Skip to main content

I can’t have you following me about eternity like the Flying Dutchman.

Time after Time
(1979)

(SPOILERS) It seems as if every even half-successful science-fiction movie has spawned at least a failed TV version at some point. I haven’t seen Time after Time’s spin-off, but I’m unsurprised its premise didn’t successfully lend itself to an ongoing series format. Indeed, by the time the credits roll on Nicholas Meyer’s directorial debut, I felt he’d run into the limits of his (Karl Alexander’s) idea.

Time after Time’s faux-Victoriana contrasted with late-twentieth century San Francisco provides the missing link between Meyer’s prior Sherlock Holmes pastiches and his later contributions to Star Trek. You can see his love for literature (Melville, Shakespeare) but more especially the fish-out-of-water qualities later exhibited by Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. For my money, that Trek outing is a more successful synthesis of the themes present here, even as it shuns some of Time after Time’s most essential features (the love story, a personified villain). The Voyage Home manages to deliver its excoriation of 1986 attitudes, lifestyles and values in a manner both pointed and humorous. In contrast, Time after Time is mostly just pointed.

I’ve tried to work out why the picture doesn’t quite work for me – this is my second go-round – and I think it’s cumulative. Partly, it’s simply that Meyer, a novice director, services his screenplay without much flair, very much learning the ropes as he goes. There’s little urgency engendered by his direction or the editing, which may assist the love story, but it does little for hunting the killer. Of whom, while David Warner is very good, there’s just too little of his John Leslie Stevenson, revealed as Jack the Ripper. It’s an attractively high-concept idea, and to be fair, is in another league to more recent genre mash-ups, but the most fascinating side of the equation – Jolly Jack loose in a modern metropolis – is largely left languishing.

Meyer himself said he wasn’t very interested in the Ripper side of the plot, or dwelling on his actions; he took the project on after Karl Alexander sent him pages from his unfinished novel, having been impressed with The Seven-Percent Solution. As a consequence, Stevenson is left stranded in terms of motivation; he loves 1979 because it’s so violent (“Ninety years ago, I was a freak. Today, I’m an amateur”), but when Wells, who in 1893 had confidently predicted “In three generations the social utopia will have come to pass”, decides to bring him to book and back to 1893, Stevenson seeks to escape the period (why not just off Wells, so stopping him “following me round eternity"?) Then he starts killing in 1979. And inevitably, Wells’ love interest is kidnapped. Stevenson’s fate also feels like a missed opportunity; something closer to a riff on Wells’ works, either past or future, might have been more fitting (“I sent him to where he belongs – infinity”).

Once he has set it up for all to be impressed by, Meyer fails to find anywhere interesting to take the premise. There’s some amusement seeing how well Stevenson responds to the fashions and forms of the era (disco especially), but this adjustment is mostly reserved for Wells. As played by McDowell, he’s a rather stuffy Englishman in a Holmes deerstalker – he even gives Doyle’s detective as his name at the police station, unaware that it’s known by all – the actor having elected not to play with him with a broad south-east London accent.

Meyer signposts the various areas where Wells was ahead of his time, most notably the emancipation movement, while also emphasising his emotional formality. But this is, to some degree, rather clunky in the playing. I didn’t find it especially sweet or charming, even knowing a real romance blossomed during filming between McDowell and Mary Steenburgen. It’s all amiable enough, but Steenburgen comes on like a Quaaluded Kate Bush and Amy seems to spring more from 60s liberation clichés than the cusp of the 80s (“My work is my life, just like you or any other man” she says, objecting to the idea of being transported, disenfranchised, to the nineteenth century – although, her bank job isn’t all that – and later she exclaims “My God, Herbert. I’m practically raping you!” when he expresses concern he might be taking advantage).

Wells’ scenes with the police were surely an influence on Kyle Rees’ interrogation in The Terminator, but elsewhere Meyer seems as flippant towards the mechanics of time travel as he is towards the motivation of the Ripper. At one point, Herbert and Amy travel three days into the future, where a newspaper headline announces her murder, which would assume that they return to the present, which they haven’t yet done (I know, it’s a regular time-travel conceit, but there isn’t even a discussion of the parameters here; I even wondered if the headline was intended to be a mistaken identification of the murder of Amy’s co-worker).

I have to admit too, that I’m not entirely sold on McDowell. Cast him as a character with an edge, and he’s riveting. As a buttoned-down hero, he’s perhaps too good at observing such strictures (perhaps if he’d been more like the actual Wells, especially with regard to the romance; this is a very romanticised portrait). Warner, in contrast, had been going through his bad guy paces in The Thirty-Nine Steps and would follow with a string of such villainous parts (The Island, Time Bandits, Tron) leaves you wanting more. Perhaps they should have swapped roles (the studio wanted Mick Jagger for Wells). Other notable incidentals are Corey Feldman in his second movie appearance (“Boy at Museum”) and Exorcist IV showing at a local cinema (what 1979 is this?)

Generally, I’d recommend Sherlock Holmes’ big screen attempts to bring the Ripper to justice (A Study in Terror, Murder by Decree) over HG’s; Pauline Kael may have been onto something that Meyer too inherently recognised in his attempts to shy away from the stark horrors of the Ripper’s acts: “The movie doesn’t full succeed… the Ripper… is too frighteningly sociopathic to fit into the film’s romantic framework”. Meyer had come on in leaps and bounds as a director by the time of his next effort, but Time after Time both sparks with its what-if conceit and then slightly underwhelms with how it pays if off.




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Other monks will meet their deaths here. And they too will have blackened fingers. And blackened tongues.

The Name of the Rose (1986) (SPOILERS) Umberto Eco wasn’t awfully impressed by Jean Jacques-Annaud’s adaptation of his novel – or “ palimpsest of Umberto Eco’s novel ” as the opening titles announce – to the extent that he nixed further movie versions of his work. Later, he amended that view, calling it “ a nice movie ”. He also, for balance, labelled The Name of the Rose his worst novel – “ I hate this book and I hope you hate it too ”. Essentially, he was begrudging its renown at the expense of his later “ superior ” novels. I didn’t hate the novel, although I do prefer the movie, probably because I saw it first and it was everything I wanted from a medieval Sherlock Holmes movie set in a monastery and devoted to forbidden books, knowledge and opinions.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.