmony with Jack the Ripper’s obsession with violence, blithely overlooking the fact that the real Jack, from what we know of him, killed to destroy evil, not to feel at home with it. The film’s major premise collapses when we consider that the historical Jack, strolling through contemporary North Beach, would hardly share Dr. Stevenson’s delight at the prospect of more tarts to carve up. More likely he would have felt as hopelessly defeated as Wells, the eternal failed idealist.

© 1980 Robert C. Cumbow

Direction: Nicholas Meyer. Screenplay: Meyer, after a story by Karl Alexander and Steve Hayes. Cinematography: Paul Lohmann. Production design: Edward Carfagno. Editing: Donn Cambern. Music: Miklos Rozsa. Production: Herb Jaffe; associate: Steven-Charles Jaffe.
The players: Malcolm McDowell, David Warner, Mary Steenburgen, Charles Cioffi, Geraldine Baron, Patti d’Arbanville, Karin Mary Shea.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.