Thursday, April 1, 2010

"Time After Time" (1979)

"Time After Time" (1979)
Starring Malcolm McDowell, David Warner and Mary Steenburgen
Written by Nicholas Meyer (Based on the novel by Karl Alexander)
Directed by Nicholas Meyer

Why isn't Nicholas Meyer a bigger name?  His biggest success is "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," easily one of my favorite movies of all time.  But other than his work in that film series, the man's hardly done anything worth noting.  Every few years his name shows up on a screenplay, but the last time he sat in the director's chair was apparently for a TV movie in 1999.  Here's a man with a talent for creating crackling, exciting films... and it's not happening.

"Time After Time" is Meyer's first directorial effort, three years before he would take the world of "Star Trek" by storm.  It's an absurdly fun premise - HG Wells (Malcolm McDowell) invents a time machine, only to have it stolen by his friend John Leslie Stevenson - aka Jack the Ripper.  The machine has an automatic recall (why the fuck didn't Doc Brown think of THAT?) which strands the Ripper in 1979 San Francisco, California, where he quickly adapts to this new, violent time period and starts killing anew.  Wells follows him there, and attempts to track down the man that used to be his friend.

Wells goes to the Bank of London, figuring that Jack will go there to exchange his foreign currency (they started out in London, but in an intriguing twist, the time machine doesn't travel through space, only time - therefore, the occupant ends up wherever the machine does; in this case, a museum exhibit about Wells in San Francisco).  There, he meets Amy (Mary Steenburgen) and the two quickly take a fancy to each other.  Amy helps Wells track down Jack, and, thinking the villain dead in a car accident, spend time together and begin to fall in love.  Unfortunately, Jack isn't dead, and a brief trip to the future brings the terrible revelation that Amy will be murdered in a few days' time.  How will Wells and Amy prevent this awful occurrence without resorting to violence, which Wells abhors?

If this plot synopsis sounds awful familiar to you, it should - It's pretty much "Back to the Future, Part III"... right on down to Mary Fucking Steenburgen.  Instead of a schoolteacher who falls for Emmett Brown, eccentric scientist time traveler, she's a bank employee who falls for Herbert George Wells, eccentric scientist time traveler.  Of course, it's impossible to fault "Time After Time" for this, since the "Back to the Future" sequel wouldn't be filmed for nearly a decade afterward.  But watching it now, and being so familiar with BTTF, it's astonishing to see the number of similarities between "Time After Time" and various aspects of the amazing adventures of Marty McFly.

"Time After Time" I found to be incredibly fun.  Meyer knows how to craft a movie, it's that simple.  His dialogue is cracking, and his direction is spot on.  The balance between comedy, drama and action sequences is quite fine.  Some of the earlier sequences, with Wells marveling at the technological progress of the 20th century are fun without being stupid; his trip to McDonalds (which he later refers to as "that Scottish restaurant") is a riot.  It's a great juxtaposition to his reaction when he learns that the future is not the social utopia he had predicted it would become. 

That's one of the central ideas of the film - Jack tells Wells that in the past, he was "a freak, but here, I'm an amateur" as Wells is shocked and saddened by violent news footage.  Wells realizes that the world may have changed, but humanity hasn't.  "We're killing much more efficiently, but we're still killing," he says.  It's a fascinating concept, to think of how a serial killer from the past would view today's modern implements of murder; Jack marvels at the thought of being able to purchase a gun anywhere in the city.  He feels more at home in the late 1970s than he did in his own time.  So what redeeming value will Wells find to combat this?  Love, of course.

And here's the only real problem with "Time After Time" - Mary Fucking Steenburgen.  She sucks in this movie; really really sucks.  At first, I thought she was just playing her character like a bit of an airhead, but later on I realized that she's just giving a really terrible performance.  Even when Jack has a knife to her throat and she's pleading for Wells to save her, her facial expression and the tone of her voice are like she's just stoned out of her gourd. 

Still, there's a lot to recommend here.  "Time After Time" is just plain fun; goofy, sure, but fun.