Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Colorful Metaphors

It’s the ongoing battle. What I’ve known for years versus what I’m still trying to explore. Sometimes you need to crawl back into something you used to watch like a security blanket. Sometimes you try to push forward like a shark, exploring new areas, seeing new films, writing about things that you fear are above your fighting weight. And besides, what the hell do I have to say about Star Trek anymore? What the hell does anyone have to say about it?
I seriously doubt anyone cares, but when STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS was released earlier this year for reasons I’m not going to go into here I basically made the decision to stay out of whatever arguments were going on and not say anything. You want to know what I think about it buy me a drink at the Dresden after midnight and I’ll answer in hushed tones but while I’m still going to stay silent otherwise I think there is a conversation to be had at this point in time about what is Star Trek and what isn’t, what is deemed acceptable by geeks and what comes off as fake, what the nature of giant franchises have become in this day and age and what all this does to the nature of storytelling. Maybe I’m just getting old but I think there’s been a lot of nonsense spouted on both sides of the fence and I’ll go on record as saying the last few Next Generation films as well as much of what I saw of the last several years of televised Trek was at best pretty dull at best and at worst, well, pretty lousy. So without saying more I’ll just say that I don’t believe that INTO DARKNESS is the worst example of Star Trek ever. And that’s all I’ll say about that.
Like most sci-fi spectaculars these days it seems that Star Trek films have to be action films, which may be part of the problem. I don’t see that ending any time soon. Even if this wasn’t the case I wonder if any Trek film made today would have to contain a villain that must be vanquished and because of the iconic nature any such bad guy is going to be compared to Ricardo Montalban’s Khan—probably a losing battle, but that’s just how it is. It seems interesting that the two Trek films which didn’t contain any sort of human (or humanoid) antagonist did however feature instigators of the immediate drama which are decidedly similar—a mysterious threat to Earth which is ultimately not villainous by nature at all. One is STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE which remains fascinating and problematic. The other is STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME which was a huge hit when it opened on the day before Thanksgiving, 1986 and became one of those times when Star Trek was somehow totally embraced by the mainstream. I’ve probably seen it enough times in my life that I don’t need to see it ever again and it’s possible that the very nature of the film, allowing it to feel more like a product of the 80s, means that it hasn’t aged as well as a few others. The second feature directed by Leonard Nimoy it has a somewhat unique feel of this utopian future mixed with its comedy which looked at now is somewhat…quaint. Through the years I’ve had experiences with certain Trek films where on one viewing I won’t think very much of it then the next time I’ll think, hey, what’s not to like? STAR TREK IV kind of stays the same. Not as entertaining as it was way back when (at least four times in the theater for me plus countless viewings on video) but a pleasant enough way to spend some time, a chance to hang out with some characters you love or, in the case of non-Trek fans, are at least going to like. Of course, these movies when they’re made now aren’t supposed to be pleasant anymore. STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME still is.
Picking up the pieces from STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK which had the main crew of the Enterprise let by Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) steal the ship, the destruction of the faulty Genesis planet and the ultimate resurrection of Spock (Leonard Nimoy), THE VOYAGE HOME begins several months later as the seven crew members get ready to travel back to Earth via the Klingon Bird of Prey they appropriated the last time around to face the consequences of their actions. While at the same time a mysterious probe in orbit around Earth is creating planetwide havoc. After the Federation sends out a planetary distress signal the newly reborn Spock takes the time to analyze the probe’s signal and determines them to be identical to whale songs. Since whales are extinct in the twenty-third century, Kirk quickly makes the decision to travel to the past via slingshot around the sun to retrieve some whales so the probe can be answered. The Bird of Prey soon arrives in 1986 San Francisco to an Earth completely different from the one the crew (of course also including DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig and Nichelle Nichols) knows. Even when they discover a few of the creatures at a nearby Sausalito institute being cared for by whale biologist Dr. Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks) they quickly learn for multiple reasons that the window for them to actually retrieve the whales and bring them back to the future (for lack of a better term) is closing faster than they expected.
Like each TREK film, the story of its making has been told often only adding to the overall myth of the franchise. Much as such a thing may sound like just a rumor now, the project (Story by Leonard Nimoy & Harve Bennett, Screenplay by Steve Meerson & Peter Krikes and Harve Bennett & Nicholas Meyer), was originally going to feature Eddie Murphy as the main guest star. When this ceased to be part of the plan for a myriad of reasons (just being a bad idea probably wasn’t enough) the script was heavily rewritten—by all accounts, Nicholas Meyer took the San Francisco stuff in the middle (his contribution begins with, “Judging by the pollution content of the atmosphere, I believe we have arrived at the latter half of the twentieth century,” and I hope to someday write a line half as good) which is hardly a surprise to anyone familiar with his 1979 film TIME AFTER TIME, another time travel movie set in San Francisco and it makes this film a much more benign version of that narrative while also being essentially a ‘funny’ episode of Star Trek along the lines of “I, Mudd” and “A Piece of the Action” from the original series. To balance out the joviality Nimoy as director brings a sensitive approach to every bit of behavior and as much was made at the time of how funny the film was trying to be, it plays now as not so much as a hysterically funny comedy as it is a chance to just make a lark and allow everybody to loosen up for a little while after the destruction of the Genesis planet.
In laying the groundwork of the plot everything is clearly spelled out in the first act, much as I never will understand how that whole slingshot around the sun thing works (let alone why the resulting hallucinations result in audio snatches of dialogue from later in the film) and Nimoy’s directing style here is almost deceptively relaxed—his work on THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK relies way too much on close-ups, giving it more of a TV feel than the other entries, but here he’s confident enough to pull his camera back and let his actors play out a scene for several minutes at a time. It’s a film where the characters seem to be having as much fun as the actors presumably are, even if the future of their world is at stake, so everyone seems cheerful and animated for the most part—a little too much in the case of some extras, if you ask me. The friendly vibes continue throughout even if on occasion the film decides to come to a stop for a bit of sci-fi gestalt during the time travel stuff or to allow for a lecture courtesy of Catherine Hicks’ marine biologist on how humpback whales are near extinction. The humor brought to it by the work Nicholas Meyer did on his section of the screenplay, filled with Kirk & Co. encountering twentieth century elements like exact change, boom boxes and cab drivers yelling at you in the middle of the street, never gets too crazy and instead makes the movie one big smile. Meyer’s dialogue brings an engagingly loose feel to the characters that few others have ever achieved and is willingly playful but never so irreverent that it messes with the tone. It makes the whole thing breezy particularly in how it differs from what’s come before in previous films, resulting in what I imagine is the most quotable TREK film of all.
Viewing the films back to back (yes, I attended a marathon screening of them years ago, you want to make something of it?) makes you feel the sharp left turn this entry takes even more and looking at it now I’m surprised by a number of things including how the crew doesn’t even hit downtown San Francisco until about forty minutes in. For a film which was touted as being accessible for everyone and accepted as such there are a great many things affecting Trek history here from the growing threat of the Klingons to the discarding of the Saavik character (which still seems like a shame) to how everything is ultimately settled. The fish out of water nature of the time travel plot is of course very 80s looking back at it now, which I suppose makes sense considering when it’s set, and even the ‘Enterprise Crew Arrives in San Francisco’ funky music heard on entering the city isn’t all that different from the ‘Crocodile Dundee Arrives in New York’ music from that huge fish out of water hit also released by Paramount just a few months earlier in ’86. Appropriate for that decade, some of the comedy is grounded in certain complications like having Walter Koenig’s Chekov around (“He’s a Russkie”) and in the 80s the very concept of a Save the Whales movie was itself a punchline asking for it and this movie somehow gets away with it, it gets us to understand that this particular mission really does matter. Not all of the comedy has that much snap as if Nimoy was directing everyone to be nice more than funny which I suppose is an understandable byproduct of a franchise where characters freely quote Shakespeare and D.H. Lawrence, but the look of the utopian 23rd century as presented here during the bookends shows an Earth that is genuinely multi-national without making a big deal out of it as well as seeming completely earnest in what it’s presenting. Even the characterization of the film’s one Klingon played by John Schuck is presented as more intelligent than we had probably ever seen at that point even in the original series. The film plays as humanist in addition to being nice and jaunty, right down to the Leonard Rosenman score which isn’t quite up to Jerry Goldsmith-James Horner standards but feels totally fitting for a piece of hopeful science fiction designed to play for the whole family during the holiday season.
Each member of the crew gets something to do this time out (maybe George Takei as Sulu gets a little short shrift but watching it now Sulu seems to be enjoying himself in ’86 more than anyone) and more than any other time it really does seem to be about the seven crew members. In its own hangout vibe along with the portrayal of professionals doing their job well I suppose it’s about as close to a Howard Hawks film as Star Trek will ever get. For such a tight ticking clock the film also never seems to be in that much of a rush which still makes sense--Nimoy seems as fine with taking ten seconds here or there just to observe the whales just as he is willing to let two characters like Kirk and Gillian Taylor sit down for a lengthy dinner sequence to just hash things out (scenes involving only twentieth century humans don’t fare so well but never mind). Paying strict attention to Trek continuity involving the characters seems secondary in this context which is also ok—in playing Spock this time Nimoy seems to love getting the chance to play things for laughs like he never has before and between Kirk-Spock and McCoy-Scotty it’s a film that basically gives us two Laurel and Hardy pairings with all four actors in particular clearly relishing the chance to make the most of every single little gesture.
The dialogue-free resolution of the whales and the probe, apparently a big sticking point between the studio and the makers of the film, seems absolutely right since the idea of whatever question that was clearly being asked was enough. And the implied message behind the whole conceit is enough as well. The film tells its story clearly, visually and without an explosion at the end too. Even the statement at the end by the Federation President that the crew has ‘saved the planet from its own short-sightedness’ sadly has more relevance now. We also don’t need further elaboration on Spock’s actions in his character arc and the resolution of the ‘How do you feel?’ plotline, coming off as simple as these things go but clear and well-executed. And, in the context of everything that surrounds it, hopeful.
The final scene between Spock and his father Sarek excellently played by Mark Lenard lends a sense of completion to a story thread which began on a television episode decades earlier and at the end basically resets the status quo, making a trilogy out of what was never intended to be. The film ultimately is about coming home, accepting where you should be and the people you’re at your best with. Maybe that’s a little too neat and clean but this is STAR TREK IV. When Irving Thalberg brought the Marx Brothers over to MGM to make A NIGHT AT THE OPERA he fashioned it into the most palatable version of the Marx Brothers for mass consumption imaginable. Basically, THE VOYAGE HOME is the STAR TREK equivalent of A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. For once, it pleased almost everybody. That’s not a bad thing. Sometimes you just decide to make as many people as possible happy and it all turns out that way in the end.
It’s fun to just watch everyone in the cast enjoy themselves this time out along with trying to figure out who’s most relishing the chance to get laughs out of certain moments—probably Shatner, particularly during the hospital sequence, which would be no surprise. (“One little mistake…”) If TREK II was about Kirk fully embracing who he really is, this film shows him as someone completely comfortable in that role, getting the world to accept it as well. Shatner plays this with total confidence and warmth—when he casually says, “Goodbye old friend,” to Spock while heading out to dinner it feels genuine in an offhand way. Nimoy balances out the various pieces of the recently reborn Spock very nicely—when he’s in the twentieth century the way it’s played could be partly excused because he’s not completely Spock but mostly this is just a very enjoyable way to go. At times Catherine Hicks, who I’ve always liked, comes off as little too much of a straight arrow for a role that I could imagine having been written for more of a hippie type but it makes sense to also play her as an audience surrogate. It sort of works. I still like her.
One thing STAR TREK IV does do is something completely different from the previous entries—complete with a Newsweek cover, at the time it seemed to get people excited about Trek again leading the way to The Next Generation which premiered the following year and all the other things that followed. It makes me wonder—what if one of today’s franchises like this broke away from what the expected formula is? Would that even be allowed? The relaxed vibe of THE VOYAGE HOME makes it still comforting even now, all these years after that Bird of Prey left ’86 in the dust. Since it’s about coming home, ultimately accepting the people that you care about the most, the Thanksgiving release date made perfect sense and still does. I don’t expect my opinion to change as the years go on. The film will always be the film. And now that I’ve returned it for the first time in a while, I don’t need to see it again anytime soon. There are still other films to discover. But it’s nice that it’s there.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Longer Than She's Been Alive

It’s a funny thing, thinking about the movies I didn’t go to when I was a teenager. For starters, I’m surprised now that there weren't more scuzzy action films. I went to the movies all the time, sure, but some of those things didn’t interest me as much. I can remember going to see CYBORG w/Van Damme in the spring of ’89 more because it was a science fiction than anything else and feeling like I’d been suckered into watching what turned out to be a low-budget post nuclear wasteland bore. Ah, the glory of Cannon Films. To give an idea of where my head was at in those days for a while I’d associate their logo with the music sting that kicked off Tobe Hooper’s 1986 remake of INVADERS FROM MARS, not any random Charles Bronson movie from the period. Hard not to have a little nostalgia for that outfit now along with slight amazement at the range of their films—not just the trash but the good stuff they made, particularly things like BARFLY and RUNAWAY TRAIN. A few of them fall somewhere in between their action vehicles and actual good movies. Those are pretty interesting too.
And, as always, you gotta love John Frankenheimer. Of course, that wasn’t the exact reason why his thriller 52 PICK-UP turned up at the New Beverly back in September for a rare screening. Instead, the occasion was a double bill tribute to the late Elmore Leonard with the second half being Tarantino’s JACKIE BROWN of course. But 52 PICK-UP is why I was there. Based on Leonard’s 1974 novel and released in November 1986 it’s a den of sleaze and porn which just happens to contain a fairly impressive pedigree for the likes of Cannon and, incidentally, imagine the lousy alternate universe version of 52 PICK-UP rejiggered for a Bronson vehicle. As for Frankenheimer, this was a middling period for him at best, several years since he had made a film for a major studio with his previous effort being the barely remembered thriller THE HOLCROFT COVENANT. Roy Scheider, not even two years past the release of 2010: THE YEAR WE MAKE CONTACT at this point, was nearing the end of his leading man run. Ann-Margret hadn’t done that much in the 80s and it’s probably still a surprise even now to see her in this kind of movie. 52 PICK-UP isn’t the strongest piece of work by those involved but it is solid, enjoyable in its particularly scuzzy way and I pretty much loved getting to see a gorgeous 35mm print of it, long after I’d figured that I wasn’t going to get to ever do that. Face it, sometimes things don’t get much better than seeing the Cannon logo on the New Beverly screen.
Los Angeles industrialist Harry ‘Mitch’ Mitchell (Roy Scheider) has a successful business, beautiful wife Barbara (Ann-Margret) who is about to run for city council and a blonde 22 year-old mistress named Cini (Kelly Preston) on the side. All seems to be going well when a trio of blackmailers led by Alan Raimy (John Glover) confront Mitch with a videotape of him with Cini and demand payment for it. But when it turns out Mitch isn’t quite so willing to just hand over his money they take action, turning things more brutal than he first imagined. With his target now unable to go to the police Raimy demands even more money from Mitch but when he opens up his books to show how much he actually has, and what he really doesn’t, Mitch is not only able to negotiate for less money he’s able to use the opportunity to turn the three of them against each other.
Actual grown-ups are such a rare sight in movies these days and it becomes even more startling to see them now in a film like this. 52 PICK-UP features grown-ups, each a little worn down by where life has gotten them to by this point starting with a married couple who don’t have very much left to say to each other even amidst secrets being kept and characters who are fully aware of the jeopardy they’ve gotten themselves mixed up in. There’s an authenticity to this marriage aided, I imagine, by a director in his 50s (Frankenheimer married his second wife Evans Evans in 1963 and they remained together until his death in 2002) so it feels like there aren’t any easy reasons for why certain things happened and it’s going to be tough to patch them up. Scheider’s Mitch presumably spends much of his time either driving or tinkering with his beloved Jaguar convertible instead of paying attention to his wife—even the way he reacts to his predicament is always believable as if both director and star, just a few years apart in age, agreed that if faced with a similar predicament in real life at first they would be scared shitless but then they’d just be fucking pissed. It’s a film where everybody’s worn down by what’s happened to them in life, even Mitch’s 22 year-old mistress Cini (“Cynthia,” as he corrects himself when saying her name, probably to make it not sound so frivolous) played by Kelly Preston who you’d think the film would only present as the hot young sacrificial lamb with nothing else to her. It’s not a great film. But it is a good, solid thriller and the level of maturity as each of the characters try to feel their way through all this only adds to its effectiveness.
The Elmore Leonard novel was actually used by Cannon a few years earlier as the source for J. Lee Thompson’s THE AMBASSADOR, a film which reunites the director with his CAPE FEAR star Robert Mitchum, features Rock Hudson in his final theatrical role as well as 51 year-old Ellen Burstyn doing a nude scene, but it really has very little to do with the book. Frankenheimer’s version (screenplay by Elmore Leonard and John Steppling) correctly does its own thing and is an appropriately nasty piece of work, giving Roy Scheider a terrific part to play and for the director it’s an appropriately forceful, violent piece of craftsmanship as sleazy as it all is. The presence of Scheider as the lead character in this sort of film playing scenes where he questions Vanity as she removes all her clothes in front of him provides an odd sensation like running into my dad in a strip club not to mention the unexpected sight of Ann-Margret getting drugged up by John Glover. Among other things, the vibe also provides a cool little unheralded sweet spot of the eighties, somewhere apart from the slick pop feel of Joel Silver (this is just before the likes of LETHAL WEAPON and DIE HARD) along with displaying the solid professionalism of Frankenheimer and his crew. You can also still get a whiff of the Cannon house style with views of the porn world that it seems to be reveling in as if it’s part of a movie that isn’t aware how it’s actually pretty good. And it is. Scene after scene features the director’s visual expertise along with some cool L.A. location work like a brief scene filmed during an actual Dodger game and use of the area around the docks down by San Pedro like an number of other films made during the mid-80s. Hell, just watching Roy Scheider make his way through traffic while crossing over Santa Monica Blvd by Vine is pretty cool all by itself.
The careful plotting (the screenplay is credited to Leonard and John Steppling) does a smooth job of laying out the characters as well as not always giving us every piece of information before it’s necessary—an early confrontation between Glover and Ann-Margret has a genuine kick since we don’t know exactly what he’s up to at that point and there’s always this sort of danger around giving the feeling that something, anything could happen with the clarity of how it’s all presented by director of photography Jost Vacano (right before shooting ROBOCOP) makes it all the more dangerous even in the privacy of the character’s homes. It’s that Frankenheimer vibe of seriousness crossed with the details that get us to pay attention during every step of the plot as the very 80s Gary Chang score pounds away, the fiscal realities involved in the blackmail plot that the movie dotes on makes what happens queasily believable (“Everybody owes the government!” Mitch reminds one of the crooks—they’re all in the same boat much as it disgusts him) as well as even more darkly funny particularly during any moment when John Glover’s slimy blackmailer is onscreen. At one point Scheider enters the lobby of a porno theater looking for him and having to pay before he can go up to the office, asks the ticket girl if the movie playing is any good. “Beautiful,” she replies without any interest. 52 PICK-UP takes these offhand moments and they add up so like every Roy Scheider film should it gives him plenty of chances for him to have a ‘knock this shit off’ attitude as he plays these three vividly drawn sleazes against each other. It seems like all of the characters at various points are trying to figure out exactly how they got into this mess and we can see the wheels turning in their head, sometimes knowing what to do but usually not. The characters matter as much as the mechanics of the plot and since they’re so fleshed out that plot doesn’t seem quite so mechanical.
In the book “The Films of Frankenheimer” by Gerald Pratley the director reports that Cannon was surprisingly easy to deal with during the making of the film with even the cuts that Menahem Golan suggested during post-production being unexpectedly minor. Funny, but I can’t help but think that they could have gone even a little further so I’ll say that some of the final film could be tightened up here and there, particularly in the second hour since when it gets to the ninety minute mark it starts to feel like the movie should barrel towards the climax already. A few changes could maybe even have clarified the suspense at a few points—something is revealed to us at one point which could easily be a surprise a few scenes later if it had been held back, that sort of thing. But the suspense is there, the dark humor is there, the particularly nasty violence is there and Frakenheimer always knows how to toss in these moments in just the right way—one particular horrific scene involving a certain videotape being viewed is topped at the end when Scheider’s character realizes exactly where he’s been sitting watching it the entire time. The moment is nasty and unexpected and you know there’s no way he’ll ever fully get that out of his mind, no matter how he ever turns the tables on his blackmailers. It’s not a film about everything falling apart in the bleakest way possible. It’s a film about a lead character who knows he fucked up and is trying somehow to put a few of those pieces back together again while blowing it all up in the process. Not the most fatalistic take on a plotline which could easily be found in a late 40s-early 50s noir but in life sometimes you really do have to deal with the messiness of picking up the pieces.
It’s an excellent cast and it’s a kick to just watch them play off each other continually trying to figure out what the other is up to. Roy Scheider bangs his way through every scene, completely believable as this guy no matter how harried he gets and furiously real as he finally takes control. Ann-Margret, who over a decade before this film appeared with Scheider in the L.A.-set THE OUTSIDE MAN, offers a good example of an actress bringing more to a part than what’s on the page, I suspect because her director allowed her. You can totally read the bitterness, the disappointment in her face that’s come from this life and the realization her marriage has amounted to nothing. The political campaign subplot seems to fall by the wayside by a certain point (prominently billed Doug McClure ultimately doesn’t do much at all) but the anger she’s allowed to display goes a long way. It’s a particular kick to see her in scenes with someone like John Glover who is totally dynamic as this sniveling weasel who has certain smarts to work with, resulting in a bad guy who is smarmy, arrogant and genuinely dangerous. Because he’s no dummy that makes him all the more dangerous but he’s still a total pain in the ass at the same time (“Something about your face makes me want to slap the shit out of it!” yells Scheider at him after doing just that).
Kelly Preston is only around for a few minutes but she makes them count, showing how this world has basically killed her even before the worst has happened and Vanity is particularly striking in how she controls the screen as her friend who takes the risk of confiding in Scheider, displaying total confidence as she strips down before him and projecting genuine vulnerability later on. Making one of several appearances for John Frankenheimer (including REINDEER GAMES, playing a role not all that different from here) Clarence Williams III doesn’t play a single moment or deliver a single line the way you’d expect him to, terrorizing somebody then leaving as he hums what sounds like an old Burt Bacharach song I can’t quite remember and when it comes right down to it a genuine threat who is ultimately just a real pain in the ass. As the third of the group, the perennially sweating Robert Tervor isn’t quite up to the actors he’s sharing the screen with but the character is supposed to be such a weakling (“STOP WIMPERING!!!” Clarence Williams III screams at him at one point which seems like it comes from the actor as much as the character) that this almost makes the chemistry work. I should mention that to go along with the sordid milieu certain real-life porn stars can be spotted during the party scenes, including Amber Lynn and Ron Jeremy. For the record, you understand.
“I really fucked up, didn’t I?” says a character at one point in 52 PICK-UP. It’s not so much a funny line as an honest one since, well, he did. Sometimes we all do. Like I said, 52 PICK-UP isn’t great but it is nastily effective and it is nice to see a movie where characters are aware of the gravity of what’s going on and what they have to be willing to give up to get things back to normal. But of course nothing ever gets back to normal. I’ve written before about the time I interviewed John Frankenheimer and there’s not much to add about that here. As far as I can remember, the subject of 52 PICK-UP never came up not because it was a forbidden subject but because there were so many other films and subjects to get to. But Frankenheimer made so many movies that it’s only natural that you can’t get to all of them (his next theatrical film DEAD-BANG is one I have gotten to but not 1990’s THE FOURTH WAR which reunited him with Scheider). And in this one you can see him digging in, taking a well-crafted story and infusing it with his own sort of filmmaking power, a level of craft that all too often you don’t get these days and offering just the right capper at the end. Always in control of itself, 52 PICK-UP isn’t a great movie but it is a good movie as well as being one with the Cannon logo at the start. A good yarn. Satisfying. No-nonsense. Nothing wrong with that. Anyway, that does it for now. Since it’s also uttered by a few characters in this movie there’s just one thing left to say--So long, sport.

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.