Released in September of 1979, sci-fi romance-slash-crime drama Time After Time has a lot of elements that feel quite dated when you watch it today, including some very primitive special effects. But its chilling underlying message still rings true — and its cornier parts make it fun to revisit.
In Victorian London, an eccentric gentleman named H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell), still a few years away from becoming the famous author we all know him to be, hosts a dinner to unveil his new invention: a time machine.
Most of the assembled group (dressed in stuffy waistcoats with pocket watches, and given to saying things like “Balderdash!” and calling each other “Old sport!”) don’t know what to make of the device — but one among the party, Dr. John Leslie Stevenson (a pre-Time Bandits and Tron David Warner), seizes the opportunity to use it as an escape route when Scotland Yard arrives to arrest him for being Jack the Ripper.
That’s a hell of a build-up, and it doesn’t stop there.
Time After Time leaps into 1979 San Francisco with Wells in pursuit of Stevenson — someone he once thought was just condescending and really good at chess, but now realises is a sadistic murderer. Even worse, he’s a sadistic murderer who has appropriated Wells’ invention (which Wells originally constructed as a way to visit what he assumed would be a utopian future) to commit more horrific crimes without consequence.
Despite what sounds like a pulse-pounding plot, Time After Time is not what I’d call an action movie. It’s not a time-travel thriller like Timecop, nor is it trying to build a Terminator-style complex mythology. Instead, the stakes feel very contained and personal.
But while Marty McFly, another unwitting time traveller, could at least recognise the past he visits in Back to the Future, Wells’ Time After Time journey plops him into a 20th-century world where everything is unknown. That includes whatever historical milestones he’s totally skipped over, as well as advancements in technology and the evolution of culture. He also has no way of predicting or preventing whatever awful thing his former friend is going to do next.
Thanks to the way the time machine works — it requires the use of a special key to prevent it from returning to its point of origin, which Jack the Ripper fails to grab before he peaces out of 1890s London — Wells at least knows where and when to start his search. Why San Francisco? Well, that’s where an H.G. Wells museum exhibit containing the time machine is on display, so that’s where Wells turns up, to the shock of onlookers (including a very young but unmistakable Corey Feldman).
Truth be told, if Time After Time had just been an entire movie of Wells fumbling around San Francisco, discovering things that both shock (cars, aeroplanes, telephones, the need for a personal ID) and delight (McDonald’s French fries!) him, that would’ve been OK with me. Part of that might be down to the fact that I’ve lived in San Francisco for over half my life, and it’s pretty incredible to see what’s changed and what’s stayed the same since 1979, since much of Time After Time makes use of real locations around the city. It even throws in offhand references to Bullitt and Vertigo, two of San Francisco’s most famous cinematic showcases.
Speaking of movies set in San Francisco, there’s a very good reason the early part of the movie feels a lot like Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Time After Time director Nicholas Meyer, who adapted his script from Karl Alexander’s work-in-progress novel, also co-wrote Leonard Nimoy’s 1986 entry in the big-screen Trek series.
Specifically, he penned the “modern day” San Francisco scenes, and while there’s no Time After Time scene to rival Spock nerve-pinching an obnoxious punk kid, we do see Wells trying to sell “antiques” he’s brought through time with him to raise funds for his detective work, much like Kirk does in The Voyage Home.
Ultimately, his old-fashioned awkwardness serves him well when it endears him to staunchly modern gal Amy (Mary Steenburgen, whose quirky performance injects an off-kilter energy into the proceedings), the free-spirited bank employee who becomes entangled in his quest. After the two fall in love (fun fact: McDowell and Steenburgen met on the movie and were married for 10 years after), she inevitably catches the Ripper’s eye when Wells and his nemesis cross paths again.
After the success of Time After Time, his directorial debut, Meyer went on to direct 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. But Time After Time came after Meyer scored a scriptwriting Oscar nom for 1976 Sherlock Holmes tale The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, based on his own novel about the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle character’s struggles with cocaine addiction.
Holmes gets a shout-out in Time After Time, a project representing the ultimate combo of Meyer’s twin passions for period intrigue and sci-fi, as seen throughout his career — just look at his more recent writing credits, which include History Channel miniseries Houdini and the first season of Star Trek: Discovery.
While certain aspects of Time After Time are fairly ridiculous in 2019 — the time machine’s trippy journeys look like someone just slapped a prismatic Instagram filter over the film, and the script’s earnest attempts at championing “women’s lib” now come off as cringe-worthy — its critical take on humankind’s lust for violence still hits its mark. Jack the Ripper is delighted to realise he’s not the sickest ticket running around in 1979, not by a long shot. In fact, he blends right in amid all the war, mass murder, civil unrest, serial killers, stores peddling guns, ultraviolent entertainment (when Wells and Amy take in a movie, it’s the fictional Exorcist IV), you name it.
When Jack picks up where he left off in Whitechapel and starts slicing up sex workers anew, the jaded San Francisco homicide cops just sigh and mutter, “First the Zodiac, now this.” It’s not the utopia Wells was so sure he’d find in the future; it’s a grim reality check about the horrors that people can and will carry out, and it feels just as true today as it did 40 years ago. We suck, for the most part… but at least there are a few kind souls, like Amy for instance, who’re doing their best to keep a certain amount of goodness in circulation.
The tale of Time After Time enjoyed a brief revival thanks to a 2017 TV adaptation based on Alexander’s novel, but the series, which globbed a more convoluted storyline onto that already bonkers initial premise, failed to catch on like the movie did and was cancelled after just five episodes.
No matter — if you want to see Jack the Ripper stalking prey at a disco, or H.G. Wells sampling fast food for the first time, the mostly silly but occasionally sobering Time After Time has long since cemented its weird little corner in history.