Time After Time Review
Jack the Ripper is a popular fellow. Well, cinematically at least. If one were to count all the movies that have been made featuring this most notorious of serial killers, the conclusion might be that Ripper movies have become a subgenre in and of themselves. From early silent films like Earth Spirit (1923) and Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1926) all the way up to the Hughes Brothers’ recent From Hell (2001), Whitechapel’s most infamous resident has fired the imagination of countless filmmakers over the years keen to unravel the mystery of who he really was. Perhaps because the story of Jack the Ripper has been told so many times, some filmmakers occasionally choose to forego a realistic account of the killer's misdeeds, taking considerable licence with the character and producing films (of variable quality) that, well, tend to stretch credibility, to put it mildly. Thus, we've had the likes of Murder By Decree (Sherlock Holmes hunts for the Ripper - a pretty good film, actually), Hands Of The Ripper (Jack The Ripper's daughter carries on her father's work - not so good), and Bridge Across Time (David Hasselhoff hunts for the Ripper in Arizona - truly terrifying!) Nicholas Meyer's 1979 offering Time After Time's spin on the Ripper legend is unlikely to turn up on any Ripperologist's top ten mostly likely conspiracy theories either but its fantastical premise certainly makes for one of the most entertaining Ripper films made so far.
Opening in a mist shrouded London in 1893, the film begins with the brutal murder of a prostitute at the hands of an immaculately dressed stranger (guess who?) Meanwhile, noted writer Herbert George Wells (Malcolm McDowell) is giving a dinner party for several of his friends, including late arrival Doctor John Lesley Stevenson (David Warner), in order to unveil his latest invention, a time machine. His colleagues scoff at the very notion but before Wells can prove himself to his guests, his presentation is rudely interrupted by the police. They inform him that Jack the Ripper is loose somewhere nearby and a quick search of the house uncovers bloody evidence that one of his guests is in fact the killer. Wells realises that the culprit is his good friend Stevenson but unfortunately, the Ripper has eluded capture by using Wells's time machine to escape to the future. Believing that he has "turned that bloody maniac loose upon utopia", Wells resolves to go after him. Without the use of a key which Wells stills holds, the Ripper is powerless to prevent the time machine from returning to its original departing point so Wells uses his recently-returned contraption to travel to the future himself, in this case, 1979. After a very turbulent trip, Wells is also surprised to discover that he has ended up not in London of the future but in San Francisco. And so his adventure begins.
In spite of his astonishment at how much the world has changed, Wells wastes no time in his pursuit of the Ripper. Reasoning that Stevenson will require suitable currency in order to survive, Wells visits virtually every bank in the city trying to track him down, his exhausting search finally bearing fruit when he meets feisty banker Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen) with whom he quickly becomes romantically entangled. She informs him that Stevenson has indeed paid her a visit and upon learning of his whereabouts, Wells pays his old acquaintance a surprise visit. But the Ripper is more than ready for him, explaining to his pursuer that he has no intention of going back with him, that he likes his new surroundings and that it is he, Wells that is, who is ill suited to the future. Stevenson is also understandably somewhat averse to allowing Wells to continue his pursuit of him and demands that he hand over the time machine key. Naturally, Wells refuses to do so and the pair go head to head but when the Ripper gets away from him again, Wells realises that he has now put both his own life and that of his new love, Amy, in jeopardy. As the Ripper continues his reign of terror and bloodshed, can he stop him in time?
OK so this is not really a Jack the Ripper movie in the strictest sense; as writer/director Nicholas Meyer readily admits on the audio commentary, both the characters of H. G. Wells and Jack the Ripper are of no real historical interest to him. Although they are both faithfully depicted, they are nevertheless used merely as an efficient and effective means of representing good and evil. What Meyer has created here is a very enjoyable blend of sci-fi, comedy, thriller and romance with a little social commentary thrown in for good measure. The director allows the audience to see the world through the eyes of his protagonist and, as H. G. Wells discovers, we note that this "brave new world" is not quite the paradise he imagined. For all its technological advances, the world has become a much more violent place - "we're obviously killing much more efficiently but we're still killing" - and the idealistic writer is shocked to discover how wrong he has been in his belief that mankind is destined to become a more peaceful, harmonious race. World wars have been fought, crime and violence are rife and society remains as harsh and unforgiving as it was in his own time. As Stevenson is only too happy to point out to his disillusioned friend, "I belong here completely and utterly…90 years ago, I was a freak. Today, I'm an amateur." It seems the Ripper has found a perfect home. In this time period, Wells is now the anomaly.
Setting aside the film's (occasionally heavy-handed) attempts at social critique though, I should say that Time After Time is nowhere near as serious as it may sound. Quite the opposite, in fact. Like many other time travel movies, such as the Back To The Future trilogy for example, there is much comedic value provided by the time traveller's bewildered reaction to the new sights, sounds, tastes and textures he experiences in his new environment. Take the scene where McDowell visits a fast food restaurant for the first time, or his first experience of watching a movie in a cinema, in this case, peering up from behind the seat. My favourite instance of Wells's ingenuousness is probably his first date with the independent and very forthright Steenburgen - the dumbfounded look on McDowell's face as she describes her sexual preferences is priceless. In fact, this light-hearted approach works extremely well considering that the film does feature Jack the Ripper and gives the movie an undeniably winning charm, particularly enhanced by the wonderful chemistry generated between McDowell and Steenburgen in their many romantic scenes together. (It should come as no surprise to viewers that the two were later married.) Indeed, Time After Time should probably be considered a romance more than anything else even though it has enough going for it to appeal to those looking for something more than just another mushy love story.
If the film works at all, it is because of the terrific performances given by the three leads; McDowell, Steenburgen and Warner are all perfectly cast in their respective roles. Malcolm McDowell, almost permanently attired in a deerstalker hat, spectacles and outmoded cashmere suit, is great as the bookish, slightly awkward hero, funny in scenes where he is exploring the new world in which he now finds himself and entirely credible as a romantic lead. Indeed, he has some unexpectedly touching moments with both Steenburgen and old friend now turned adversary Warner. Mary Steenburgen matches her co-star every inch of the way, delivering a spirited, idiosyncratic and likeable performance as the object of our hero's affections. David Warner is one of the best Rippers I have yet seen, effortlessly portraying a character whose well-bred demeanour masquerades a hideous inner self, his distinctive voice in particular being used to marvellously sinister effect here. The actor really jumps at the opportunity to portray such a monstrous figure whilst simultaneously lending him a surprising degree of pathos. The complex relationship between the two men - with its chess-game dynamic - is also nicely conveyed, with Warner's constant teasing and probing of McDowell's beliefs and values setting up some interesting resonances throughout the picture.
Although the film has flaws, they are mostly age-related; for example, special effects have come a long way since the 1970s and the FX work involving the time machine seems pretty shoddy and outdated by today's standards. On the other hand, the time machine itself looks like a deliberate throwback to George Pal's 1960s version of the Wells' classic The Time Machine and I must admit that I thought the cheesy effects actually added to the film's old-fashioned charm. I did feel that the film's pace waned a little in the middle section and the ending seemed somewhat anti-climactic, and there are also occasional plot holes to be found - how, for example, does Wells end up in San Francisco instead of London after completing his first time travel journey? However, veteran composer Miklos Rozsa's splendidly old-school orchestral score complements the film wonderfully well, and director of photography Paul Lohmann together with production designer Edward C. Carfagno ensure that everything looks great whether the setting is Victorian London or disco-era San Francisco. All in all, Nicholas Meyer deserves a lot of credit for crafting a witty screenplay (from a story by Karl Alexander and Steve Hayes) that can be enjoyed on more than one level - the scenes involving the Ripper are suspenseful, the love story is sweet, and the humour clever. Time travel, Jack the Ripper and romance might seem like strange bedfellows yet somehow the writer/director makes it work. Furthermore, Time After Time's old-fashioned appeal extends to the commendable restraint it displays in its depiction of the Ripper's atrocities, tossing in only an occasional severed hand or bloodied glove to remind the audience of the awfulness of the madman's crimes. Accordingly, this slight but entertaining film can be enjoyed by one and all and is recommended to all fans of sci-fi, comedy, romance, or yes, even Jack the Ripper movies.
Presented in the correct anamorphic 2.35:1 ratio, Warners have a strong reputation for finding good prints of their older catalogue titles and Time After Time is no exception. The print used here appears to be in fine shape with little dirt and white flecks present. The transfer itself is also very good, with minimal grain and no noticeable artifacting even during the opening night scenes in the fog. Colours are nicely presented too (although there is occasional fading in some scenes) and flesh tones look natural. The detail of the image is generally superb, black level is spot-on, but there is some edge enhancement evident from time to time. Still, this is an exceptionally good transfer of an older, less high profile title.
Presented in Dolby 2.0 Surround, the soundtrack is adequate although it obviously doesn't have the dynamic range one would find in a modern film. The centre channel is used the most, with the surrounds used mainly for ambient effects and the occasional boosting of the musical score. Rozsa's score comes across very well though, and dialogue and sound effects sound nice and clear. There's nothing particularly special about this soundtrack - it gets the job done but it won't tax your sound system either.
The film is contained on 36 chapters and the disc features dull static menus backed by music from the film's soundtrack. The extras include: a cast & crew listing, three theatrical trailers (for The Time Machine (1960), The Time Machine (2002) and Time After Time (1979) - be advised that the latter trailer contains spoilers that give away much of the film's finale!), an 'It's About Time' Essay, which offers a very brief overview of time travel movies made in Hollywood, and finally, an audio commentary by actor Malcolm McDowell and writer/director Nicholas Meyer.
On it, they discuss everything from how they became involved in the project in the first place to recollections about the film's actual production to their thoughts on how well the film stands up after all these years. [Note: Although the commentary has been edited to suggest both men were recorded together, I think they were probably recorded separately, their comments then carefully stitched together.] McDowell talks appreciatively of his director and co-stars, even allowing himself to become a little sentimental in his comments about ex-wife Mary Steenburgen, but he is also equally effusive in his praise of his old RSC chum, David Warner. He also spends some time discussing his approach to acting and speaks of his own acting career in general. Meyer's remarks tend to be more on the technical side and he discusses such topics as his relationship with the other collaborators on the film, shooting on location in San Francisco and the various influences on the look and feel of the movie, like The Time Machine and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. The director mentions the difficulties encountered during the production (apparently, the studio were none too keen on Miklos Rosza's score and tried to have it replaced), as well as his wish to avoid portraying any explicit violence or gore in the movie. He speaks candidly of his inexperience in filmmaking at that time and is fairly tough on himself in regard to the mistakes he made - not enough close-ups is a recurring complaint made by the director. Generally though, it's obvious that both he and McDowell are very proud of the film, and this audio commentary provides some interesting background on the film itself. A good effort.
A surprise box office hit upon its release, Time After Time deserves its success, remaining a well-told and affectionate speculation on what happens when idealistic 19th century values come face to face with the realities of the 20th century. The film's amalgamation of different genres is imaginative and amusing, and generally speaking, this pleasant diversion should appeal to a wide audience. Well worth a look.