LONDON, 1893. Giggling, sashaying, more than a little drunk, a prostitute makes arrangements with a gentleman off-screen. At his request, she moves into an alley, lifts her petticoats, and purrs, "What's your name, dearie?"
John," he replies, but my friends call me: Jack. We hear an ominous ripping sound, as the girls slides to the ground, dead. The dread Jack the Ripper has struck again.
And so has Nicholas Meyer, the author with a penchant for pairing Victorian celebrities who never could have met. In The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, he allied the fictional Sherlock Holmes with the actual Sigmund Freud; in his new film Time After Time, he teams the above-mentioned Ripper and H.G. Wells. Meyer has both written and directed this time, with a happy result: the movie deftly balances equal portions of comedy and suspense.
Meyer's Jack the Ripper is the alter-ego of Stevenson, a gentleman and a good friend of the young H. G. Wells. Stevenson listens skeptically as the inventor displays a time machine he's just built to carry him into the perfect world of the future, but when the police burst in, he steals the machine to escape. Convinced that he's "turned that bloody maniac loose on Utopia!," Wells follows the Ripper to 1979 San Francisco, the time machine having automatically returned to its owner.
The contrast between the on-location San Francisco exteriors, where the rest of the film unfolds, and the period sets for the Victorian England scenes, captures nicely the disparate tone of the two eras: the sheltered, made-to-order past versus the open, anything-goes present. Meyer makes good use of the city, staging a riveting chase over San Francisco's split-level belvederes and sky-ways. Not that Wells spends all his time chasing Stevenson. Romance blooms in the person of Amy, an aggressive bank-executive who takes him to lunch, to the movies, and to her apartment, where Wells succumbs to her charms after a feeble struggle--"I don't want to compromise you," he worries. Ironically, this self-described "twentieth-century woman" becomes the classic damsel in distress when Stevenson chooses her for his victim.
Of course, Time After Time milks to the utmost Wells' reaction to the marvels of modern technology--planes, cars, and see-through jeans. But the well-constructed script doesn't overdo his future shock: after several funny incidents, Meyer shifts into the love story. From there, tension builds up again, as the Ripper resumes his old slice-and-dice tricks, but the laughs periodically resurface as Wells does battle with telephones and electric toothbrushes.
A few over-emphasized clues aside, the movie is a fine, taut thriller. Meyer even finds a good excuse for the mayhem of the obligatory car chase scene--the fact that Wells, in pursuit of Stevenson, must manuever San Francisco's considerable hill without knowing how to drive. In blessed contrast to The Crucifer of Blood, another recent Jack the Ripper film, Meyer keeps the gore to a minimum. In one murder, we see only the flush of his knife, followed by a tear of blood on his face--a masterful bit of understatement.
The constant juxtaposition of styles would have worked less smoothly without Meyer's capable cast. David Warner creates a fine Stevenson: tightly disciplined, revealing his menace only through eyes that constantly shift and smiles that fade too quickly. Malcolm McDowell gives a broader performance as the warmer, more human Wells; from his wide-eyed appraisal of a Hare Krishna troupe to his relief at recognizing tea on the menu of "that Scottish place" MacDonald's, his visionary inventor is quite appealing. He perpetually exhibits what Amy calls a "little-boy-lost look", aided by his slight figure that contrasts nicely with Warner's hulking frame. As the heroine, Mary Steenburgen balances the comic and the earnest aspects of her character well, making a consistent personality out of Amy's alternate bouts of flightiness and feminism.
Some may be disappointed by Time After Time's lack of social satire. Eschewing any real criticism of contemporary values, Meyer takes only an occasional jab, as when Amy takes Wells to Exorcist IV. Nor does Time After Time make any deep comment about the development of society, beyond the obvious one that the present's no paradise. "Ninety years ago, I was a freak. Today I'm an amateur," Stevenson says, treating Wells to a typical TV smorgasbord of news reports, war movies, and sadistic cartoons. Early on, Meyer sets up two conflicting theories of man's capacity for progress--Stevenson's conviction that man's dog-eat-dog nature will never change, versus Wells' optimistic faith--but the movie never really resolves the debate. "I'm home," declares the Ripper, and Time After Time adapts his fascination with depravity often, leisurely surveying San Francisco's Tenderloin District, or turning an average disco into an inferno of churning bodies. Yet Meyer seems reluctant to condemn Wells as an idealistic idiot. Though disappointed in the future, his hero grows firmer in his convictions; climaxing a passionate speech, Wells insists, "the man who raises his fist is the man who lacks ideas." McDowell speaks the lines so movingly, he prompts the viewer to believe him (and the banker to declare she loves him).
TIME AFTER TIME refrains from making sociological statements, except to warn against the dangers of violence. "It's catching, like measles," says Wells in a typically charming metaphor. Charming sums up the film very well, with its well-acted quips and well-edited terror. And charm is a rare commodity these days, as antiquated as voluminous petticoats, and gentlemen's agreements, and faith that man can make the world a better place.