Review: TIME AFTER TIME (1979)

“Ninety years ago I was a freak. Today I’m an amateur.”

As further evidence that network television executives are seemingly incapable of coming up with new ideas, ABC has launched a TV version of Nicholas Meyer’s 1979 directorial debut, TIME AFTER TIME. Honestly, I’ve not checked in on that attempt at a remake (as of now), but there’s quite a bit to say about the original film.

Previously, Meyer had been best known for his Sherlock Holmes novel, “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” while he would soon become the man who helped save the Star Trek film franchise. In between, he would write the screenplay for and direct TIME AFTER TIME, which was based on an original story by Karl Alexander and Steve Hayes.

On its face, it’s a rather silly premise. In 1893, Victorian novelist H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell), who would later become famous for such stories as “The Time Machine” and “War of the Worlds” has actually built a working time machine, but so far has lacked the nerve to test it out. Over dinner with several of his friends and colleagues, including surgeon John Leslie Stevenson (David Warner), he shows off his new machine and states that he plans to soon travel into the future to a time when, he believes, the social utopia will have been achieved.
His gathering is soon interrupted by the police—it turns out that Dr. Stevenson is really the notorious Jack the Ripper, and he has come to dinner immediately after committing yet another murder. As the police search Wells’s house, Stevenson steals the time machine and escapes to 1979. Thanks to a homing feature that really doesn’t make sense if you think about it, the machine soon returns, allowing Wells to set off in pursuit.

The Film

img_0037As mentioned earlier, this all sounds a bit silly. At the same time, it opens the door to several different types of stories at once: the “fish out of water” premise, with two Victorian gentlemen thrust into modern (for the time) society; a chase film with Wells tracking Stevenson through San Francisco; and eventually, a love story between Wells and 1979 banker Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen). Much of the early scenes in San Francisco play off of Wells’ bafflement at the world if 1979. He is utterly confused about the newspaper headline, “Colts Maul Rams.” A lunch visit to McDonald’s requires Wells to navigate fast food ordering (“I’ll have a Big Mac, fries…and tea to go.” And later, “Pommes frites! ‘Fries’ are pommes frites!”), and he subsequently becomes fascinated with the plastic table (“I never saw wood like this before,” he remarks to another patron).

Most of the success of the film is due to the three great performances. Malcolm McDowell is cast completely against type (he was most known at the time for playing Alex in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE [1971]), yet he is superb as the bookish and somewhat bewildered Wells. Warner is equally excellent as Stevenson, playing a character who is both charming and menacing at the same time. Steenburgen turns in the third quality performance in the film, portraying a strong, modern woman that plays well off of Wells’s Victorian sensibilities, and she and McDowell certainly sell the developing romance between the two characters (the fact that the two actors themselves were beginning a relationship during filming probably helped).

There several stand out sequences worth highlighting. There are essentially two chases in the film: one a foot chase between Wells and Stevenson throughout the Hyatt Regency hotel and surrounding streets; the other involving Wells attempting to drive a car while chasing after Stevenson, who has taken Robbins hostage in her own car. While these two sequences aren’t quite at the level you see today, they certainly hold their own for their time, and they are helped significantly by the musical score (more on that later).

Possibly the best scene takes place right before the first chase, when Wells has tracked Stevenson to his hotel room in San Francisco. Since the opening scenes in 1893, Wells has been convinced that the future will hold a utopian society; however, his experiences in 1979 to this point have provided significant evidence to the contrary (a great beat earlier is when an exhausted Wells, an atheist, finds himself praying for refuge in a church only to be immediately evicted by the priest). Now, to Stevenson’s admitted shock, Wells finds himself standing in his former friend’s hotel room saying that neither of them belong in the future and they must go back. In response, Stevenson first congratulates Wells on his invention and then admonishes him for his belief in a “perfect and harmonious society.” On the contrary, society has moved more in Stevenson’s direction. To emphasize this point, he switches on the television, flicking through channel after channel of death, destruction, and violence, as Wells becomes more and more horrified.

We don’t belong here? On the contrary, I belong here completely and utterly. I’m home. It is you who do not belong here, with your absurd notions of a perfect and harmonious society.”

Stevenson continues to taunt Wells, pointing out the easy access to guns and how American society encourages the ownership of such weapons when Wells finally snaps, smacking Stevenson across the face, “STOP IT!!” Stevenson’s only response is to calmly reply, “It’s catching, isn’t it? Violence.” It’s a scene that carries a lot of weight and is superbly performed.

img_6568There are only a couple of issues that I can find with the film. Amy Robbins is portrayed as a strong, modern (for the time) woman, but the film’s final act unfortunately reduces her to a clichéd “woman in distress” who needs to be rescued by Wells. It fits the pattern of Stevenson (and pays off a well-done plot point from earlier) and also gives the three actors the chance to do some fine acting, but it’s also a bit disappointing.

Likewise, Meyer emphasizes not once, but twice, a specific aspect of the time machine’s design in a way that almost provides a flashing neon sign saying “THIS IS IMPORTANT FOR LATER.” In his director’s commentary, Meyer does remark on how film audiences are unlikely to remember things through the entirety of the film and this is probably why he made the choice he did, but it does feel a bit like playing to the lowest common denominator.

The Music

According to Nicholas Meyer’s director’s commentary for the film, Warner Brothers initially insisted that TIME AFTER TIME have a contemporary score, as was the norm at the time. Thankfully, Meyer insisted that, because the film was about a 19th century man, the movie needed a score that reflected that sensibility. In the end, he hired a composer who was probably the farthest thing removed from a pop score: Hollywood legend Miklós Rózsa.

Rózsa had made a name for himself during the “Golden Age” of cinema and was most well-known for scoring such epics as THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1940), (QUO VADIS (1951), IVANHOE (1952), BEN-HUR (1959; for which he won an Oscar), and EL CID (1961).

“Warner Bros. Fanfare / Main Title”

Meyer had wanted the film to have an old-fashioned feel to it, to the point where he brought back the Warner Bros. shield logo (having commented that the one in use at the time looked like something that would be stamped on office furniture) and the Max Steiner fanfare. Rózsa expertly transitions from the Steiner fanfare into his main titles, which serve to introduce his main theme that also serves as a motif for the time machine.

“Time Travel”

This theme also appears when H.G. Wells, having discovered that his friend Stevenson has used the time machine to travel into the future, finally decides to “work up the nerve” to use the machine himself and follow him to 1979. After a brief pause as the machine disappears from his work room, the music resumes, continuing a “tick-tock” rhythm played in the percussion, literally marking the passage of time, with glissandi and other swirling lines from the orchestra giving the sense that the machine may be going out of control.

“Murder”

Stevenson is given two themes in the film. The first is a descending motif that serves as his primary theme, often appearing when he is committing some atrocity  or simply lurking about. This cue covers the second of two on-screen murders that occur in the film, also highlighting the “L’Aio de Rotso” that is played by Stevenson’s musical pocket watch.

“The Ripper / Pursuit” (excerpt)

His second theme plays over the first action sequence. After a brief fight in Stevenson’s hotel room, Stevenson runs out the door with Wells in pursuit. The chase then begins in two glass elevator cars, across two levels of the hotel, and finally onto a pair of walkways over the street. Ultimately, Stevenson decides to run for it, until an ill-fated attempt to cross a street against traffic brings the chase to a sudden end.

“The Time Machine Waltz”

One of my favorite cues is barely heard in the film. At one point, Amy takes Wells to lunch, and this piece is played in the background. It’s a lovely waltz performed by piano and orchestra, and it certainly deserves more exposure than it gets in the movie.

“Dangerous Drive” (excerpt)

The final cue I’ll highlight is the second chase of the movie, where Stevenson has forced Robbins to drive him to the museum where the time machine is kept. In response, Wells runs back to Robbins’ house and takes control of her car, speeding off in pursuit. It’s another great instance of writing by Rózsa that covers many of the primary themes, modifying Stevenson’s main theme into a more up-tempo action mode. Playing counterpoint to this is the Wells/time machine theme. The cue wraps up with a more standard playing of the Stevenson theme, as he drags Amy into the museum with Wells close behind.

Final Thoughts

Overall, TIME AFTER TIME is a somewhat overlooked gem of a film. While it’s certainly not perfect, there is a lot to like here. Once you get over a somewhat goofy premise for a film, you’re left with three strong leading performances and some interesting social commentary. Highly recommended!