Reviewed Jun 16, 2012
Robert Cettl’s review:
Nicholas Meyer made inroads into Hollywood when his novel The Seven Per Cent Solution was made into a movie by director Herbert Ross. In it, Meyer demonstrated his fondness for the pairing of two known personalities, in that case one fictional (Sherlock Holmes) and one factual (Sigmund Freud). When the time came for his directorial debut, Meyer chose two well known historical personages, H.G Wells and Jack the Ripper. The Ripper case he drew upon is indeed often taken as the commencement of the modern age, at least criminologically – the seemingly motiveless sex murders were a new kind of crime that police were ill-equipped to deal with or to understand. After the Ripper, the serial killer would become the scourge of the 20th Century, especially in America. The Ripper was of course never caught and his identity remains a popular subject for speculation. Correspondingly, there has been something of a cinematic sub-culture spring up about the Ripper, with movies about the killer dating back to the silent era. Time After Time is one of the foremost stories in this Ripper cinema, though not for its psychological analysis of the killer, but for its central romance and for its novel way of suggesting the Ripper as a visionary, tying into the cynicism that Meyer would often display in his later work (particularly notable in the nuclear catastrophe telemovie The Day After, but also seeping at times into his Star Trek movies).
Time After Time begins in London in 1893, where a prostitute is murdered by Jack the Ripper. Meanwhile, H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) is having a dinner gathering for some of his close friends (among them David Warner) wherein he reveals his untested time machine. Police interrupt, looking for the Ripper. They search the house and do find the Ripper’s bag, containing his bloodied items. McDowell realizes the bag belongs to his friend Warner, who cannot be found. McDowell notices that his time machine is also missing. When it returns as programmed, he realizes that Warner has gone into the future. Wells fears that he may have let a monster loose in utopia and follows him to present day (1979) San Francisco. There he is lost, but gets information from a kindly bank teller (Mary Steenburgen) and locates Warner. He chases Warner, who is then injured in a car crash. Believing Warner dead, he pursues a romance with the willing Steenburgen. Their blossoming ideal is interrupted when McDowell realizes that Warner is not dead. He tells his story to a disbelieving Steenburgen. To prove it to her, he takes her to the time machine and transports her a couple of days into the future. She still disbelieves until she sees a newspaper with a headline announcing her death at the hands of the killer (still dubbed the Ripper). They return to the present in the hope of cheating time and stopping the killer once and for all.
The film’s central theme is the clash between the idealism of the naïve genius Wells as opposed to that of the intelligent, cynical Ripper. Wells was a noted utopian theorist (and even an early advocate of free love and women’s liberation) who believed that socialism would be the enabler of this future paradise. He fears that the Ripper would destroy such a utopia. What he finds, however, is a more dystopic society wherein he is lost, literally and metaphorically. Although an atheist he goes to a church to pray for a night’s rest, but is soon turned out into the streets in perhaps the film’s slyest note of cynicism. The Ripper, however, has had no such trouble adjusting to contemporary America and even more than that. In their scene together, the Ripper rightly informs Wells that Wells was wrong, and that far from being a monster, the Ripper is at home in this modern world, and even goes so far as to refer to himself as something of an amateur in comparison to what violence this world is capable of. His way of convincing Wells of this is alarmingly and tellingly simple – he turns on the TV and flicks between channels. The film’s boldest and most cynical suggestion is that although we consider the actual Wells to be a visionary, arguably in reality, the actual Ripper was the true visionary and thus indeed the due point of commencement of the modern world, a new world without God and almost without hope.
Although director Meyer is adept at systematically undercutting Wells’ idealism in this way, he does offer a note of hope in what is a genuinely charming and engagingly funny romantic relationship between McDowell and Steenburgen. Indeed, the film is also very much about how these two people, who are in a sense childlike innocents (McDowell in his difficulty in negotiating the modern world and Steenburgen in her genteel voice), find each other. There is thus also much humour in how Wells, long an advocate of women’s liberation, would react on encountering a post-sexual revolution, liberated woman. Their charm and courtship is held against the cynicism of the modern world and an antidote against the “vision” of the Ripper. Fate, however, will intervene as their idyllic romance is intercut with scenes of the Ripper on the prowl. Indeed, the Ripper uses a disco as a hunting ground, allowing director Meyer to suggest that one of the results of increased sexual freedom is the ease it gives the Ripper in pursuing his macabre vision. Free love is also the dream of the Ripper and as much a part of a dystopia as it is a supposed utopia. The film is thus about Wells’ lesson in humility as he moves from arrogant pomposity to sheer pleading desperation, sadly aware that the future he envisioned is far from the truth and that the Ripper may be more emblematic of human nature than he would care to admit.