TIME AFTER TIME (1979) Blu-ray
Director: Nicholas Meyer
Warner Archive Collection

Warner Bros.’ Archive Collection has released on Blu-ray TIME AFTER TIME, the 1979 time-traveling romance/slasher thriller written and directed by Nicholas Meyer, and starring Malcolm McDowell, David Warner, Marry Steenburgen, Charles Cioffi and Pattie D’Arbanville. Casting the clever story idea of sci-fi writer H.G. Wells pursuing a time-traveling Jack the Ripper with two well-respected (but hardly A-list) British actors and a critically acclaimed but unknown up-and comer, probably wasn’t going to set the box office on fire. However, TIME AFTER TIME got some decent notices from the critics before it disappeared off screens, and it has since achieved minor cult status. Warner’s new 2K restoration of TIME AFTER TIME yields a crisp, clean 2.35:1 HD Blu transfer, while an old cobbled-together commentary track featuring Meyer and McDowell, along with an original trailer, are the only bonuses here.

London, 1893. Victorian writer H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, CALIGULA) has invited his friends for dinner, in order to show them his latest—yet untried—invention: a solar-powered time machine. Unfortunately, the evening is ruined when the police arrive, looking for Jack the Ripper, who has just sliced up another whore on the nearby cobblestones. When guest Dr. John Leslie Stevenson’s (David Warner, STRAW DOGS, TRON) incriminating medical bag is found in Wells’ hallway, he disappears into the writer’s cellar...and right into 1979 America, thanks to the writer/inventor’s time machine. When Wells realizes what has happened, the dedicated socialist/utopian feels duty-bound to pursue the homicidal maniac, fearful that this monstrous killer will run amok in what will surely be a future enlightened by no more war or violence or ignorance or want. Wrong. Wells discovers that while a few of his predictions came true—such as liberated women—others have not; the world is still plagued by violence and war. Trying to track down his former friend, Wells enlists the aid of pretty, independent bank teller Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen, DEAD OF WINTER, BACK TO THE FUTURE III). Falling in love with Amy, however, may be the downfall of Wells, when Stevenson, slaughtering with abandon in his new hedonistic, amoral environment, targets her in order to blackmail Wells for the key to the time machine.

A mistake in marketing on Warner Bros’ part—specifically: emphasizing the Jack the Ripper angle in promotional materials and the trailer—seems to be the accepted answer from the movie’s fans and its creative team when trying to explain TIME AFTER TIME’s underwhelming performance at the box office (sources vary as to how much it actually made at theaters, but it looks like whatever the real number was, the movie didn’t return enough rentals to the studio to cover production costs and advertising). However, that kind of Monday morning quarterbacking always comes from the people who don’t actually put up the money to make a movie (“Marketing killed my movie,” is the oldest bitch in Hollywood). Given the fact that TIME AFTER TIME’s mixed genre/mixed tone approach was a difficult sell to mainstream audiences in the first place (do we flog it as comedy? A romance? A sci-fi time-traveling outing? A slasher film?), with a comparatively minor historical lead character (H.G. Wells) that only English majors and hard-core sci-fi fans would immediately recognize, and with a cast of relative “unknowns” to the average U.S. movie audience, it would have been bad business if WB hadn’t pushed the movie’s most recognizable element: the Ripper angle (no doubt the studio knew this was a tough sell—even with a small budget, why else would they push for inappropriate but more bankable stars like Richard Dreyfuss, Mick Jagger and Sally Field to headline?).

Frankly, a hands-off attitude concerning the slasher elements of TIME AFTER TIME can be felt throughout the movie, as if scripter/director Meyer (STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, THE DECEIVERS) felt it was a vaguely distasteful commercial element that was unfortunately necessary to help finance his small, whimsical, “socially aware” romantic comedy (the social commentary here gets about as deep as socialist Wells disdainfully admitting, “Everyone needs money,” a painfully obvious little jibe put over with a remarkably straight face by extremely well-paid Hollywood screenwriter/director Nicholas Meyer). Too bad for that, because Meyer’s opening Ripper kill is socko, with the camera standing in for Warner as Meyer goes in super-tight on the victim, her eyes going blank without a scream as the sound of her ripped petticoat fabric substitutes for ripped flesh. It’s a good, scary opening to the movie, with Meyer then getting Wells quickly and (relatively) neatly into the future (the now-primitive optical effects have a solid, nostalgic 1960s Disney feel to them, but I’m still not clear on which key in the time machine does what specifically, and how it returns or doesn’t return in time, or how the riders stays with it...or doesn’t). After these two quick, efficient opening sequences, TIME AFTER TIME feels like it’s going to be a great comic book ride of a summer popcorn movie, a sense reinforced once Wells hits modern San Francisco, with delightful comedic effect. McDowell, who didn’t do enough comedy in his career, has a Chaplin-esque gracefulness to his sturdy Victorian “take-it-in-English-stride” wonderment at his new surroundings (such as when he’s admiring the plastic “wood” of a McDonald’s fast-food table), while Meyer expertly drops in one nicely-observed gag after another, such as a funny BULLITT-inspired cab ride, and a priest who informs a weary atheist Wells that it’s closing time at the church.

Unfortunately, TIME AFTER TIME becomes increasingly flabby as Meyer undermines his own premise—homicidal Jack the Ripper is completely at home in an amoral, unhinged America—by spending far too much genteel time on his admittedly charming romance between McDowell and Steenburgen (they really do have that old-timey Hollywood couple feel to their performances). Meyer has a deft touch in the soft, gentle romantic scenes; however, he never actually re-creates the hostile, violent world that supposedly welcomes Jack the Ripper. When Wells first confronts his friend Jack in a hotel room, Meyer thinks a brief montage of TV channel surfing is sufficient to horrify Wells and to back up Jack’s own claim that modern America and the rest of the world is a cesspool that won’t blink at his mayhem. Sadly, it’s a laughably inept montage, including brief, inexplicable shots of football players (no one loved violent sport more than the Victorians) and of all things, a Yosemite Sam cartoon (I personally don’t want to live in a world where the paralyzingly funny "Looney Tunes" are considered one of society’s ills).

Far too much time is spent on the warm, fuzzy romance scenes (and all the clunky mechanics of Steenburgen coming around to believing Wells, and Wells trying to convince the cops of his story), while the subsequent Ripper scenes are passed off as mere afterthoughts (poor sexy Patti D'Arbanville has another career mishap here, dispatched by Warner before we can even figure out who she is). We never feel that this rather benign, even Capra-esque San Francisco is a den of inequity, just waiting to embrace Jack and sadden an idealistic Wells. It’s a critical mistake at the very core of TIME AFTER TIME, one that robs the movie of any lasting impact, while simultaneously making the movie far too long and drawn out by comparison with its nimble beginning (Meyer’s TV-sensibility staging—square, straight-ahead and boring—quickly overshadows that well-crafted opening sequence; I’ve never seen ‘Frisco look so boring and generic. And non-threatening). By the wrap-up, Meyer has completely lost it, delivering an obvious red herring twist and a pallid car chase in a failed effort to goose up the proceedings, before characters are weeping and pleading at a museum exhibit for a hurried, unsatisfying finale (almost two hours is a long haul for Wells’ problem to just “disappear”). Mildly entertaining yet facile the first time you see it, TIME AFTER TIME doesn’t bear too close scrutiny the next time around.

The new digitally corrected and restored 2K scan of TIME AFTER TIME has resulted in a squeaky clean AVC 1080p HD 2.35:1 widescreen Blu transfer that looks sharper and better than all the other times I’ve seen the movie, in and out of a theater. Meyer’s color palette is fairly bland (again, he idealizes ‘Frisco right into pastel triteness when his story actually demands that the city look dark and seedy and threatening to Wells, with lurid, popping colors), and the movie as a whole has a slight overcast look to it. However, fine image detail is pretty good, and blacks are inky (in his commentary track, Meyer hails some new lenses that Panavision gave him for depth of field...but a surprising number of shots have fuzzy, indistinct edges and blur areas at the top and bottom). The English DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo track isn’t the most dynamic. It’s still an improvement over previous releases, with a healthy, even bombastic re-recording level—essential for TIME AFTER TIME’s single best element: iconic master composer Miklos Rozsa’s full-bodied, marvelous score—and a super-clean background. English subtitles are available. In addition to the original trailer, the composite commentary track from the 2002 DVD release, featuring Meyer and McDowell, is ported over here. It’s a strange track, with Meyer’s commentary recorded first, and McDowell then almost commenting on it, in addition to his own observations (there’s a weird moment where Meyer says something, and McDowell says, “Uh huh,” as if he’s agreeing...even though they’re clearing not speaking to each other in conversation. Bizarre). The effect doesn’t work, but both give much needed detail on the movie’s production.
(Paul Mavis)