Monday, August 17, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #121 - Time After Time (1979, dir. Nicholas Meyer)

When I was teaching at Smoky Hill High School, my favorite class of the day was Science Fiction. It was all juniors and seniors, it was a subject I was personally thrilled with and it gave me the opportunity to push the envelope on subject matter a little bit. We read a lot of cool stuff and saw even cooler movies. The curriculum included Altered States, Alien and Blade Runner among others. For a lot of these suburban kids it was the first time they had pondered ideas like the endlessness of time and space, mortality and the ethics of artificial life. I think it’s safe to say minds were blown. One of the movies that had the biggest impact on the kids however was a sweet, small love story that uses the life of author H.G. Wells and his social and scientific theories as a backdrop. Time After Time stars Malcolm McDowell as the great author H.G. Wells, a social engineer whose beliefs in scientific innovation, women’s liberation and utopian idealism informed his journalism and fiction. Works like War Of The Worlds, The Invisible Man and The Time Machine informed the thematic underpinnings of all Science Fiction to come. Time After Time cleverly weaves the historic facts of Wells’ life along with his own fictional ideas and a modern, romantic twist to create an irresistible, romantic journey through time.

In this version of Wells’ life, he has actually built a time machine himself, yet he doesn’t have the nerve to try it out. His hand is forced when, during a dinner party, his friend, Dr. John Leslie Stevenson, steals it and escapes into the future. It turns out that Dr. Stevenson is, in actuality, Jack The Ripper, and H.G. Wells, a utopian dreamer, has inadvertently unleashed a madman on the future. His hand forced, Wells follows The Ripper into the future to prevent the killer from ruining utopia. Landing in 1979 San Francisco (where the Time Machine is part of a museum display on Wells) the first third of the movie shows the befuddled Wells trying to rectify his utopian hopes about the future with the less than enlightened realities of 1979 America. He is shocked by the callous violence, rampant consumerism and breakneck pace of the modern world. As his hopes for the brave new world fade he is gripped by his need to stop The Ripper from carrying out his murders, which have already started, anew. Using classic detective work he finds The Ripper and at the same time meets a banker (Mary Steenburgen) with whom he begins an affair, while unwittingly setting her up as bait for Dr. Stevenson’s murderous plans. The die is cast and Wells now realizes he personally is responsible for unleashing a terrible danger on all of eternity and at the same time he has imperiled the woman he loves.

Time After Time succeeds on almost every level at providing timeless entertainment. With expert pacing, the movie hurtles to a final confrontation between Wells and Stevenson (played with a perfect mix of intelligence and menace by the great David Warner). McDowell is a fantastic combination of befuddled professor and genius inventor, equal parts world saver and little boy lost as he stumbles his way through the modern world trying to save the past and future. The movie teeters nicely between science fiction themes and romantic overtones. McDowell and Steenburgen were in the middle of a real-life love affair during the making of this movie and the sparks between them feel extremely real. Wells’ growing desperation to find The Ripper, save Steenburgen, and right the balance of history is palpable and thrilling. The students in my Science Fiction class couldn’t wait to see what happened and loved the discussions we would have about the elasticity of time and the consequences of messing with the fabric of history. Without tons of special effects, without any explicit violence or sex and with a deep
quiver of historical and social ideas,
- Paul Epstein

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