TIME AFTER TIME
HG WELLS AND JACK THE RIPPER WALK INTO A TIME MACHINE... ANDREW OSMOND REMEMBERS A HIGH CONCEPT CLASSIC
you haven’t gone forward, herbert, you’ve gone back… You, with your absurd notions of a perfect and harmonious society. It’s drivel. the world has caught up with me and surpassed me. ninety years ago, I was a freak; today I’m an amateur. the future isn’t what you thought; it’s what I am.” So declares history’s most infamous (though eloquent) serial killer, Jack the Ripper, to science fiction author hg Wells. at this point in Time After Time, the two legends are sitting in a hotel room in 1979 San Francisco – the future for these victorians – and watching the world’s horrors on tv.
It’s an anti-Star Trek lesson, about humanity’s inability to escape its violent heritage. Fittingly, both characters are played by future Trek villains. Jack the Ripper is played by David Warner, who would torture Picard in The Next Generation (“how many lights do you see?”). hg Wells is played by fellow Brit actor Malcolm McDowell, who’d kibosh Kirk in the film Star Trek: Generations.
Time After Time doesn’t start in San Francisco, but in the London of 1893. It’s dank and foggy, but McDowell’s youthful Wells is an optimist. he fervently believes the world will become a rational utopia of world peace and brotherly love. In fact, Wells is so convinced of this that he builds his own time machine (a charming steampunk capsule that looks like a minisubmarine) in the basement of his house.
Summoning his gentleman friends to a farewell supper, Wells announces his departure, but there’s an interruption. Police arrive, announcing there’s been a murder nearby by Jack the Ripper. to Wells’ astonishment, damning evidence is found in the briefcase of one of his guests, Wells’ friend and chess-playing rival Doctor John Stevenson (played by Warner).
Stevenson seems to have vanished from the scene, till Wells has a dreadful thought. Sure enough, his time machine has vanished from his home, and Wells realises he’s let the Ripper loose on the future, on the utopia of his dreams.
however, the machine rematerialises, empty. (Wells has built it so that it will always make a return trip, except when a special key is used.) girding his loins, the shy author embarks on his pursuit of the Ripper, ending in the year 1979. he’ll find that the 1970s aren’t the utopia that he expected. But at least San Francisco’s sunnier than London…
Time After Time was released amid the ’70s wave of SF/fantasy blockbusters: Star Wars,
Close Encounters, Superman. But Warner didn’t think of Time After Time as a sci-fi film. “I saw it as a romantic thriller, with slight science fiction connections,” he tells SFX. Warner adds, “Some years later I met Robert Zemeckis (Back To The Future) who said Time After Time was his second favourite time travel movie! I believe at the time it was marketed as a romantic film, which perhaps didn’t reflect its mix of genres.” Zemeckis would borrow one of Time After Time’s actors to up the romance in Back to the Future. We’ll get to her later.
flight of fancy
two of Time After Times’s tricks were to reinvent a classic story – Wells’ 1895 novella The Time Machine – and to blur fact and fiction, conflating the real Wells with his own nameless hero. (In the original book, the protagonist is called the “time traveller” and he travels not to the 20th century, but to the 8,000th century and beyond.)
Time After Times’s director, nicholas Meyer, had already used these kind of story tricks in a bestselling novel that wasn’t SF. Called The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, it imagined Sherlock holmes as a psycho analysed by Freud. Published in 1974, the book was filmed two years later (directed by herbert Ross). then Meyer received a phone call from an old university acquaintance, Karl alexander. he was writing a story about hg Wells and Jack the Ripper, influenced by Meyer’s approach when writing Seven-Per-Cent Solution. Meyer read the early pages and an outline, and swiftly optioned it as a film. to complicate matters, alexander’s novel had originated as a short story that he co-wrote with another author, Steve hayes, who has a “story” credit on the film. thirty years later, alexander wrote a sequel novel, Jaclyn The Ripper. no doubt the Ripper angle helped to sell the film. Meyer, though, had little interest in the enigmatic Jack. In a contemporary interview, Meyer said, “as a criminal he was strictly small potatoes compared with hitler or Idi amin – which is what he realises, of course, in the film. he was only
Jack the Ripper was interesting to me as a symbol of malevolence and destruction
interesting to me as a symbol of malevolence, of the destructive side of man’s nature.”
From this perspective, the hotel scene – which happens after Wells arrives in 1979 and tracks the Ripper down – is the central scene in
Time After Time. according to Meyer, the scene was influenced by his memory of seeing tv reports of the murder of Martin Luther King in 1968, and how even this tragedy was horribly normalised by tv advertising.
“I sat on my bed and was truly appalled by what I was seeing,” Meyer said. “People were screaming, and there was blood, and suddenly all of this was interrupted by someone who says ‘Miami for 25 dollars less.’ It’s preposterous, it’s george orwell time, it scares the fuck out of me.”
Warner thinks the hotel confrontation was a great scene, but for him, “It was the whole script that encouraged me to do the film. the thing I remember most about it was my struggle to remember the lines!”
touch of evil
Warner’s version of the Ripper is no eye-rolling caricature. For most of the film, he’s composed, charismatic, and even perversely dashing. at one point he dons a white disco suit that might have been borrowed from John travolta. It’s a very long way from a character skulking around foggy Whitechapel.
While Warner has said in the past that he’s bored of being thought of as a “villain” actor,
SFX wonders how he’d rate the Ripper among the evil roles he’s played. “If you insist on rating it – I’d say number one,” he says. “the whole script was quite superior to any other villain roles I’d played.
“When I first met nicholas Meyer and the producer herb Jaffe, they told me they wanted me to play the part, but Warner Brothers wanted Mick Jagger! thankfully, somehow Meyer and Jaffe prevailed. also there was the opportunity to work again with my old friend Malcolm McDowell, who by then had become a bit of a star.”
Warner appreciated Meyer’s no-nonsense direction. “on the first day’s shooting nicholas Meyer gathered the cast and crew together and said it was his first film, so please don’t be afraid to come to him with any suggestions. I don’t remember any talks with nick about intention, motivation or any of that kind of thing. We just got on and did it.
“there was a good atmosphere on set, and Meyer was easy to work with,” Warner adds. actor and director would work together again on the sixth Star Trek film, The Undiscovered
Country, in 1991. on the effects side, the time-travel visuals for Wells’ journey to the future have dated – some are even reminiscent of vintage Doctor
Who titles. however, they’re bolstered by a wonderful soundtrack, a sped-up history of 1893 through to 1979, full of audio “glimpses” of music and world events.
“I wondered how we could do time travel differently because it’s usually so boring,” said Meyer of the scene. “the audience just sighs and waits till it’s over. I really wanted to do it differently… I thought, could we turn the theatre into a giant radio set for a minute and a half? and I had the abstract images all going forward, a tunnel type of effect, with the radio sounds of different events in history all going around them.”
But Time After Time is remembered for more than its scenes of time travel and its WellsRipper duel. It has an enormously charming love story, in which the timelost Wells draws the attention of bank employee amy, played by Mary Steenburgen. her performance was a complete surprise for Meyer, who quipped, “I wanted a fast-talking city-chippy and I got a slow-talking kook instead.”
Steenburgen and McDowell are superb on screen together. the undoubted highlight is a restaurant scene where Steenburgen chatters about modern sexual relationships, while an astounded Wells, that randy prophet of free love, looks like he’s been dropped into the restaurant scene from When Harry Met Sally.
of course, it helped that the two actors were hitting it off for real. Steenburgen and McDowell shortly began dating and were married the following year. Steenburgen would then appear in a similar role in the third Back To The Future film, directed by Time After Time fan Robert Zemeckis, where she falls for the time-travelling Doc Brown.
But there’s another famous actor in Time After Time, or rather an actor who would be famous. Look closely at the scene where Wells first arrives in 1979, in a museum exhibit about his own life, and a little boy spots him. the lad is Corey Feldman in his first film role, not suspecting that his future involved films like Goonies and The Lost Boys. But then, as Time After Time reminds us, the future’s never what we expect.
i wondered how we could do time travel differently, because it’s usually so boring