Boasting an outlandish premise culled form the worlds of history and literature, Time After Time marked the auspicious directorial debut of Nicholas Meyer, who mined similar territory as the novelist and screenwriter of The Seven Per-Cent Solution (1976). Whereas the earlier film imagined a relationship between Sigmund Freud and Sherlock Holmes, Time After Time imagines one between legendary science-fiction author H.G. Wells and notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper.
The movie begins in Victorian England, when H.G. (Malcolm McDowell) discovers that one of his society friends is actually the Ripper. Eager to evade capture, Jack (David Warner) steals the time machine that wells built the basement of his London flat—in Time After Time, H.G. isn’t just a fantasist but also an inventor. Honor-bound to bring his onetime friend to justice, H.G. chases Jack through time to 1979 San Francisco. Once there, the 19th-century gentleman tries to navigate 20th-century culture, with sweetly overwhelmed bank clerk Amy (Mary Steenburgen) serving as his guide and eventual love interest.
Working from an imaginative story by Karl Alexander and Steve Hayes, Meyer demonstrates all of his storytelling strengths: clever literary references, pithy light comedy, and pure escapist fun. Despite its preposterous storyline, Time After Time is thoroughly engrossing, an old-fashioned yarn with the classic formula of drama, romance, and thrills. The love story between Amy and H.G. is charming, because he’s a relic unprepared for the concept of women’s lib, and she’s a modern woman who swoons at his traditional manners. We believe they were meant for each other, just like we believe that Jack represents an even greater menace in modern times than he did in his own era: As he says in one of the picture’s best lines, “Ninety years ago I was a freak—today I’m an amateur.”
Warner is elegantly menacing, creating several moments of genuine suspense because we believe him capable of horrific acts, and McDowell thrives in one of his few romantic leading roles. Plus, if his rapport with Steenburgen seems particularly convincing, there’s a reason: The costars married after completing the movie and were together for a decade. In another interesting footnote, Meyer recycled some unused bits of culture-clash comedy when he wrote the present-day scenes of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), which placed the crew of the Enterprise in, you guessed it, modern-day San Francisco.
Time After Time: GROOVY