Time After Time (1979) is the hidden gem of time travel movies
Nicholas Meyer, the director of Star Trek II and Tomorrow Never Dies, uses a clever premise in his directorial debut. The cast brings a youth and exuberance to this movie, which has now been retread by every time travel movie made since, from Back to the Future to Star Trek: First Contact. It has elements of the popular time travel novel written by HG Wells, and it is essentially a fictional story about HG Wells himself going into the future to stop Jack the Ripper. Yes, that’s seriously the plot, but it’s not pretentious and its not overly complicated.
The thing about this film is that it doesn’t get weighed down by any of the things it relies on. The elements of time travel, philosophy, murder, and even liberalism are touched on, but never overwhelm the dialogue. The premise is based on time travel, but it is explained away as possible thanks to a “machine” built by HG Wells, just like in The Time Machine (1960). Jack the Ripper is alive and sneaking in a few murders, before stealing the time machine to travel to 1979. Apparently, HG Wells doesn’t have very good taste in friends.
The movie has a whimsical touch about it. Perhaps Star Trek IV stole a bit from this movie, because the fish-out-of-water is what gives it some amusing moments. It is probably not a coincidence that Nicholas Meyer also directed Star Trek IV, a movie where the Enterprise crew get plopped down in modern day San Francisco. In another surprising parallel, the main character also goes to San Francisco to search for his pal, Jack the Ripper.
A young Malcolm McDowell plays the main character, HG Wells. He plays the role straight, like a typical English gentlemen, and he does a good job. He’s pretty much in every scene, so it’s a good thing they got a fairly decent actor. I will say that the fish-out-of-water works well to mask McDowell’s young flaws, so he doesn’t really have to carry the whole thing with his performance alone, because the dialogue helps move the pace and the comedy works. The only difference between this and Star Trek IV is that there is a great reliance on romance.
Mary Steenburgen plays the love interest, and this movie is her second movie appearance ever. She comes off like a pro. She is natural and perfect as Amy, a modern woman who thinks HG Wells is strange, but cute. To prove it, she sleeps with him the first day she meets him. Pretty stupid and funny. She comes off as strong like she was in Back to the Future III, where she is again co-starring as a love interest, but this time, she has a personality.
Some people might be bored by the same old fish-out-of-water time travel movie they’ve seen dozens of times before. Christopher Reeve even tried his hand at time travel when he starred in Somewhere in Time, released in 1980. There’s something about Time After Time that makes it a lighthearted time at the movies, and the tone is like Back to the Future, on the whole. It never becomes too dramatic or too silly. Today, the comedy is more unintentionally inspired by the dialogue, but I didn’t mind. Don’t you like to chuckle?
As much as it was copied, Time After Time does copy very liberally from The Time Machine (1960), another HG Wells inspired movie. In both movies, the time machine has a lever, it rocks, makes noise, and glows. The science is the same. The special effects in Time After Time are terrible and look done by a two-year old who is half asleep, but the stupid sparkles that pass for glimmers in time are only there for a few seconds.
The best part is seeing all these familiar faces as young people, young actors with so much energy, inspired to make this crappy ordinary script into something good. You can see that they are having fun, so this makes me like it too. I haven’t even mentioned the contributions of David Warner, who plays Jack the Ripper. He doesn’t have much to do, but he at least has a few good lines, even if he’s only there to be a two-dimensional villain. His best performance is from The Omen, of course, but many people enjoy his work in Tron or as a Klingon in Star Trek VI. All kinds of Star Trek stuff going on in this movie, huh?
All in all, this is a pretty good popcorn movie. What’s wrong with movie being small and clever? Does everything have to be melodramatic and over-the-top? If you liked Back to the Future, The Time Machine, or Star Trek IV, I’d say this movie has the same tone and will work for you. It has the style of Star Trek IV, and you can’t get much better than Malcolm McDowell as an English time traveler, unless its that Doctor Who guy. The movie has some strong comment about the future and it seems to have subtext about declining morals, but those elements are as understated and lighthearted as all the others. That’s all this movie is, in the end.
One scene is probably made me chuckle and smile the most. As he arrives in the future, McDowell literally appears in the middle of a museum, where his old-fashioned, lever-pulling time machine has ended up. He walks out in a tweed suit with a deerstalker cap on his head, later calling himself “Sherlock Holmes” as he hunts for clues. The old-fashioned, chuckle-worthy scenes don’t end there, but they are there, if you’re willing to look.