Sunday, November 20, 2016

Falling in Love with H. G. Wells

The time: last night.  The place: Turner Classic Movies.  The movie: 1979's Time After Time... the Cyndi Lauper song must've come later.  I don't think this is one that TCM usually shows, but as the years march on, and the channel's mission scope continues to creep... I'll still be very surprised if they show any of the Friday the 13th movies, like sister channel AMC... well, even Robert Osborne gets tired of constantly singing the praises of Lawrence of Arabia.  Can't other films from the '70s be classics, too?
Now, you might think we should start with H.G. Wells, seeing as how he's the central character of this film and what not.  But this is my blog, and I think we should start instead with Nicholas Meyer.  And even though Time After Time is a Warner Bros. picture, Meyer's first home is still Paramount Pictures, don't kid yourselves, and their beloved Star Trek series.  Before becoming a director, Meyer dabbled in unit publicity, and a little novel called "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution," which was his take on the Sherlock Holmes series.  Hey, sometimes you just gotta go for the gusto, and try and one-up the old masters like Doyle!  Hollywood took notice, making sure to ignore Meyer's Invasion of the Bee Girls sordid past, and the movie version of 7%S was soon made.  Meyer wasn't quite ready to direct, either in his own opinion or Hollywood's, but a director's chair stalwart like Herb Ross ain't a bad tutor, apparently.  Either him or Arthur Hiller, both perfectly adept.  But by the time of Time After Time, the director's chair was his to take, for some reason.  Well, kissing the asses of the Paramount shareholders didn't hurt, I'm betting, and I guess 7%S was a modest hit, even if it wasn't completely faithful to the novel.  And even if the novel wasn't faithful to the Sherlock Holmes tradition, that's immaterial.  Novels must be respected on their own two legs.
And so, we get to the setup of Time After Time.  The year: 1893.  The place: London, England.  The opening scene: a rather grisly PG-rated murder of a lady of the night.  That's right... we get two historical icons for the price of one: H.G. Wells, and Jack the Ripper.  Side by side, as they were always meant to be, apparently.  Well, now that the opening intro's done, time for the scenario that will consume the rest of this thing.  Much like we meet Rod Taylor in 1960's The Time Machine, so too do we meet H. G. Wells hosting a dinner party, talking about this and that... free love?  In 1890?  Really?  Seriously?  I mean, it's... okay, whatever.  Let's keep going.  Wells is waiting to reveal a big surprise, but not until his last dinner guest arrives.  It's David Warner, and even though his name is Stevenson... I mean, he's just gotta be Jack the Ripper.  Just gotta.
Okay, so all the dinner guests are there.  Time for Wells' big surprise.  And what's the surprise?  A time machine, all-electric, complete with parabolic dish to collect the sun's rays.  You know, to power the time machine... okay, to keep things short and sweet, we'll just skip over all of that.  Apparently, Wells wrote his time machine novel in 1895, so that fits.  My viewing companion, on the other hand, had a problem with the machine's glass.  Apparently, the art of smooth, professional-grade glass hadn't been perfected by that point.  Kevin Costner's Open Range is an example of honest to goodness, true-to-life amateur glass windows.  Also, the big roulette wheel-type wheel is missing on Wells' time machine.  Oh well.  Wells passes on to his dinner guests, and to us indirectly, a few key features of the time machine.  There's a key to lock and unlock the machine, and some kind of weird, rainbow-creating wand that allows the machine to return to its point of origin... something like that.  The older I get, the less significant unsignificant details like that become.
Now, I don't mean to question the genius of H.G. Wells, but the premise of this movie has forced my hand.  1) Wells has two table-sized blueprints with all the details of a functioning time machine.  2) Unlike the time machine in the 1960 and 2002 versions, as we find out later, Wells' time machine is able to make a leap from London to San Francisco.  3) Even though, during Wells' 2001-esque journey after Jack the Ripper (who's already used said machine), the time machine threatens to break apart at the seams, it manages to hold together, despite the loosening of a few screws (available in 1893?).  And 4) the time machine is able to return to Wells' basement after Jack the Ripper has used it.  I just think it's quite a bit of disbelief to suspend for one movie... and that's just the beginning.
Now, the fun part... oh, and I should point out that Malcolm McDowell plays H. G. Wells.  So, Wells follows Jack the Ripper into the future, all the way to the year 1979.  And why 1979?  Um... because it's when this film's actually being made, dummy!  Derrrrr!!!!!  I mean, no one had a problem with Back to the Future taking place in 1985, right? ...where was I?  Oh yeah.  And so, H.G. Wells makes the journey from 1893 London to 1979 San Francisco.  After a few minutes of getting his bearings... he is a genius, after all.  Shouldn't take him that long to do anything... he's hot on the trail of this other time traveler.  Armed with a few pounds and a couple pieces of 1893 jewelry, Wells goes to every bank in the city to try and find Jack the Ripper, who's surely done the same thing.  At this point, I can't help but think of Jack Benny's old routine, where he's giving a young lady directions to get somewhere, and all his instructions include various banks.  When the young lady points out that there's a much simpler way to get there without going past all those darn banks, Benny waits a beat and says "Well, okay, if you don't like scenery!"
Okay, back to the anachronisms of Time After Time.  Wells meets up with bank employee Mary Steenburgen, and needles to say it's your proverbial love at first sight.  Apparently, this movie made Steenburgen officially a star, but I might attribute it to either Goin' South or Melvin and Howard.  Her performance in this movie seems to have informed Melanie Griffiths' late 80s early 90s work, but again, that's just me.  Soon enough, Wells and this bank employee are in bed together... hey, just because a guy travels through time doesn't mean he's completely dead inside!  Look at all the American soldiers in WWII who married French gals, for one.
Oh, and Wells catches up to Jack the Ripper.  For those of you who are fans of great Malthusian dialogue, this part's for you.  With the help of the hotel TV and its remote control, which Jack the Ripper has already mastered... we'll leave aside the invention of TV for now, of course.  If there's one thing this movie doesn't have time for, it's for the actors doing the full acclimatization to a future culture bit.  We've got plot to get to!  Anyway, Wells wants to take Jack the Ripper back to 1893 to face justice and what not, but Ripper makes a strong case that he belongs in 1979.  He says that he was a freak in 1893... you know, what with the whole killing ladies of the night and what not... but in 1979, he's normal.  An amateur, even!  Wells is a Hilbertian positivist about human nature, whereas Ripper is a proverbial Godelian, um... negativist?
Of course, Ripper has yet to run afoul of modern police and their various state-of-the-art crime-solving techniques, but whatever.  Ripper is just about to kill Wells forever, when there's a knock at the door.  Wells is saved!  Ain't this movie fun?  Here's a cinematic confession for you... I haven't seen the ending of this film yet, but I'm confident that John Salley and the Warners' brass were pleased with the PG-rated ending of this semi-classic, and that the moral compass of the film's universe returns to dead center.  As for Steenburgen's character, well... I feel her pain.  Why can't a girl fall in love with someone for a change who isn't a time-travelling classic novelist?  And what's the deal with all those lens-flare rainbows?  Is this film their only starring role ever?

-so sayeth The Movie Hooligan

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