Monday, April 23, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Somewhere in Time" (1980)

Time-travel stories journey through the years themselves, waxing and waning in popularity through different eras. During the 1970s and into the '80s, movies of this ilk were exceedingly popular -- "Time After Time," "Back to the Future," "Time Travelers," etc.

"Somewhere in Time" from 1980 is something different from these other pictures, which play up the science fiction element. Here, the journey back through time is decidedly metaphysical, with Christopher Reeve playing a man who wakes up in 1912 simply because he has willed himself to do so. And he's not tripping through the decades for adventure or scientific conquest, but for Love.

"Somewhere in Time" did not make much of a splash during its initial release, but it's become something of a cult favorite in the intervening years -- even spurring fan clubs, a book and special screenings. It doesn't take much guessing based on the gauzy cinematography, syrupy strings-heavy score by John Barry and starched period costumes to realize that this time-hopping tale is aimed more at the readers of Harlequin Romances than H.G. Wells novels.

I have to confess that I put this flick into my Netflix queue thinking it was actually "Time After Time," a sort of multi-dimensional murder/mystery where Jack the Ripper gets transported to the modern world to ply his gruesome trade. I'm not quite sure if I ever had seen the Christopher Reeve/Jane Seymour romance before, though it's probably not the sort of thing I would have sought out as a preadolescent. If I did watch it, it certainly didn't make a lasting impression.

Watching it recently, I can see why. It's a stiff, stolid affair, with the star-crossed couple existing more as romantic ideals than flesh-and-blood characters. It isn't helped by that tried-and-true cinematic folly, the proposition that two people can fall instantly and irrecoverably in love over the course of a 24-hour period.

The problem with this narrative assertion is that because it's impossible show two individuals intertwining themselves over a period of time, so such a depiction is by definition of telling us that they've found True Love. One of the first rules of writing is to show rather than tell your audience what happens; make them feel it rather than just understand what transpires.

The film is based on a book by Richard Matheson, who also wrote the screenplay, and whose writings often formed the basis for movies: "Real Steel," "The Omega Man," "I Am Legend." I would guess the romantic element was already there, since the whole premise is about a Chicago playwright named Richard Collier who becomes obsessed with the photograph of a stage actress, Elise McKenna. With the aid of an old philosophy professor, Richard resolves that if he dresses himself in period clothing and removes any sign of modernity, he can self-hypnotize himself into slipping backward 68 years.

There's something of a hole in the plot. The story begins in 1972, when a college-age Richard is confronted by an old woman at the premier of his play. She places a beautiful pocket watch in his hands and begs, "Come back to me!" Of course, it is Elise, now ancient and regretful for her long-lost love. Years later, while tooling around the country in the midst of a bout of writer's block, he stumbles upon the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan, sees the photograph and becomes obsessed.

Here's the thing: After he does go back in time and spends that magical day (actually, part of two days) falling in love with Elise, at no point does he ever reveal that he's from the future. Other than taking the easy way out of some potentially complicating matters applying to their courtship, it also means that she had no way of knowing what happened when Richard suddenly disappeared. How did she know to seek out Richard's younger self 68 years later?

That's a paradox, wasted.

The method by which Richard is forcibly returned to 1980 is also rather contrived. While emptying the pockets of his suit, he comes across a penny dated 1979. Confronted by physical evidence of his temporal incongruity, he falls down a dark tunnel of perception and wakes up in modern times.

I realize the exact mechanics of time travel aren't the priority for this movie, but this is just ridiculous. Richard would never be able to completely banish from his mind the knowledge that he's from the future. Just because he encounters a token proving what he already knew shouldn't have any effect on his ability to stay where he is.

Also, if he hypnotized himself into the past once, why couldn't he do it again? After a few hours of failed attempts, Richard instead goes into a state of comatose shock and starves himself to death -- where, of course, he is reunited with his beloved Elise. This strengthens the notion that the entire experience was merely a figment of his imagination.

Christopher Plummer has an interesting role as William Robinson, Elise's over-protective and possibly psychotic manager. He hangs around her Svengali-like, whispering instructions in her ear and putting off an and all interference from outsiders.

In the story, Robinson has warned Elise that a man would someday arrive who would change her life forever -- an indication that he somehow had foreknowledge of Richard's time travel. My understanding is in the book the arrival is presaged by a pair of psychics, but it's left up in the air for the movie. I thought it would have been novel if the filmmakers had suggested that Robinson was another time traveler, himself.

Director Jeannot Szwarc, who's still active today, started out and ended up in television, but not before making some truly awful movies: "Jaws II," "Supergirl," "Santa Claus: The Movie." I regret to say I've seen all of those duds, and wish I could go back in time to get that time back.

1.5 stars out of four

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