Saturday 22 August 2020

Movie Review: Time After Time (1979)

A science fiction thriller, Time After Time is a clever mix of historical characters, romance, fantastical science, some humour and a murderous pursuit across time.

In London of 1893, Doctor John Leslie Stevenson (David Warner), who is secretly also the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper, is having dinner at the home of his friend, author and inventor Herbert George (H.G.) Wells (Malcolm McDowell). Investigating the latest killing, the police close in on the Ripper and Stevenson makes his escape by jumping into Wells' brand new time travel machine.

Wells, who has a utopian vision of the future, gives chase and lands in San Francisco of 1979. Finding Stevenson will not be easy, but Wells is helped by bank foreign exchange manager Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen), who finds the tweedy English gentleman charming. Sevenson is a good fit for the anarchy of modern society and is quickly back to his killing ways. Wells and Amy fall in love as they pursue him, but Amy herself becomes the killer's latest target.

While the time travel special effects are exceptionally cheesy even for the era, writer and director Nicholas Meyer gets almost everything else right. Well-constructed and benefitting from a good cast in top form, Time After Time is a neat chase thriller. The cerebral duel between a murderous doctor and idealistic inventor infuses a layer of smarts, and the premise of strangers navigating a strange future lands with elegance thanks to their sharp intellect.

The early scenes in London feature lush set designs, and the time machine is a handsome Victorian era contraption. The difference between Wells and Stevenson is underlined through their wardrobe, Stevenson quick to change into 1979 fashions and meld into a society glorifying violence, while the gentlemanly Wells hangs onto his 1890s suit. While the future proves to be far from Wells' ideal of peace, justice and equality for all, Amy personifies women's progress in society, perhaps an early but important step towards the desired state of global bliss.

Meyer extracts a rare restrained performance from Malcolm McDowell, the British actor settling down and maintaining control of the H.G. Wells character in both 1893 and 1979. David Warner also does more with less, breathing life into a maniacal but calculating killer. And in her own understated manner Mary Steenburgen sneakily serves the dual function of love interest and feminist inspiration.

The climactic chasing around slips away a bit from Meyer, the third act prolonged to include a badly timed flat tire and bumbling police work. But the final resolution is refined, the story tidying up both the Jack the Ripper mystery and Wells' visionary reputation. And it only took a quick 86 year jaunt to resolve two legends.

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