Hello, friends in time, and welcome to a regular feature on Cinema 52 where I put my weekly viewing of Back to the Future on hold and watch another movie featuring time travel for comparison. It may not keep me sane, but it will probably always involve one guy shouting, “This doesn’t make any sense!” And that’s good enough for me.

TIME AFTER TIME (1979)

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Come, you’re invited to a fancy dinner party in London, circa 1893! Have you met the host, H. G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell)? Right this way, he wants to show you something most clever… his time machine! Does this story sound a little familiar? It’s cool, one of the other guests is secretly Jack the Ripper (David Warner), and he’s about to go a-killin’ his way through 1979. Smashing!

THE STORY:
Look, you either buy this premise or leave it on the shelf. It’s a tough sell, to be sure, and it spends a lot of its introduction feeling like a shameless knock-off of The Time Machine. And not just the book; the fact that the time traveler is the actual H. G. Wells is a nod to the original 1960 movie, which I would have reviewed first if I were the sort of person that remembers to think about stuff. Oh well, this is probably one genre of film where I can’t be faulted for reviewing out of chronological order.

“Check this out, Filby… uh, Jack.”

H. G.’s time machine operates on a two-key system that our viewing party needed a moment to sort out, but I’m not going to confuse you here. The short version is that the machine will always return to whatever time H. G. Wells is in because he has the key that… makes it do that. Jack the Ripper needs this key to be able to travel through time without Wells constantly pursuing him and ruining his slaughtering fun. Now we have a story.

“Sniff it.”

What really works about this premise is that both men are fairly ingenious. This could have been “good guy chases bad guy through a herd of dinosaurs, then through King Arthur’s court, then through space, etc.” But instead, Wells follows him to 1979 and Jack simply understands that he’ll just keep following him until he gets that key, so let’s get this sorted out first and then get back on the murder train. This elevates the movie from a needlessly complicated action adventure (which I assumed I was getting) to a smartly executed chess game between two clever rivals.

No, not a literal game of chess. Though that might still be better than Timerider.

The film really gets compelling when the moral nature of Mr. Wells and the psychotic tendencies of Mr. Ripper are portrayed as the two conflicting sides of intelligence. There’s a brilliant scene where they discuss all the good and bad that’s happened in the world by 1979, and arguments are made for which one of them really belongs in this future. We get glimpses of the philosophies of the actual H. G. Wells and how some of his once radical ideas are now fairly commonplace, but when you consider how much Jack the Ripper feels right at home in our world, is it really so great to be considered “ahead of your time”?

“Shazbot?”

THE ACTING:
We can try to ignore my soft spot for British actors, but I could watch Malcolm McDowell and David Warner play cat-and-mouse all bloody day.

“I’ll be the cat this time. Meow.”

Their performances are great because they’re both reserved. We could have gotten H. G. Goody Two-Shoes giving long-winded speeches on the right thing to do while Jack the Joker cackles gleefully about his killboner. Instead, we’re treated to a couple of stiff upper lips coolly requesting, “I’d like that key,” and firmly replying, “I’d rather not.” This is far more tense than any of the typical comic book overacting that might accompany a story like this.

Oh, and Mary Steenburgen. I believe I’m legally required to mention that she is also the lady-love of one Dr. Emmett L. Brown, but let’s just try to move past her penchant for space-time continuum violators and focus on this movie. In Time After Time, she’s Amy, a smart, free-lovin’, bra-burnin’ sort of modern seventies gal, but she’s still that got that charming, slightly ditzy Steenburgen delivery we know and love.

Aww, golly.

Okay, no, I can’t look past Back to the Future Part III; she takes a break-up exactly the same way in both movies. We’ll get to that.

Never before has the term “two-timing” been so accurate.

THE SPECIAL EFFECTS:
It’s the late 1970s, so visuals haven’t gone Full Eighties, but this movie still loves it some negatives and weird glows.

Sparkle sparkle.

OPTICAL ILLUSION! Look at this image for 30 seconds, then stare at the back wall of the milk bar.

Oh, and if you enjoy a good time tunnel, we got that. This one’s filled with montages of historical radio broadcasts.

I know, I know, it looks just like Blake’s 7.

There’s also a weird prism rainbow thingy that you might get sick of by the tenth time they use it, but I certainly appreciated its uniqueness.

“Oz, here I come.”

OTHER (SPOILERY) STUFF:

  • This particular brand of time travel is affected by the rotation of the Earth, I assume just so the film could be set in America.
  • I must say, I consulted Wikipedia a lot during this movie, due to all the random bits of information on H. G. Wells that seemed to check out. Good work, writing team.
  • Just like The Time Machine, we have no way of knowing if paradoxes are possible under this universe’s rules, as it focuses on just one trip to the future. H. G. never uses the machine to go back in time and stop Jack the Ripper from killing his first victim, which, depending on your point of view, makes sense because it might be an immutable travel method or is stupid because it’s stupid.
  • As villain disposal methods go, this movie’s is the supercoolest.

THE “NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE!” MOMENT:
While “crock of shit” may be a little more harsh than “whoppers,” honestly, I can’t help but hear Clara Clayton when H. G. Wells tries to tell Amy that he’s got a time machine. She tries to storm off, but H. G. begs her to listen…

“I have listened to you. And a bigger crock of shit I never heard. Look, I don’t know if you’re crazy or what, but anyway, I don’t care. Just go back to whatever hole you crawled out of. Go back to your machine.”

FINAL THOUGHTS:
I was a bit skeptical of the premise, but I have to say, I was won over. This movie is highly entertaining and definitely well-crafted. I shouldn’t have expected less from the director who gave us Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan; I couldn’t stop myself from seeing parallels between the rivalries of the main characters in both films. While it’s not a perfect movie, I’ll say Time After Time was a pleasant surprise, lest I run the risk of over-hyping it and leaving you unpleasantly unsurprised.

LATER THIS WEEK:
Millennium (1989)

Want more time travel? Head on over to the Time Out archive.