Amy Robbins: That wasn’t quite the word I had in mind.
It was probably inevitable that I would fall for TIME AFTER TIME (1979), Nicholas Meyer’s stunning debut thriller. Back then, it had all the elements I had come to adore in my 17 year old heart: time travel, H.G. Wells (BIG fan of WAR OF THE WORLDS), alternative history, a gentle satire of today’s fads, and even Jack the Ripper. Yep, I am an amateur Ripperologist (when my family visited London last fall, I made us go on one of those tours).
I first heard about TIME AFTER TIME while watching Siskel & Ebert. They used to highlight hidden gems: movies they felt were getting lost at the box office. One week they picked TIME. When it opened soon after at the nearby Clarkston Cinema, my all-time favorite movie theater, I was there for opening night.
TIME answers all those questions and more. It is a neat thriller with an inventive script, solid performances, and some knowing social commentary slid in amongst the thrills and humor.
After Wells discovers that his best friend, John Leslie Stephenson (David Warner) is really Jack the Ripper – and that he has used Wells’ new time machine to escape the authorities, Wells follows Stephenson into the future. They both find themselves dropped in 1979 San Francisco and both soon discover that the future is not what either expected. Wells expected a harmonious utopia filled with peace and understanding. Stephenson discovers that he has to up his game: “Ninety years ago I was a freak. Today, I'm an amateur.”
I’m not going to give away the film’s many clever twists and reversals. They are better experienced without much prior knowledge. What continues to stand out for me three decades later are:
Meyer also turns a wry eye on progress. How things have changed and not changed in food, movies, notions of honor, and the battle between the sexes. Many of his observations have only gotten funnier since 1979. In the end, Wells realizes that, “Every age is the same. It is only love that makes any of them bearable.”
In short, the movie blew me away from the get go. This was the age before films regularly came out on VHS/DVD six months later (chronicled here) so I did the next best thing. I saw TIME 4 times at the Clarkston in the span of one week. I bought the novelization. I still regularly listen to the soundtrack album by the great Miklos Rozsa. Wells’ phrase “To be quite candid” has unconsciously entered my common expressions.
There are a few clunky things. Wells seems too smart to pose as Sherlock Holmes when talking to the cops. The film’s 1970s roots make it feel rather dated at times. Many of the locations they visit (the rotating Equinox restaurant, the Hyatt Regency hotel) have since been torn down. It gives the movie a bit of a time capsule feel.
But what continues to hang with me and become even more relevant the older I get is the film’s views on violence. How no society can hope to thrive as long as the population embraces it. As Stephenson says earlier on: “You haven’t gone forward, Herbert. You’ve gone back. The future is not what you thought. It’s what I am.”
WELLS: I wouldn’t purchase a weapon now even if I could.
AMY: Oh what is this? Victorian chivalry or something? We’re playing for keeps here.
WELLS: Exactly. And Stephenson was right about one thing. Violence is contagious like measles. And the trouble with progress is not that things are more efficient. The trouble is they’re the same things. World War This. World War That. Oh, we’re obviously killing much more efficiently but we’re still killing. Well, I’m not going to stoop to that man’s barbaric level. The first man to raise a fist is the man who's run out of ideas.
AMY [first time she says it]: I love you.
And I love this movie. It is suspenseful, romantic, funny, and insightful.
To be quite candid, it is one of the movies that changed my life.
Check it out!