Monday, May 14, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Time After Time" (1979)

Sigh. After my recent attempt at revisiting the time-traveling craze of the late 1970s and early '80s led me to watch the wrong movie, the mushy romance "Somewhere in Time," I thought I'd circle back and watch the movie I meant to see: 1979's "Time After Time." This film, which came out a year earlier, promised to be more of a straight action/fantasy than a kissy-kissy story.

Alas, it was another disappointment.

This was the debut feature film of director Nicholas Meyer, a novelist who segued into movies as a screenwriter. He would go onto a distinguished career, including directing "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," universally recognized as the best in that series, and the sixth Trek movie, which was pretty good, too.

His screeningwriting career has outpaced his directorial efforts, with other notable script credits including "The Informant," "Sommersby," "The Prince of Egypt," the under-appreciated "The Human Stain," and "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution," based on his own book, for which he received his only Oscar nomination.

I saw "Time After Time" as a kid, and remembered as being a much darker film. It's a fanciful story about writer H.G. Wells chasing Jack the Ripper through time using a machine he built. David Warner made a lasting impression as the gentleman serial killer, but Malcolm MacDowell as the protagonist is something of a wet blanket -- a socialist dreamer who's disappointed that the future hasn't turned out to be the workers' utopia he'd imagined.

The premise, of course, is a total lark. The story is set in 1893, when Wells was 27 and had yet to write any of his famously futuristic novels. The first, of course, was "The Time Machine" in 1895, and the idea is supposed to be that Wells got the notion for his writings by traveling 86 years into the future. Never mind that Wells wasn't a scientist, and couldn't have successfully built a toaster oven, let alone a time-traveling machine.

But even if one swallows the time-traveling thing, not to mention the idea that Wells' best friend was secretly The Ripper, the story -- based on a novel by Karl Alexander -- just doesn't do all that much with the premise. Jack (actual name: Dr. John Leslie Stevenson) realizes the coppers are about to nab him, so he jumps into Wells' machine and dashes off to 1979. (Why he chose that date, other than it is the same year the movie came out, remains a total mystery.)

Fortunately, Wells designed the machine with an auto-return function that automatically brings the gizmo back unless one has a long reddish wand-key. He goes after John, making sure to stuff his pockets with money before the trip.

The biggest downside of the movie is that it focuses too much on the stuck-out-of-time aspect rather than the conflict between the two men. When Wells does finally catch up with John, he simply knocks on his hotel room door and demands that the killer return with him back to 1893 and face the authorities. Only a simpleton would expect a man responsible for dozens of murders to comply, so it's no surprise when John assaults Wells and dashes off.

Instead, the plot focuses too much on Wells' romance with Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen), a modern liberated woman who more or less throws herself at Wells. ("I'm practically raping you," she exclaims when Wells hesitates when their first date ends up with them in bed.) Needless to say, The Ripper soon focuses his ire on her, building up to the inevitable showdown, and of course the predictable moment where Wells has to tell Amy he's a time-traveler, which puts a kink in their sex life.

Given my reaction to "Somewhere in Time," one might reasonably conclude that I'm simply anti-romantic. I don't believe that's true, but I do object when movies brazenly introduce a character, usually a woman, into movies that don't require a romantic angle.

"Time After Time" is about hurtling oneself through the fourth dimension, experiencing gobsmacking culture shock and (in Wells' case) profound disappointment, while chasing the most infamous killer in history. That's not enough to build an engaging tale around? Why does there have to be a girl?

I should also mention that the movie romanticizes Jack the Ripper by turning him into a standard-issue killer who slits women's throats or stabs them in the torso. Though there is one moderately gruesome scene where the police find a body they think is Amy's, including a severed hand. That's curious, since John is always show favoring small, scalpel-like implements -- it'd be pretty hard to lop off a whole limb.

In reality The Ripper was the gruesomest of murderers, not just killing prostitutes but disemboweling them, removing the uterus or other organs, stuffing foreign objects in their mouths or body cavities. People who kill like that do so out of a fetishistic obsession, and we never really see why John is so obsessed with his bloody trade.

Warner's still a hoot, penetrating the screen with an icy stare. I also enjoyed the transformation of John from a three piece suit-wearing Victorian gent into a 1970s dude with a hippie flair, including one denim jeans-and-vest outfit, complete with large square sunglasses, that was probably considered quite fashionable at the time.

Yet another reason why, despite some terrific filmmaking, I still think the '70s represents the cultural nadir of America.

2 stars out of four

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