Star Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Way back in 1979, a gem of a film was released called Time After Time. It starred Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells, Mary Steenburgen as Amy Robbins, and David Warner as Jack the Ripper. The film is a clever early use of the “man out of time” concept in which H.G. Wells is forced into the future to track down and stop Jack the Ripper from continuing his crime spree. If you enjoy older films or sci-fi features with unique concepts that lean more toward fun than serious, this film might be exactly what you need.
The film opens similarly to H.G. Wells’ tale The Time Machine in which Wells is telling some of his dinner guests about the time machine he has built. When the police show up to his home it is revealed that one of Wells’ friends is in fact Jack the Ripper and he has just killed again. The police search the house for Jack but come up empty handed. Wells’ realizes Jack has jumped into the future, where Wells’ believes a Utopia exists, and Wells jumps into the future to stop Jack the Ripper from murdering more people. Wells arrives in San Fransisco, 1979. He is alarmed at how un-utopian the world seems, but this does not stop him from his task. He encounters a woman, Amy Robbins, who has also encountered Jack and together Amy and Wells track down Jack the Ripper and stop him from murdering again.
Compared to many modern day time travel films, Time After Time, feels dated. Especially with the popularity of the Back to the Future trilogy. When Wells first arrives in San Fransisco there are a few moments that show him puzzling over the brave new world he has discovered. One scene includes Wells experiencing a Scottish restaurant, McDonalds, and surprised by the food and the laminate tables inside the establishment. It’s a decently funny scene and the film could have afforded to include one or two more, but the film gives just enough to establish Wells as a man out of his element. At this point in film history, these scenes are very similar to scenes we’ve seen before, and therefore not very interesting.
The biggest inherent issue with the film is how many different plot threads it tries to balance. The first and foremost is Wells searching for Jack, the second is Wells learning about the future world, and the third is Wells relationship with Amy. Wells already has a desire to stop Jack from murdering more people, but adding Amy into the fray makes the fight between the two more personal. Making Wells a man out of time adds humorous conflict to his relationship with Amy. While the film manages to bring all of these threads together without detriment to any one thread, the intertwining of the threads prevents any one of the plots being truly extraordinary. Like I said, this entire film feels dated because of how many similar films have been created since, and because of that nothing about the film is really unique or special. While newer films may have improved on the plot of this film, a lot can be said for being one of the originals and having a unique twist on H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.
Even though the film feels outdated in today’s busy, exciting world of time travel and explosions and paradoxes, Time After Time is still a fun film when viewed through the lens of the year in which it was made. Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen have fun with their roles, clearly knowing how silly the entire film was. Even David Warner appears to be having fun with the campy material and goofy premise. The actors bring just enough seriousness to their roles to prevent this film from appearing on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Even the writing and directing are enjoyable. The film does lack an exciting climactic ending to the fight between Wells and Jack the Ripper, but because good triumphs over evil the lack of an exciting climax is almost forgivable because of how the rest of the film plays out. Even for a simple story, Time After Time does manage to include a few philosophical moments about the nature of time. During one scene Amy and Wells race to stop Jack from murdering another woman and the entire time it seems as if fate is working against them. The end of Jack’s reign of terror appears inevitable because fate is in control of everything.
For a film that lacks some of the depth and science of other time travel films, Time After Time is a delightful, simple film that uses time travel to pit two man against each other in a modern day setting. The film features a fun story, and some terrific actors. It’s the kind of film you put on for background noise, or cherish because you have a fascination with H.G. Wells. While the film itself isn’t bad, there have been plenty of other films since its release that have had a similar story and improved upon it.