director Nicholas Meyer
In Time After Time, H.G. Wells has to hunt for Jack the Ripper in then modern day San Francisco after Jack steals Wells’ actual time machine to escape from police. It’s really quite the clever movie concept from writer/director Nicholas Meyer, and it features Malcolm McDowell as Wells, David Warner as Jack, and a young, very pretty Mary Steenburgen as the love interest. It also features a lot of wonderful location shots of late 1970’s San Francisco, which to a long-time local, is character enough to add oodles of charm to a sweet-natured, though actually not very well made movie.
It was Meyer’s first directorial effort, and while he never went on to major prominence, he did manage to direct the best of the original Star Trek movies, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). As a directorial effort, though, it’s really quite weak, really. But for some reason, perhaps mostly through the stars and the clever concept, this film was a favorite of my mother’s and myself back in the day. I had all but forgotten it before I started really challenging my brain for movies that the kids might like.
And they did like it.
The special effects, coming post-Star Wars (1977), are quite hilariously cheap. Prisms, solarization, the effects look something one might see on television of the day.
But the best effect, for a San Franciscan, is the city, captured in earnest. Because the modern day time machine is on loan from a London museum, it sits in the old California Academy of Sciences building, something that is no more, and that’s where the action starts. Wells tromps all over town trying to locate Jack, mostly downtown in the Financial District, and he chases him through the Embarcadero Centre in one of the more extended sequences. The funny thing about San Francisco is that it hasn’t changed all that dramatically in all of those places. The Embarcadero freeway was destroyed in the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, but otherwise much of the vistas, including Justin Herman Plaza and the Palace of Fine Arts are still as they otherwise were. I guess I find this particularly interesting because of my focus on 1970’s New York City in film, which has actually gone through a major series of changes since its time. It’s not that San Francisco hasn’t changed, it’s just that the parts that they show are a lot more the same than others.
A lot of the film’s intended humor comes from the Victorian Wells encountering the late 1970’s post-Summer of Love/decadent-ish culture. Steenburgen, who I think I took to liking back when I first saw this film, actually plays a bit of an airhead. She’s a “modern woman” but not a very bright one. She drops a few oddities into her speech but she isn’t as clever and intelligent a character as you would assume would attract the erudite Wells. Clara was shocked that they wound up “going to bed” with one another after having only known each other a day.
McDowell is very good, Warner good as a bad guy who finds the modern era, which Wells assumed would be a perfected Utopia by then, a world of violence and chaos in which Jack the Ripper is but an “amateur” by comparison. It’s funny because really the film is not that great. It suffers some plot holes, a weakly rendered ending, and other sort of shoddy constructs, but it’s still a very likable movie. I can see why we liked it back then. And I liked it now, though perhaps in very different ways. I actually think that this would be a film very ripe for a re-make, if done by someone with earnest intent. Not something that would rely on major special effects or action sequences, just something that relied on the idea of these Victorian-era intellects in pursuit of one another across time and reflecting on the modern world. Maybe it is better not to hope for such a thing.