H.G. Wells vs. Jack the Ripper

Time After Time: adapted by Nicholas Meyer from the story by Karl Alexander and Steve Hayes; directed by Nicholas Meyer; starring Malcolm McDowell (H.G. Wells), Mary Steenburgen (Amy), and David Warner (Stevenson) (1979): It’s 1893. After a 5-year absence, Jack the Ripper has returned. And only H.G. Wells can stop him!

In this charming, clever time-travel story, writer H.G. Wells is a scientist as well as a writer. And he’s built a time machine. And Jack the Ripper steals the time machine to escape the police. Once the machine returns to Wells’ basement on automatic pilot, Wells follows Jack the Ripper to the future. So it’s now 1979. And we’re in San Francisco.

Malcolm McDowell makes the most of one of his rare heroic roles, playing Holmes as alternately bewildered by the future and fascinated by it — though with that fascination comes a mounting level of disgust at the violent world of 1979. Admittedly, in the real world, Victorian London was far more violent than 1970’s San Francisco. But we’ll leave that alone. In the real world, Wells didn’t build a time machine, either.

Mary Steenburgen is charming in only her second major screen role, playing a bank employee who falls for Wells, as he does for her. David Warner completes the trio of actors who take up most of the screen time. He’s Jack the Ripper, who in his ‘normal’ life was a physician and chess-playing friend of H.G. Wells.

Nicholas Meyer adapts and directs the movie. He’s most famous for writing and directing Star Treks II and VI, and sharing screen-writing duties on Trek IV. Some of his interests, including Sherlock Holmes (he also wrote two well-regarded Holmes novels), show up in this film. As well, a paradoxical bit involving eye-glasses shows up both here and in Trek IV

Time After Time is a fun, fairly tight movie with a nice mix of comedy and suspense. Warner makes a good antagonist, especially as he towers over Wells (McDowell and Steenburgen are both 5’8″, Warner 6’2″). The ‘fish out of water’ bits that involve Holmes are hardy comedy perennials, especially a trip to McDonald’s and a climactic bit of business that forces Wells to drive a car. Thank heaven it’s an automatic. Recommended.

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