Entry #23: Time After Time (1979)

Time After Time was Nicholas Meyer’s first directorial appearance. Three years before he directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and 7 years before he’d pen the time travel story Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Time After Time hits many similar beats to these films, as well as elements of his prior Sherlock Holmes screenplay The Seven Per-Cent Solution.

This film is pretty amazing in a lot of ways. On the surface it can seems a little outlandish, and it definitely has some strange jumps in the editing, but somehow it works. It opens with the depiction of another slaying by Jack the Ripper in late 19th Century London. The action then moves to the parlor of HG Wells, as he has dinner with his friends, in order to reveal to them his time machine. This sequence is extremely similar to the opening of The Time Machine (1960) with Malcolm McDowell doing a great version of Wells.

The group is shortly joined by John Leslie Stevenson, played deliciously by David Warner, who as any viewer of the trailer for this film must have realized, was Jack the Ripper. It’s not long before that fact is revealed and Stevenson takes off for the future in Wells’ time machine; 1979, in fact! The machine returns as Stevenson does not have the key to lock it in place.

Wells quickly follows in the returned machine, and discovers himself, not in merry old England, but in late 70’s San Francisco. His whole plan seems to be to confront Stevenson and convince him to return. But as the Ripper tells Wells, the world has finally caught up to his debauchery. The wars, and violence is a sure sign that he was destined to be in this Century. It’s surely a far cry from the utopia that Wells describes to his friends at dinner the night before.

In the hunt for Stevenson, Wells meets with Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen, in her second film role) a bank teller who has changed currency for Stevenson. She is smitten with Wells and the two spend a large amount of time together as she helps him track the killer down. Meanwhile the Ripper returns to his murderous ways, and in a series of slayings reminiscent of teh Zodiac killer, begins to work his way thru San Francisco.

In an attempt to convince Amy that his stories of time travel are true, Wells breaks into the museum housing his time machine (from a world tour of the HG Wells Exhibit) and the two travel forward 2 days. They are shocked to discover that the newspaper reveals that Amy was killed late Friday night. At this point Wells, who has been consistently steps behind his friend, realizes he now holds the upper hand, with the foreknowledge of Stevenson’s movements.

But as in classic time travel films, having the knowledge of what’s to come (both Amy’s murder and the one prior to her’s) doesn’t mean you can change it. Meyer’s screenplay and film is of the opinion that time is fixed. Amy’s car suffers a flat on the way to McLaren Park delaying their efforts to stop the Ripper.

The next morning (Friday) Amy is so shaken up by the events of the previous night that she takes a valium to relax, as Wells leaves to buy a gun. He is apprehended by the police who refuse to believe his outlandish stories, especially after he reported knowledge of the killings previously as “Sherlock Holmes.” They of course believe him to be the killer, and hold him in jail, all the while he pleads with them that they must check out Amy’s apartment.

Stevenson enters Amy’s apartment, just after she has awoken from her drug laced nap and Amy hides in the closet. Wells agrees to plead guilty to all counts if the police would just send a squad car to her apartment and check on her. They are too late, and find a severed hand in the living room, with blood strewn on the walls. The police release Wells, knowing he’s not responsible, and he wanders the streets of San Francisco inconsolably.

But of course, Amy was not killed (it was her friend that had come by for dinner) and Stevenson uses her as hostage to get the key for the Time Machine back from Wells. The events move back to the museum and just as the ripper is about to travel thru time, on what’s sure to be a orgy of blood, Wells pulls the “vaporizing equalizer” from the machine, dooming Stevenson into the infinite void of time. Amy and Wells return to 1893, where the two are married.

As a time travel film with characters moving from the late 19th Century to the late 20th Century, being viewed by a person from the early 21st Century, this film provides an interesting capsule of 1979 San Francisco, without seeming too caught up in the elements of the time. The attitudes of the late-70’s, both political and social, are on display. Amy is a “free woman” of the seventies and serves as a strange version of the future Wells predicted. Wells had mentioned several times about his writing a paper on Free Love, which must have shocked readers on the 1890’s.  But it’s his hopes of a utopian society with the next “three decades” (from his time) that must come as the biggest shock; learning that there have been two World Wars plus numerous other upheavals that change his outlook on his own future and would, presumably, alter his writings upon his return.

Meyer sets a great story in a great location, drawing parallels as mentioned previously to the Zodiac killer, as well as using Wells’ own history to shape the story. In Wells’ true writings he predicted a great war in 1940, and his second wife was indeed Amy Robbins! The parallels to his story “The Time Machine” both in literature and cinema cannot be overlooked, as well as the work of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who is not only referenced in the film by Wells, but can be seen in his actions as a detective searching for Stevenson, and even the look of the character with the deerstalker cap he wears.

The main philosophical issues with this film do not involve changing the past or the discussions of time travel, but rather using 19th Century idealism to examine the notions of “modern” violence and its effect on society. Both Wells and Stevenson represent both sides of the equation, with Wells being the nebbish, pacifistic idealist, and Stevenson being the outgoing, violent realist. It may even be a deeper discussion, with both characters representing the Id and the Ego. I find it obvious that the use of the surname Stevenson, draws parallels to Robert Louis Stevenson, author of “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”, arguably the most famous story of the duality of man. In another attempt to show Wells’ internal conflict, Wells makes mention that the first man to raise his fists is the first one to run out of ideas, yet by the end of the story, Wells purchases a gun, making him just as guilty as those he condemns. His changes were all for the love of a woman.

San Francisco is beautifully captured in this film, from North Beach, to the Palace of the Fine Arts to many other locations. Much like in Star Trek IV, San Francisco acts as a character in the film, adding a great vibe to the proceedings. I cannot confirm, but I believe there is a park that Wells and Amy walk across near the water, that is the same location where Dr Gillian Taylor picks up Spock and Kirk.

Also of particular note is Mary Steenburgen, playing a woman from the 20th Century falling for a man from the 19th Century. In 11 years time, she would portray a woman from 1885 that falls for a man from 1985 in Back to the Future III. And of course David Warner would go on to play a character just called Evil, in the time travel comedy Time Bandits, while Malcolm McDowell would go on to play the time traveling sociopath Soran in Star Trek Generations.

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