Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Time not kind to Time After Time

I watched Time After Time last night, after an interval of nearly 33 years, when I saw it first-run in a theater. I was struck by how little I remembered. I remembered the romance between characters H. G. Wells, played by Malcolm McDowell, and Mary Steenburgen's Amy Robbins. I recalled gossipy comments of the period made about the real-life romance between stars that occurred as the movie was filmed.

McDowell and Steenburgen were married for 10 years and had two children.

While billed as science fiction, it is first a romance, then a fish-out-of-water story, then a suspense story, and finally a fantasy, but not science fiction. Science fiction implies there is some science to it, which there is not. It takes Wells' character from his famous novel, the unnamed Time Traveller of The Time Machine, who becomes Wells in the movie. How does he invent his time machine, how does he build it? There is some hokum in an explanation proffered by Wells as to its operation, which only serves to drive parts of the plot that are totally unbelievable.

The fun part of Time After Time wasn't even considered at the time of its release, and that's the look of 1979. It was the end of an interesting decade, which still had remnants of the 1960s. Big cars. Big hair. Payphones in telephone booths. Do kids even know what those are nowadays? It is set in San Francisco, and some exteriors were shot there. San Francisco landmarks are prominent in the story. Why? There is some explanation as to "an eight hour time difference" from London, where Wells embarked on his time journey, but location probably had more to do with the movie's budget.

There's even an homage to Bullitt with a speeding car on a San Francisco hill.

My favorite character in the movie is David Warner's Jack the Ripper, who escapes from the London of 1893 in Wells' machine. While Wells remains dressed as a man of the Victorian era, Jack the Ripper revels in his new time, where evil abounds. He adapts to the look of a disco dandy. He says as a serial killer in 1893 he was a freak, but in 1979 he is right at home.

Special effects, even for 1979, seem cheap, mostly opticals, as shown in the departure of the time machine in Wells' laboratory. Studied shot by shot from the DVD, the optical effects were transposed over a still picture taken through the skylight of the laboratory set.

Comments on the Internet Movie Database have taken some shots at Mary Steenburgen, and specifically her speech. One thought she was trying to bury her Arkansas accent, another thought her slow speech was because she was playing someone stupid, even another that she was inexperienced at acting. Personally, I thought she sounded more like she was trying to sound like she had a New York accent. All the interpretations are interesting, but they leave no answer as to why she spoke as she did.

There are a few references in the movie to Wells' free-love philosophy. Wells was a star in his era, with plenty of girls and women. There's an interesting article on him in the October 17, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, with a great full-page caricature by Edward Sorel.

Nicholas Meyer, who directed the movie, had written the successful 1971 book, The Seven-Percent Solution, a Sherlock Holmes novel. It was filmed with Nicol Williamson (as highly regarded as Olivier in his day), and Robert Duvall (an odd choice for Watson). Meyer had a feeling for the Victorian era, but the budget of Time After Time didn't give him much room to show more during the scenes set in 1893. We are shown a foggy street exterior as a prostitute is murdered by Jack the Ripper, and the interior of Wells' home, both looking very much like sets on sound stages.

There's nothing really wrong with the movie, but it hasn't aged all that well. Time has not been particularly kind to Time After Time.



Kirk said...

I always have a problem with time-travel stories where somebody invents a time machine in the present (or, in the case of Time After Time, the past) and then travels to a technologically advanced future. If the future is so advanced, why haven't the future scientists invented a time machine themselves? Instead, you have HG Wells running around 1979 amazed at all the new inventions, even though his invention trumps them all. That said, I do remember enjoying the movie when it came out, though I haven't seen it since. I actually enjoyed Mary Steenburgen's performance. Like you, I thought it was a New York, possibly Brooklyn, accent, a la Laverne Defazio. While I wouldn't call her character dumb, she did seem far from Wells' intellectual equal. But, perhaps being Victorian, he didn't require that in a bride. If I remember correctly, at the end, Steenburgen's character becomes the historical Mrs. Wells. Rather audacious of the film to do that. I think Wells lived until 1946, long enough to see time travel become a mainstay of science fiction.

Postino said...

Kirk, what you mention is the reason most time travel stories avoid these paradoxes.

When I mentioned the "fish-out-of-water" element to the plot, it was because of Wells' amazement at future inventions, which seemed kind of silly to me. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in the 1870s, but Wells, from 1893, didn't know how to use one...? Wells was a man who would have been open to new inventions, most of which had been envisioned in the Victorian era by writers like Jules Verne. Television, radio, cars, even airplanes were "things to come", and instead of seeming like he was stupefied or boggled by such inventions, I believe Wells would have been delighted, awash in wonder at the world of 86 years hence.

You have a good memory to remember that Amy went back in time and became his wife.