Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Friday, November 15, 2013
Every Age Is The Same
It’s hard for me not to cherish certain memories from when I was a kid and got taken to the movies out of nowhere. A few of those are still favorites of mine now, at least partly because of the surprise that was always part of it. There was the Sunday when my parents asked if I wanted to go see a new movie that had just opened named RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, there was the time we were down in Manhattan and decided to see a new comedy with Dudley Moore named ARTHUR (so I’ve always said that my parents always took me to films where the lead picked up a hooker in the opening scene) and a few years before either of those, I’m guessing around the Fall of 1979, there was the weekend afternoon when my dad decided out of nowhere that he wanted to go see a movie named TIME AFTER TIME. I have a vague recollection of seeing television commercials and thinking it would be entirely a film about a chase through time. The movie as it turned out was slightly different from what I had been expecting but I loved it anyway. The directorial debut of Nicholas Meyer, TIME AFTER TIME has always been fondly recalled by some, maybe not enough people to make it a cult film but I imagine there are others out there who smile at the memory of it. It’s that sort of movie but it’s also one which overcomes certain flaws due to an engaging and surprising story, an excellent trio of lead characters and a genuine likability which allows it to stand out even now. The mechanics of the story’s time travel plotline is something that has been done other times in the years since (even by the man who made this movie and we’ll get to that) and like a few of those other examples there are holes you could poke into the story but, really, so what? TIME AFTER TIME is still endearing in spite of its flaws, almost to the point where I don’t care very much about those flaws at all. Some movies just have that sort of staying power.
London, 1893: During an evening gathering with several friends at his home, writer H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) shows off his newest invention, a time machine which he has yet to use. As he muses over whether to go forward or back the night is interrupted by the police, in search of the notorious Jack the Ripper who they believe to be in the area. Quickly, it is determined that the Ripper is one of Wells’ houseguests, Dr. John Leslie Stevenson (David Warner) who has used this opportunity to get away. It doesn’t take Wells long to discover that Stevenson has used his time machine to travel forward—-to 1979, to be exact. After the machine returns to the origin point as it is designed to do, Wells follows him and soon finds himself not in London but in San Francisco where he sees what the future utopia that he imagined to truly be filled with violence and anger where his friend Stevenson fits in perfectly. Wells soon tracks his friend down with the help of liberated bank employee Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen) and the two begin a romance but not only does Wells eventually have to reveal who he really is but he also must stop Stevenson when he realizes that his killing spree has begun yet again.
Every now and then you revisit a favorite movie from long ago and discover that the magic has died. The story doesn’t hold, the acting isn’t actually very good, the style has become irrevocably dated in ways that are unfortunate. Then there are those cases where even if you know that some of it isn’t quite as perfect as it once seemed the magic still doesn’t totally diminish and I suppose TIME AFTER TIME is one of those cases. Do these feelings have to do with the memory of when I first saw it long ago? Is it just a dream of the feeling I used to get going to the movies when I was so young, when everything about it was still so mysterious? I honestly don’t know, but it’s not like I sit up nights fondly remembering the time my father took me to see HOT LEAD AND COLD FEET. In the case of TIME AFTER TIME not only do I still vividly remember details of that day down to how it was dark out by the time we exited the theater, much of what I remember fondly about the film is still there. It’s continually endearing, no matter how grisly things get, while never allowing itself to get bogged down in overexplaining the science fiction elements of certain plot points beyond our awareness that a certain key is basically the McGuffin. However you may want to accept or not accept the time travel logic the pieces nevertheless fit together beautifully, with continually engaging use of the San Francisco locations and there’s always a snap to the scenes particularly in how the actors play the dialogue.
As a director Nicholas Meyer displays more confidence in his own story structure (official credits: screenplay by Meyer, story by Karl Alexander & Steve Hayes) than in his visual style with the occasional awkwardness evident at times. You can feel his direction veering from normal coverage of the scenes to the occasional wilder idea tossed in with little middle ground but he’s clearly going for getting as much out of every moment as possible, whether for comedy, suspense or the growing romance between the two leads which doesn’t require much from the camerawork other than allowing us to see the genuine chemistry. The film does have a few shortcomings like how Wells’ journey forward through time plays a little like a cut-rate 2001 Stargate sequence even for ’79 and a foot chase where Wells pursues Stevenson through a modern-day shopping plaza not only feels haphazard in how it is staged the sequence also seems misconceived as if the man who is Jack the Ripper shouldn’t be so worried about actually being captured by someone who can barely throw a punch. Meyer also doesn’t seem up to staging a car chase at this point in his career and these sequences are an interesting counterpoint to the visual flow of his next film STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN where every shot, every cut, involving effects or otherwise, seems to go together beautifully. That’s not always the case with TIME AFTER TIME but it is a movie which pays much more attention to its story and performers--in some ways the effects involving a time machine built in the 1890s don’t need to be more complex than they are. It’s the energy from the actors that makes such a difference here particularly in the affecting courtship between Wells and Amy (McDowell and Steenburgen, who met on this film, married the year after its release and were together until 1990) and it gets us to care about what happens next.
The opening sequences set in 1893 London come off as not only an enjoyable homage to the original Wells novel and George Pal’s classic 1959 film but also as a fanciful dream compared to the much more earthbound San Francisco which in this context comes off as charming as I always imagine it to be, while never ignoring the underbelly of the place which allows the Ripper to thrive just as he did back in London. As a setting it’s a perfect bridge between the more fanciful past and the realities of where the future has arrived at where Wells encounters McDonald’s for the first time. Some of it might be a little overly broad in how it plays, like the behavior of certain extras at times, but the more sober concepts stand out—Wells learns of multiple ‘world wars’ as well as noticing concentration camp numbers on the arm of one person but he interestingly never learns what they really mean while as much as he may speak of utopia and equality he still doesn’t know how to react when presented with a woman who is the living embodiment of that. And even if Amy Robbins is determined to be identified as a liberated woman she’s not ideal in every way--Wells asks where her books are, for one thing, only to discover that she doesn’t have very many. These are some of the themes that help the real world poke through the fantasy and keep the film going through some of the clumsier passages, the suspense pieces that don’t really go anywhere. There’s continued invention in how the film will just observe McDowell as Wells walking down the street, a wit to how it plays. When he gets into a cab and the driver guns the engine racing down those steep San Francisco streets it sure sounds to me like the sound effects used are library tracks from BULLITT—hey, they’re both Warner Bros—and it’s a cute joke. Plus the unbridled majesty of the old-fashioned score by Miklós Rózsa (his penultimate) is infectious, as if Wells is scoring the unbelievable experience he’s going through in his own head. The movie is earnest in the ideals of what it wants to get across of how far we haven’t come since Jack the Ripper walked the streets of London and yet it wants to enjoy itself, to live up to the movie-movieness feel promised by the Max Steiner Warner Bros fanfare that opens it.
There is also some intriguing foreshadowing of Meyer’s own involvement with the outer space franchise he would become identified with after this film. The director himself has written about how he disagreed with the Gene Roddenberry take on the future, that there will be some utopia occurring within a few hundred years. On revisiting TIME AFTER TIME it’s surprising to see his argument laid out explicitly during the opening of the film to demonstrate the ongoing chess game between the believer, H.G. Wells, and the realist in the form of Dr. John Leslie Stevenson not yet unmasked as Jack the Ripper. What Wells finds in the future just a few generations later (now our past in a film going on 35 years old), the world we know all too well, is one that will never make any sense for him, as baffling as the Mickey Mouse phone that Amy insists is there only because her (presumably more immature) ex-husband wanted it there. The villain is ultimately correct in predicting what the world will become. It doesn’t mean Nicholas Meyer is pleased about that.
Some plot mechanics of the third act seem to anticipate the climax of BLOW OUT in a ‘wait, why are they doing this again?’ sort of way but certain pieces pay off beautifully (in addition to skirting the edge of the PG rating—still amazing that my parents took me to this but with that rating I guess they didn’t know) that it doesn’t really matter. The fanciful intelligence of TIME AFTER TIME allows much of it to hold together. The story keeps things moving and the optimism of the lead character placed up against his ultimate despair at certain times makes it an extremely rewarding film to return to. It’s not a deep film and it doesn’t try to be but there is enough in there to add to a return to it all these years after first seeing it. Plus a certain look between two characters at the end, the sort of thing that can fascinate a kid, can get a film to resonate long after you’ve forgotten the last time you saw the whole thing.
Somewhat unusually so, TIME AFTER TIME really is a three character piece, all respect to someone like Corey Feldman here who makes one of his earliest appearances, playing “Boy at Museum”. Considering how young I was at the time this was of course the first film I ever saw Malcolm McDowell in meaning that for years I was one of the few people on the planet who associated him with a heroic role. Maybe that’s not so much the case anymore but he’s still wonderful in the movie charming and funny but more than anything he’s human, always displaying Wells’ determination to achieve what is right. Mary Steenburgen enters late and almost takes over the whole thing, playing her role as about as laconic as a Hawks Chick could ever possibly be and yet the vulnerability of what happens to her in this situation comes through. Meyer seems to get as much of a kick out of creating Steenburgen as a movie star here, as a genuine screen presence, as he later did with Kirstie Alley in WRATH OF KHAN. David Warner is utterly charismatic as Stevenson, taking full charge of the screen whenever he’s on it. He’s fascinating to watch here and few bad guys this side of Alan Rickman in DIE HARD seem willing to show how much thought they’re putting into their actions, as insane as Warner’s Ripper genuinely is.
In 1986 Nicholas Meyer co-wrote STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME which of course took the crew of the Starship Enterprise back to present day San Francisco. More specifically, Meyer wrote the middle of the movie where all that happened but even as that movie became such a success at the time few seemed to notice the similarity. It’s interesting to compare the approach taken by the two films, including where each one allows certain jokes to go--a newspaper headline reading “Colts Maul Rams” in TIME AFTER TIME becomes a more sober report on nuclear arms talks in TREK IV. In 1990 Mary Steenburgen appeared in Robert Zemeckis’ BACK TO THE FUTURE PART III as the love interest of Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown, getting another chance to play a scene in which someone tells her that they’ve come from the future/past. (Screenwriting exercise: TIME AFTER TIME, like FOUL PLAY, is set in late 70s San Francisco. What if the Mary Steenburgen and Goldie Hawn characters switched films?) Meyer even used David Warner again in STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY when he directed that film in 1991. In her WRATH OF KHAN review in 1982 Pauline Kael points out that one thing that film has in common with TIME AFTER TIME is a lead who when despondent near the very end breaks down by declaring, “I know nothing.” In his autobiography “The View From The Bridge” Meyer takes note of what he calls some “startlingly bitter social commentary” in this film which of course he is responsible for. It doesn’t strike me as being that bitter, to be honest. It seems real and the relationship that develops between the two leads is ultimately optimistic because of this. Maybe I can’t be so critical about TIME AFTER TIME. Hell, I don’t really want to be. I have little desire to revisit the past and become a kid again but if I could somehow close my eyes and appear back on that day when I first saw it, I would. Even if for just a few minutes. And, really, returning to movies like this where I love them for reasons that go beyond what’s on the screen is as close to time travel as I suppose I’ll ever get.